Current global trends point to a highly complex future security environment characterized by budget-induced modernization challenges, persistent conflicts exacerbated by climate change, and revisionism and breaches of international norms by increasingly powerful peer and near-peer nation-states. Republican Congressman and Chair of the House Armed Services Committee Mac Thornberry and Dr. Andrew Krepinevich Jr., President Emeritus at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, recently warned that “the United States confronts mounting threats with increasingly constrained resources . . . and growing uncertainty both at home and abroad.”1
These challenges demand effective strategic leaders across the armed services.2 History teaches us that challenges are best met by a combination of leadership styles. The nation needs reformers, thinkers, and warriors. Examining these leadership archetypes as exemplified by past Navy leaders can help today’s leaders address the security issues facing our nation.
Reformers to Modernize
Budget instability in Congress has hindered the Navy’s ability to anticipate and plan for long-term modernization requirements and capabilities. In his September 2016 testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on the implications of successive continuing resolutions, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral John Richardson stated,
This continuing resolution business really undercuts the trust and confidence that we have with our suppliers. . . . And when you disrupt that trust and confidence . . . when you prevent the ability to buy things in blocks over a long period of time, the only thing you are doing is increasing cost, increasing time, and that translates to increasing risk to our warfighters.3
The adverse effects of sequestration and fiscal uncertainty mean future strategic leaders will have to modernize the Navy to reduce the risk to the warfighter and the Navy’s overall readiness. In this modernization challenge, they can learn from the experiences of past reformers and transformative strategic leaders such as Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr.
As CNO, Admiral Zumwalt prosecuted transformative initiatives to make the Navy more agile and lethal. He pursued a shipbuilding plan aimed at achieving a mix of high- and low-end capabilities to balance naval forces for sea control against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Admiral Zumwalt wrote that as a result of the pronounced need for power projection during the Korean and Vietnam wars, “sea-control forces—antisubmarine planes and their carriers and ships suitable for patrol and escort duty—were allowed to obsolesce and, finally, retire without replacement.”4 Moreover, according to Admiral Zumwalt, the Navy postponed work on cruise missiles and other capabilities supportive of sea control but made an exception for work on nuclear propulsion spearheaded by the hard-charging Admiral Hyman G. Rickover.5 This motivated young CNO also promoted the development of the Oliver Hazard Perry (FFG-7) class of patrol ships and the Tomahawk and antiship Harpoon cruise missiles.6
Admiral Zumwalt understood that maintaining the superior performance of the Navy’s service members as compared with peer and near-peer competitors amid a rapidly evolving global security environment was critical. He led the Navy to retain talent as the end of the Vietnam War draft thinned the ranks, and he better tapped the potential of a diverse fleet by increasing the integration of women and minorities.
Through his famous directives, known as Z-grams, Admiral Zumwalt introduced initiatives aimed at retention. He implemented Z-25 for improvements in liberty policy, Z-57 to eliminate “Demeaning or Abrasive Regulations,” and the controversial Z-gram Z-66 ,“Equal Opportunity in the Navy,” which sought institutional cohesiveness by eliminating artificial service barriers based on race or religion.7 Admiral Zumwalt writes that “Z-66 broke new ground . . . in setting up a network of Minority Affairs Assistants” who could provide the chain of command with information on racial issues.8
Similar to Z-66, Z-116 pushed for women to have greater access to key developmental and command opportunities.9 During Admiral Zumwalt’s first year in office, first-term reenlistments rose from 10 percent to 17 percent.10 Today’s leaders can take inspiration from Admiral Zumwalt to identify and execute tough reforms that will meet contemporary challenges.
Thinkers For Vision
Future strategic leaders of the Navy will have to operate in a security environment much like the present in terms of the ubiquity of complex conflicts.11 Political, religious, and socioeconomic issues underlie many of today’s conflicts; they will likely endure and be exacerbated by worsening climate and environmental conditions, population growth, and subsequent resource constraints. This means that in the future, the world could witness more states and non-state actors resorting to conflict, not just for the typical political and religious causes, but for dwindling natural resources tied to the global commons. Christopher Coker, in his book Future War, cautions that “tomorrow’s wars could be triggered by resource scarcity amplified by climate change.”12
Developing sound plans to protect the free use of the global commons and maintain order and freedom of navigation on the seas will require in-depth strategic thinking. Rear Admirals Stephen Luce and his protégé Alfred Thayer Mahan epitomized the ability to generate a clear vision that is central to strategic leadership.
Shaping a vision requires clear thinking and deep reflection on how to enhance the human potential and capabilities of the Navy relative to the nation’s interests and global security affairs. Admiral Luce’s experiences illustrate how a thinker can develop and implement a vision that leads to enduring institutional change. To sustain professional growth, future strategic leaders must aspire to Luce’s passion, commitment, and understanding of the long-term value of professional study, technical education, and bold experimentation—the latter aimed at improving warfighting and innovation. According to Naval War College historians John Hayes and John Hattendorf, Luce firmly believed that:
The primary purpose of the Navy was to wage war, and regardless of how remote the possibility of war, the professional function of the officers was to study war and to train their men for it. His insight, zeal and untiring energy helped bring about a transformation in American naval thought.13
One manifestation of this transformation is the U.S. Naval War College and its intellectual contribution to the Navy—including the works of Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan.
Admiral Mahan’s writings, particularly the Influence of Sea Power upon History (a work solicited and supported by Admiral Luce), still influence naval thought and national security strategy in the United States and the world. The Influence of Sea Power pressed the critical role of navies and sea power in amassing economic wealth and global power. Using ancient coastal states and the coastal European powers of his day (mainly Great Britain) as case studies, Admiral Mahan wrote that the ability of the navies of these nations to facilitate the exchange of produce, merchant shipping, and colonization was responsible for the great economic wealth and global power they amassed over time.14
Like Admirals Luce and Mahan, today’s leaders must promote the professional and intellectual development necessary to realize paradigm-shifting strategic thinking about national interests and the role of U.S. sea power in global conflict, resource and access constraints in the commons, and the growing trend of international violations by revisionist powers.
Warriors to Prevail
Christopher Coker, the author of Future War, argues that the post–World War II international order is in decline, as countries move away from multilateralism and establish regional blocks of influence devoid of Western presence, norms, and influence. This trend away from the post–World War II multilateral international order could precipitate conflict as rivalries grow and regional spheres of influence eventually collide.
Perhaps nowhere is the rivalry for regional influence more likely to devolve into armed conflict than in the South China Sea. According to author Geoffrey Till:
Because of its proximity to the crucial sea route that connects the major countries of East Asia to the markets and commodities of the Indian Ocean, the Middle East, Africa and Europe, the South China Sea is particularly important as a “flow resource.”
Till writes that this sea also is a “stock resource” that China sees as “vital to its future prosperity” because of the oil, gas, and fish that will support China’s growing energy and human needs.15
China’s growing ability to control and restrict freedom of navigation through its land seizures and development activity in this region, while essential to securing a future stock of resources, is disconcerting to the United States and other proponents of freedom of navigation and shared access to resources in the South China Sea.
The future strategic leaders of the Navy must continue ongoing military-to-military diplomacy and possibly even confront a hostile China and/or Russia in the global commons—particularly in the maritime and cyberspace domains. Dealing with these international affairs and winning a possible conflict will require the sound operational and strategic judgment, bold initiative, and calm resolve of an archetypal warrior like Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz.
In describing the traits that led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to choose Admiral Nimitz to be commander-in-chief, Pacific Fleet, historian John B. Lundstrom explained that Nimitz was “clear thinking and innovative, an excellent administrator, calm, resolute, and unflappable under pressure.”16 These warrior attributes were vital to U.S. victory at the Battle of Midway (4–6 June 1942).
Based on naval intelligence estimates that the next Japanese objective after the Battle of the Coral Sea would be in the Central Pacific, Admiral Nimitz massed naval forces in the region—directly but tactfully contravening Admiral Ernest King’s directive to retain carrier strike forces in the South Pacific—in preparation to attrite the Japanese.17 According to biographer E. B. Potter, Admiral Nimitz refused to spread his forces, but rather “lost no time in assembling and deploying such forces as he could collect.”18 Admiral Nimitz’s aggressive tactical maneuvering at Midway helped win the battle and gain the initiative in the Pacific campaign.
Admiral Raymond A. Spruance lauded Admiral Nimitz’s “courage to accept the intelligence that led up to that operation” and noted that his “prompt decision and action to throw all available forces—USS Enterprise (CV-6), Hornet (CV-12), and Yorktown (CV-5)—into it were all that prevented a serious disaster for us.”19 Admiral Nimitz also displayed exemplary tactical patience in refusing to maneuver forces to the Aleutian Islands in response to the Japanese attack on 3 June, instead choosing to concentrate his forces on Midway.20 This bold initiative, sound tactical and operational judgment, innovation (in employing shore-based aircraft), and exceptional resolve (even in the face of counterintuitive direction from higher up), are qualities future strategic leaders should emulate.
The evolution of global security necessitates continuous study of leadership by the Navy and its sister services to anticipate and keep up with change, preserve interests, and win in conflicts. By emulating the great leaders of the Navy’s past we can implement badly needed reforms, envision innovative strategies to take on the diverse and persistent conflicts ahead, and ingrain in leaders the bold initiative and sound operational judgment that are needed to prevail in combat.
2. Stephen Shambach, Strategic Leadership Primer (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College, 2004), 5.
3. ADM John M. Richardson, USN, “Stenographic Transcript before the Committee on Armed Services United States Senate Hearing to Receive Testimony on the Long-Term Budgetary Challenges Facing the Military Services and Innovative Solutions for Maintaining our Military Superiority,” Senate Armed Services Committee, United States Congress, 15 September 2016.
4. ADM Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., USN, On Watch (New York: Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Co., 1976), 63.
6. Thomas J. Cutler, “Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr: Hero or Heretic?” in Quarterdeck and Bridge: Two Centuries of American Naval Leaders, James C. Bradford, ed. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997), 42–428.
7. Zumwalt, On Watch, 174.
8. Ibid. 204.
9. Ibid. 263–64.
10. Cutler, “Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr: Hero or Heretic?” 423.
11. Ian K. Adam, “The Character of Conflict,” in Conflict and Cooperation in the Global Commons, Scott Jasper, ed. (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2012), 41–53. According to Adam, these four distinct environments (maritime, air, space, and cyberspace) make up the global commons.
12. Christopher Coker, Future War (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2015), 180.
13. The Writings of Stephen B. Luce, John D. Hayes and John B. Hattendorf, eds. (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 1975), 1.
14. A. T. Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783, 14th ed. (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1898) 28, 53, 71.
15. Geoffrey Till, Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-First Century (New York: Routledge, 2013), 319–20.
16. John B. Lundstrom, “Chester W. Nimitz: Victory in the Pacific,” in Quarterdeck and Bridge, 332.
17. Ibid. 336-37.
18. E. B. Potter, Nimitz (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1976), 80.
19. Walter R. Borneman, The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King: The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea (New York: Back Bay Books, 2012), 255.
20. Ibid., 254.
Major Kamara is an armor officer and an assistant product manager assigned to Program Executive Office Missiles and Space, Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. He has served on the U.S. Forces Korea Joint Staff (J-3) and commanded a Stryker infantry company at Fort Bliss, Texas, and an armor company in Iraq. He holds a B.A. in political science from Arizona State University and a master’s in security studies from the Naval Postgraduate School. Major Kamara also is an honor graduate of the U.S. Naval War College.