The guided missile destroyer USS Mason departs from Naval Station Norfolk in Virgina last month.

U.S. Navy Photo

The guided missile destroyer USS Mason departs from Naval Station Norfolk in Virgina last month.

How Can Today’s Navy ‘Learn on the Run’?

A critical question confronting naval strategists, planners and operators is how can the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps effectively prepare for the “next war” when the nation’s fleet of ships, submarines, aircraft and personnel is almost constantly deployed or preparing to deploy overseas? Given the pace of deployments and missions today, where do the Navy and Marine Corps secure the time and resources to conduct comprehensive experiments, develop new operating concepts and test novel capabilities and technologies?

Former Under Secretary of the Navy Robert Work, in a June address commemorating the anniversary of the pivotal Battle of Midway, asserted the Navy’s Pacific victory was no accident. It was the culmination of several decades of investment in planning, war games and fleet exercises. During the 1920s and 1930s, Navy leaders had created a virtuous experimentation cycle. It worked like this: new tactical and operational concepts were vetted on room-sized gaming boards at the Naval War College where officers debated a concept’s merits and honed its application. Concepts would then transition to the operating forces where they would be rigorously tested in annual major fleet exercises (referred to then as “fleet problems”). Lessons learned from the exercises were then injected back into classroom instruction at the War College to develop the next round of concepts or modify previous ones. This cycle then continued over the years with new concepts being developed, tested, debated and sometimes refined in further fleet exercises.

Even during the extreme funding conditions that prevailed during the height of the Great Depression, the Navy still earmarked scarce funds to conduct major exercises, including the first of one set of amphibious operations experiments to help determine whether Marines could successfully storm defended islands. 

In his speech, Work challenged the audience to develop and sustain a new process that would help teh Navy prepare for war as well as it did before World War II — to generate new concepts, test them in intellectual conflicts such as simulated war games, and then subject them to a strong “reality test” in at-sea exercises and experiments. How can the Navy create a process that will generate and test new concepts and new technologies while still satisfying the requirements of the Pentagon’s combatant commands. Put another way, how can today’s Navy “learn on the run”?

First, the Navy needs to fully understand the problem or set of strategic problems that it must resolve.  In the 1920s and 1930s, for example, the problem was how to execute a trans-Pacific campaign against the rapidly growing Imperial Japanese Navy. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, it was how to wage war against the Soviet Union, a continental power that possessed nuclear weapons.  In the 1960s and 1970s, the problem was to avoid attrition warfare as Navy aircraft and ships attacked heavily defended land targets in limited wars, and at the same time challenged the growing worldwide presence of the Soviet Navy. By the early 1980s, the problem shifted to how to use the Navy’s great power at sea to aid NATO in deterring an attack by the Soviet Union. However, successfully learning how to deal with these problems could not begin until the Navy’s leadership had agreed on what the problems were.

The Navy and Marines must then be able to transform these problems into actual war games and other competitive simulated exercises and fairly evaluate their results. The fleet problems of the 1920s and 1930s were usually followed by extensive discussion of lessons learned.

The chief of naval operations, who is the top U.S. Navy officer, plays a big role in whether the Navy makes this a priority. In the 1970s, then-CNO Adm. Elmo Zumwalt created the Systems Analysis Division (OP-96) to have a clearinghouse for studies and analyses of both fleet structure and fleet tactics. In the early 1980s, then-CNO Admiral Thomas Hayward drew on OP-96 for ideas about how to plan the Navy’s future and to develop alternatives for long-range naval force planning.  Today, CNO Adm. Jonathan Greenert’s efforts to invigorate the Navy Warfare Development Command by boosting its focus on fleet innovation and the testing of new operational concepts is a positive step.

But what’s missing is a continuing process managed by officers and personnel who are experts in this area and a commitment to seriously pursue these efforts by “fleet operators.” Obviously, officers deployed outside institutions like the Naval War College or the Navy Warfare Development Command have plenty of work to do in order to ensure forces are trained and ready for operations, including combat.  What they do not possess is time. There is not enough time to seek out, draw on and understand what the War College and the Warfare Development Command have done and are doing. 

Greenert’s new CNO Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC) is another good example. The program gathers young officers who are charged with getting a new concept or prototype quickly to the fleet so that it can be expeditiously evaluated. The CRIC is already experimenting with 3D printing aboard ships, evaluating a spinoff of Google Glass for use at sea, called Sea Glass, and other interesting technologies. In 2012, the Marine Corps chartered the Ellis Group, whose mission is to assess future combat environments and determine how the changes will impact the Corps operational concepts and capability needs. The creation of these organizations is a positive development, but both are exceedingly small efforts given the overall level of experimentation the naval forces should be routinely conducting.

Greenert and Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos articulated a bold agenda for experimentation and innovation in the June 2013 issue of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine. The naval leaders proposed experimenting with Navy and Marine units on new types of platforms entering the Fleet in coming years, like the Afloat Forward Staging Base, Littoral Combat Ships, Joint High Speed Vessels and Mobile Landing Platforms, rather than only on traditional amphibious ships. Experimenting with integrated naval staffs at Maritime Operations Centers and merging aspects of their now separate concept development and training organizations into a hybrid entity that better supports innovation and experimentation is also being discussed. Greenert and Amos also pledged to use fleet exercises, like Bold Alligator, Dawn Blitz and RIMPAC, to spread that knowledge to allied navies in the future.

Whether this results in real emphasis across the naval force and translates into a willingness to boldly experiment with new concepts and capabilities that challenge traditional orthodoxies is another matter. A critical question is whether this focus can be sustained in the face of sequestration. For example, in Greenert’s 2013 “CNO’s Navigation Plan” the word experimentation is not mentioned at all, and exercises is relegated to the final bullet point. Already there are internal Navy discussions taking place about scaling back Bold Alligator and Dawn Blitz because of their cost or simply consolidating the separate exercises into one. While meeting budget constraints, scaling back these exercises will severely impact a dynamic learning process that has won near-universal praise from service leaders in recent years about the operational value derived from these events. Likewise, Marine interest in the Ellis Group has already cooled, with the office no longer reporting to the commandant but instead being buried bureaucratically within the Marine Corps Combat Development Command.

There will always be questions in times of rapid and dramatic change. It’s critical to nurture a cadre of personnel who know how to ask the right questions; that’s just as important as having personnel to answer those questions. It’s also important to accept conflict and some degree of organizational churn about the answers that are revealed by the process. Officers who pose critical questions and whose recommendations challenge current orthodoxies must be tolerated and promoted. Personnel who ask really good questions have to be professionally rewarded. Those officers who answer or flesh out these questions into ideas need to be rewarded, too.  Only then can the Navy and Marine Corps effectively enter this “new naval era” that Greenert and Amos predict will increase the demand for America’s naval forces.

Tom Hone is a retired faculty member of the Naval War College and the author of several books on Navy history. Robert Holzer is senior national security manager with Gryphon Technologies and formerly worked for the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Office of Force Transformation. 

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