My shipmates from the U.S. Naval Academy class of 2018 are starting to hit the fleet. The SWOs have completed Basic Division Officers Course and maybe even a deployment. Aviators are in the middle of flight school, about to learn their platform assignments. Submariners are in the middle of their studies in Charleston, and most of the Marines have completed their toils in Quantico. Yet they arrived at these places having learned next to nothing about modern naval warfare from their Naval Academy educations.
Most of the class successfully completed the Naval Academy program without giving any structured thought to what happens if they encounter a hostile ship, submarine, or aircraft that is trying to kill them. The Naval Academy does not teach warfighting, but—in an era of renewed great power competition—it should. Midshipmen should leave the Naval Academy with a basic appreciation of what it looks like if the United States must fight on the seas or from the sea. They should understand how the various elements of the Navy–Marine Corps team work together to win our nation’s wars. The class of 2018 eventually will learn tactical prowess in their training pipelines, but devoting no thought to naval warfighting during the formative years in Annapolis seems like a lost opportunity at best and a disservice at worst.
The academic program is robust. The class of 2018 prepared for the highly technical nature of their profession in mandatory science and engineering classes. It prepared to think critically in humanities and leadership courses. It learned the basics of maritime skill in navigation and tested its mettle in leadership within Bancroft Hall. Yet, this was never synthesized into an understanding of what all this might mean in combat.
No other profession trains like this. Of course, while doctors and lawyers will tell you the best way to learn their craft is to stand in front of an actual jury or hold the scalpel in an operating room, classroom professional education specifically prepared them to do so. Some might say that a budding naval officer has a responsibility to learn about warfighting on his or her own—that a midshipman should read about this on his or her own time. But to relegate the central function of our military profession to an extracurricular activity or a reading hobby is not the right answer.
This argument does not advocate turning the Naval Academy into an Ender’s Game–style battle school. The college-like experience at the Naval Academy certainly has value, giving midshipmen the opportunity to study and excel in areas of their own interest while mandating a certain level of commonality in the humanities and engineering curricula. Nor does this argument take a side in the frequent humanities-versus-engineering debate. A renewed emphasis on warfighting requires both a basic technical understanding of naval systems and an appreciation of the human elements of war.
The first objection to an argument for more warfighting emphasis is that the plebe professional knowledge program (“pro-know”) and the midshipmen qualification standards (MQS) cover this. These programs, carried out within Bancroft Hall rather than the academic wing of the Naval Academy, have the goal of familiarizing midshipmen with their naval profession. The reality, however, is the programs for upperclass midshipmen are largely done without seriousness of purpose. The program is run by midshipmen, so from a teaching warfighting perspective, it is the blind leading the blind. The value of pro-know and MQS lies more in the management and leadership challenges associated with running the program than the actual knowledge itself.
It has not always been this way. The Naval Academy used to place a greater emphasis on this critical aspect of our profession. In the Cold War years, first-year midshipmen were required to learn about Soviet platforms in their pro-know. Today, that knowledge requirement only extends to U.S. platforms and is only as deep as identifying a guided-missile destroyer or a P-8 aircraft and not the role either platform plays in naval combat. Going back even further to the early 1900s, midshipmen competed for recognition in warfighting skill in areas such as gunnery, attested to by gunnery award plaques in academic hallways that have not been updated in decades.
One reason for the deemphasis of warfighting is historical. The U.S. Navy has not fought a major naval campaign since Leyte Gulf, and has not had a major maritime adversary since the Cold War. The Navy did cripple the Iranian Navy during the Operation Earnest Will tanker wars in a matter of hours, but that scenario is hardly an example of what maritime conflict with Russia or China might look like. Yet, even that fight is not studied in the core curriculum at the Naval Academy. U.S. battles since then primarily have been counterinsurgency operations, where the Department of the Navy’s primary contributions have been special operations forces, Marines, and naval aviation operating in uncontested airspace. The midcareer officers who teach at the Naval Academy come with these experiences, and that affects midshipmen’s thinking about modern warfare—mostly that it occurs in the desert against irregular forces.
For surface warfare officers (SWOs), the recent reemphasis on shiphandling and navigational safety, while certainly warranted, works against the goal of creating officers who understand modern naval warfare. If the emphasis in the senior year SWO practicum course is to be taken as a cue, the class of 2018 SWO ensigns left the Naval Academy thinking that the most dangerous thing to their ship on the ocean is an unarmed merchant ship or an immobile reef.
This could not be more wrong. Safe navigation of the ship represents the bare minimum of SWO professional competency. A SWO who only knows how to safely navigate a ship is not a surface warfare officer. It is not enough that a doctor knows anatomy or a lawyer, the law; each must be able to use that knowledge to accomplish their goals. That process starts with their education and is honed in their initial training. This is no less true for naval officers.
An officer’s community-specific training addresses this, but later. The Naval Academy should emphasize warfighting much earlier in officers’ careers in a number of ways.
First, study the Falkland Islands conflict. It is the best instance of relatively modern naval combat available, and it has everything: surface ships, naval aviation, subsurface warfare, and amphibious operations. The Academy should regularly invite participants of that conflict to speak about their experiences. In the plebe summer indoctrination program, Nate Fick is a regular speaker to the incoming classes, and his presentation on physical courage based on his time as a Marine platoon commander is excellent. Yet his experiences are only directly relatable to the quarter or so of the class that will commission in the Marine Corps. British SWOs, aviators, submariners, and Marines all participated in the Falklands War, and each of their experiences is valuable to midshipmen today.
Second, the Naval Academy is very fortunate to have the Naval Institute on its grounds, and the partnerships that already exist between the institute and the Academy are extremely valuable. But even more could be done. In 2015, the Naval Institute and the Naval Academy Museum hosted a debate between Dr. Jerry Hendrix and Bryan McGrath on the future of aircraft carriers. Another great event brought together the commanding officers of the USS Cole (DDG-67) and the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) to talk about their experiences leading their crews through extremely difficult damage control. Similar events about the future of the force or leadership under fire outside of the Marine Corps should happen more frequently to connect midshipmen to the warfighting service that they will eventually enter.
Third, the leadership curriculum at the Naval Academy should be modified to reflect one of the few things we do know about modern warfare: its extreme ambiguity. The fog of war is an enduring characteristic of warfare, but our enemies today make ambiguity a central part of their strategies. Russian troops did not enter Crimea wearing or carrying their flags, and China employs a vast maritime militia in the South China Sea to blur the lines between combatant and noncombatant. Academy ethics courses do a good job of focusing on the morally challenging situations that arise in warfare, but many of the examples derive from our decade and a half in the desert. It would require only a little imagination to update these scenarios for future conventional warfighting. More important, the leadership courses should include modules on how leaders make decisions in situations of ambiguous and incomplete information.
Finally, the Naval Academy could make better use of its Saturdays for training opportunities. As much as it pains this Annapolis graduate to admit, West Point does a much better job at this, with cadets regularly embarking on field exercises to practice leadership and learn basic military skills. These should serve as a model. There are only two mandatory events on Saturdays for midshipmen at present: home football games, and a trip to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington for the plebe class. The Naval Academy could employ wargaming software such as “Harpoon” or “Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations” to teach midshipmen what it looks like when two naval forces meet in battle, and then have them apply those lessons against one another. This kind of thing used to be a required course at the Academy, taught during the summer, but wargaming could easily be taught on Saturdays. A low-impact way to implement this—if the football schedule really is sacrosanct—would be to take a battalion (one-sixth of the Brigade) at a time out of the football games to wargame. If the Academy were to place an even higher emphasis on war gaming than football games, more opportunities could open up.
A renewed emphasis on warfighting at the Naval Academy does not need to be a total retooling of midshipmen education. One major hurdle is already being overcome with the construction of Hopper Hall, which will house secret-clearance-level spaces and computer terminals. This will give midshipmen better access to some of the technical details involved in warfighting. The aim of this renewed emphasis would not be to graduate midshipmen who are masters at the tactical and operational level of war. The goal would be to graduate midshipmen who appreciate the complexities associated with modern naval warfare. This will also help them make better-informed decisions about their service selections and give them perspective during their follow-on training. Naval officers should be conversant in the basics of warfighting when they commission, and this should be a structured part of the Naval Academy’s educational program.