James Holmes

Boyd and the U.S. Navy’s Return to History

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James Holmes

Boyd and the U.S. Navy’s Return to History

Adapting to A2/AD challenges from the likes of China and Iran means rediscovering old skills and habits.

Yesterday we took a snapshot of John Boyd’s helter-skelter view of competition and warfare. For him the likely victor was the competitor who best adapted to change while keeping his opponent off-balance. That meant swiftly observing how conditions have changed, orienting to change, deciding how to adapt, and acting on that decision.

To me the orientation phase has always felt like the heart of Boyd’s decisioncycle. Gathering information about the strategic setting isn’t easy, but it is straightforward. Deciding and acting demand moral courage. By contrast, orienting to altered circumstances involves not just easy-to-grasp factors like new information, previous experience, and processes used to analyze and synthesize information, but also vaguer yet still influential factors such as cultural traditions and “genetic heritage.” By the latter, Boyd seems to have meant the way humans are hardwired by their biology. (Call him an early MalcolmGladwell.) Lots of moving parts are at work in the orientation process—and there’s no guarantee the gears will turn smoothly.

Florentine statesman Niccolò Machiavelli observed that the “natural bent of our characters” is to keep doing what worked the last time rather than striking out in new directions—even when the need for boldness is as plain as can be. What Machiavelli says of individuals is doubly true of big institutions, with their penchant for bureaucratic routine.

Bureaucracies resemble machines in that they execute the same chores, over and over, the same way every time. That’s great—except that organizations develop entrenched cultures and worldviews over time. Standard procedures designed for one operating environment may not fit another. But organizations often unwittingly try to fit the circumstances to ingrained preferences rather than the other way around. Think about the U.S. Army determinedly prosecuting a conventional offensive during a “hybrid” conventional and unconventional war in Indochina. Nor are nonmilitary agencies or private institutions exempt from this phenomenon. Keeping organizations nimble, as John Boyd urged, invariably constitutes a high-order leadership challenge.

Which is all a roundabout way of getting back to the U.S. Navy. In a sense the task before sea-service leaders is to repeal a previous cultural transformation. Just after the Cold War, the navy establishment made a conscious choice to modify the service’s outlook on its roles and missions. Fleets do two fundamental things. First they battle for sea control. Once they win control, they use the sea to impose blockades, project power onto distant shores, transport firepower hither and yon, and safeguard merchantmen carrying commercial goods.

The first function appeared moot in the 1990s. As the late Sam Huntington wrote of the post-World War II navy, the post-Cold War navy “floated in virtually solitary splendor upon the waters of the earth,” with no serious rival on the horizon. Accordingly, official directives bearing titles like …From the Sea and Forward…from the Sea in effect proclaimed an endtohistory. The U.S. Navy no longer had to fight for maritime supremacy. It only had to exercise command. Hardware and skills indispensable for winning control of contested waters—surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare, mine countermeasures—atrophied.

History has now returned. Adapting to “anti-access” challenges from the likes of China and Iran means updating hardware and weaponry while rediscovering the skills and habits of mind that made the U.S. Navy such a formidable competitor for the Soviet Navy. In Boyd’s parlance, new information about the strategic setting is slowly overcoming organizational-cultural traditions of two decades’ standing. But reorienting the navy is a major project. Carriers don’t turn on a dime.

Tomorrow we’ll have a look at one navy mission that is—knock on wood—undergoing a renaissance, namely ship-to-ship combat. The U.S. Navy has set out to develop new anti-ship cruise missiles for the first time since the first Clinton administration, filling a glaring gap in its arsenal. We’ll review what’s publicly known about the new programs and consider their tactical, operational, and strategic implications for maritime Asia.