In the Long Calm Lee of Midway

By Lieutenant Commander Colin Roberts, U.S. Navy

Maritime Supremacy: Not a Birthright

In his book The Rules of the Game, Andrew Gordon describes a British Royal Navy that, over the course of the century between Trafalgar and Jutland, lost its warfighting edge. 1 The Royal Navy that went to sea in pursuit of a decisive battle against the German fleet in 1916 had a preponderance of ships, a long reputation of worldwide naval dominance, and an adversary who proved more timid than bold. Yet despite all that, it returned to port having inflicted only minor damage on the enemy and losing several of its own capital ships in the process.

Gordon argues that “in the long calm lee of Trafalgar,” the Royal Navy unconsciously adopted a feeling of entitlement to its command of the seas, forgetting the tactical lessons of the hard-won battles that allowed Britannia to rule the waves. 2 At the time of Trafalgar, Admiral Nelson’s navy had first-hand experience of 12 years of war against France and a corporate knowledge built by a century of various long wars interspersed with few short periods of peace. By 1916, however, none of Admiral Jellicoe’s contemporaries had ever experienced war at sea between major powers. Unlike in the fleet that insulated Britain from Napoleon, promotions no longer went to officers who distinguished themselves in combat and had the scars (or lost limbs) to prove it. Instead they went to those who displayed the most chivalry, had the best pedigrees of previous assignments, and kept their ships in the best states of spit and polish. Nevertheless, the Royal Navy undisputedly reigned supreme over the world’s oceans.

Just like the Royal Navy officers of 1916, most U.S. Navy officers on active duty today have served their entire careers during a period when no country in the world was capable of seriously challenging their dominance at sea. While many of today’s senior officers spent their formative years contemplating a fight at sea against the Soviet Navy, that fight never materialized. The United States has not fought any major battles at sea since 1944, and after the end of the Cold War the U.S. Navy enjoyed undisputed command of the seas. It was able to project combat power ashore from nearly anywhere in the world with no threat to its maritime platforms. In other words, the Navy grew accustomed to presuming it would enjoy uncontested sea control from the outset of any campaign. That mindset likely made Navy leaders slow to recognize the implications of advanced anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) systems, specifically designed to contest sea control from ashore without the need to face the U.S. Navy in its natural domain.

It is true that many of today’s U.S. Navy sailors have served in combat. However, that experience consists almost entirely of augmenting Army, Marine Corps, and special-operations forces ashore, conducting counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is certainly not meant to detract from U.S. sailors’ courage and sacrifice in support of these campaigns, but simply to highlight that there are inherent differences between warfare ashore and at sea. Naval missions on which the U.S. Navy has focused during the past two decades seem dominated by oil-platform defense, riverine patrols, anti-piracy, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief. All of these have taken place against the backdrop of near-continuous Navy power projection in the form of carrier sorties or Tomahawk strikes against various small state actors, terrorists, and counterinsurgents—further reinforcing the notion that sea control is ours by birthright.

Electronic Micromanagement

Accompanying—or indeed resulting from—such an institutional outlook is a tendency for centralized command and control to replace independent decision-making and initiative at lower levels of command. In the Victorian Royal Navy, this took the form of a complex system of flag-hoist signaling that offered commanders the tantalizing prospect of controlling every minute detail of their fleet’s actions, even during the heat of battle.

More than a century after Jutland, the U.S. Navy now faces a similar situation. Signal flags and halyards simply have been replaced by “battle chat” and email. U.S. warships and many fighting aircraft today operate in near-constant connectivity through an ever-growing network of satellites and computers—not just with the tactical commander embarked with the strike group at sea, but also with operational fleet commanders ashore. Granted, the U.S. Navy’s command-by-negation doctrine provides some degree of resistance to a total disdain for independent thought and initiative. Nevertheless, the trend toward ever-more constant contact with higher headquarters surely, if slowly, chips away at that culture.

This phenomenon is not new. Writing on the same subject in 1980, Lieutenant Commander Thomas Stuart lamented, “We’ll wean ourselves away after we have tangled with an adversary powerful and clever enough to break our electronic crutches at just the right moment, isolate us tactically as independent units, and then force us into combat on terms directed by him.” 3

To be sure, our extreme reliance on communications networks and the inherent vulnerability that poses are well recognized throughout the Navy and the joint defense community in general. However, discussions about mitigating it seem near-universally to focus on how to make our networks perfectly failsafe, rather than how to improve our combat doctrine’s resiliency by reducing its dependence on communications. Even the surface force’s distributed-lethality concept, while admirably renewing emphasis on sea control, still seems to envision a degree of connectivity that will be impossible to maintain in an all-out war against a technologically advanced adversary.

Risk Aversion

Very much related to diminishing independent authority is a pronounced aversion to risk that seems to have infiltrated Navy culture today. Gordon paints a similar picture of Jellicoe’s navy 100 years ago, suggesting that one of the primary reasons the British fleet was not hit with even heavier losses at Jutland was that Jellicoe’s German counterpart was equally risk averse.

One can easily see reflections of this, too, in the modern U.S. Navy. Every time a commanding officer (CO) or squadron commander is fired, Navy leadership is broadcasting a message to the rest of the fleet with singular clarity: “Do not do as this officer did.” Often that message is unquestionably correct, for example when a CO is relieved for sexual harassment, fraternization, or graft. However, that dreaded phrase “loss of confidence in ability to command” also has come to encompass many cases that, in one way or another, were deemed to involve an undue acceptance of risk. Of course, entrusted with the lives of their nation’s sons and daughters, COs ought never take risks lightly, and they rightly are held to extremely high standards of professional judgment.

However, the Navy—as an institution—must consider carefully the messages these reliefs send to the fleet. While the decisions are made on an individual-case basis, their announcements accrete into a larger coherent message, which, intended or not, describes the Navy’s preferred operational culture. More and more, that culture eschews bold action when there is any risk, however slight, that something might go wrong. Left unchecked, this culture will produce COs who, when faced with the unexpected, have been conditioned to let go their anchor and stay in safe water to await instructions for fear of making the wrong decision. A peacetime Navy can tolerate such a culture, perhaps even thrive in it, but how long will those cautious COs endure in a fight against a peer adversary at sea, where decisions must be made in split-seconds? And how many ships will sit at anchor, their COs waiting to be told what to do, while a dynamic and resilient adversary consolidates his sea control and wreaks havoc on our shipping?

Drowning in Paperwork

Although notably absent from any of the official findings, another systemic affliction eroding our operational prowess already has come into the spotlight for the role it may have played in last summer’s collisions: the fleet’s perpetually increasing administrative distractions. This problem seems similarly to have affected the Royal Navy in the long peace following Trafalgar. Gordon quotes from an 1894 British journal:

To tell an officer what to do and leave him to decide how to do it . . . is not the object of a modern Government Office. On the contrary, the aim is apparently to have an instruction for everything, so that the Office may have something to appeal to for the purpose of showing that it is not to blame. Of course these things are subject to continual modifications, till it has become a commonplace that no officer can know all the printed instructions by which he is supposed to act. 4

This quote could just as easily describe our own Navy today. Three years ago, a friend and colleague in the prospective surface-ship CO training pipeline became frustrated after hearing repeatedly that this or that administrative requirement was not printed in any instruction, but rather had been promulgated in a naval message transmitted several years earlier. In order to keep track of all the requirements, he began compiling his own list of all administrative requirements mentioned in every course throughout the pipeline. By the time we headed to our respective ships, his tracker contained 172 line items, many of which were monthly and even weekly recurring requirements. This begs the obvious question: How on earth do ships and crews have time to hone their core competencies as warfighters and mariners or pilots when they are consumed by paperwork?

The situation also begs a less-obvious, though equally important question: Has this administrative culture actually affected the way we approach operations and training beyond simply competing for time and attention? Not only is administrative program management a significant part of ships’ unit-level training today, it seems to be considered the foundational bedrock for each functional mobility and warfare area. The current version of the Surface Force Readiness Manual mandates that before progressing to a given area of watchstander or watchteam training, ships must first pass all administrative program reviews required for that area. 5 Such a situation inevitably risks creating a cultural approach to training that emphasizes documentation over the actual development of competency among crews.

Tours Are Too Short

Another alarming condition, pertinent to both warfighting readiness and last summer’s collisions, is how severely little time today’s U.S. Navy officer spends in each sea tour. This is especially true in the surface force, where division-officer and department-head tours are typically divided into two shorter tours in two different ships, rather than assigning officers to a single longer tour with the same command. There are some exceptions whereby division officers or department heads might remain with the same ship for both tours. However, even these typically entail changing to a new position after only 18 months. The upside to this dynamic—long touted by the surface warfare officer community—is that it conditions officers to come up to speed quickly in any new job, regardless of how unfamiliar the subject material may be. This is perhaps useful for officers assigned to staff duty, and must certainly be helpful for those who go on to flag rank.

The practice, however, comes at the expense of lost opportunities to further refine shiphandling and tactical acumen at sea. It also comes with an opportunity cost to the ships and crews in which these officers briefly serve. For if tour lengths are designed to maximize a breadth of experience over the depth of that experience, then around the time an officer has figured out the nuances of any given assignment, the system quickly moves him or her on to the next job, only to be replaced by a new inexperienced officer. This leaves ships and crews near-perpetually under the leadership of officers who are learning their jobs, rather than leaders who—having learned how to be effective in their assignments—are able to further develop their teams into proficient operators and warfighters. Fleet Forces’ “Comprehensive Review” does touch on this and indeed recommends changing division-officer tours to a single longer tour in one ship. 6 Room remains, however, for further consideration of changes at the department-head level and perhaps also for executive officers and COs.

We cannot say with certainty that last summer’s collisions are attributable to a system subsumed by administrative requirements and an ill-suited officer career pipeline. Likewise, we do not know the degree to which our Navy’s shortcomings resemble those of the Royal Navy on the eve of Jutland. But we cannot ignore such problems. We must look beyond readiness for routine peacetime operations and actively seek out the systemic obstacles to warfighting prowess that might be waiting just over the horizon, to reveal themselves when we next face a peer adversary in a fight at sea. The Navy must further leverage this moment of candid self-reflection.

1. Andrew Gordon, The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2012), first published London: John Murray, 1996.

2. Gordon, Rules of the Game, chapter 9: “In the Long Calm Lee of Trafalgar,” 155.

3. Thomas Stuart, “Command and Control: The Two-Edged Sword,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 106-12-934, December 1980, .

4. Saturday Review, 21 July 1894, quoted in Gordon, Rules of the Game, 173.

5. U.S. Navy, Commander Naval Surface Forces Pacific (CNSP) and Commander Naval Surface Forces Atlantic (CNSL), Surface Force Readiness Manual, CNSP/CNSL Instruction 3502.3A, 8 November 2016, p. 4-16, section 5. f (3).

6. U.S. Navy, U.S. Fleet Forces Command (USFF) memorandum, “Comprehensive Review of Recent Surface Force Incidents,” 26 October 2017, 50-51, 56.

Lieutenant Commander Roberts is a surface warfare officer who has served in four ships (including the John S. McCain), most recently commanding the USS Zephyr (PC-8). Commissioned from the University of Washington NROTC in 2003, he holds a master’s degree from Georgetown University and recently completed a Federal Executive Fellowship at the RAND Corporation. He is currently assigned to a staff tour in the Pentagon.


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