After a naval officer commissions, learning about where and why the U.S. Navy operates often takes a backseat to how the Navy operates—or, more specifically, to how its platforms function. Speak to a junior officer about the work of the Navy, and you likely will hear a wealth of valuable information on systems design and the practical application of shipboard or squadron organization for operations at sea. For a surface warfare officer, this might include bridge resource management, watch team replacement planning, or the administration of preventative and corrective maintenance.
This is with good reason. Division officers have key roles to play immediately upon reporting on board, in driving ships or aircraft and in guiding the development of their sailors. Nevertheless, within the unrestricted line especially, officers must work to educate themselves on topics seemingly “outside the lifelines.” In addition to a grounding in gas-turbine engineering and C5I, they need more—and earlier—exposure to the global dynamics at play in maritime operations in this new era of great power competition.
If junior officers are to contribute effectively in “winning the narrative” and preserving U.S. security interests in the gray zone of conflict, they need to understand how present-day rivalries will manifest themselves at sea. This knowledge must be pursued in the original, and irreplaceable, schoolhouses of the fleet: its wardrooms and ready rooms. It is therefore commanding officers’ business.
Military Judgment Requires Geopolitical Awareness
The Navy already has discerned a need for officers educated in political-military affairs—consider, for example, the introduction of non-technical majors at the Naval Academy and the retooled Politico-Military Master’s Program. Yet, today’s leaders are becoming increasingly aware of the growing complexity of the operating environment and what that will mean for the operators themselves. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday, in his initial guidance to the force, noted that the current strategic context must inform the Navy’s longstanding Title 10 mission:
Modern naval operations are in rapid transition. . . . we will deliver a combat credible maritime force, ready to conduct prompt and sustained combat operations at sea. We must also succeed in sustained, day-to-day competition, winning future fights before they become kinetic.”1
Put plainly, with a resurgent Russia, an emboldened China, and persistent and increasing North Korean and Iranian threats at sea, now more than ever naval officers need to scan the horizon, take stock of adversaries’ operational profiles, and reacquaint themselves with both the history of war at sea and how altercations between modern navies in competition may materialize. Through dedicated study of geopolitical trends and how they inform the use of maritime force, operating commands must come to terms with what it takes to put wins on the board in the new competitive long game against those seeking to deconstruct the global order.
The Department of the Navy can do only so much from the top down; it already has helped shape the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, which first characterized the return of great power competition, and continues to highlight that competition in communications to key audiences both domestically and abroad.2 But it can, through the fleet’s type commanders and its officer training continuums, develop tools to redefine professional knowledge for today’s line officers to include political-military affairs and naval strategy.
Current department heads and division officers, some of whom will go on to command in 6 years and 12 years, respectively, are all serving in operational units today. It is incumbent on sitting commanding officers to ensure these young leaders know how to navigate increasingly contested waters with strategic, as well as tactical and operational, foresight. Learning on the precipice of command is too late, and history is replete with examples of junior officers needing to step up for their fallen commanders.
On board the USS Paul Hamilton (DDG-60), we have attempted to tackle this challenge by creating a wardroom environment that encourages greater appreciation for the complex geopolitical situations we will encounter while practicing our seagoing profession.
Roundtables with the Pros
It is incumbent on commissioned officers to expand their geopolitical awareness and accrue military judgment so they can lead well at every level. One of our goals in raising that awareness is to give our officers insight into adversary objectives and U.S. foreign policy choices, helping them understand our competitors so we can beat them in the game we are in, not the game we would have chosen.
With a wealth of outstanding academic institutions near our homeport in San Diego, it was relatively easy to locate international security experts to dig into the strategic context. When we contacted these gifted professors with requests for guest lectures, they were unreservedly supportive. This initiative had two key benefits:
- First, we were able to deliver our officers a crash course on geopolitics and international dynamics from world-class teachers, an effort we dubbed the Officer Geopolitical Education Program (OGEP). To date, we have held interdisciplinary roundtables covering everything from whether Russia’s current global posture is a result of Vladimir Putin’s personal leadership and will outlast his rule, to the economic drivers of China’s ambitions in the South China Sea, to the genesis of tensions between Iran and the United States.
With Dr. Erik Gartzke, chair of the prestigious Center for Peace and Security Studies at the University of California, San Diego, our officers discussed the role of information in states’ decisions to initiate conflict, the proliferation of gray zone tactics in advancing long-term competitive strategies, and the role of conventional deterrent forces in affecting each. These expert discussions allowed our officers to question and explore the geopolitical realities they must be ready to navigate throughout their naval careers.
- Second, we marked a modest step toward enhancing cooperation with academics specializing in security studies and, in turn, improving decision-making in our ranks.3 For their part, our guests saw firsthand that the Navy is engaged in understanding the milieu in which we operate, as well as the impact of our decisions. Dr. Vidya Nadkarni, a professor at the University of San Diego, discovered as much when she encountered an enthusiastic audience for her OGEP lecture, remarking that she was “humbled to meet such a dedicated and intelligent group.”
The opportunity to hear from retired Vice Admiral Charles Martoglio, former Deputy Commander, U.S. European Command, on the sources of adversary conduct in the South China Sea and Arabian Gulf was particularly relevant. Mere days before our deployment, his talk focused the wardroom on what it takes to compete and win in the midst of uncertainty and validated our thesis that geopolitical awareness is a key antecedent to effective leadership at sea. In each case, the discussions deepened our appreciation of the challenges inherent in navigating what are now politically charged, and often physically contested, environments—something we expect to pay dividends in how our teams plan and our watchstanders execute.
Innovation Through History
What can today’s naval officer learn from Age of Sail battles, such as HMS Speedy’s capture of the El Gamo in 1802? Quite a bit, as we found during a wardroom and chiefs mess exchange on hybrid warfare and the concept of originality that Lord Cochrane used to exploit his adversary’s limitations, inflict critical damage to the crew, and ultimately take the much larger ship as a prize.4 We then applied the lessons from this centuries-old engagement to the contemporary context to explore how conventional navies must think differently in countering asymmetric tactics. Officers and chiefs discussed ways we could gain new advantages over our opponents, and how they may seek to do the same to us.
The Paul Hamilton implemented this “Grog and Gunpowder” program to study “naval heritage with a purpose.”5 So far, we also have examined the military qualities of stealth, intelligence, speed, and resilience through a historical lens, in each case applying lessons to our current circumstances and gaining familiarity with the application of mission analysis and operational art.
Finally, we encouraged discussion of high-interest current events from an international security perspective by sharing foreign policy readings from nonpartisan think tanks. In the process, we probably surprised some officers with the relevance of our day-to-day work at sea and deepened our understanding of the importance of operating sensitively. Our readings so far have covered conventional wisdom on the strategic competition in which we are engaged and the varied venues in which we are competing, as well as our competitors and what might be motivating them. Perhaps more than any other facet of our program, this effort reached young leaders who were otherwise uninvolved with the planning of our lectures. Over time, our officers began to share what they were reading, with each exchange helping one another achieve a deeper understanding of mission success.
An Eye Toward Tactics
In a sense, the catalyst for the Paul Hamilton’s program was the surface force’s renewed emphasis on tactical application. The steady acceleration of advanced training—designed by the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center and delivered with the counsel of warfare tactics instructors (WTIs)—has improved our adherence to validated techniques and procedures, bringing tactical know-how closer to par with shipboard systems knowledge for our officer corps. However, detailing qualified WTIs to every ship will do still more to spur broad-based improvement in the surface line.
Our plans and tactics officer (a WTI) used weekly working lunches to encourage prospective surface warfare officers to wade into the warfighting ethic and envision their key role on the bridge of our ship, if not in the combat information center running a watch team. We used one such session to link visual information-gathering best practices to the division officers’ integral role as confident and competent ship-drivers with the potential for direct impact on the fleet commanders’ objectives.
To further raise the ship’s game, we applied a warfighting syndicate approach within lines of effort that would be familiar to any warship under way: move, shoot, communicate, and endure. The intent was to seize opportunities to fill, efficiently, the gaps left by the deployment certification process and encourage experienced junior officers and specialists to put their heads together to ensure we are thinking about our ship tactically for operations in austere or contested environments. By looking in small groups at topics such as ship silencing, military deception, energy conservation, combat sleep management, and long-range passive tracking, we learned more about how to configure our systems to mitigate risk and retain the upper hand.
Alongside our political-military familiarization efforts, these programs broaden tactical awareness to make our destroyer more relevant and lethal. There is great promise in an approach that begins a naval officer’s education at sea with these two ingredients for military judgment running in parallel to systems knowledge.
Exercising Judgment at the Coalface of Deterrence
At the onset of the Cold War, then–Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke acknowledged the crux of the test facing the Navy in a long-term contest with its Soviet counterpart. The famed surface warrior, who once counseled his commanding officers in the Solomons campaign to embrace speed and look for fights,6 now advised nuance in execution alongside the same exacting standards of readiness for America’s forward deterrent force:
For in this modern world, the instruments of warfare are not solely for waging war. Far more importantly, they are the means for controlling peace. Naval officers must therefore understand not only how to fight a war, but how to use the tremendous power which they operate to sustain a world of liberty and justice, without unleashing the powerful instruments of destruction and chaos that they have at their command.7
Admiral Burke was calling for the Navy to arm its line officers with the tools necessary to make the right calls in all the myriad cases short of war. Operational commanders since then have unfailingly verbalized the expectation that commanding officers be tactically and regionally aware, understand the environments in which they operate as well as they know their ships, and recognize they are singularly accountable for getting it right.8
While the Paul Hamilton’s attempt at nurturing military judgment is by no means a panacea, it is an honest effort to consider more fully where, how, and why we will be asked to compete. It has generated productive interest in the regional factors and sensitivities that color our maritime affairs, naval operations, and war-fighting techniques. Such an intellectual foundation is as critical to Navy combat readiness as are technical knowledge and tactical proficiency. When we consider that every junior officer is a potential commanding officer or operational commander, the indispensable role of our wardrooms and ready rooms in enhancing their grasp of the naval profession’s importance to the nation becomes clear. In the original schoolhouses of the fleet, commanders can and must improve their officers’ facility with increasingly complex missions and deepen their understanding that the oath we took demands we truly be postured at sea to fight and win—whether we fight or not.
1. Admiral Michael Gilday, USN, “FRAGO 01/2019: A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority,” 16 April 2020, https://scnewsltr.dodlive.mil/2020/04/16/frago-01-2019-a-design-for-maintaining-maritime-superiority/.
2. Admiral John A. Richardson, USN, A Design for Maintaining Maritime Security version 2.0 (December 2018), www.navy.mil/navydata/people/cno/Richardson/Resource/Design_2.0.pdf.
3. Richardson, Design 2.0, “Line of Effort Number 5.”
4. David Cordingly, Cochrane: The Real Master and Commander (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007). As Cordingly makes clear, Speedy was outgunned 14 to 32 and 54 men to 319 but nevertheless prevailed.
5. This idea is not original to the Paul Hamilton. Captain Scott Tait introduced one of the authors to this officer training construct while reflecting on his time as commanding officer of the USS Mustin (DDG-89). In the spirit of naval tradition, we have borrowed and expanded on an excellent idea.
6. Ken Jones, Destroyer Squadron 23: Combat Exploits of Arleigh Burke’s Gallant Force (Seal Publications, 2019), from the passage on Burke’s arrival on board the USS Charles Ausburne (DD-570) after assuming command of the squadron.
7. ADM Arleigh Burke, USN, CNO Change of Office ceremony, 1961.
8. One such declaration, from former Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, Vice Admiral Mark Fox, used this construct in guidance to subordinate commanders—technical/tactical mastery, regional awareness, commanders’ decision-making—to sketch out his combat ethos for an “era of violent peace.”