Perhaps more than “jointness,” the Navy needs warfighters who understand the service beyond their own designator.
Not to brag, but recently I received the apex qualification a carrier aviator can achieve: carrier air wing (CVW) strike lead. I will pause here for your applause and affirmation.
As part of this qualification, I took part in a ground-school–type series of lectures presented by subject-matter experts from the Naval Aviation Warfare Development Center. These lectures encompassed a lot of information with which I already was familiar but had not seen delivered in a purpose-driven format. One topic, however, stood out: the lecture on the BGM-109 Tomahawk land-attack missile (TLAM).
This lesson resonated because, after years in tactical aviation, it was my first formal exposure to the TLAM beyond my plebe year professional knowledge training at the U.S. Naval Academy. This includes my two-year tour on a carrier air wing staff. When I finally got a substantive brief on the weapon as a 14-year O-4, I was impressed and dismayed. Impressed because the TLAM is a pretty capable piece of gear (please do not tell the “shoes” I said that); dismayed because I only happened on this information because of my place in the strike-lead syllabus. Many aviators will not get this training for years, if ever, despite the fact that TLAM is one of the fleet’s primary strike assets.
Missing the Trees for the Forest
Because of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, joint professional military education (JPME, Levels 1 and 2) is codified in law as a requirement for promotion to flag officer—the Navy requires JPME 1 for command as an O-5. The Navy’s classic “requirements creep,” however, slowly has pushed that training down the ranks until you find O-3s and O-4s knocking out JPME 1 with online or distance programs while also doing something else (I was in my CVW staff tour) or getting it at the Naval Postgraduate School or Naval War College before their tours as department heads.
I have completed JPME 1 (again, not to brag, but you can be impressed if you want to be), which I conducted electronically with the U.S. Air Force’s Air University. Although it was an Air Force program, I was confronted with strategic and operational problems that I already had considered or experienced as a naval aviator—air-tasking order (ATO), tanking operations, air-power theory (ha!), global-strike projection from the air, the history of aviation—but I learned almost nothing about my service and its capabilities. (The Air Force take on the Navy is that it has ships, and these ships sail around doing stuff, or whatever. Now, let’s talk about Curtis LeMay!)
This dovetailed with much of my previous training, where I walked out of briefings on threat air-to-air, surface-to-air, naval, and other systems completely demoralized and muttering, “Can we get a brief on some blue hardware so we know we can actually beat the bad guys?” As one of my service’s warfighters, I look at naval operations specific to aviation through a “soda straw,” with no window on how strike-fighter aviation fits into the bigger picture beyond throwaway references to TLAM (hits ground targets) and the Standard Missile (hits air targets) in the context of strike-fighter missions.
When I needed to be learning about the capabilities of the SM-6, TLAM, SEALs (besides reading all those memoirs), cyber, and others, I was reading a bunch of Air Force hogwash about how airpower will win the next war (probably) and the one after that (definitely). What the Navy needs is capable, knowledgeable warfighters who understand Navy capabilities beyond their own communities and practical (probably classified-level) training. Such corporate knowledge would greatly benefit midlevel officers who have to plan, brief, execute, and debrief missions across warfare areas.
After 30 years of jointness, it is time to get more parochial and put the Navy back into professional military education.
Rediscovering the Fleet
Thomas Modly, Under Secretary of the Navy, recently announced a plan to evaluate education across the Navy, a focus that stems, in part, from the conversations about surface community training in the wake of the 2017 collisions at sea. Part of this effort must focus on JPME.1
Below the O-6 major command level, naval officers should become better navalists, not joint . . . ists? The level of jointness required for most officers, even those in O-5 command, is minimal. Even in tactical aviation, the run-of-the-mill aviator gets enough exposure to the other services to know the basics. For example, I know that an Air Force wing is super-large, it has a dedicated squadron for every function (e.g., flying, maintenance, finance, golf course landscaping, etc.), and airmen think that Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, a base with hard-pack ice cream available 24/7, is hardship duty. That about covers the Air Force.
What I do not know is how Aegis shooters employ their missiles. I do not know how a submarine shoots a TLAM (I assume the sub points straight up like a sleeping whale and shoots it vertically from a torpedo tube), or for what kinds of missions the Navy uses subs (admittedly, to a large extent, this is by design). In a surface engagement, how will ships target and strike the enemy? In defense of the fleet, where will pickets be located? How does a surface ship track and engage other surface ships? How can SEALs support operations at sea? What capabilities does cyber bring to fleet operations? How does a P-8 find a submarine? (My Academy company officer, a submariner, said a P-3 would have to crash into a sub to find it. Is that still true?) Why are there Navy airplanes in Oklahoma? Why do I pay for my food on deployment while they get per diem and live in hotels?
Many of you will read those questions and think the answers are obvious. But I challenge you to tell me the practical differences between an OCA, a DCA, and a BFM mission, or why I would use a GBU-54v4 over a GBU-12 or GBU-38v2, or even what a fuel ladder is, or how the case one pattern works. Our information is “stovepiped,” meaning it is contained within each community’s purview and shared sparingly with the trigger pullers at the O-5-and-below level who one day may need it.
Conversely, I am proficient at joint close-air support and air-to-air procedures. I can read an ATO (more or less), tank off an Air Force tanker, call for fire from an AC-130 gunship, integrate with the Army’s ground scheme of maneuver, and fly missions with Air Force fighters in a striker or fighter role (or both!). I have a book in my flight bag that has the danger close distance for Army rocket artillery (250 meters for the M31A1), but nothing that explains how my own service operates and fights at sea.2
We wave our hands in training and say, “The SM shooters will do such and such,” or “The EP-3 will provide us with so and so,” but you will be hard-pressed to find an aviator who says such things as anything more than an article of faith. We trust that those things will happen because we have been briefing that those things will happen for so long that they have become part of the script.
Time and Tide Wait for No One
The rub is that creating time for “NPME” (Navy professional military education) will be a challenge. The last thing I want is to add PowerPoint lessons that (a) I am required to do in between all my job requirements; (b) I can just click through (useful for completing training but not for actual learning); and (c) involve no interaction with actual officers from those communities.
I would love to create a forum to sit down with “shoes” and other various warfare insignia and learn what they do, how they do it, and how we can enable each other to fight and win at sea. Heck, throw the Marines in there so we can have a more inclusive Sea Services PME.
I respectfully request that the Secretary of the Navy push back against the requirements creep from JPME and place it at the post-command O-5/O-6 level, where people with birds on their shoulders/collars can worry about playing nice with the other services while I learn how to make our Navy more lethal. If NPME for junior officers could be spread throughout a career—six weeks here, six weeks there—at major fleet concentration areas, and pull from a variety of designators and platforms, the Navy could have a cross section of the fleet together to learn from each other. Mix up the ranks and perhaps there also would be some real wisdom in these groups (provided the old guys avoid just telling sea stories, a habit I find myself indulging in too often . . . but not because I am an old guy . . . am I?).
It also has to be taught by the best. At long last, the surface and aviation communities have some common ground when it comes to creating tactical experts. The Strike-Fighter Tactics Instructor (SFTI) program has become the model for creating weapons and warfare tactics instructors (WTIs)—subject-matter experts (SMEs) from weapon schools dedicated to each aircraft platform and across surface mission areas (i.e., air and missile defense, surface and subsurface warfare, and mine and amphibious warfare). These “patch-wearers” exist to improve their home communities, but if we can leverage their training across community lines, the military can create an officer corps that is better educated and more lethal. Using SMEs from the various weapon schools (including instructors in submarine and special warfare) will ensure that tactics are current, the instructors are knowledgeable, and NPME carries the authority of fleet WTI programs.
I have written about the pace of tactical aviation career progression, and this addition of NPME does nothing to alleviate that pace—it does the opposite.3 But also I have spent government time doing team-building exercises and having maintenance publications read aloud to me, so there is definitely time available for learning how to fight. (By the way, those courses also should be revamped; I am still waiting to be contacted regarding the feedback I gave on my end-of-course surveys.)
Into Harm’s Way
There is a very good reason to focus on NPME for junior- to midlevel officers now. It is a truth that the Navy only slowly has begun to admit, perhaps because it has done such a good job of playing joint for so long that it has forgotten how to retrench behind its steel walls and make the case for the Navy. For 17 years, the Navy has occupied itself with projecting strike power ashore in support of ground forces, with occasional forays into antipiracy operations, ballistic-missile defense patrols, and other mission areas.
In any conflict, roles shift as one unit, force, or position becomes the “supported” asset and the other entities become “supporting” assets (I told you I was JPME 1 complete). For the past 17 years, U.S. ground and special operations forces have been the supported entities and everyone around them has been a supporting force. This is obvious to close air support strikers and tactical electronic warfare aviators, and although it may be less so for TLAM shooters or surveillance aircraft, they still act in support of a ground scheme of maneuver.
Just because things have been tilted in favor of land-based conflict for the bulk of my peers’ professional lives does not mean it will always be so. The potential peer-on-peer conflict that must draw the Navy’s attention looms in the South China Sea. The idea of surface ships slugging it out with missile duels, of submarines hunting enemy shipping and warships in congested waters, or of using strike fighters to locate and engage an enemy surface force sounds more like Cold War–era memories than potential future conflicts. While these skills withered on the vine, thanks to platforms that promised to be jacks of all trades/masters of none but also because of institutional myopia, China has built and is building a joint sea-control environment across one of the world’s most important waterways.
Unless national leaders envision a ground war in Asia (one of the classic blunders), a conflict in East Asia will revolve around sea control. This means that for the first time in many years (perhaps ever, given the newness of formalized “jointness”), the rest of U.S. joint power will be applied as supporting forces to the Navy. This may not remain true for the duration of any conflict in Asia, but it will be true for a time.
When the Air Force and Army arrive on the scene to support the Navy and Marine Corps, they will ask what they can do and how they can help (while the Air Force also tries to figure out a way to control the seas from the air, abolish the Navy, and take over space).4 Right now, each of the Navy’s tribes probably could give
answers that apply to themselves, but I suspect they would
be hard-pressed to find a consistent answer across the Navy because of a lack of exposure to the other “stovepipes.”
This probably is why the former commander of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Scott H. Swift, sought to reintroduce fleet battle problems. The days of everyone doing their own thing are drawing to a close. A 30-minute brief on TLAM to a room of career aviators as part of the strike-lead syllabus will not suffice when the shooting starts.
The Navy will bear the brunt of a conflict in East Asia, should it come, and it better have officers who know what their peers manning cockpits, bridges, watch stations, and computer terminals across the fleet are doing, or it will learn very quickly that all the “purple power” it has accrued since 1986 will not help if the Navy cannot fight as a fleet.
1. Thomas B. Modly, “Why We’re Launching a Review of Naval Education,” Defense One, 9 May 2018.
2. Naval aviators frequently carry a copy of “JFIRE: Multi-Service Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for Joint Application of Firepower” on close-air support missions.
3. LCDR Graham Scarbro, USN, “Want to Fix Aviator Retention? Don’t Promote Them,” USNI Blog, 16 March 2018.
4. See Thomas Wildenberg, “Billy Mitchell Takes On the Navy,” Naval History 27, no. 5 (October 2013); Wikipedia contributors, “Revolt of the Admirals,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; and Matt Hipple, “Against an Air Force Space Corps: Space Belongs to the Navy!” The National Interest, 27 June 2017.
Lieutenant Commander Scarbro is assigned to Strike Fighter Wing Atlantic at Naval Air Station Oceana.