UPDATE: I don't know what happened, but the last bit of my post didn't make it (argghhhh...blame blogger). But it should have read after the end "...but they are as rare as hen's teeth. Everyone I know likes the guy. The comments (except perhaps Skippy) agree.
UPDATE II: But wait! There is someone out there that doesn't like him. Well, that's not fair; perhaps doesn't like his ideas. Reader "G" sent along an email with the REJECTED letter to Proceedings he says he sent early in the year in response to VADM Stravridis's Proceedings article last DEC.
Heck, you know me - I like nothing more than to invite a skunk to the party. "G" writes like a CDR Salamander reader - I don't endorse all he says, but hit makes some good points, and it's an easy post for me. You send me anything that manages to get fundementals, Hopkirk and PV=nRT in a response to a VADM's published work, you have my attention. "G" you have the floor.
Vice Admiral Stavridis’s Deconstructing War has a fatal flaw in its foundation, but his concluding recommendation is spot on.
Everything new, isn’t. That is the simple response to his fatal flaw. He states, “…new thinking is required.” (VADM Stavridis, Deconstructing War, Proceedings DEC05 pg. 42) Accurate at first blush, but there is actually little new in the “new” he is looking for. What is needed is an expanded understanding of history and our place in it, and a reduction in the minting of new buzz phrases and exaggerated responses to a growing challenge. The opening sections of Deconstruction War is a classic case of the conceit of the now, where all is seen in reference from one’s generational experience. He scripts an unnecessary atmosphere of crisis and confusion – grasping for answers to what seem like previously unknown challenges. While his points on change, chaos, and uncertainty sound daunting; they are not unusual, unique, or for that matter as dramatic as he makes them when taken in the scope of historical experience. This is not a time for panic or distress, but a time for a calm understanding of what needs to be done and to take comfort that other’s have engaged and overcome challenges much greater than we as a Navy and a nation face.“The world is simply moving so much faster today than at any point in any of our lifetimes; and it appears a good bet that this sense of speed – indeed, this sense of acceleration – will only continue.” (ibid, pg.42)That statement could have been written in 1869, 1919, 1945, or 1969. The relative change in information flow and technology shift are the same. Those who witnessed the completion of the steam engine, the wireless, the elimination of the bison, the anarchists’ assassinations, the atomic bomb, and the social revolution of the late 1960s saw change as great if not greater than what we see now. Even within the limits of my much shorter lifetime, it is a safe bet that 1967-72 and 1987-92 can more than give 2000-2005 a run for its money.
A Generation X or Baby Boomer’s lifetime, or that of anyone in the last 150 years provide small sample of examples. Those who watched the walls of Athens torn down in 404 B.C., the European armies retreating west to the boarders of present day Austria in the face of unrelenting Mongol victories from 1229-1241, those who fought next to Emperor Constantine XI in May of 1453, the coalition that rode with King John Sobieski of Poland to drive the Ottomans from Vienna in 1683; they would all understand a culture and a society under threat and the seismic shifts that can happen in the life of a man that can force a people, a culture, and a military to rethink established norms. They would not be impressed by the danger the West faces right now. They would understand the problem, but would not see it as drastic, at this phase, as some make it to be. They would counsel aggression no doubt, but exaggeration – no.“We live in a world of extraordinary technological and scientific change. Adding up all the major discoveries of the first 5,000 years of recorded history, the sum total of accomplishment likely would amount to much less than what we have produced over the past 50 years.” (ibid, pg.43)Everything that can be invented has been invented.Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. patent office, 1899 (attributed)This comment, more than anything else, is unnecessary hyperbole. From 1955 we have seen much, from the speed of information, to spaceflight, to the genome. As great as these are, they are but flickers of children’s brilliance standing on the shoulders of giants. The giants that brought us from Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages to where Von Braun dared to help us race the Soviets to the Moon.
Overestimating the degree of our challenges is to invite paralysis, rash action, and poor decisions. Yes, an atomic bomb going off in New York City would be an absolute disaster – Ricin spread by a crop duster over Los Angeles would be a horror; but as a relative impact on the U.S. and our diverse economy, population, an leadership; it would be a hit much easier to absorb for the host culture than the loss of Kiev in 1240, Baghdad in 1253, or Berlin in 1945.
The fall of those cities had an impact on an order of magnitude greater than we would face with the loss of NYC or LA. However hard for the 21st Century mind to grasp, mankind has faced events in the last 5,000 years far beyond anything we face today. Though some challenges may be greater from a static analysis, so is our ability to engage those challenges and pursue them to a result in our favor.“In many ways, we may have indeed reached the “end of history” that Francis Fukuyama wrote about so eloquently at the conclusion of the 20th Century. The days of massive coalitions of national armies, navies, and air forces contesting each other may be coming to a close.” (ibid, pg.43)Greater minds than mine have already debunked Fukuyama’s work, but from Alfred Nobel to the delusions of post-Versailles Treaty Europe; those who considered and hoped for an end to major conflict have been crushed by the weight of human nature and history. Though VADM Stavridis did backtrack some on “the end of war” thread, the comment itself calls into question everything else that follows.“The principles of war operation best in nation-on-nation conflict for which they were developed … the very nature of ‘what war is’ has changed irrevocably with the advent and dispersal of weapons of mass destruction … War has always been chaotic. Now it is pure chaos.” (ibid, pg.43)No, sir. The legions of Aztec warriors dying of smallpox and still trying to understand the gun and the horse during the siege of Tenochtitlan in 1521 would understand pure chaos. We fight in an ordered world that encounters moments of chaos, not the other way around. To convince yourself that all is “pure chaos” is to preemptively surrender to any opponent that understands the trends, patterns, and habits that have defined human behavior in the last 5,000 years.
Our challenges are much more manageable, but the processes are the same. The only difference is the specific application and the intellectual rigor to address our changing situation.
Intellectual rigor, or Intellectual Capital, is where VADM Stavridis hit the nail on the head. We need to develop the right leadership bench to address developing challenges, the “Unknown Unknowns” as described so well by Secretary Rumsfeld. In the last four years the world has changed, as it always does. Unfortunately, on average the way we detail, promote, select, an reward Navy officers has not changed appreciably since I sat in a simulator as an Ensign learning to track an Echo II off the Azores.
Break the back of the Technical Education Bias. To execute VADM Stavridis’s plan to have the right mix of officers to respond to the changing world we face, we need to prepare to build that team. With the present bias towards technical areas of study, his plan is stillborn. He proposes an officer skill set to produce that new thinking that will not exist in our Navy to any large degree without a radical departure from accepted practices. Our navy needs to break the back of our accession, promotion, and selection process. Not adjust, not tweak, but break it down to parade rest and rebuild it.
The Americans who have the natural skill sets needed for language, business, and theory asked for by VADM Stavridis are being turned away at the door wholesale by a myopic accession bias towards technical areas of study in both undergraduate and post-graduate study. Want to study International Relations or Econometrics – no. Want to study Operational Analysis or Electrical Engineering at Navy Postgraduate School – yes. Though engineers and advanced application of mathematics are important, the excess institutional bias towards these skills results in an imbalance in the navy’s aggregate skill set and a resulting stunted, limited intellectual gene pool to meet emerging challenges. In most wardrooms, especially pre-9/11 you would get and almost unanimous response to “Who has ever seen the formula PV=nRT?” Likewise, 95 percent of the time you would have been greeted by uncomfortable silence by the question, “Who has ever read Hopkirk’s, The Great Game.”
To get the best out of an intellectually diverse population, you encourage an intellectually diverse a population to begin with. Without eliminating of a shortsighted policy that hunts for Physics majors but shuns Classics majors – tearing that policy/habit up root-and-branch – any other efforts will be stillborn – and we will be stuck with Wardrooms full of people indifferent to anything that does not have a formula.
Reconfigure the career path. In his plan, he takes as an example an officer in his “apprenticeman years” and puts him on a different path – the dreaded “non-traditional” career path. If you snap-up front-runners at Length of Service (LOS)-5 inside today’s uncracked, hidebound Millington Diktat, there are barriers that our Navy will throw in that officer’s path every step along the way.
Let’s assume that the officer in question is in aviation. Without fixing the fundamentals, we put him on The Plan. Finishing his first tour at LOS-5, he spends a year at a company of some kind (LOS-6), another non-Navy service tour (LOS-9), and a year at the Joint Command and Staff College or equivalent (LOS-10). You need at least a year in there for wiggle room, language immersion (the only way to be fluent), and PCS, which brings that officer to LOS-11. That gets him to his (assume aviation) Department Head Tour, spitting him out at LOS-13. He is now looking at the CDR and Command Screen Board. A large percentage will not be able to make that timeline. The vast majority will find themselves on the professional sidelines. Some will get through, but as it stands no, most will be set up for failure.
The thing that his immediate Chain of Command will be yelling at him about the proposed career path is, “You will never survive six years of non-competitive FITREPS. You may make CDR, but that will be it. (…and if you come from a non-TACAIR community…) You don’t have a boat tour? Command? Mmmm. If you were the #1 competitive LT your first tour, and my #1 DH, I might see a Special Mission Command.” That translates to an officer that might make CAPT and has an exceptionally limited chance for Flag. As a result, he will not have a significant opportunity to use the skills he spent the better part of a decade and a half developing. If you want to create a cadre of overqualified terminal-Commanders, this is a great plan. If you want a better than average percentage of these officers to screen for Major Command and compete for Flag, you have a pipe dream.
What will that hard-charger (remember, at the LOS-5 point this fresh LT is only in his late 20s) going to choose? What will the Skipper tell his #1 LT? Go the new path, or interview for the Flag LT job in San Diego? Perhaps the FRS Instructor billet? In the real world of the talented and ambitious Junior Officer, what percentage will want to take The Path? Unless the rules of the game and the facts on the ground are changed, what is waiting for that LT as he steps through the door of The Path? What stops the LT from moving on to positions that significantly impact our Navy’s future? These are all things under the control of our Navy. These are the things that need to be addressed first.
What will stop that highly trained officer at LOS-10 from saying to himself, “Forget the Navy. I can do more for my country, have a greater impact on the future, and go further in the FBI with my education and language skills than in the Navy. I didn’t go to Dartmouth and Georgetown to find myself treading water at 42.”
What will stop that officer from leaving is rock-solid truth about his options in the Navy. Not promises, not spin, not salesmanship, not buzzwords, but fact-based truth. To give that officer the right facts so he will make the right decision for both the Navy and himself will require radical, aggressive action.
On par with cleaning the Augean Stables, the Navy needs to clear the field for our future officer corps. Not just with the flavor of the officers it accesses. The selection board system as it exists today works well within its limitations and design, but it has inherent flaws and traditions that will push to the side many of the officers VADM Stavridis wants. We need to kill the stultifying “Select in Their Own Image” habits and career advice. The absolute top of the Navy needs to aggressively prevent the credibility corroding habits of some senior officers who promote their own self-defined priorities and biases attached to individual names. As we saw with the 14 Feb 2006 dissolved Commander Board – this happens. This time it was caught and the right action taken. This was not an isolated event. You can catch written material. It is much more difficult to catch phone calls, emails, and face-to-face “material” given to board members about personnel in front of a board. Additionally, community influence needs to be further reduced to protect those who depart the community stovepipe. A way around the “up or out” nature of our officer corps needs to be developed, nurtured, and expanded.
“New Thinking” is unquestionably needed, but it needs to start with some changes in career fundamentals. Without going after the fundamental problems everything else is simply an entertaining academic exercise.
Grow the skill sets we want. Reward those skills. The rest will follow. This crop takes two decades to grow. 2025 will be here before you know it.