Consider: 75 percent of young Americans are not even rated eligible for enlistment in the military today (the primary obstacles being lack of education, criminal records, and fitness shortcomings). Members of the U.S. armed forces are now better educated than the population they serve, and they constitute a subset of the country with higher health and fitness levels (as of 2009, fully 27 percent of young Americans were too overweight to join).1 At the same time, as cultural norms and laws have evolved, the force has expanded its talent pool in important ways, with gender and ethnic diversity enhancing the military’s ability to operate with and among a wider array of stakeholders worldwide. The effectiveness of this better-educated, more diverse force is further bolstered by diffuse and improved technology that allows each individual immediate access to vast amounts of information, advanced global positioning systems, robust communications networks almost anywhere in the world, and state-of-the-art tools (e.g., remote-operated and unmanned aerial vehicles) that extend reach and influence.
This evolution in the education and potential capability of each service member has paid great dividends for the United States, with innovative, smart, and imaginative individuals at all ranks offering greater value to the military enterprise. But is it enough to simply plug better pieces into the same structure? That is, if the basic building blocks of the military—its people—are fundamentally better than they were when many organizational norms and strategic foundations were developed, then it is certainly worth asking whether and how military organizations themselves can and should change to make best use of them.
‘More Freedom of Action’
To suggest that that the armed forces may need to adjust organizationally to capitalize on their higher-quality workforces is not to say that entry-level, manual-labor roles should go away; on the contrary, the military’s need for self-sufficiency, good order, and expeditionary operations will mean that the demand for such labor will always be there, and that junior enlistees will carry the bulk of that load. On the opposite end of the spectrum, it is also important to note that many roles for enlistees already involve varying degrees of highly advanced academic and/or technical proficiency, from nuclear technicians and UAV operators to members of the special-warfare community.
Indeed, both the “start at the bottom” nature of enlistment and the increasing level of expertise that comes with career progression are timeless and necessary aspects of military professional development. A higher-quality workforce should not be viewed as a reason to alter these facets of the military, but rather as an opportunity for improved capitalization on them through increased amounts of autonomy and de-layering of reporting chains. In other words, more educated, more capable, and more technologically savvy people may be better suited for—and have greater impact in—roles that give them more freedom of action than they might have within legacy structures such as large land or afloat units with many built-in supervisory tiers. This is especially true in an era of faster and more reliable worldwide communications, where physical proximity is less necessary for ensuring information flow, awareness, and adequate approval processes when needed. The surety of a more qualified workforce, combined with state-of-the-art communications, should enhance the levels of trust inherent in the military chain of command. And such trust, as noted by leadership guru Stephen Covey, can uniquely bolster organizational success: “High-trust interaction inspires creativity and possibility.”2
In addition, in a time of tightening budgets, concerns over current capacity, and doubts about future acquisitions of large afloat platforms, increased autonomy and responsibility in the form of smaller, more agile teams can provide much-needed relief to large-unit operational tempos at a fraction of the deployment cost.3 In light of this, small organizational elements with discrete capabilities and novel tools, dealing directly with an array of partners, should be designed, deployed, and factored into military strategies now more than ever.
To think about how such elements can be effectively incorporated into an overall approach to national security, one must of course turn to a current strategy that offers pathways for implementation. Perhaps the most important and relevant such strategy for maritime security, specifically, is the Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (CS21), which outlines the unified approach of the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard to “design, organize, and employ the Sea Services in support of our national, defense, and homeland security strategies.” Although the recently released CS21 revision (CS21R, March 2015) contains less of a small-team focus than the original 2007 version, it nonetheless identifies several areas of effort that could facilitate and provide opportunities for such teams to play a significant role. Examples of this include commitments to “conduct sea control and power projection in a more distributed fashion in littoral environments,” “us[e] . . . technologies that enhance battlespace awareness down to the expeditionary squad level,” and “take advantage of adaptive force packages to enable persistent engagements that build the capacity of allies and partners to respond to future crises.”4
CS21R builds on existing measures and introduces new efforts for securing the maritime environment at home as well as abroad; as such, it can be seen as both capitalizing on and expanding opportunities for dispersed, small-team operations for domestic and expeditionary mission sets. The Coast Guard already uses its Deployable Specialized Forces, for instance, to accomplish a great many homeland-defense/security missions, and indeed can continue to develop joint and interagency relationships to provide specialized security packages for a wider variety of domestic and offshore maritime-security needs. Overseas, where relationship building, awareness, and early-warning and response needs are identified, small and specifically designed teams can additionally boost effectiveness and further CS21R’s security goals. This is especially true as reductions to and operational pressures on major afloat assets and traditional ground units will likely limit their role in building partner capacity and conducting international exercises in the future. Small teams with country or region specialty and familiarity, deployed to work alongside international partners to improve their capacities and maintain relationships, are the logical choice to fill this gap.
While such teams may not project the same power as large units or provide the same extent of cooperative activities, they can still go a long way in meeting the intention of CS21R’s global engagement imperatives:
. . . assuring access in all domains begins in peacetime through routine regional operations with the naval and maritime forces of our allies and partners. These efforts enhance relationships, build capability and capacity, and lead to access in the maritime environment. When naval forces set the conditions for access in peacetime, we enhance our interoperability with allies and partners to more readily achieve all domain access during conflict.5
Indeed, small teams can make more frequent visits than larger-scale units (or even serve in-country as appropriate on a permanent or semipermanent basis), emphasizing the depth and consistency of international security partnerships instead of the idea (or even the expectation) that American power and assistance will always come in larger forms.
So, in the spirit of CS21R, which calls for “globally distributed and networked expeditionary forces in concert with our allies and partners to increase effective naval presence, strategic agility, and responsiveness,” the following specific steps should be undertaken by the Sea Services:
- Expand the use of existing small-team models such as the Navy’s Security Force Assistance Mobile Training Teams and the Coast Guard’s International Mobile Training Branch and Middle East Training Team.
- Expand the use of the Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment model, in which U.S. teams serve in the visit, board, search, and seizure capacity for partner-nation vessels; evaluate the expansion of this model using Navy boarding teams in situations where there is not an explicit law-enforcement role required.
- In the context of the international security-cooperation engagements advocated in publications such as the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Force 21, innovate smaller-scale and more tailored options for specific partner nations.
- Equip deployable teams with novel technologies such as underwater remote-operated vehicles and UAVs, both when requested and operationally necessary, or to provide targeted partners with familiarity with these tools.
- Coordinate regional engagement strategies for small team operations with existing Offices of Defense Cooperation at U.S. embassies.
- Change ship-to-shore assignment-rotation requirements and provide advancement opportunities based on small-team deployment time.
- Establish regions of specialty for involved personnel (much like foreign area officers or Army special forces groups have) so that they build expertise and familiarity over their careers, and in order to make best use of language proficiencies.
- Assess the potential for expanding the unit types employed (to include units and personnel from other branches, on a permanent or ad hoc basis) under the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command (NECC) to provide tailored support in mission areas not currently supported by NECC.
- Reassess whether any partner-nation advisory or training missions currently conducted by special-operations forces could be reassigned to other types of small teams.
- Flesh out the joint “adaptive force package” models envisioned by CS21R, including “expand[ing] the practice of employing adaptive force packages, which tailor naval capabilities to specific regional environments, thereby ensuring that our assets are located where they are most needed.”
- Explore lessons learned from smaller-team deployments and engagements conducted under the auspices of initiatives such as the Africa Partnership Station (a program that CS21R explicitly states will be continued) over the last several years.6
In addition to these efforts, the services should jointly explore authorities and approval processes for deployed elements to share relevant intelligence with on-scene partners in real time. A standing authority to share information up to a certain classification level (similar to the freedom to share provided by “releasable to” designations) and/or a streamlined, one-stop sharing-request process whereby a team could reach back to a centralized location for permission to share certain information could pay great dividends in terms of increased credibility and trust. Moreover, giving partners more actionable intelligence in real time may net operational successes and even expand reciprocal information-sharing relationships.
‘Flexibility and Ingenuity’
Such novel engagements, conducted mostly in peacetime and requiring only incremental investments of people and funds, will help the military to reap what former Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos called “the recurring dividends of ‘soft power’ applied with a richer military dimension.”7 While it is true that some missions conducted under this model may not be as fruitful as others, the cost of even a handful of less-than-successful small-scale missions would be negligible in terms of the cumulative positive effects of a widespread campaign of such operations on a routine basis worldwide (and pale in comparison to a single major unit deployment or major multinational exercise).
Further, the peacetime, noncombat nature of this approach could greatly ease the costs—human and financial, to the United States and its partners—of the conflicts and wars that could potentially be prevented by strong relationships and early awareness. This effect is surely intended by CS21R, which states: “by expanding our network of allies and partners and improving our ability to operate alongside them, naval forces: foster the secure environment essential to an open economic system based on the free flow of goods, protect U.S. natural resources, promote stability, [and] . . . deter conflict.”8
The type of flexibility and ingenuity facilitated by a more robust small-team approach will not just provide a path toward operational success, but also ensure the retention of the very individuals whose talent and education make that approach possible in the first place. By trusting highly capable people and dispersing them to accomplish national-security goals in a flexible, quick-decision, autonomous environment, the military could not only attain desired outcomes, but also give its workforce the personal fulfillment and motivation to remain in uniform and ensure continued success.
By not doing so, the military risks being outpaced by the rapid learning and combined abilities of its own people, resulting in the type of alienation and frustration felt by Petty Officer Jake Holman in the novel version of The Sand Pebbles: “It always disturbed them to see Jake Holman learning by himself. They were afraid he would learn too much and have power over them, and they were right. . . . They couldn’t openly stop Holman from learning, because learning . . . was supposed to be good.”9 It is time for the United States’ armed forces to take full advantage of their talented people; giving those people more autonomy and responsibility is the way to do so.
1.- (Washington, DC: Mission: Readiness, 2009), 1, http://cdn.missionreadiness.org/NATEE1109.pdf. “U.S. Military Better Educated than Populace It Protects,” Huffington Post, 11 September 2012, www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/11/military-education-infographic_n_1873842.html.
2. Stephen M. R. Covey, The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything (New York: Free Press, 2008).
3. ADM Jonathan Greenert, USN, remarks at Center for Strategic and International Studies Maritime Security Dialogue, 14 October 2014. RADM Kevin M. Donegan, USN, remarks at Defense Forum Washington, 4 December 2014.
4. A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower: Forward, Engaged, Ready (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, 2015), iii, 11, 32, www.navy.mil/local/maritime.
5. Ibid. 21.
6. Ibid. 9, 11, 16. Expeditionary Force 21: Forward and Ready, Now and in the Future (Washington, DC: U.S. Marine Corps, 2014), www.mccdc.marines.mil/Portals/172/Docs/MCCDC/EF21/EF21_USMC_Capstone_Concept.pdf. Africa Partnership Station, “What We Do,” www.africom.mil/what-we-do/security-cooperation-programs/africa-partnership-station.
7. Expeditionary Force 21.
8. Cooperative Strategy, 9.
9. Richard McKenna, The Sand Pebbles (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 34
Lieutenant Commander Duffy is the Commanding Officer of Coast Guard Maritime Safety and Security Team (MSST) Miami. He has previously served as both a deployable team leader and executive officer with MSSTs, and led the Coast Guard’s Middle East Training Team in 2008–2009. To strengthen the Navy’s ethical foundation and contribute to mission success, sailors must reflect on their principles.