Lt. Aaron Van Driessche, a warfare tactics instructor in San Diego, pilots the U.S. Navy’s virtual combat curriculum aboard USS Paul Hamilton inside the On Demand Trainer, a new portable simulator.

Lt. Aaron Van Driessche, a warfare tactics instructor in San Diego, pilots the U.S. Navy’s virtual combat curriculum aboard USS Paul Hamilton inside the On Demand Trainer, a new portable simulator. U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joseph Millar

The US Navy’s Three Great Intellectual Challenges

Design the force, wrestle with change, buy ships.

The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps are developing an aggressive naval education strategy to deepen the intellectual capabilities of our force. Our goal, following the leadership of Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly, is to build a highly educated team with a deep understanding of strategy, geopolitics, emerging technologies, resource management, and weapons acquisitions. This focus on education is vital to national security because for the next 25 years, three of the Navy’s strategic biggest challenges will be intellectual, not operational or tactical, in character.

Design the future naval force. The Navy’s biggest challenge is to design a force structure to meet a new era of great uncertainty. 

Since 1989, the United States has enjoyed unquestioned command of the seas; our naval force has been designed with that in mind. Our task has not been to establish control over sea lanes, but to use our total control to project power far inland, using carrier aircraft, sea-launched cruise missiles, and Marine brigades. But that era has ended, thanks to the resurgence of Chinese and Russian naval power and the spread of advanced missile technology. 

For the coming decades, we need to design and deploy a fleet that can meet a great multiplicity of threats without a presumption of sea control. That fleet must, of course, be able to fight a conventional sea war against peer adversaries. A fleet designed solely for that purpose, however, might leave the United States unable to achieve other critical missions, include defeating rogue regional powers, maintaining nuclear deterrence, projecting power inland, countering insurgencies, safeguarding the freedom of the seas, and waging constant cyber warfare. 

Even more challenging, that fleet must be designed to meet challenges we cannot currently identify. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates once noted, "When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right, from the Mayaguez to Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq, and more — we had no idea a year before any of these missions that we would be so engaged.” Our fleet must be, then, be flexible enough to meet the unexpected and the unpredictable, for our next war may well bring surprises in location and tactics. 

Grapple with technological change. Our Navy must also understand how new and emerging technologies will change the battlefield, and adjust our force structure and tactics to suit. Winning in the future will require operational excellence, but figuring out how to prepare is largely an intellectual problem. How will advances in the space and cyber warfare domains change fleet tactics? What new options – and new dangers – are posed by robotics, AI, machine learning, quantum computing, drone technology, space warfare, and cyber-based IT hacking? What weapons are becoming obsolete, and what new ones are emerging? How will these new technologies and tech-based tactics advance or hinder our battle plans? 

Buy and maintain ships. Finally, the Navy must create new classes of surface ships, build them in large numbers at reasonable cost, and keep them in fighting trim. This is not the place to repeat the many arguments about the relative merits of our three most recent surface ship programs: the Zumwalt destroyers, Littoral Combat Ships, and the Ford-class carriers. It is enough to note that no one, not even the heartiest defenders of those vessels, will assert that these vital programs have met the Navy’s highest hopes and expectations. Nor have our maintenance programs met our standards for speed, effectiveness and excellence. Everyone agrees we can and must do better. 

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These critical acquisition and maintenance challenges are, again, primarily intellectual problems. We cannot continue to do what we have always done, just slightly better. Instead, we need to redesign and reinvent our acquisition and maintenance programs for the 21st century. 

The Way Forward

The Navy is attacking all three of these problems aggressively. We are conducting an Integrated Naval Force Structure Assessment to design a fleet to meet future needs, employing data science and private sector management techniques to improve aircraft maintenance, and creating a new Warfighting Development Directorate, under Vice Adm. Stuart Munsch, to integrate education, strategy, operations research, wargaming, and the latest thinking about technology and war. 

These are significant steps. But the three issues outlined above are not short-term problems to be solved, but long-term challenges that must be constantly assessed, evaluated and addressed. Our ability to move forward successfully will depend not on any one decision we make today, but on the clarity, rigor, and creativity of our thought over thousands of decision points spanning the next two decades. 

We live in a time of quasi-peace. While naval combat could break out at any moment, we have a break right now that should allow us to think rigorously about the future. In my view, that future will be defined by the extent to which we successfully meet the three great intellectual challenges outlined above. 

We cannot take success for granted. Instead, we need to move now to build teams of world-class thinkers to who can assess our current processes and define a new way forward. Hopefully, we can recruit some of these new thinkers from the private sector, but in truth, we need to do a better job of developing our own talent, led by our officers and civilian Navy leaders who have been educated to think differently, imaginatively, and creatively about sea power. 

The three challenges we face are intellectual problems of the highest order. Solving them will require the best-educated minds our country has to offer. We need national security thinkers and decision-makers to recognize this fact and lend their support – and their ideas – to our effort to build the intellectual capabilities of our force.