Creating the intellectual overmatch and mental agility that we require cannot be achieved by intermittent education or by past experience alone. It is created by the purposeful combination of education, training, rigorous exercises, and application in the real world.
- Joint Chiefs of Staff, Vision and Guidance for Professional Military Education and Talent Management
In today’s all-domain, high-tech maritime battlespace, decision advantage is arguably the difference to prevailing in war. While enabled by technology, the commander’s education, experience, and judgment become critical factors to making not only sound decisions, but to developing the cognitive capability to outthink an adversary and take decisive, bold actions—especially in combat. Intellectual overmatch is the goal. Decision advantage is the result.
Decision advantage in war results from the rapid discernment of trusted information for a decision-maker to act confidently—and first. In fact, the Chief of Naval Operations NavPlan 2022 establishes decision advantage as one of six Force Design Imperatives: “Generate Decision Advantage: Naval forces will out-sense, out-decide, and out-fight any adversary by accelerating our decision cycles with secure, survivable, and cyber-resilient networks, accurate data, and artificial intelligence. Connecting sensors, weapons, and decision-makers across all domains enables naval forces to mass firepower and influence without massing forces.”
Paradoxically, as the machine-driven pace and volume of information in the Cognitive Era rapidly increases beyond human speed and comprehension, the same technology enables the distillation of information into actionable knowledge. Technology can influence the speed of decision and effect, but can it eliminate chance? Can machine learning replace human judgment to navigate uncertainty?
We talk competently about the evolution of technology and development of the tools of naval warfare, but less confidently about the evolution of mind and development of the cognitive capability of the warrior. We work on trying to reduce war and decision-making to algorithms and yet do not focus so much on the humans for whom those algorithms are being developed. Think about the nature of war as the “art of war”—its human dimension. It is often suboptimized, managed in stasis and viewed as secondary or too expensive to design and do effectively. Think about the character of war as the “science of war”—its technical dimension. While the conditions of war change, the nature of war does not. When facing an equally equipped adversary, decision advantage is the decisive difference. Thus, the imperative is to develop platforms and people with equal measure to elevate the science and the art of war.
Today, strategic competition is fundamentally an innovation race. To prevail, we must quickly secure technological advantage, as well as the cognitive agility to employ it effectively. This is technological leadership, a term used in the revised mission statement for the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), explained in an earlier Proceedings article. Since then, we have been thinking deeply across the Naval Education Enterprise about the character and nature of war, the role of education and research, and the future of learning for naval forces.1
Innovation, co-creation, and agility of mind and application have been and always will be essential factors in warfare. Cognitive agility is the intersection point of effect that brings knowledge to capability and provides decision advantage. Technology enables outcomes when warfighters are trained and educated to employ it effectively, with individual proficiency, collective mastery, and adaptive application.
Human-machine teaming tends to focus on the character of war. Though useful and necessary, this is only the start. The next phase to true cognitive agility and intellectual overmatch is to understand, discern, and advance the human ability to make decisions and to delegate certain decisions to machines. Here is cognition as a modern warfighting problem—can we address the unavoidable uncertainties that emerge from war by leveraging the science and art of war more effectively to outthink and fight more decisively against a peer adversary?
This problem is complex and requires more than a training mindset or an organizational culture that too often falls short of its own aspirations in the discussion between character and nature of warfare. The strategic and operational target sets are technology and intellectual overmatch. We need new technology as well as methods of education, learning, and culture change to make better and faster decisions in warfare.
Knowledge: Empowered Decisions
Consider command and control (C2). Arguably, it is the first among equals for warfighting requirements with decision-making at its core. In the complexity of multidomain operations, an extremely capable C2 is essential, with human, hardware, software, and network aspects all working in harmony. We need to train and educate humans to discern the flow of information ahead of the pace of battle. Only then do we get to a C2 that leads rather than lags. To cite the 2018 Secretary of the Navy Education for Seapower Report:
In fact, the character of war has already changed, driven by the ever-accelerating application of technological innovation streams by an increasing number of nations and other groups, all designed to rapidly increase lethality. Further, increased machine-mind teaming and digitization of the battlespace will alter the nature, or human dimension, of future conflict. Without our proactive intervention, the balance between the character and nature of war may quickly grow out of balance, with strategic surprise as the result.
Multidomain operations require leaders versed in multidiscipline education and training. Former 10th Fleet Commander, Vice Admiral TJ White, put an even sharper point on the matter. In 2019, he expressed a need to teach a certain number of information warfare officers about anthropology and language, as knowledge essential to better understanding cyber. His premise was that cyber begins first as a math and computer science problem and then an analytical problem. The problem is then compounded and fractalized by language and meaning and understanding how the person who writes algorithms thinks. This deeper and more integrated knowledge results in better understanding to develop the meaning and application of cyber. Without that interdisciplinary knowledge, we are partially blind in cyber and will be left surprised by what we missed. Vice Admiral White understood the balance of technology and people, and the integration of the science and art of war.
In principle, technology could reasonably be expected to remove the fog of war. In fact, it can make the fog of war even more intense, disorienting, and debilitating. As Captain Gerald Roncolato noted in his May 2022 Proceedings article on the character of war: “There is little discussion of the chaos of war, little room for surprise, chance, uncertainty and fear. As a result, while there are doctrinal statements alluding to the need for low-level initiative and decision-making, the reality is that these qualities are often ignored, if not discouraged.”
We can again use C2 to best illustrate the point. War is chaos. Both the character and nature of war are imperfect; together, they reinforce chaos. No amount of technology, AI with genius-level algorithms, or ubiquitous surveillance and smart weapons can eliminate this. We constantly strive to get through the chaos when we should instead embrace it as the opportunity to gain cognitive agility for decision advantage.
A key issue is who is making the decisions and at what level. Perfect insight is impossible, and decision-making is ideally done at levels far down the organizational structure, closer to the issues and responsive to the need. Ironically, if we do have perfect C2, perfect intelligence, and perfectly functioning intelligent autonomous systems, then we tend to centralize decisions, which can limit agility and tactical initiative. Perfect C2 can achieve an optimal balance between the science and art of war, enabling decision-making authority at the right levels in complementary ways through a common operating picture. Trust in both the decision-making system and the competency of the decision-maker is a prerequisite.
If we accept that at some point in war chaos will ensue and centralized C2 will lag the problem, then we should be more accepting of local and distributed decision-making. However, that situation profoundly depends on the individual warfighter and organizational culture. The value proposition of investing in education (and training) is that no matter where you are on the decision stack (organization) or the state of play in your tech, you can have confidence in your human component. An educated leader is better equipped to identify and navigate uncertainty.
Learning: Enabling Initiative
As Trent Hone points out in his superb book Learning War, before the nuclear age and Cold War and certainly present in World War II for the Navy in the Pacific, the Navy did not have voluminous standing OpTasks, OpOrders, preplanned responses, or vast doctrines: “The dominant theme of the Navy’s doctrinal development . . . was aggressive action to seize and retain the tactical initiative.”
We must extrapolate and adapt that naval culture and mindset into the modern era of techno-warfare in the base sea of uncertainty, deeply capable competitors, and the constantly changing character of war. The highly leveraged individual as warfighter is essential and must be the intellectual constant.
Technology, both military and commercial, in tandem with human traits of will, heart and spirit, instincts, curiosity, imagination, resilience, innovation, invention, problem-solving, and grit are the exquisite balance we need to perfect. The human-machine interface can be brilliant, but in warfare it must also be lethally effective.
Are we moving fast enough and organized efficiently enough toward learning war more effectively in this age of dynamic technological and technical means of warfare? Captain Roncolato makes a disturbing observation: “Belief in the power of information technology to allow efficient application of force—with lower echelons being merely executors of plans devised and managed above them—persists.” If he is right, we are in big trouble.
Creating a C2 and information sharing system that services the right decision-maker at the right time for the right effect should be the objective. It varies in context, of course. Sometimes the situation calls for fleet commanders to make decisions at their level, and sometimes for the non-commissioned officer (NCO). The situation is very different for an E-4 aircraft maintainer on a carrier or an E-4 who just landed via special operations to kill a high value target. Each case has different rule sets and latitude; each is correct in its operational context. Learning enables proficient knowledge-based and situational initiative, as well as acute instincts toward individual command initiative. The point is that decision advantage is both vertical and horizontal—and in demand in an increasingly complex and furiously-paced environment. The quality of decision-making, instinct, and initiative is imperative at every level of effect and impact.
Warfighting: Gaining Intellectual Overmatch
I do not think that any amount of algorithmic precision will ever deal with how to counter the best-of-class of human instincts to win and survive. It seems to me that this is the essence of what we refer to as the art of war, as contrasted to the science and technology of war. They are all critical to success.
– Bran Ferren, former Defense Science Board member
The paradox in warfighting is that while we prize, hail, and reward initiative, we organizationally expect initiative as a natural phenomenon, rather than as a deliberately leveraged manifestation of considering the human being the decisive element. The further paradox is that as we pursue technologies such as unmanned systems, we distance the human from the system while also counting on the human to design, intuit, and interact with the system. We expect and will demand accountability at the point of decision-making. As such, the local human element— properly equipped both technically and cognitively—is essential to achieving intellectual overmatch and gaining decision advantage.
So, how do we get to the optimal balance? The answer is in part by overhauling how we think about education, learning, and innovation at the enterprise level. Here are some suggestions:
- Create a compelling learning environment. Our people want the learning skills and abilities to get things done, enrich their lives, and deepen their knowledge. They no longer wait to learn material that is presented in a class and seek out learning opportunities that meet their needs. For example, learners at all levels will seek out YouTube videos to learn a skill, acquire the knowledge to accomplish a task, or expand their knowledge in a field of interest. We also need to acknowledge and act on the principle that adaptation is essential to decision-making in often unexpected situations. Human interaction in the education experience, to include diversity of perspectives and problem-solving, online or in person, propels leaders at all levels to be ready for uncertainty.
- Increase the pace and decrease the distance between learning and applying. Integrate acquisition and procurement processes that separate the building of production lines of ships and aircraft from the building of capability of networks, digital systems, and decision-advantage technologies. Develop acquisition processes that advance rather than constrain what is learned into capabilities. Revise current DoD 5000 acquisition to better address IT and C5ISRT. Force Navy Systems Commands to fully integrate cyber into platform design. Work with Congress to get more multiyear funding and more flexible funding sources.
- Reform the official recognition of learning and skills development. There is an increasing demand for certifications to demonstrate that learning can be translated into practice. Corporations offer upskilling opportunities to increase the number of technically competent people that can work on or with the systems they are deploying and maximize the value of the systems. Universities and schools are offering certifications from Project Manager Program to Certified Ethical Hacker in short courses and boot camps. Once considered training, these certifications are now part of a continuum of learning that marries the practical skills of training with the understanding of the underlying fundamentals of traditional education. For the learners, the artificial delineation of education and training is not only irrational, but also unhelpful.
- Create and deeply embed a culture of continuous learning. We must define requirements through graduate education for all communities to ensure alignment and resourcing. We need more “action-learning” opportunities, which come from prioritizing continuous learning to maintain our decisive edge. This includes the mindset that everyone in the Navy and Marine Corps should be enrolled in the Naval Education Enterprise as a warrior-scholar. We must acknowledge learning as rank-agnostic and offer qualified NCOs every opportunity for learning experiences provided to officers. The whole force needs both training and education delivered to the point of need in ways that our policy framework currently does not support.
- Reform the means of delivering and receiving professional learning. The optimal learning environment will blend synchronous and asynchronous, in-residence and distance learning, as well as individualized instruction and cohort models. This learning environment, ashore and afloat, will increase the demand on faculty to empower students in the learning journey over time rather than sharply defined classroom experiences. The blending of distance learning with in-residence experiences will create opportunities to reach underserved communities across the DoD and increase the overall pool of potential students that can participate in resident education programs. This implies a complete overhaul of the quota system that currently drives the Navy’s talent management system.
- Loosen the constraints and prohibitions on integrating public/private sectors in shared ventures of learning and problem-solving. The U.S. innovation enterprise needs to be involved in shared learning with military experts to decrease strategic and operational vulnerabilities and increase aggregated advantage to mutual benefit. Mindful of the expectation for exemplary ethics, we need to close the distance between the public and private sector and exemplify through practice what the U.S. business and military ethos can do together. Seek Congressional relief to enable greater attendance of industry to our war colleges and technical schools.
- Understand the warfighting problem. Without sufficient preparation in the cognitive dimension, our technological overmatch will come up short when the test comes. Decision advantage requires not only science and technology experts, but humanists and historians who understand the problem(s) in front of them and the context of the entire DoD lethality enterprise (technology ecosystem plus human decision environment) as strategic advantage. Algorithms are not enough. We must invest and innovate for the warrior “in” and “on” the decision-making loop. This includes accepting and embracing the chaos of war and that given a capable adversary and dynamism of technology, the best preparation is to educate our warriors.
- Initiate a prototype-to-scale model. Teach innovation leadership at all levels to empower initiative, support new ideas, and accelerate capability adoption. Establish naval education and innovation centers at fleet concentration areas to enable user-driven applied solutions. Create prototype-to-scale boards to vet/select ideas with a view toward fast-paced development and scaling to need. Streamline transition of operator-informed solutions to warfare centers, NavalX, NPS’s Naval Innovation Exchange, and/or industry partners and rapidly iterate prototypes with warfighters.
- “Embrace the Red” and replicate the VCNO Learning to Action Board. Ensure leaders convene Learning to Action sessions across Navy competencies as part of the Navy’s Get Real, Get Better campaign, which is about continuous learning and rapid improvement. “Learn from failure faster to succeed sooner” is a culture challenge, and one we must address. We need to understand intersections and opportunities for integrated learning, innovation and knowledge application that we share towards greater fleet impact, warfighting applications and realization of desired outcomes.
The Naval Education Enterprise is a key enabler of intellectual overmatch and a partner in these ideas. While the U.S. Naval Academy is focused on developing new officers, the Naval War College, Marine Corps University, NPS, and new Naval Community College provide relevant ongoing education for the active force. For my part, as President of NPS, I am working with my team to not only transform our school, but to make NPS transformative as a catalyst for technological leadership and decision advantage. NPS is “where science meets the art of warfare.”
Old habits are hard to break, and war has a way of clearing old thinking, but at a tragic price. We must avoid this by viewing education as equally vital to U.S. seapower as platforms and weapons systems. In the Cognitive Era, we can combine the strengths of computers and humans to better navigate uncertainty. The imperative in today’s strategic competition is to leverage innovation and invest more deeply in our warrior-scholar future to thrive in the inevitable chaos of war. We need to act now to integrate technology, knowledge, and learning for decision advantage in a more dynamic and holistic manner. The nature of war is, after all, a human endeavor—one we seek to deter, but when necessary, to fight decisively and win.
Acknowledgements: I want to thank several leaders for their time, feedback and deeply enriching conversations that informed my thinking for this article including Lieutenant General Mike Dana, USMC (ret); Vice Admiral TJ White, USN (ret); Bran Ferren, CEO of Applied Minds; and Captain Gerard Roncolato, USN (ret), with special thanks to Captain Bill Sherrod, USN, and Mr. David Nystrom for their edits and shaping.
1. Naval Education Enterprise includes the U.S. Naval Academy, Naval War College, Marine Corps University, U.S. Naval Community College, and the Naval Postgraduate School.