Allow me to start with a bit of heresy: I spent nearly three decades in the surface warfare community, and I routinely gleaned useful knowledge from aviators. As Exhibit A, I offer an article from Approach magazine by then-Commander Steve Baxter entitled “The Three Buckets of Naval Aviation.”
The article was published originally in November 2001 and was reprinted in 2014 as an editor’s favorite.1 It is the story of a lieutenant flight instructor providing a few minutes of mentoring to a young Ensign Baxter struggling through flight school, but its message is applicable to surface warfare officers. I made my junior officers read it when I commanded ships. Here is the gist:
The Experience bucket is empty when you get it, but it starts to fill the day you walk on board your first ship. This bucket gets filled on the midwatch, on the sea and anchor detail, during an underway replenishment in the Indian Ocean when the monsoons are blowing. It gets filled by going to the bridge when you don’t have to go, to see unusual evolutions or just to get more time on the deck. It gets filled every time you step on board ship, and whatever goes in it is there for you to use when you need it.
The more you add to that bucket, the better you’ll be able to handle the vicissitudes of the sea. An implied point made by Baxter is that the key to filling this bucket is approaching your experiences with humility. None of us is as good as we think we are, and none of us has seen it all.
The Knowledge bucket also is empty when you get it, and it takes conscious effort to fill. You do it by studying. You pay attention in school. You read books. You ask questions. An important warning about this bucket: The material that goes in is perishable; it must be constantly, thoughtfully refreshed. And it is never full. I can point to specifics of the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea that I didn’t learn until I was in school for major command and skills I had as a lieutenant that atrophied over the decades.
As with Experience, the key to filling and keeping this bucket filled is humility. You can either admit you don’t know everything, or you can make a humiliating call to your boss after making an embarrassing mistake out of ignorance.
The Knowledge and Experience buckets are mutually reinforcing. Experience lends context to knowledge, while knowledge colors and helps us make sense of and learn from experience.
The Luck bucket is different. It is full when issued, which is great. The problem is that it can never be refilled. If you dip into that bucket, what you use is gone.
In your career, even if you have a short career and are fortunate enough to never have anyone shoot at you, you will find yourself in tight spots—contacts close aboard and all around, underway replenishments on dark and stormy nights, as prize-master of a broken and sabotaged oil smuggler. Critical equipment will break when you need it most. The way you will get out of those tight spots is to draw from one of the three buckets. If you dip into the Knowledge or Experience buckets to clear the danger, those buckets are not diminished. Rather, your knowledge will be reinforced, and you will gain from your experience. If, however, you dip into the Luck bucket because you don’t have knowledge or experience to guide you, that luck is gone forever. If you get to the bottom of the Luck bucket, metal gets bent and sailors die.
The truth in Baxter’s article is a fractal. It repeats at smaller and bigger scales. It is true for the individual officer, regardless of rank. It is true for the wardroom, the squadron, the fleet, the warfare community, the service, the nation.
The failures of 2017 showed that we, as a Navy and despite some very good surface warfare community leadership in recent years, had been relying on the Luck bucket for too many decades. Since then, the community has added seamanship training for junior officers at the start of their careers, and the career path for officers has been changed to mandate more time as ship’s company. Such changes are necessary, but they will not prove sufficient if the community as a whole does not have the hunger and the humility to refill its Knowledge and Experience buckets and keep them full.
1. CDR Steven Baxter, USN, “The Three Buckets of Naval Aviation,” Approach 59, no. 3 (May–June 2014): 8–9.