Today’s fast-paced, global, multidimensional security environment demands leaders who think creatively and strategically. Expanding technological frontiers of nano-materials, directed energy, robotics, big-data analytics, additive manufacturing, and autonomous systems are being introduced at astonishing speeds. As Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral John Richardson has emphasized, the accelerated rate of technological creation, diffusion, and adoption significantly influences our operating environment.1 The disruptive character of these technologies has profound implications, even for a U.S. Navy with a strong track record in innovation.
We need great, credible leaders to emerge and shape a compelling vision of how to adapt to these new challenges. We need leaders who can recognize the requirement for changes in how we operate, who foresee opportunity in new capabilities, and who understand how new threats will arise and can be met.
Our Navy’s history offers numerous guideposts to those who must grapple with the choices facing our Navy today. Studying and emulating Admiral Arleigh Burke is an excellent way to achieve a high standard for innovation and warfighting performance.
From an early age, Burke was fascinated by sea power and the application of naval technology. His first five years after graduating from the Naval Academy were spent as a junior officer on board the USS Arizona (BB-39), where he had the opportunity to master the gunnery and fire control of the 14-inch guns on that battleship. Later he served as a gunnery officer leading the 8-inch main battery of the heavy cruiser USS Chester (CA-27).
In 1937, Burke reported as the executive officer of the USS Craven (DD-382). Two years later, he was rewarded with command of one of the Navy’s newest destroyers, the USS Mugford (DD-389). During his tour, the Mugford won the destroyer gunnery trophy in 1939 by registering 36 hits out of 36 rounds fired. Under Burke, the ship received Battle “Es” in gunnery, fire control, and engineering, and a “C” in communications.2
When the war began, then-Commander Burke was working for the Bureau of Ordnance and helped mobilize the nation’s ammunition production capacity. He applied for duty in the Pacific every month in 1942 and finally got command of a destroyer division, and later Destroyer Squadron 23. He was a persistent tactical innovator in the South Pacific, creating a successful doctrine for night destroyer operations that helped secure several U.S. victories.3
Relying on speed, delegation of command, and individual initiative, his tactics enabled nighttime triumphs in actions at Empress Augusta Bay and Cape St. George in November 1943 and marked him as one of the Navy’s premier surface warriors.4 His tactical innovations and combat leadership at Cape St. George earned Burke a Navy Cross, and his actions were studied at the Naval War College as a case history in aggressive tactics and operational leadership.5
He went on to serve as the first post–World War II head of Bureau of Ordnance Research and Development. The breadth and depth of Burke’s familiarity with industrial and production processes proved highly useful when, as CNO, he oversaw the staffs that dealt with the corporations supplying the many needs of the Navy. He also served on the Navy Board and ran the Navy’s strategic analysis branch. His unique combination of combat experience, pragmatism, and technological curiosity served the Navy well.
Taking office as the nation’s 15th CNO on 17 August 1955, Burke was the most junior flag officer ever appointed to that position, promoted over 92 more senior admirals. His mandate from Secretary of the Navy Charles Thomas was to make real changes in the postwar Navy and to bring along a new generation of leadership.
Burke wasted no time launching a remarkable number of major initiatives. His decisions had a lasting impact on the service and the nation. Today’s innovators would do well to embrace three aspects of Burke’s formula for improving the Navy: initiative, innovation, and personal development.
Burke believed the greatest asset of the Navy, and the nation, was the determination, inventiveness, and “cockiness” of the officers and sailors who served it. He did not believe that any centralized authority could possibly duplicate what could be achieved by encouraging and building on individual initiative. “We decentralize and capitalize on the capabilities of our individual people rather than centralize and make automatons of them,” he once wrote.6
He lived that in the South Pacific in 1943, and while serving under Admiral Marc Mitscher, Burke learned the importance of delegation and pushing responsibility down to the lowest level.7 He institutionalized this while on the U.S. Navy staff. He persuaded junior officers to commit to “commander’s intent,” meaning once an officer recognized the admiral’s direction and purpose, he was left alone to determine how to implement the vision. Burke sought to directly engage juniors in understanding the reasoning behind orders, rather than simply expecting blind obedience.
He worried in the 1930s that junior officers were not critically examining tactics and challenging outdated thinking. He believed, and wrote to some of his peers, that lessons from past wars were being lost while new weapons were being ignored. Shallow thinking and traditionalism were being encouraged at the expense of the Navy’s evolution.8
Burke preferred action over endless studies and had little interest in theory or long-range plans with no implementation. He liked to focus on “real” things—the nitty-gritty of technology, manpower, tactics, ships, fleets, real-world challenges, and achievements—rather than on studies, reports, and theoretical constructs without clear links to genuine capabilities or requirements. Burke was wary of bureaucracy becoming an end in itself, and worried that an expanding defense establishment was suffocating debate and strategic pluralism. He fought the defense unification fights ferociously, partly to defend the Navy’s interests, but also out of an ingrained belief in the creative dynamic of individual initiative and responsibility.9
To operationalize that idea, Burke informally created a small cell of junior officers to advise him, a technique some recent naval leaders have employed to gain unique insights and avoid stifling ideas. The group of 11 lieutenants led by Stansfield Turner (later Admiral) produced an extensive report with 32 recommendations that looked at how to use leadership more effectively, increase operational readiness, and make greater use of naval personnel.
Burke understood that leadership and organizational culture are the primary drivers of wartime organizational learning and adaptation. He worked to create that culture of innovation in peacetime. He challenged his officers to “pass along a willingness to think hard—to seek new answers—to chance mistakes and to ‘mix it up’ freely in the forums and activities around us that promote knowledge.”10
Although Burke gained fame as an innovative World War II destroyer squadron commander, his extraordinary leadership can best be understood by the range of initiatives he put forward as CNO. Burke sought to prepare the Navy for the future by building on the lessons of the past, relying on his own combat experiences, and exploring the promise of technology. He used his own deep technical knowledge, mixed with his battle-tested leadership skills, to invigorate a Navy slowly adjusting to the challenge of long-term competition with the Soviet Union.
Among his many achievements, Burke is particularly credited with accelerating the introduction of nuclear power into the Navy. In the fall of 1955, after going to sea on the first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus (SSN-571), he ordered that all new attack submarines would be nuclear powered. These boats became the backbone of the U.S. Navy’s counter to the Soviet Union’s larger submarine force. By late 1955, Burke had added a nuclear-powered guided-missile cruiser to the shipbuilding program, and in May 1956 he personally drafted characteristics for what would become the USS Long Beach (CGN-9). That ship is the ancestor of our current Aegis phased-array radar system, capable of firing the Tomahawk land-attack missile.
While born into the old “Gun Club,” Burke early on recognized the emerging revolution in ballistic missiles and what it meant for the Navy and for the nation’s security. One of his first actions ultimately proved to be among his most important: the decision to push forward with development of a fleet ballistic missile program, which produced the Polaris missile system.11
In December 1956, Burke established a Navy Ballistic Missile Committee and put Rear Admiral William F. Raborn in charge of the program. Burke ordered that the Polaris program be given highest priority for people and resources. He set ambitious goals and then delegated his full authority as well as enormous responsibility to Raborn.
The Navy’s program was a radical innovation with major cultural, organizational, budgetary, and technological implications. It established a new combat arm and, according to one scholar, “caused a major internal reorientation of Navy investment and personnel patterns. It also involved the Navy in the development of a weapon system that was a threat to its existing organizational and doctrinal proclivities.”12 The solid-state fuel and command-and-control systems were not yet proven capabilities. The program achieved a disruptive technological breakthrough because it was aggressively implemented by a new CNO despite the risks.
In just over three years, the program produced the nation’s first nuclear-powered ballistic-missile boat, the USS George Washington (SSBN-598). Built by Electric Boat Company from an altered attack submarine design, she was 382 feet long and 33 feet abeam, displacing just over 6,700 tons. Commissioned in 1959, the George Washington and her crew of 112 went to sea on her first patrol in November 1960, armed with 16 Polaris A-1 ballistic missiles.
Burke’s interests ranged from strategic deterrence to expeditionary warfare. In December 1955, for instance, he embraced the Marine Corps’ vertical envelopment concept for amphibious assault operations and put in place plans to build the amphibious fleet necessary to implement it. That capability remains a unique element of today’s Navy–Marine Corps team and is vital to our power-projection capability.
Of course, Burke probably would not be as successful in today’s Pentagon, a world where authority and accountability are diluted or so diffused as to render empowerment meaningless. Programmatic micromanagement, zero risk tolerance, and endless layers of acquisition oversight typically impede the ability to exploit opportunities. It would be interesting to see what Admiral Burke would make of today’s accretion of acquisition regulations, ponderous development cycles, and the Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System.
Admiral Burke’s strategic contributions are not limited to technology. He also embraced leadership development and the human dimension of naval warfare. His personal development was not learned just in the classroom; it largely came from his career progression and how hard he applied himself to his profession. His five years on the Arizona, in particular, would be considered hazardous today, but nonetheless he mastered gunnery and ship-handling skills.
But he did not ignore intellectual growth or education. He attended the Naval Postgraduate School and earned a master’s in chemical engineering from the University of Michigan to improve his understanding of ordnance. That degree, earned in 1931, gave him a good foundation for his advocacy of solid-fuel rocket propulsion used in the Polaris program. Early in his career, he completed the correspondence course for the Naval War College, which prepared him for senior staff positions in the Pacific campaigns, as well as for strategic planning at Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.
Later, as he served in Washington, he recognized that he needed to expand his range of reading and development to become more politically and historically literate, so he began a deliberate reading program of his own design. Long before reading lists were promulgated by the services, Burke emphasized self-development and study as an obligation of the naval profession: “I suggest that officers who want to be ready for the difficult decisions of life study the great military leaders of the world, their similarities and differences. Frankly, there is no shortcut to wisdom.”13
His wartime experience convinced him that to be truly effective, allied operations needed senior officers who knew and trusted each other. He proposed a new program at the Naval War College for senior “up and coming” international officers. This gave them familiarity with U.S. and NATO doctrine, but just as important, it also exposed them and their families to everyday Americans and their American counterparts. Over its lifespan, Newport’s courses have educated more than 1,200 International flag officers, including more than 300 naval chiefs of service. That program is part of the glue that holds together international naval cooperation around the world today.
Follow Burke’s Example
As we sail further into the 21st century, naval warfare reflects both enduring continuities and constant adaptation to ever-evolving adversaries and technologies. We cannot rest on past laurels or steer by our wake. To adapt, we must be informed first by our own history—one of constant technological change and improved performance. Naval leaders today have no better crystal ball than their predecessors had. But they can follow Admiral Burke’s example. Like him, we need to look forward, act, learn, adapt, and be ready to fight.
1. Admiral John Richardson, USN, A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, Version 1, January 2016, 3.
2. David Alan Rosenberg, “Admiral Arleigh Burke: Instinct,” in Joseph J. Thomas, ed., Leadership Embodied: The Secrets to Success of the Most Effective Navy and Marine Corps Leaders (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2005), 146; David Alan Rosenberg, “Officer Development in the Interwar Navy: Arleigh Burke, The Making of a Naval Professional, 1919–1940,” Pacific Historical Review vol. 44, no. 4 (November 1975), 520–22.
3. E. B. Potter, Admiral Arleigh Burke, A Biography (New York: Random House, 1989).
4. David Alan Rosenberg, “Arleigh Burke: The Last CNO,” in James Bradford, ed., Quarterdeck, Bridge and Pentagon, Two Centuries of American Naval Leadership (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996), 360–62.
5. Thomas J. Cutler, “Thirty-one Knot Burke,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings vol. 140, no. 4 (April 2014).
6. Edgar F. Puryear Jr., American Admiralship: The Moral Imperatives of Naval Command (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2005), 593.
7. Ibid., 288–89.
8. Rosenberg, “Officer Development,” 518.
9. George W. Baer, One Hundred Years of Sea Power, The U.S. Navy, 1890-1990 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), 333–366.
10. Rosenberg, “Instinct,” 147.
11. Harvey M. Sapolsky, The Polaris System Development: Bureaucratic and Programmatic Success in Government (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972).
12. Owen R. Cote Jr., “The Politics of Innovative Military Doctrine: The U.S. Navy and Fleet Ballistic Missiles,” Ph.D. dissertation, Boston: MIT, February 1996, 166.
13. Arleigh Burke, “The Fate of our Country,” Speeches of the Day, National Press Club, Washington DC, 3 August 1961.