The enemy is coming. He is capable, determined, and well-equipped. And if the Navy is not focused on war-fighting as its central and predominant characteristic—the “why” of the profession—it will fail.
Gone are the post–Cold War days when U.S. enemies had limited capacity, when the Navy operated from the safe sanctuary of the sea, when it set the timing and place of action, when, in short, the enemy had no vote. The kinds of wars that are coming will be different.
At core is the stark reality that a ship or aircraft must go into action, strive mightily to accomplish its mission against fearful odds, survive damage and casualties, and then bring home the crew and platform to do it all over again. But not all will come home; the mission may require a decision to act, even though that action might result in the death of self, crew, and ship or aircraft.
This is the reality commanders and crews must wrap their heads around. It is different from what most sailors today have seen. It will require seizing opportunity in a tempo-ruled environment. It will require deep loyalty and commitment, courage, the trust of subordinate, senior, and self, and the resolve to give the fullest in support of mission, Navy, and country. The service must think long and hard about what it will take to fight and win in a future great power war—specifically the mind-set and professional focus of those on active duty.
History as Guide
On the evening of 12 November 1942, as the cruisers and destroyers of Rear Admiral Dan Callaghan’s task force steamed toward battle against a powerful Japanese force that included two battleships, Callaghan’s flag captain, Captain Cassin Young, opined, “This is suicide.” Callaghan replied, “Yes, I know, but we have to do it.”1
There was no battle plan. The U.S. force was a scratch pickup team with no familiarity with each other. At best, Callaghan hoped to emulate Nelson at Trafalgar, to put his ships close aboard the enemy and fight it out. It was the First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, and Callaghan and Young would not survive the night. Ships were lost and the survivors so battered they were unable to fight the next night. The fearful cost in ships and men continued to mount. The next morning the light cruiser USS Juneau (CL-52) was sunk by a submarine torpedo, killing most of the crew, among them the five Sullivan brothers.
The ships in that task force, lacking clear commander’s intent but understanding the mission, largely acted independently to engage the enemy. Shortly after the battle began, effective overall command became impossible. Instead, individual ship commanding officers made decisions, regardless of cost, that would either win or lose the battle, allow them to survive or not, keep the Japanese from bombarding Henderson Field or not. None flinched. Relying on the proven bedrocks of interwar U.S. naval doctrine—aggressiveness, fast and effective gunfire, and individual initiative—they wreaked havoc on the Japanese.
Make no mistake, the outcome was not optimal. The battle was not well planned nor the task force well led, and it was truly a shoestring operation. But when pushed into the corner, and when coordination was not possible, U.S. warships were able to act with common intent and effective tactics.2 This was not a one-off event; the Navy consistently exhibited the ability to swiftly adapt and persevere throughout the war.
The Navy’s superior tactical capability—and it must be seen as such—did not come about by accident. The Navy spent the interwar years focusing on how to beat the Japanese in a Pacific war. It learned important lessons from extensive gaming at the Naval War College, an understanding of naval warfare theory, and the annual Fleet Problem exercises. These processes combined to test concepts and inculcate the officer corps with a practical appreciation of the emerging realities of war in the face of rapidly evolving technology.
Prewar tactical doctrine was cast as general guidelines, not strict checklists. Acknowledging the inherent chaos of war and the necessity to not do the same thing twice against the same enemy, prewar practice eschewed schoolhouse solutions. Instead, commanders were expected to swiftly develop a battle plan within the framework of theory, general doctrine, and heuristics. Each problem was to be solved on its own merits; no cookie-cutter approach was envisioned or possible.
One of the principal vehicles used by the interwar Navy to hone judgment and tactical decision-making was its Estimate of the Situation, which eventually was codified in Sound Military Decision.3 This was a textbook, but it did not offer rote solutions. Rather, it helped build the capacity for rapid and effective tactical planning. Execution of its principles is demonstrated in Commander Paul Talbot’s battle plan before the Battle of Balikpapan in January 1942:
Primary weapons torpedoes. Primary objective transports.
. . . Endeavor launch torpedoes at close range before being discovered. . . . Will try to avoid action enroute. . . . Use own discretion in attacking independently when targets located.4
Talbot applied his training, devised an effective battle plan, and communicated it concisely, enabling the agile application of force to meet his mission objectives even in the chaos of pre-radar night battle. The resulting engagement was one of the few bright spots in the early days of the war.5
Such a pragmatic and straightforward philosophy was not without challenges. Most notably, if prewar assumptions proved false in combat, it would take time to adjust. And prewar assumptions are almost always wrong. There were failures—of leadership, doctrine, and equipment. The key, however, was that the highly professional and agile prewar culture was able to adapt swiftly to the lessons learned and rapidly turn those lessons into new doctrine—a doctrine readily understood and internalized by a Navy that was well grounded in theory, history, technology, and techniques.
Today, it seems many officers view the first six months of World War II as one long string of failures and believe the war ultimately was won because the United States outbuilt the Japanese. Trent Hone’s Learning War demonstrates the flaws in this narrative. The U.S. Navy won the Pacific campaign because, first and foremost, it brought highly adaptive and flexible tactics to the fight and was able to outpace the Japanese in learning hard lessons and making adjustments. Yes, the industrial output of U.S. factories and shipyards was unprecedented and allowed the sustained projection of immense naval power across vast distances against two very capable enemies. But it is questionable whether even that prodigious output would have been enough to win in the time it actually took had the Navy not had a prewar culture that gave it such tenacity and agility.
The reality is that interwar preparation and acculturation meant the Navy was not nearly as behind tactically as it might have been, and that it caught up far faster than otherwise possible—against a highly capable and tenacious enemy. The implication is clear: Embracing an imperative that places warfighting above all else in the organization is the foundation of victory in war.
A Warfighting Imperative
The warfighting imperative demands certain organizational attributes, based on the history and theory of warfare—naval warfare in this case. It acknowledges the importance of significant and accelerating technological change but places those changes in a broader, human-centric context. In doing so, the warfighting imperative can help point organizational focus in the right directions, anchored on the reality of war as a human undertaking.
Organizational focus, derived from the warfighting imperative, exhibits the following attributes:
• It is focused above all on warfighting effectiveness, and all other organizational and material concerns are subordinated to this ultimate purpose. Ego, hierarchy, and inability to accept criticism are shunted aside. Heuristics—such as aggressiveness, shooting accurately first, and individual initiative—are the bedrock that allow effective fighting even when plans and assumptions fail.
• Management and administration are subordinated to warfighting preparation.
• Education and training focus on building technical, tactical, and operational mastery, not just “certification”—the latter being a training floor, not a ceiling. Training (and training development) adapts rapidly.
• The study of history—framed by an understanding of naval theory—complements technical training, forming a balanced appreciation of both the art and science of war.6
• The nature and character of war are recognized for what they are. A warfighting culture acknowledges that losses are inevitable and that defeat is possible and must be met with renewed commitment. When knocked down, it gets back up and back into the fight—because it knows these things can happen. Above all, a warfighting culture acknowledges that nothing is won without taking risks. Doctrine, command relations, and force structure are aligned with this reality.
• A warfighting culture acknowledges the central importance of tempo, particularly when fighting against a peer opponent. This conditions everything the warfighting organization does: training, planning, building, operating, fighting, repairing, adapting. Time is of the essence. As John Boyd famously derived, victory comes when one side gets inside the decision cycle of the other.7
• Command doctrine accepts that while the character of war is conditioned by technology—among other factors—the fundamental nature of war remains unchanging. Regardless of the tools at hand, war unfolds in an environment of chance, friction, uncertainty, fear, and exhaustion. This recognition drives an emphasis on individual initiative shaped and controlled by mission and commander’s intent. Risk is accepted, even encouraged to the point of error, when mistakes stem from acts of commission. Conversely, there is an intolerance of failure resulting from caution and uncertainty—mistakes caused by omission.
• Doctrine is concise and descriptive; it is a framework for decision-making in combat and, most important, a tool for achieving commonality of thinking. It is neither a checklist nor a cookbook.8 Individual commanders are expected to apply doctrine through the lens of their deep understanding of theory and history and technical mastery to solve the unique challenges of each tactical situation.
• Lessons are captured correctly and swiftly, then rapidly turned into revised doctrine and guidelines for the rest of the force. Frank and honest feedback is encouraged and accepted. Doctrinal change comes as much from the front line as from staffs ashore.
• Training, exercises, and experimentation emphasize free-play with unconstrained opposition. They provide the foundation for preparing commanders for combat. Likewise, commanders are trained and groomed with combat as the focus. Combat leadership is the premier quality addressed in fitness reports. A warfighting organization identifies, trains, and promotes fighters.
• Mission and commander’s intent are the glue that binds operations. Together they provide necessary guidance to subordinates while giving them the latitude to adjust to unforeseen circumstances—to craft actions that comport with shifting realities while driving to fulfill the mission. This requires both commanders’ ability to craft adequate intentions and subordinates’ commitment to adhere to those intentions in the constantly changing circumstances of battle. This is an issue of both skill and trust.
Today’s Navy: Peacetime or Warfighting Focus?
Today’s Navy is manned by highly professional sailors. For the most part, aircraft and ships are operated safely, effectively, and efficiently. The service knows how to accomplish the missions it has been given. And, as the Navy shifts focus to great power competition, a renewed emphasis is being placed on “warrior toughness” and tactical training.
But that is not really the point. Missions are changing, warfighting effectiveness is of growing importance, and the type of combat coming down the road is different from what the Navy has been doing and preparing for over the past 30 years. Regardless of the perceptions of the Navy’s current warfighting culture, what will be necessary in the future is different.
As Andrew Gordon points out in his landmark study of the Royal Navy at the 1916 Battle of Jutland, navies that become dominant and evolve in the long lee of a great victorious war develop bad habits.9 The Royal Navy did so in the century following Trafalgar. In such cases, efficient and effective wartime practices ossify, and a sort of sclerosis sets in—the arteries of thought harden and become clogged. Gordon argues:
• Everything gets more difficult.
• Priorities become jumbled and obfuscated.
• Bureaucratic procedure replaces independent thought and action.
• The importance of tempo is lost at an institutional level.
• Crises take on unwarranted salience without priority.
• Leaders, consumed by mind-numbing daily routine, have no time to think.
• Subservience to hierarchy becomes the norm.
• Technology becomes the sum total of naval warfare, sweeping away theory and history.
In such long periods of peace, the chaotic, dangerous, and friction-infused nature of war, where chance often holds sway, is forgotten. Belief in the ability to lift the fog of war through technology leads to ever-more numerous, lengthy, prescriptive, and restrictive procedures. Those procedures, in turn, grow in complexity such that only large staffs ashore can develop and test them. The operating forces are left out of the process; their role limited to compliance and execution.
In all of this, the idea that the enemy has a vote recedes into distant memory. Centralized and highly controlling command from above becomes the “obvious” way to run a war. Modern communications are expected to enable precise control of every action, bringing elegant synchronization and efficiency to the fight.10 The need for initiative under the chaotic conditions of combat is planned—or assumed—away.
That was Gordon’s assessment of the Royal Navy heading into World War I. To what degree this peacetime culture describes the U.S. Navy today is beyond the scope of this article, and largely outside the purview of this retired naval officer. The above description is meant to show how a warfighting imperative, prevalent in battles such as the First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal and the battle off Samar Island, can manifest itself through careful institutional preparation, high expectations, and shared experience. On the other hand, the failure or absence of focused institutional preparation for high-end war can just as effectively rob a navy of its warfighting culture. At issue for today’s Navy is an honest and frank self-assessment to determine where things currently lie on the cultural spectrum.
To Prevail in the Future
In facing a future great power war, the Navy must do its utmost to shape its warfighting culture toward the World War II end of the spectrum. Only in this way will its central and critical element—the human element—be equal to the heavy tasks and uncertainty to come. Only in this way will it be able sustain a focus on its ultimate purpose of warfighting, placing other challenges in perspective, solving them quickly, and moving on. Only in this way can it build the strategies, doctrine, and force structure that will prevail in the future and forge a culture that is adaptive and capable of quickly learning.
1. CAPT J. E. Bennet, USN (Ret.), “Callaghan Was Calm and Collected at Guadalcanal,” Shipmate, April 1996, 18–19. Cited in Trent Hone, Learning War: The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898–1945 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018), 192.
2. See Hone, Learning War. For a briefer treatment of the Guadalcanal night battles, see his earlier “’Give Them Hell!’: The U.S. Navy’s Night Combat Doctrine and the Campaign for Guadalcanal,” War in History 13, no. 2 (2006): 171–99.
3. U.S. Naval War College, ed., Sound Military Decision (Newport, RI: Naval War College, 1942, reprint Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1992).
4. Marc D. Bernstein, “Tin Cans Raid Balikpapan,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 129, no. 4 (April 2003).
5. Navy Commander Joel Holwitt convincingly argues that a process such as that established in the Estimate of the Situation is absent in today’s Navy. As he argues, this deficiency must be quickly addressed. See “Help Wanted: Tactical Planners,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 146, no. 8 (August 2020): 68–72.
6. The Navy between 1873 and 1890 used history to understand how rapidly advancing technology was changing the character of naval warfare. Could such a perspective benefit the Navy today? John B. Hattendorf, “History and Technological Change: The Study of History in the U.S. Navy, 1873–1890,” in Naval History and Maritime Strategy: Collected Essays (Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Co., 2000), 1–16.
7. Col John R. Boyd, USAF (Ret.), “Patterns of Conflict,” unpublished briefing, “A Discourse on Winning and Losing” (August 1987), 5.
8. In addition to Trent Hone’s work on this issue, see Jon Sumida, Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command: The Classic Works of Alfred Thayer Mahan Reconsidered (Washington, DC: The Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1997). Milan Vego, General Naval Tactics: Theory and Practice (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2020), 299, focuses on the role of doctrine in building commonality of thought.
9. Andrew Gordon, The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996). Gordon’s arguments echo Mahan’s discussion of the same issue. See A. T. Mahan, “The Principles of Naval Administration, Historically Considered,” in Naval Administration and Warfare: Some General Principles, With Other Essays (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1908), 7–8. Mahan’s article is reproduced in Benjamin F. Armstrong, 21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013).
10. Then-Lieutenant Commander Dudley Knox, USN, argued eloquently against this assumption in his 1915 prize-winning essay, “The Role of Doctrine in Naval Warfare,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 41, no. 2 (March–April 1915): 325–65.
11. RADM Stephen B. Luce, USN (Ret.), “On the Relations Between the U.S. Naval War College and the Line Officers of the U.S. Navy,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 37, no. 3 (September 1911).