The U.S. Navy is an institution steeped in tradition. One of its most romanticized notions—and defining characteristics as a warfighting organization—is its heritage of a culture of command. In his 1989 analysis of the American military services, The Masks of War, Carl Builder summarized what that culture of command is founded on: “Independent command of ships at sea is a unique, godlike responsibility unlike that afforded to commanding officers in other services.”1 The skipper and his or her crew sail over the horizon doing the nation’s bidding alone and unafraid. Builder also described what this culture is supposed to evoke in the young Americans who answer the call to take arms: “The concept of independent command at sea . . . like the Holy Grail, is to be sought and honored by every true naval officer.”2 The tragedy, however, is that the Navy’s storied culture of command is in danger. Current commanders believe they are being stripped of discretionary authority, and an alarming number of future commanders—junior officers—do not aspire to command as much as Builder idealized. This situation is cause for concern, because it threatens to make the Navy a less potent force. Faced with a future that requires not just generic leaders, but naval commanders, the Navy should always be thinking of ways to preserve its culture of command.
This challenge is not new. Early in 1941 Admiral Ernest J. King broadcast his thoughts on the ideals for command:
I have been concerned for many years over the increasing tendency—now grown almost to “standard practice”—of flag officers and other group commanders to issue orders and instructions in which their subordinates are told “how” as well as “what” to do to such an extent and in such detail that the “custom of the service” has virtually become the antithesis of that essential element of command—“initiative of the subordinate.”3
More recently, questions about command culture have been at the center of the debate over officer retention. In early 2014, Commander Guy Snodgrass published a valuable study on the state of officer retention in the Navy. In “Keep a Weather Eye on the Horizon,” he painted a dire picture of impending crisis from losing talented leaders, and called for “swift action through the use of targeted incentives and policy changes.”4 Nearly all of his recommendations can be related to the Navy’s command culture, or lack thereof. The indicators he raised that show an aversion to distribute trust and command responsibility are central to the debate.
It’s time to rekindle the conversation that Snodgrass began over a year ago and amplify concepts that can resolve the Navy’s fundamental problem: Its culture of command, as in 1941, is adrift. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix. Symptomatic repairs are likely to cause side effects that make the problem worse. The solution for the Navy will involve a long-term effort to reinvigorate the culture through education and experience. Navy officers at all levels must be given the opportunity to practice the art of command. With a large pool of officers and a small number of ships, the Navy must think creatively to overcome the physical limitations of specific platforms. The Navy should be prepared for new ideas to be uncomfortable, yet reassured that investing in the “custom of the service” and restoring Admiral King’s edict for the “initiative of the subordinate” is the way to retain a competitive advantage in naval power for the 21st century.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey explained the style of warfare that the Navy—and the whole joint force—is expected to employ in his white paper titled “Mission Command.”5 Dempsey acknowledged that the characteristics of mission command are not new and emphasized that “decentralization will occur beyond current comfort levels and habits of practice.”6 The notions of commander’s intent, mission-type orders, and decentralized execution align perfectly with Admiral King’s 1941 vision. In his 2014 study, however, Commander Snodgrass reported:
The reduction of decision-making at the commanding officer level is perceived as creating a more risk-averse climate than the generations preceding it. Several community managers cite the erosion of independent decision-making in command and the perception of risk aversion as a significant detractor when discussing the reasons for falling junior officer retention rates. . . . This [factor] is a perceived removal of decision making from operational commanders, constituting a shift from a leadership-centric Navy to a service more focused on risk-mitigation and metrics.7
What Snodgrass described is the opposite of what Dempsey envisioned.
The title of Dempsey’s white paper, mission command, is not coincidental. He explained that “the commander is the central figure in mission command,” and “the education of our officer corps—joint and service—must begin at the start of service to instill the cognitive capability to understand, to receive and express intent, to take decisive initiative within intent, and to trust.”8 The Navy should be creative and proactive in organizing the force to offer more opportunities to develop the art of command. “Mission command must be institutionalized and operationalized into all aspects of the [service],” General Dempsey wrote, and added: “It must pervade the force and drive leader development, organizational design and inform material acquisitions. Service cultures are important in these efforts.”9 According to Builder, the Navy should have a leg up in this regard.
Sharing the Burden
One way to reestablish the Navy’s ideal culture of command throughout the officer corps is to share the burden and understanding of command with officers earlier in their career. A lasting effort is required to create more opportunity to practice the art of command, and it can be done through two pillars: education and experience.
First, there is an underlying tension in the Navy concerning advanced education and how it relates to command. In many cases, education is seen to be at odds with, rather than fundamental to, the culture of command. An old saying in the Navy is, “Failure to attend the [Naval] War College has never hurt anyone.”10 Certainly the Navy has come a long way since that comment over 80 years ago, but old ways of thinking die hard. Today, the majority of ranks above commander have earned an advanced degree, but that statistic hides the friction that many officers face in pursuit of higher education. It is not uncommon for a junior officer to be told that time spent for in-residence education will take him or her off track, meaning off the command track. This message is incongruent with a world-class leadership-development model. To conclude the aforementioned old saying, it should be remembered that admiral-to-be James Richardson also noted, “My real preparation for high rank in the Navy can be said to have begun in 1933. For on June 20 of that year . . . I reported to the Naval War College . . . for duty under instruction.”11 An education on how commanders think should be considered part of the track, not running astray from it.
The Naval War College and the Naval Postgraduate School are quietly two of the nation’s finest educational assets; therefore, the point here is not to suggest that the Navy fails to invest in education, but to settle the concern that education might compete with command experience. Education is necessary to the process of developing a commander. It is understandable that the Navy struggles to balance operational commitments with time for education, as it operates in a distinctly hostile space—the sea, which requires serious time devoted to developing technical skill. Technical training, however, is not a substitute for intellectual time and thought. Navy officers must cultivate critical thinking and communication skills—particularly writing—vital to the profession of arms. General Dempsey described the military profession as being charged with the responsible use of force for the nation.12 That responsibility befalls a Navy officer most while in command; therefore, career-long education, while difficult to schedule, should be prioritized and built into the career path. Requiring an in-residence graduate degree from either a service or civilian institution would signal the Navy’s priority and belief that education is critical to command.
Second, Navy officers must experience and practice elements of command early and often. Men and women become naval officers for many reasons. Often the technical skill or operational duty is what drives recruitment—to be a surface warrior, submariner, aviator, special operator, or one of the other 14 communities that take command in the Navy. The eventual path, however, leads past the specific skills and onto the more general responsibility of commanding naval power. The Navy’s commissioning programs give candidate officers a taste of command experience, but from then on the title becomes elusive for almost two decades in an officer’s career. The standard career path for a Navy officer does not assign command until 17 years in service. Even if the aspiration to command is present at commissioning, the lack of reinforcement allows an officer to lose sight.
In the Army and Marine Corps, by comparison, junior officers are entrusted with the responsibility to command within the first several years. Taking command sometimes within weeks of commissioning, officers of these services may have a stronger claim to a culture of command than does the Navy. Critics may argue that is an unfair comparison, because the other services do not face the same constraints as the Navy, such as fixed platforms operating at sea. For a better example, the Navy can turn again to its own history. In the early 1970s, Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt initiated a program to test junior officers in command at sea. The idea came to the new Chief of Naval Operations to see if younger leaders could handle the extra responsibility, and to improve morale on board Navy ships. Destroyer Squadron 26, nicknamed the “Mod Squad,” consisted of seven ships, each with a commanding officer, executive officer, and department heads one rank below the norm; therefore, a lieutenant commander, lieutenant, and lieutenants junior grade and ensigns, respectively (later, Destroyer Squadron 31 was added to the West Coast). The experiment to give junior officers more responsibility was a success. The Mod Squad’s operational readiness scored among the highest in the Atlantic Fleet. Squadron Commander Captain Richard Nicholson commented, “We are trying to create a spirit of pride in the Navy profession.”13 The Mod Squad was a sensational trial, and it begs the question: Is delegating more responsibility to junior officers, or as Admiral King would say “initiative to the subordinate,” a way to restore pride in the Navy’s culture of command?
Can Lieutenants Take Command?
As mentioned previously, there are no perfect or easy solutions. But the Navy does have some examples worthy of reflection. The officer of the deck and command duty officer are good illustrations of today’s Navy offering command-like experience to junior officers. The burden of command is entrusted to a young officer, perhaps an ensign, for hours at a time and with the skipper’s chair empty. It provides the right kind of experience in decision-making and problem solving to develop the culture of command, but the opportunity is fleeting: An appreciation of command comes from shouldering the responsibility for months or years, not hours or days. Small-boat and riverine detachments offer lieutenants command-like experience, but there is no dedicated mechanism to recognize this path as an early indicator for aspiring commanders. Patrol craft and mine-countermeasures ships should offer early command opportunities to lieutenant commanders, similar to the Mod Squad. These assignments, however, are not heavily sought after either because the options are so few—barely more than a dozen patrol craft remain in service—or the mission is undesirable. And the new littoral combat ships, which are replacing the mine hunters, are slated as O-5 commands. As the Navy adds smaller vessels to its fleet that are designed to operate in a decentralized way, such as the littoral combat ship and joint high-speed vessel, a greater effort should be made to establish these as opportunities for lieutenants and lieutenant commanders to gain command-like experiences.
In recent years, the naval special-warfare community implemented a framework to share command-like responsibility throughout the wardroom of a SEAL team. Every level at which a SEAL officer takes responsibility for mission and troops is labeled as that of a commander. The squad commander is the division-officer equivalent, the platoon commander is the department-head equivalent, and the troop commander is a new leadership position for lieutenant commanders. The SEAL team commanding officer, as a Navy commander, retains unity of command and ultimate responsibility. This realignment signaled a progressive move to practice mission command within the special-warfare community. Ideally, commanding officers delegate authority to subordinate commanders whenever possible. Junior officers benefit from sharing the responsibilities of command, and commanding officers are spared more time to develop and refine their intent. While this new naming convention has not resolved all the concerns for officer retention, a vital structure is in place to continue building a positive culture of command.
For other communities in the Navy, the same questions are worth asking. How can the service push an appropriate amount of command authority down to the lowest level? It may not be feasible to label all department heads as department commanders, but the notion is valid. Junior officers—junior commanders—would be imbued with a sense of responsibility that only may come with the title of command, and the 17-year itch would be scratched. The name change may be considered a nuance to some, but as the saying goes, words matter. It would serve as a constant reminder to think and act accordingly, because every officer bears the responsibility of command. Junior commanders would become more experienced with the responsibilities of command, attain a greater sense of pride in the profession of arms, and the commanding officer would gain confidence from a more capable crew—not to mention more time to think.
The challenge, of course, on a Navy ship is to uphold the hallmark of unity of command. There can be only one commanding officer of a ship. The purpose here is not to slice up command, which cannot be done. The idea is to share the burden of command with junior commanders in ways that meet the senior commander’s intent. Even if changing titles cannot be done, commanding officers should still encourage and allow subordinates to command their department or division as if the title were given. The intent of this exercise, after all, is not to create a meaningless position, but rather to provide additional command-like experiences for junior officers so they can become better commanders, and as Captain Nicholson from the Mod Squad remarked, “to create a spirit of pride in the Navy profession.”
If the Navy wants to retain its talented young officers and future commanders, it needs to rebuild its storied culture of command. The solution will require a dedicated effort to give officers at all levels more education and experience with command. The ideas contained here and from Commander Snodgrass are a place to start, but a great deal of inspired thought is left to the reader. The answers to questions such as “Can lieutenants take command?” will affect aspects of the Navy far beyond retention. Perhaps the Navy can look again upon its history to restore a command culture that places trust and responsibility in leaders at all levels. Admiral King’s guidance from 1941 rings true again:
It is essential to extend the knowledge and the practice of “initiative of the subordinate” in principle and in application until they are universal in the exercise of command throughout all the echelons of command.14
Today’s Navy can certainly claim to have a world-class process for developing leaders in a generic sense, but so too could much of corporate America. Only one institution, however, protects the country’s interests at sea through the responsible use of force. That is the U.S. Navy, and sharing the burden of command through both education and experience is the way to sustain a world-class culture of command.
3. ADM Ernest J. King, USN, “CINCLANT SERIAL 053,” transcribed by Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation, 21 January 1941, www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USN/Admin-Hist/USN-Admin/USN-Admin-A1.html.
4. CDR Guy Snodgrass, USN, “Keep a Weather Eye on the Horizon: A Navy Officer Retention Study,” white paper, www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/66837e4f-702f-4293-b653-cfa9dd4df1ab/Keep-a-Weather-Eye-on-the-Horizon--A-Navy-Officer-.aspx, 2.
5. GEN Martin Dempsey, USA, “Mission Command,” white paper, 3 April 2012, www.dtic.mil/doctrine/concepts/white_papers.htm, 4.
6. Ibid., 1.
7. Snodgrass, “Keep a Weather Eye on the Horizon,” 8, 9.
8. Dempsey, “Mission Command,” 4, 6 (emphasis added).
9. Ibid., 6.
10. The quote originates from the Chief of Naval Operations, either ADM Charles F. Hughes, USN, or ADM William V. Pratt, USN, speaking to then-CAPT James Richardson, USN, in 1930. James Richardson, On the Treadmill to Pearl Harbor: The Memoirs of Admiral James O. Richardson, told by George Dyer (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1973), 109.
12. GEN Martin Dempsey, USA, “The Chairman’s Interview on Leadership,” Pentagon Channel, July 2012, www.dtic.mil/doctrine/leadership/video.htm.
13. Harry Nash, “Navy’s Mod Squad Experiment Described as Successful,” The Telegraph, 26 January 1972, http://tinyurl.com/krmchlr.
14. King, “CINCLANT SERIAL 053.”
Lieutenant Scott is a prior-enlisted naval special-warfare officer with ten years of experience. He has served multiple tours in the Middle East and earned a master’s degree in strategic studies from the Naval Postgraduate School.