Technology is transforming the way the sea services live, lead, and fight. Email, chat, video teleconferencing, and social media have complicated warfare, the roles of leaders, and society. Traditional naval leadership must adapt to remain effective. As strategist Dr. Colin S. Gray has noted, “material advance and moral progress frequently are conflated and confused. Societies that become better equipped are not, ipso facto, better.”1
To face the leadership challenges of a hyperconnected environment, the sea services must focus on character, judgment, and core values to overcome the influence of technology. This requires adapting mission tactics to ensure operational effectiveness and a clear-eyed approach to the cultural changes driven by mobile computing and social media.
Operationally, war’s demand for information is insatiable. While technology has yielded efficiencies, commanders also require an increasing array of technology for situational awareness and decision-making. While video teleconferencing has become routine, little thought has been applied to its necessity, or to the burden streaming video places on fragile tactical communications networks. Technology has increased lethality and accuracy, but it also has extended the so-called 3,000 mile screwdriver. As one author noted, technology did not prevent the human-machine team on the USS Vincennes (CG-49) from shooting down an Iranian airliner in 1988.2
Increasingly connected systems evoke the vision of the Marine Corps Operating Concept (MOC). The MOC envisions a stark reality—a faster, more lethal battlefield, an interconnected fight requiring constant data amid a battle of signatures threatening communications degradation. Detailed briefs, imagery, and gigabits of email may not be sustainable in the future operating environment. The fundamentals of command and control will matter more:
Subordinate warfighters need to be certain of their commander’s thinking, perspective, and permission thresholds on a granular level, so they can fight properly once communications go dark. This level of knowledge and understanding requires an intimate relationship that differs starkly from the bureaucratic distance that currently divides staffs and units.3
Leadership challenges will manifest on the front lines amid the friction of war. Commanders accustomed to near-perfect situational awareness on the battlefield will find a communications-degraded environment beset with chaos and uncertainty. As Lieutenant Daniel Stefanus points out in his Proceedings article, “in relying on all systems, we function poorly with few.”4
Part of the answer is decentralized execution through mission tactics, as described in Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1 (MCDP 1) Warfighting. Mission tactics means “assigning a subordinate a mission without specifying how the mission must be accomplished.” The subordinate is given greater freedom of action, increasing the speed and tempo to achieve a decision. Mission tactics, however, rarely are practiced operationally or in garrison.
Technology and information overload have drawn leaders away from this fundamental doctrinal precept of MCDP 1. Without routine practice, the loss of control may bewilder both senior and subordinate. At the same time, the incessant march toward detached leadership can decouple the special trust and confidence required to ensure effective mission tactics. Despite the flatter command structure technology offers, bureaucracy prevails.
The disconnect between commander’s intent and mission tactics has surfaced in recent years in Iraq. Missions by tactical units were constrained because joint terminal attack controllers required target engagement approval from general officers hundreds of miles away.5 While rules of engagement largely were political, the fundamentals of mission tactics were subverted. Absent communications, many operations could not have been authorized from afar.
Discipline The Digital Ranks
The modern leadership dilemma extends beyond operations. The limitless expanse of cyberspace has increased the surface area in which Marines and sailors live and operate. While leaders have become reliant on technology for increased span of command and control, many of the younger generation of sailors and Marines—accustomed to Alexa and Google—depend on machines for simple answers to queries and basic math. The acid test for both will be the ability to exercise sound judgment in combat under incredible stress—with or without the help of machines.
Historian Adrian Goldsworthy has noted that “warfare is affected as much by culture as any other human pursuit.”6 For small-unit leaders, the internet and social media are opaque labyrinths, inherently prohibitive to police for misbehavior. P. W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking warn against “digital wildfires” and “emotional contagion” in the rise of social media.7 Social media has been called the “cancer of our time,” responsible for the shorter attention spans of youth.8 Studies show up to 42 percent of teenagers correlate social media with self-esteem, while evidence points to increased risk of suicide with social media use.9 Others note parallels between the rise in personal technology usage and aviation accidents in the Marine Corps.10
Studies note the preferred methods of communication among 13–17-year-olds: 35 percent prefer text, 32 percent in-person, while 16 percent prefer social media.11 Leaders must learn to communicate effectively given these social and demographic trends.
Colin Gray has observed that “soldiers with mobile phones are very difficult to limit and control.”12 Digital communication can blur interpretation, or open the door to fraternization. While leadership is challenging in the best of times, the search for discipline through social media policing can become a Sisyphean task. American society is increasingly polarized politically and socially. It is not uncommon for service members to engage one another in emotionally charged online debates.13
In the face of this dilemma, the military leader is presented with time-stamped digital communication. Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s August 2018 memorandum pointed out “the discipline of today includes vigilant operational security, protection of electronic equipment, and responsible social media activity.”14 This discipline requires leaders who are able to teach, mentor, and coach when necessary, or punish when appropriate.
Secretary Mattis also wrote that leaders “should know the difference between a mistake and a lack of discipline.” On social media, this line is not always clear. Presumably, the philosophy of General George Patton does not rule: “There is only one sort of discipline. Perfect discipline.” The worst offenders, such as those involved in the Marines United scandal, clearly disgraced their uniforms.15 Others fall across a wide range of behaviors, encased in their own echo chamber. Intent, context, and individual character and reputation play a role in judgment. If the dynamics of social media lie at the “intersection of psychology and technology,” adherence to institutional norms and values cannot be enforced by policy and discipline alone.16
There are several ways to address the impact of technology. Changes to personnel rotation can improve cohesion, trust, and proficiency. Reducing the frequency of personnel rotation would mitigate social and technological trends as service members better know each other’s reputations and characters. As MCDP 1 states, “Trust is a product of confidence and familiarity. Confidence among comrades results from demonstrated professional skill.” Improved unit cohesion will enhance the speed and tempo of activities, reinforcing the positive qualities of mission tactics.
Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 6-11, Leading Marines, points out that leaders of all ranks must set an example through “personal behavior and performance.” A positive command climate honors service culture and fosters unit cohesion through a balance of discipline and redemption, while guarding against neglect that leads to normalization of deviance. In the face of social change, a zero-defect mentality cannot become entrenched among the sea services. Subordinates must be able to make mistakes.
As Tom Ricks pointed out in The Generals (Penguin, 2013), officers relieved for cause, such as Generals George Patton and Terry Allen, learned from their mistakes and later were granted a second chance. Dr. Milan Vego also noted in Proceedings that mission command and zero tolerance cannot coexist, citing former Marine Corps Commandant Charles Krulak’s observation that zero-defect thinking breeds risk aversion and risk avoidance. Vego also speculated that naval heroes Chester Nimitz and Ernest King would not have been as successful had they not taken risks.17 Given the desire for discipline, leaders should realize cultural and technological influences cannot simply be reversed at boot camp.
Strict discipline does not always work. As Marine Corps Colonel Howard F. Hall recently noted in the Marine Corps Gazette, a rise in misconduct in his unit was not resolved by “tried-and-true” methods of individual accountability through nonjudicial punishment and policy. Behavior improved when he held a battalion formation to explain the effect of misconduct on the unit’s operations, while appealing to each Marine’s individual character. This communication and empowerment of junior leaders significantly reduced misconduct in the following weeks by renewing a “sense of responsibility and trust.”18
As leaders look across their serried ranks, times have changed. Social and technological change have opened fissures between the old breed and the new. The implications merit further discussion and introspection among leaders and those they lead. Adaptation requires more than consolidation of technology or mindless discipline. The quality of human material will ever form the basis of military effectiveness. Embracing and practicing mission tactics—underpinned by character, judgment, and core values—will ensure the sea services prevail beyond the digital divide.
2. Anthony Tingle, “The Human-Machine Team Failed Vincennes,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 144, no. 7 (July 2018): 38–41.
3. LT Daniel Stefanus, USN, “Embracing the Dark Battle,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 143, no. 4 (April 2017): 26–31.
4. Stefanus, “Embracing the Dark Battle.”
5. Nancy Youssef, “Exclusive: 21 Generals Lead ISIS War the U.S. Denies Fighting,” The Daily Beast, 31 March 2016, www.thedailybeast.com/exclusive-21-generals-lead-isis-war-the-us-denies-fighting.
6. Adrian Goldsworthy, The Punic Wars (London: Cassell & Co, 2000), 18.
7. Steve Leonard, “How Social Media Will Drastically Change the Way Wars Are Fought. Unless It Doesn’t,” Modern War Institute, 8 October 2018, mwi.usma.edu/social-media-will-drastically-change-way-wars-fought-unless-doesnt/.
8. Berkeley Lovelace Jr., “Billionaire La Times Owner Calls ‘Fake News’ and How It Spreads On Social Media the ‘Cancer of Our Time,’” CNBC.com, 27 September 2018, www.cnbc.com/2018/09/26/billionaire-la-times-owner-calls-social-media-the-cancer-of-our-time.html.
9. 2nd LT James A. Winnefeld III, USMC, “How to Lead the New Generation,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 144, no. 7 (July 2018): 77–79.
10. CAPT Peter Ryan, USN (Ret.), “Technology: The New Addiction,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 144, no. 9 (September 2018): 52–57.
11. Kim Hart, “Devices Dominate Teenagers’ Social Lives,” Axios.com, 10 September 2018, www.axios.com/social-media-dominates-teenagers-social-lives-1536351933-b6f8b26e-13c7-4ba4-ba54-e27527d2a968.html
12. Colin S. Gray, The Future of Strategy (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2015), 52.
13. Leo Shane III, “Troops See Rising Political Tension in the Ranks, Poll Shows,” Military Times, 17 October 2018, www.militarytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2018/10/17/troops-see-rising-political-tension-in-the-ranks-poll-shows/.
14. Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis to the secretaries of the military departments, chiefs of the military services, commanders of the combatant commands, memorandum, “Discipline and Lethality,” 13 August 2018.
15. Hope Hodge Seck, “11 Troops Kicked Out after Court-Martial in Wake of Marines United Scandal,” Military.com, 13 September 2018, www.military.com/daily-news/2018/09/13/11-troops-kicked-out-after-court-martial-wake-marines-united-scandal.html.
16. Evan Osnos, “The Central Question Behind Facebook: What Does Mark Zuckerberg Believe In?” Interview by Dave Davies, Fresh Air, NPR, 4 October 2018.
17. Milan Vego, “Mission Command & Zero Tolerance Cannot Coexist,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 144, no. 7 (July 2018): 58–61.
18. Howard F. Hall, “Inspirational Leadership,” Marine Corps Gazette 102, no. 10 (October 2018).