James Holmes

Five Ways to Make Maritime Strategists

Strategy should be as fundamental to an officer’s education as mathematics and the sciences.

James R. Holmes
Five Ways to Make Maritime Strategists
Credit: flickr/ MaryLouiseEklund

So how do you “make” a maritime strategist, an adept handler of nautical affairs? Sea-service chieftains are mulling how to do so, and more power to them. Why now in particular? Because the services are “refreshing,” or updating, the 2007 U.S. Maritime Strategy to keep abreast of today’s realities. It’s become plain that the niftiest strategy in the world is no better than its executors. If you want to oversee the global system of trade and commerce while fending off war — all on a shoestring — you need a deep-thinking cohort of mariners.

The setting is apt for pondering such questions. As I write this, I’m gazing across San Diego Bay and across, ahem, a frosty mug. The aircraft carriers Ronald Reagan and Carl Vinson — the latter my very first ship, thirty years ago (gulp) this summer — form part of the skyline. A plaque down the waterfront commemorates the “tuna fleet,” local fishing boats pressed into service as submarine chasers during World War II. And on and on. This place is Sea Power Central.

Trying to keep manifold commitments in straitened circumstances is the predicament confronting the U.S. foreign-policy apparatus, including its seafaring contingent. Yet how can a military service — how can any organization, really — mass-produce practitioners with the habits and skills to align ways and means with larger ends? Well, it must rejigger organizational arrangements to favor success. Substitute “leadership” for “strategy” in this debate. Next consider the lengths to which the naval services go to inculcate leadership. That should provide a rough guide to raising a generation of strategists. This is an intensive process that should span an officer’s career.

A few commonsense ideas. One, there’s education. By sending officers to school, the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard can furnish them with the rudiments of strategic thought. The services can require them to study the classics of strategy and consider how well, or poorly, past statesmen and commanders applied the concepts formulated by the masters. That’s what we do with mid-career folks in Newport. And we do it rather well.

But why wait until graduate school? The sooner they get started with this intellectual enterprise, the better. Officer candidates could read the great works as undergraduates, laying the groundwork for graduate work and real-world pursuits later in life.

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Strategy, then, should be as fundamental to an officer’s education as mathematics and the sciences. Such disciplines equip youngsters to interpret the world around them, even though seamanship, tactics, and engineering — not to mention the grind of inspections and everyday administration — will consume their early careers. Consider some analogies. Few engineers wait until they approach the midpoint of their careers to start studying engineering. Aspiring captains of industry seek that MBA early. Why should sea-service practitioners wait until graduate school to start learning the higher-order logic governing their profession?

No reason at all. Coursework on strategic theory and history would make a worthy addition to an expanded core curriculum for U.S. Naval Academy and Naval ROTC students. Grounding in the basics would set them up for broader, more intensive study in war colleges or civilian graduate programs later on. No longer would they have to start from zero learning Clausewitz, Mahan, and the other masters of strategy. They could brush away whatever cobwebs have accumulated since their college days, then broaden and deepen their knowledge.

Two, there’s time. Strategy takes time. Yet as I noted in my first foray into this debate, it’s hard for officers serving in ships or squadrons to find time for anything apart from routine duties and watch standing. Even sleep is in short supply. Anything the navy leadership can do to ease that load, whether on sea or on shore duty, would free up time to think and study.

If daily burdens are already at an irreducible minimum — doubtful, but possible — then it’s worth reconsidering career patterns. “Up or out” promotion policies compel many seasoned officers to retire in their early forties. With few exceptions, all officers retire by their fifties. That’s a waste of know-how and strategic wisdom. Longer careers would afford officers not put out to pasture the time to pursue strategic endeavors.

Admittedly, bureaucracies frown on leisure. Empty space on a calendar promotes sloth, not industry!! But as philosophers from Aristotle forward testify, unstructured time is crucial for contemplation. The navy may have to rethink its hard-charging attitudes — and, in the process, reinvent its assumptions about what constitutes profitable work for sailors. If sea-service potentates want strategists, they need to honor what strategists do.

In part this debate is about change. Machiavelli depicts adapting to the times as crucial to a republic’s vitality and longevity. Or as Apollo Creed — the coolest character in moviedom — counsels, it takes a helluva man to change. The same goes for institutions safeguarding healthy republics. Maybe some Machiavellian (and Apollonian) cultural upkeep makes a worthy point three on this list. If the sea services want to nurture strategists, they must change — creating an organizational culture hospitable to freethinkers.

Four, navy leaders must encourage officers to take ownership of their strategic literacy. Education never ends, or at least shouldn’t. It just moves outside the classroom. Clausewitz was an early proponent of “lifelong learning,” to recite a slogan common among education proponents today. Encouraging officers to continue their self-education after they leave the schoolhouse is a must. People like to show off their knowledge. Let’s encourage them to keep reading, to publish, to take part in professional gatherings, and so forth.

And five, the top leadership must institute career incentives to make it worth officers’ while to do these things. Some take to scholarly pursuits naturally. Others need a nudge. Rewarding those who demonstrate strategic acumen as handsomely as the service rewards those who demonstrate “sustained, superior performance at sea”  — navy code for tactical performance throughout a career — will send a message.

It’s all well and good to exhort officers to go forth and do great things. Human nature being what it is, however, strategy will remain a backwater unless promotions, awards, and choice assignments go to those who devote themselves to mastering it. Such measures are how senior leaders telegraph what they truly value — and how they readjust priorities among rising generations. That’s how to start a cultural revolution within a big institution.

So there are five general ideas about strategic literacy. Here’s a coda, though, and it’s a bit of a downer. By setting favorable conditions, the naval establishment can lift the average level of performance in the officer corps. That’s a good thing in itself. But it’s questionable whether anyone can mint great strategists through deliberate policy.

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Don’t believe me? Then run down the list of scribes whose works define the canon. Sun Tzu: told everyone how indomitable he was, but may never have existed. Thucydides: cashiered for arriving late to a fight. Clausewitz: indifferent battlefield soldier who found redemption in the academy. Mahan: blasted in writing for running a slipshod vessel, yet likewise found salvation on campus. Corbett: gentleman-scholar whose employer attached a disclaimer to one of his major works to distance itself from him. Boyd: fuggedaboutit.

A discomfiting record, n’est-ce pas? Presumably the sea services want to groom strategists who are also successful officers. And so they should. Yet the timeless works we study in places like Newport come mainly from those considered misfits, cranks, or failures in the eyes of the military establishments they served. By and large, they were outsiders with ornery streaks.

So it may be that prodigies are not made but born. If so, the best an institution can do is create surroundings hospitable to success — and trust that a prodigy will come along when needed most.

James R. Holmes
Contributing Author

James R. Holmes

James R. Holmes is a defense analyst for The Diplomat and a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College where he specializes in U.S., Chinese and Indian maritime strategy and U.S. diplomatic and military history.

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