It is widely accepted that many attributes required of the Navy’s officer corps are lacking, with lapses in professionalism, training, or this or that—even poor sleep management—offered as prima facie evidence of an overall decline of competence. Criticism is focused, for now, on the surface warfare community—and junior officers in particular—with the 2017 collisions only the most visible manifestations of some greater malaise. Senior officers have been relieved, some with little justification beyond firing the usual suspects, perhaps following Samuel Johnson’s reasoning—“Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” There is no shortage of opinions and remedies, all reflecting a growing concentration on these problems, their alleged causes, and possible solutions, questioning even the overall “culture” of the Navy.
At the senior leader end of the spectrum is the question of strategic thought, for the present answered by the new triservice maritime strategy, Advantage at Sea.1 Though detailed in its restatement of goals and objectives, this latest strategy appears to fall short of the standard set by the 1986 Maritime Strategy, regarded as a key mechanism in bringing the Cold War to its successful conclusion. It is no exaggeration to say that The Maritime Strategy was central to President Ronald Reagan’s belief that “it was time to play to win.”2
What this suggests is that the Navy lacks a culture of purpose; can a sailor today answer the question “Why am I here?” For sailors in the late 1980s, the answer was clear, because awareness of U.S. strategy had become embedded in the consciousness of the Navy, the American public, and—critically—the minds of Soviet leaders.3 From the strike group commander to the sonar watchstander, everyone understood his or her role in the strategy.
Fast forward to today: It is three decades since the United States found itself the world’s sole superpower. The Maritime Strategy was replaced in 1992 with . . . From the Sea, the first of several attempts to define the Navy’s role in a world rapidly shifting from bipolar, to monopolar, to multipolar—to whatever it is today. In these troubled seas and shifting sands, can any sailor likewise answer the question “What is the Navy for?” (See pp. 44–50, April 2021.)
The key to the 1986 Maritime Strategy was that the officers and sailors of the day grew up with a common understanding of what they needed to do: be ready to go to war with the Soviet Union. Knowing the “what,” they needed only the “how,” and The Maritime Strategy provided it. It provided an investment strategy—force structure, modernization plans, research and development, and support. It also publicly announced an operational framework—how the Navy would train, operate, and fight, if necessary. Exercises, war games, and rigorous analyses validated and refined operational concepts, force structure, and supporting capabilities and programs.4 Whether it was a true war plan, an exercise in perception management, or merely budget justification, it unquestionably fostered a culture of purpose. Does such a culture exist today?
Lieutenant Commander Ryan Hilger addresses this situation in an insightful essay that argues for restoring a cultural “ecosystem” in which effective strategies are created. He proposed a restoration of the General Board, rechartering the Strategic Studies Group, and refocusing the Naval War College on strategy and tactics. (See “The Navy Must Rebuild the Ecosystem of Strategy,” pp. 61–63, November 2020). Hilger approvingly summarizes the observations from a prizewinning naval history essay that today’s operationally front-loaded career path leads to “tactical, O-5 command” that results in the “underdevelopment of sailors and officers in naval tactics and operational strategy,” comparing it unfavorably to the longer officer career development path of the early 20th century.5
For an ecosystem such as Hilger suggests to succeed, however, it cannot be created overnight. It must be nurtured to maturity, when all in the chain can answer that important question of purpose. There is much to be said for continuity of leadership in creating and sustaining such a culture, and a primary reason for the success of The Maritime Strategy and the supporting force structure was the tenure of Secretary of the Navy John Lehman. In office for more than six years, he was the second-longest-serving secretary in the post–World War II era. By contrast, the median tenure of the 13 confirmed secretaries who followed him is 711 days.6 Strategies du jour that waver with each change of leader are ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst. Further, true strategies must transcend all but the most dramatic shifts in the underlying geopolitics. Clairvoyance might be a bridge too far; foresight is not.
Don’t Sell the Budgeteers Short
In arguing for this cultural and strategic renaissance, Commander Hilger echoes a long-held belief that the process of strategic thought is hampered by too many budgeteers and not enough strategists. Secretary Lehman observed, on taking office, that “programming and budgeting had displaced strategy and accounted for some 85 percent of the personnel on the navy headquarters staff. . . . Conceptual thinking and strategy simply had no place.”7 Recalling comments made by Admirals James Watkins and Thomas Hayward that echoed Secretary Lehman, Hilger laments that today the budget has again “emerged as the primary driver of the Navy’s strategic course.”
It is, however, far too easy to dismiss the Navy’s perceived preoccupation with the budget as the source of its problem, for as even Secretary Lehman pointed out, strategy and budget are inseparably linked: “Strategy is the logical set of allocations and priorities that guide how the Navy Department spends its money.”8 A budget without a strategy is only a budget, just as a force structure (whether 350, 500, or any other number of ships) absent a strategy is just a number—spaghetti thrown against a wall.
To formulate a strategy requires only a handful of clear-thinking individuals given the time to think, but it takes a full Pentagon ring and long hours to properly oversee the Navy budget. Officers on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations must shepherd an uncounted number of program elements and line items from execution (i.e., today) across the outyears of the Future Years Defense Plan. If there are shortfalls, the action officer must frame the impact in terms of its effect on the Navy’s ability to execute its missions. If, as Commander Hilger asserts, the budgetary tail now wags the strategic dog, it is not the fault of the budget process. We must still mind the store, whether there is a guiding strategy or not. Amid the daily flurry of “due yesterday” items crossing their desks, resource sponsors do not think strategically, because it is not their job.
Create, Maintain, and Nurture Culture
Articles that discuss the range of the Navy’s problems are cries for help. They indicate that the Navy may no longer be working smarter (if it ever was), just harder—and perhaps on the wrong things. When writers have to wonder if the Navy needs to “import some mariners” or insist it ought to “send the best officers to the Naval War College,” these are clear indicators that a problem exists.9 Rarely in the past hundred-plus years has the Navy so lacked strategic focus. From 1906 to 1945, it was guided by the principles of War Plan Orange and its progenitors, which were so well thought out that Admiral Chester Nimitz later observed only the kamikazes were “a complete surprise.”10
Even the “Europe first” decision, based on agreement among the Allies that gave priority to defeating Hitler, did not derail War Plan Orange’s Pacific strategy; it merely adjusted the overall timetable.11 Similarly, the Cold War years were guided by the overarching need to counter Soviet expansion on all fronts and deter nuclear war. Though implementing that national strategy took several forms—including containment, détente, and mutual assured destruction—the overall objective was clear, and The Maritime Strategy was, for the Navy, the capstone.
Building a new culture cannot just be process compliance: “We held all the recommended workshops; therefore, we have a new culture.” Nor can it focus only on working through the “isms”—racism, sexism, and so on—that justifiably dominate so much of society’s present conversation. How thoroughly some have affected our naval consciousness is evidenced by the Naval Academy Alumni Association’s need to form the Special Committee on alumni culture, diversity, and inclusion.12 Even though such problems do not in themselves define culture, solving them is vital, important not only for those who are the daily victims, but also because the solutions build an important part of the foundation on which improved culture can stand.
Stovepiped individual warfare communities, too, influence the naval culture, often to the detriment of the Navy as a whole, especially in the coherence of the strategic aspects of the budget process. These are nothing new; stovepipes can be traced at least to the days of Admiral David Dixon Porter, an “inverted visionary” who longed for and did his best to prolong the “spiritual purity” of sail.13 The “Gun Club,” “Diesel Boats Forever,” and an “Aegis/everybody else” mentality (the latter nipped in the bud only by the premature retirement of pre-Aegis surface combatants at the end of the Cold War) are more recent manifestations. The rapidly increasing introduction of unmanned platforms across all warfare areas and the asymmetries of a growing cyber warfare environment provide opportunities to rethink which uniform warfare devices mark a sailor as an “operator.”
Build from the Foundation Up
Nowhere in all the soul-searching and finger-pointing, however, has anyone yet asked (at least in public) what the role of officer education is in all of this. But the question should be asked of all the commissioning sources—the U.S. Naval Academy, NROTC, Officer Candidate School, and direct commissions. Given that the Naval Academy is the only source charged with the full-time education of prospective officers and that its mission calls for preparing graduates to one day “assume the highest responsibilities of command,” it is therefore reasonable to expect the Academy to lead in imparting and nurturing the Navy’s ability to think strategically. Whether strategists are born or made, they must be educated. And it cannot be disputed that a “liberal education” that develops the skills for broad, critical thought is essential to enabling multifaceted strategic thinking.
Many of the officers who made tangible working-level contributions to War Plan Orange in the 1930s—the Maritime Strategy of its day—ended up assuming those highest responsibilities during World War II.14 They were all Academy graduates, albeit in a far smaller Navy that in the interwar period had only one source of career-oriented commissioned officers. On the other hand, after the end of the Cold War, it was revealed that a principal architect of The Maritime Strategy was Navy Captain Peter Swartz, a graduate of Brown University’s NROTC program (with a bachelor’s degree in international relations) and the beneficiary of a very unconventional career path, which clearly allowed opportunities for critical thinking.15
But it might be worth asking why the Naval Academy did not produce The Maritime Strategy’s principal author. We can probably thank Admiral Hyman G. Rickover. The stature of the Academy has grown in recent decades, to the point that today it is considered a world-class educational institution. But older graduates will recall the tensions as Admiral Rickover pressed for ever more technical rigor to provide “qualified” candidates for his growing nuclear power program. As Secretary Lehman observed, “By 1975, his control over the curriculum . . . became total. . . . Driven by Rickover’s obsession, we have raised a generation of naval officers . . . well-trained in technology and engineering, [but] a great many are essentially illiterate in the conceptual disciplines and humanities.”16 And the Academy is no longer unique in this regard. Captain Swartz is exceptional by any measure, but NROTC has a smaller chance of producing another like him today than 50 years ago. According to the Navy, approximately 85 percent of NROTC’s scholarships are now awarded to midshipmen in Tier 1 and Tier 2 (science, technology, engineering, and math) majors. Not all NROTC students receive scholarships, but the emphasis is clear.17
The Navy’s curricular emphasis on the humanities has waxed and waned in recent decades, but the focus on science and technology remains strong, likely to the detriment of graduates’ ability to pursue other intellectual endeavors—such as strategic thinking. Consider the Naval Academy’s prestigious Trident Scholar program. Instituted in 1963 to provide “an opportunity for a select group of exceptionally capable midshipmen to engage in independent study and research during their senior year,” the program has produced (through and including the Class of 2021) 584 Trident Scholars. Their research topics shows that less than 10 percent could be considered in the humanities, and—of these—less than half are in areas of “strategy and policy.”18 In other words, across nearly six decades, only two dozen future leaders have thought enough of strategy to devote even a single year of close study to it, despite a robust political science curriculum and the annual Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference, which since 1960 has been the nation’s leading undergraduate conference of its type.
If the Navy seeks to “remain the world’s preeminent naval force through recruitment, education, training, and retention,”then the Naval Academy and the other officer accession sources must adjust fire to attack at the source the problem of developing a strategic, purposeful culture.19 The Naval Academy has already taken one step in that direction, with a new Naval History Wargaming Lab to introduce midshipmen to components of strategy and decision-making through a Naval Academy Museum–funded course taught in the History Department.20 It is a timely and worthy idea, but one is left to wonder why the course resides in the History Department and why the museum funds it.
Going forward, successful Trident Scholars (perhaps now to include NROTC midshipmen) who show the most promise in strategic fields should be suitably rewarded with in-depth study through immediate graduate education, including at the Naval War College, or with internships with think tanks such as the Council on Foreign Relations—or even the National Security Council. If a midshipman can earn a Rhodes or Marshall scholarship, Trident Scholars should be able to apply what was essentially graduate-level student work to make tangible contributions as young officers at those elite levels.
It will be an all-hands effort to create a resilient and enduring culture of purpose, but it begins when the education of the Navy’s future leaders starts. Such a culture can yield a strategy that is understood by those who will execute it, those who will pay for it (the U.S. public), and those who find themselves the objects of it. As the 1986 Maritime Strategy showed, it can be done. Doing so again will enable each member of the Navy to answer the question, “Why am I here?”
1. U.S. Navy, Advantage at Sea—Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power (Washington, DC: December 2020).
2. Norman Friedman, The Fifty-Year War: Conflict and Strategy in the Cold War (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000), 452.
3. John F. Lehman Jr., Oceans Ventured: Winning the Cold War at Sea (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2018), 89.
4. Lehman, Oceans Ventured, 152. For a specific example, see Antisubmarine Warfare Division, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Naval Warfare), Antisubmarine Warfare: Meeting the Challenge (April 1990), 52.
5. LCDR Joel Holwitt, USN, “Recapturing the Interwar Navy’s Strategic Magic,” Naval History 31, no. 5 (October 2017).
6. “Secretaries of the Navy.”
7. John F. Lehman Jr., Command of the Seas (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1988), 128.
8. Lehman, Command of the Seas, 127.
9. Rik F. van Hemmen, “The Navy Needs Mariners,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 146, no. 2 (February 2020): 15; CAPT Jamie McGrath, USN, “Send the Best Officers to the Naval War College,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 144, no. 8 (August 2018): 14.
10. Edward S. Miller, War Plan Orange: The U.S. Strategy to Defeat Japan 1897–1945 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991), 356.
11. Miller, War Plan Orange, 8.
12. Naval Academy Alumni Association Board of Trustees, “Special Committee on Alumni Culture, Diversity and Inclusion."
13. Donald Canney, The Old Steam Navy, vol. 1, Frigates, Sloops and Gunboats 1815–1885 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1990), 145.
14. Miller, War Plan Orange, appendix.
15. CDR Christopher Nelson, U. S. Navy, “A Naval Strategist Speaks,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 145, no. 5 (May 2019): 56.
16. Lehman, Command of the Seas, 26.
17. U.S. Navy, “Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps,” 2011.
18. U.S. Naval Academy Trident Scholar Program.
19. U.S. Navy, Advantage at Sea, 22.
20. “Naval History Wargaming Lab to Open Spring 2021” Shipmate, U.S. Naval Academy Alumni Association 83, no. 7 (October 2020): 8.