In early 2018, the Donald Trump administration promulgated a new (and inherently naval) National Defense Strategy (NDS) aimed at peer competition with China and Russia. A key assumption of the NDS was that after two decades of fighting terrorism, the U.S. military’s advantage over peer adversaries has eroded. The Department of Defense sees itself operating in a new “Cognitive Age” where artificial intelligence, cyber, and remote-controlled weapon systems make warfare in the air, on land, or at sea more complex and dangerous than ever before. To reverse the effects of this erosion, service members will have to be highly trained to survive and succeed in this environment. Education is also needed, however, to best prepare officers and enlisted for the challenges of the 21st century.
The Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps have university systems that oversee and unify the educational efforts of their various schools. The Department of the Navy (DoN) does not, which leaves it disadvantaged. The DoN should revive the Education for Seapower (E4S) initiative because it will allow the Navy to see education for what it is: a decisive edge in warfare. E4S would evolve the Navy into a force peopled by sailors and Marines better educated to adapt to the vicissitudes of warfare in the cognitive age against peer adversaries. It would protect funding for education, unify the various efforts of DoN schools, and foster a culture of learning within the Navy and Marine Corps.
In 2018, then–Undersecretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly formed a team of executive board members and staff to do a “clean sheet” review of the DoN’s educational institutions. The board found several systemic problems. Navy budgeteers frequently reallocate money devoted to naval education to pay other, more pressing expenses. It observed that while the various schools educate students well enough, there is no strategic unity among them. Probably the biggest problem the E4S study found, however, was cultural. It put in print what many naval officers have been saying for a while: that the Navy assigns relatively little value to professional military education (PME) among its officer corps, compared to training, operations, and command experience.
The report concluded with recommendations to foster a more vibrant and healthy culture of learning within the Navy. It advised the creation of a Naval University (NU) system led by a president to oversee and guide the collective education efforts of all the major DoN schools and schoolhouses. The president of the university would be a three-star Marine or Navy officer who would also hold the role as President of the Naval War College. Among other things, the board also recommended the hiring of a chief learning officer (CLO), and the creation of a Naval Community College.
Modly, who went from “Under” to “Acting” Secretary of the Navy, set things moving in 2019 by establishing a campaign plan to implement parts of the E4S initiative. Modly hired the DoN’s very first chief learning officer, John Kroger, a former enlisted Marine and Harvard-educated president of Reed College in Portland, Oregon. The Department also broke ground on the new Naval Community College in Quantico, Virginia.
But as of February 2021, E4S was effectively dead. I do not know the exact reasons for this, but the answers lie likely somewhere within the following details. Secretary Modly, the man who provided the impetus driving E4S to fruition, resigned in controversy in April 2020 after relieving the commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71). When Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite took over in late May 2020, it was not long before Kroger, the Navy’s first and only CLO, resigned and took a job as head of the Aspen Institute.
Education for Seapower’s top cover disappeared, leaving the entire plan unprotected. The Navy removed the report and supporting memos from the Department’s website, and the plan never recovered. By the looks of it, Braithwaite either killed it or allowed it to perish. He did not seek a replacement for Kroger, he dismantled the office responsible for education, and it looks like the funding and budget measures for the plan no longer exist.
Other than the establishment of the Naval Community College at Quantico, the Navy has remained an institution that cares relatively little for education. Therefore, no university system will be created to harmonize its various schools, and no leader will be in the Pentagon to advocate for and protect their funding. A “culture of learning” seems as distant as ever. What started out as an exciting idea that was professionally researched and well supported and articulated has ended up as another vanished initiative within the halls of the Pentagon.
But there is now an opportunity to correct the Navy’s current course. With Braithwaite gone, the new incoming leaders appointed by the Joseph Biden administration (whoever they are) should revive E4S because it is clear now that they Navy will not do it on its own. Doing so will accomplish several things that will give the Navy an edge in military readiness and capability.
Promotes a Culture of Learning
The Navy values officers and sailors on platforms, whether it be on aircraft, on surface warfare vessels, or on submarines, much more so than in the classroom. This is a cultural problem that is supported by the numbers. According to the E4S review, the Navy, out of all the other services, is worst at filling quotas to the various schools within the DoN and elsewhere. When it does send students, they are disproportionately underqualified. The Navy sends junior officers into higher echelon programs, and staff corps officers (dentists and chaplains) to the war colleges instead of surface warfare officers and aviators. It has been said as a joke that “the Naval War College is the school to which every branch but the Navy sends its best and brightest.” The E4S study found that from 2008 to 2018, the percentage of Navy students who graduated with distinction from the Naval War College was consistently at or below ten percent of attendees, well below the rate for students from the other services.
The revival of E4S would better foster a culture of learning by giving officers and enlisted more frequent and accessible education opportunities. It would allow for greater integration of educational achievements into the Navy’s force and talent management framework. Essentially, this means a more careful selection of officers with a talent for command for school attendance. It also means rewarding those who have excelled academically by placing them in positions where their skills and education could enhance the Navy and Marine Corps’ missions. It could also entrench a Naval University system within the DoN, which would start the Navy down a path to becoming a great “learning organization.” All of this would help imbue the Navy with a culture of learning, one pervading the officer and enlisted ranks, and allowing the service to view education as a crucial aid to readiness and warfighting.
Education and Training
The Navy values training over education. This is understandable, because modern day sailors, Marines, and naval officers must be highly trained. I used to tell my students at the Naval Academy that training is about preparing for the expected and learning what to do and how to do it within a vocation. Education is preparation for the unknown, learning how to think and how to solve problems by figuring out how to ask the right questions. Asking the right questions leads to appropriate analysis and research to provide answers. To be effective and lasting, both training and education require continual practice. Both forms of learning could save lives in the future, but education is best fostered in an environment conducive to study and the exchange of ideas—in a classroom setting.
Time spent pursuing an education to whatever end, however, is shore duty, and too much of it is viewed as an impediment to a naval officer’s career. The incentive for a Navy officer to go to school and excel there does not go much further than checking a box for promotion. From my own teaching experience, students who interpret education as an opportunity for personal and professional improvement perform much better than those who believe it is just another rung in their career ladder.
Education for Seapower could assuage other problems, too. Since at least the early 1900s, the Navy has used education as a means to attract the kind of talent it needs. If the Navy brings back the E4S initiative, it will enhance its ability to lure people interested in becoming experts in fields the service needs, such as cyber, computer science, nuclear, and mechanical engineering, and retain them. Sailors, Marines, and naval officers would also return to the civilian world as better educated and credentialed members of society.
Through a university system, the Navy could educate its officers and sailors on sexual harassment and assault much more effectively than annual sexual assault and prevention response (SAPR) training. SAPR training, is just that, training. Students learn what sexual assault and harassment is, what to do if they know of it, and who to report to. A naval university system could work through all its major schools and colleges to educate its students on how to think about cultural concepts like gender, misogyny, and masculinity, which are crucial to understanding what causes sexual harassment and assault in the first place. The better leaders understand the forces behind this problem and the more experienced they are in thinking about causes and potential solutions, the better equipped they will be to prevent it and to make effective policy. This can only be done through real education, and it would go far in helping solve a deleterious and pervasive problem that continues to plague the Department of Defense.
Under the E4S plan, the head of the university system could exercise budget authority and protect funding for education. This person would allocate funds to prospective schools and, in theory, act as an advocate to shield those funds from the Navy budgeteers who traditionally take money from the education pot whenever they deem necessary. Protected funding would make hiring freezes less frequent and improve faculty retention. Professors who are expected to be excellent teachers and leaders in their respective fields will have more support for travel and research. This funding will also better facilitate the upkeep and renovations of old buildings and classrooms. The DoN’s various schools such as the Naval War College, Naval Postgraduate School, the U.S. Naval Academy, and Marine Corps University will be able to strive toward being world-class learning institutions without their basic operating funds consistently being cut from under them.
The presence of a common unifying educational system will bolster the networks between DoN schools, foster better engagement among learning institutions, and allow the Navy to better tailor its educational efforts to the NDS. It will also mitigate professional parochialism within the officer corps. Naval officers tend to immerse themselves within their own vocational communities. The separate DoN schools mitigate this some by bringing members of these communities together temporarily in the classroom for PME. But without a university system, these schools, instead of being able to collaborate, exchange, and work in better harmony with each other in support of what the Navy needs, are left on their own. And there is no one whose specific job it is to care about and advocate for their collective importance.
Balancing the Urgent with the Important
Without E4S (or something like it) the DoN, the Navy in particular, will continue to operate as an institution that does not see education as a vital warfare capability. The Navy has lots of bills to pay. Sixty percent of its fiscal year 2020 budget went to operations and maintenance and personnel, $120.6 billion out of a total $205.6 billion. But retrenchment is likely coming. In terms of dollars, investing in a university system would be a relatively cheap and effective way to continue to work toward greater naval readiness and integration. It would allow the Navy to better balance the urgent (training, operations, personnel, and procurement) with the important (education). E4S clearly needs a new champion for this to work. The new Secretary of the Navy could hire another CLO, reengage with the reforms started in 2019, and rescue the endeavor from oblivion.
As a military/naval historian and educator who taught at the Naval Academy for two years, I am biased. I want this to happen for my former students who are entering a world fraught with new challenges. They will be required to sacrifice more than they (or we) know to serve their country and lead and train their sailors and Marines. If the Navy takes steps to become a true learning institution that places greater value on education, they will be more successful for those endeavors and better prepared for the future.
I am not alone. The instructors and professors at these schools want their students to succeed in their careers. They want these students able to think critically, analytically, and strategically. They also want their institutions to better serve students by fostering their educational growth. This is important, because if their students can grow and succeed via education, then the Navy and Marine Corps will succeed. When that happens, despite rather dark clouds gathering over the Pacific Ocean once again, this country has a brighter future.