Chilling freethinking in the USAF


What would this post say and when would it appear if I had to clear it with a four-star admiral or general beforehand? A safe bet: it would be anodyne to the point of meaninglessness, and it would appear so late there was no point running it.

And that would be a feature–not a bug–for certain segments of the defense bureaucracy.

Including, it seems, the U.S. Air Force. Over at Defense News today, a doughty team of reporters carries the sad tale (click here) that service chieftains have ordered a clampdown on public outreach. Note Valerie Insinna, David B. Larter, and Aaron Mehta, the move “creates a massive information bureaucracy in which even the most benign human-interest stories must be cleared at the four-star command level.”

Two factors will chill public communications from the USAF: time and fear.

Time, in that draft press releases, interviews, and so forth will have to undergo “staffing” at multiple levels of the bureaucratic hierarchy. Time is delay. By the time a proposed story or event receives the stamp of approval, chances are its moment will have passed. I saw this as an editor at Georgia: I stopped soliciting material from government officials for our small journal because “pre-publication review” slowed it down for weeks or months–at which point why bother?

And even what PR issues forth will be increasingly banal. Fear of career repercussions will prime the overseers of USAF public affairs to squelch anything that could create the slightest controversy. Top leaders have biased the system against proceeding. It’s rather like the lawyer who’s assigned to advise a commander on rules of engagement. The lawyer is there to keep the commander out of jail. His reflex? To counsel the commander against taking the shot if there’s the slightest ambiguity to the situation. Inaction is safer than effectiveness.

Similarly, subordinates will try to put top leadership’s wishes into effect. Each reviewer will afford a proposal exacting scrutiny–and strike anything that hints at controversy. To do otherwise would court a backlash, damaging careers within the PR apparatus. But it gets worse. The leadership’s ukase will discourage individual airmen from speaking their minds in public, whether in professional journals, newspapers, or blogs. “The penumbra of this memo is worse than the memo itself. If you’re already an Air Force officer, who is disinclined to talk to the press, this just gives you one more reason to think it is not career enhancing to talk to the press,” former Secretary of the Air Force Whit Peters told Defense News.

Exactly right. Admiral Jim Stavridis exhorts sea-service professionals to dare to read, think, and write. To which air-force potentates are replying: oh, no, you don’t!

It’s one thing to suppress information about tactical information such as force movements or the specific technical characteristics of weaponry or sensors. It’s quite another to wall off the service from the world. Edward Luttwak sees beating ourselves up in public as a key advantage of an open society relative to closed societies like the Soviet Union or, today, Communist China. Scrutiny and debate help make us better; closing off scrutiny and debate carries us toward the authoritarian model in which keeping up appearances is everything and operational excellence is secondary.

Imposing a chilling effect fosters groupthink–and groupthink makes military institutions stupid (click here). Let’s thaw out the deep freeze, U.S. Air Force.

Is America a maritime nation?


Put that question to a crowd of seafarers and you might be surprised what answer you elicit. I chaired a seminar at our Current Strategy Forum a few years back and posed just that question to the participants. And didn’t need to pose another. People appeared deeply worried and frustrated at the state of American sea power. They seemed to agree: the nonnaval elements of maritime power are in decay.

Also on the No side of the ledger, John Grady reports over at USNI News (click here) that the U.S. Maritime Administration is short nearly two thousand qualified civilian mariners while the U.S.-flagged merchant fleet is famously–in fact, dangerously–lean in numbers.

There are historical reasons for the dearth of American merchantmen. Thank you, Confederate raider CSS Alabama. But in part the MARAD seems to be another victim of the just-in-time thinking that has held the U.S. Navy in thrall since around the turn of the century. You refuse to keep excess capacity on hand in peacetime in order to hold down costs. Efficiency is the watchword for this just-enough philosophy. Excess is waste.

That makes sense in the business world, where rival firms are trying to outcompete you, not kill your workers or blow up your plant. But in wartime just enough means a shortfall. You need surplus capacity to manufacture and transport warmaking materiel in bulk, and to make up the losses you will suffer in action.

Mahan fretted that the character of the American people and government might not support seaborne pursuits over the long haul. In particular he worried about that core of nautical expertise without which no seaward enterprise can flourish for long. Without a corps of naval architects, shipwrights, and able seamen, American sea power could prove brittle when struck a sharp blow in combat.

America remains a naval power with a navy that rules the waves. Whether it remains a maritime power in the fullest sense is increasingly in doubt.

Who cares whether Sun Tzu lived?

Sometimes someone says something that’s not only not right, it barely qualifies as wrong. Exhibit A: I recently heard a veteran scholar claim that Sun Tzu’s Art of War doesn’t matter because no individual named Sun Tzu ever lived. As a factual matter that’s probably true. China specialists have long pondered whether The Art of War is a product of solo authorship or was compiled over time in antiquity. The weight of opinion seems to favor the latter.

So what?

Saying a work has no value because its provenance is uncertain is rather like discounting the Iliad and Odyssey because—as some classicists maintain—no individual named Homer ever lived. If not, no one poet composed those poetic masterworks. They were handed down through oral repetition and amended over the centuries until they reached their present sublime state. But at least skeptics of Homer’s existence or authorship don’t dispute the importance of the Greek sagas; they simply quarrel about the poems’ origins as a matter of historical exactitude.

A great work is a great work whether or not we know who wrote it—and whether or not it was a collective project of the ages.

What intrinsic value does The Art of War command? Start with the obvious: it’s replete with insights into the nature of war and strategy. To name just one, Sun Tzu the book demands that the general and sovereign know themselves and know the enemy lest they find themselves in dire peril on the battlefield. Common sense, you say? Maybe—but Aristotle observes that common sense is the highest form of philosophy. Supplicants to the oracle at Delphi entered the temple through a doorway inscribed with the words Know Yourself.

Was Aristotle wrong, and was the oracle wrong because we don’t know who carved the inscription? Studying diplomatic and military history reveals that common sense is honored more in the breach than the observance. Classic works help us analyze past failings and successes while avoiding pitfalls apt to befall us in our own time. They help us get our bearings.

Reading Sun Tzu also helps us understand how we, allies and friends, and potential foes will make war. What we read shapes how we think and what we do. The Chinese treatise inspired British soldier B. H. Liddell Hart to declare that indirection, a quintessential Sun Tzuian concept, should constitute the core of any military strategy. In turn American admiral J. C. Wylie declared that Liddell Hart’s notion of the indirect approach could unite warriors from the ground, maritime, air, and insurgent/counterinsurgent domains behind a common strategic vision—ameliorating the differences of worldview that plague debates among those who operate in different domains and thus approach strategic questions from starkly different standpoints.

For Wylie, then, an idea from The Art of War could furnish the basis for a unified field theory of strategy. From China to Britain to America: that’s some testament to the durability of a perhaps-mythical Chinese general’s thinking.

And of course there’s Sun Tzu’s influence in the East, in China in particular. Mao Zedong borrows liberally from Sun Tzu in his influential writings on how the weak overcome the strong. (Mao also borrows from Clausewitz, another scribe my nameless veteran scholar deems of no value.) The Great Helmsman remains an inspiration to Chinese statesmen to this day. For example, Beijing’s first official Military Strategy (2015) depicts the Maoist concept of active defense as the “essence” of Communist Chinese martial thought.

Shaping military thought across the centuries and across the globe: quite the accomplishment for a nonexistent figure of no consequence.

What mold does the USN need to break?

Sorry for my silence: tumult has been the order of the day around here. I managed to injure myself quasi-seriously during last week’s nor’easter, then plunged into the first week of the spring term and a “Breaking the Mold” Workshop in the historic Mahan Reading Room at the Naval War College.

it was a good week, believe it or not. A lot of goodness trumps a little bit of pain.

Big Navy sponsored the workshop as a catalyst for strategic innovation, and a stimulating event it was. Chatham House rules were in effect to foster freeform debate, but I’ll be putting out a barrage of posts with my takeaways here and expanding some to article length. First things first: what is “the mold” we as sea-service professionals need to break? Just before we closed out the Asia working group on archipelagic defense, our group moderator canvassed each person for a final statement. Rather than try to say something erudite about strategy, I posed that question.

To utter silence. Which was the point of asking. Hard to execute your mission without deciphering key words and phrases.

This is no slight. Workshop-goers offered countless innovative ideas over the two days of deliberations, These were all to the good. Nevertheless, they fell mostly into the realm of hardware, tactics, or budgetary combat, whereas the subtitle for the gathering was “War and Strategy in the 21st Century.” An unmanned airplane or submarine is not a strategy; these are implements of strategy. They are means, whereas strategy refers to ways for using means to fulfill national ends. Strategy harnesses power to realize purposes.

Which to my mind is the mold that needs to be shattered: a culture that’s increasingly out of sync with the strategic surroundings. Hardware, tactics, and programs lie downstream of culture. Obsessing over them gets priorities backwards. Revise naval and Beltway culture till they’re in tune with the times, and the other things will come naturally. We will devise methods and instruments to compete with good prospects of success.

You see where I’m going with this. Breaking a culture is a human—not material—challenge. It may mean realigning training and education, career patterns and incentives, recruitment practices, and much more. The naval service needs to reward traits and skills it needs to transform itself and discourage those that impede progress. But procedural tinkering may not be enough. The U.S. Navy reinvented its institutional culture for World War II—but only after the Imperial Japanese Navy broke the mold for it at Pearl Harbor.

And even then the cultural project demanded ruthless policies. Submariners unable to adjust to the new mission in the Pacific—raiding merchantmen—were summarily dumped from their commands if they failed to produce results after two patrols.

The hard truth, judging from SUBPAC’s experience, is that changing an institution’s culture sometimes means changing out personnel–and thus ending careers of those captive to old habits of thought. If the navy leadership stays true to its own history, breaking the mold and casting a new one promises to be a trying process with a heavy Machiavellian component.

Revolutions claim victims.

League of Shadows skulks somewhere in DC

CBDB7035-8DEC-4FC0-9B58-3B0D21495D3FIn the U.S. Navy surface-warfare community it’s said that surface-warfare officers eat their young. That may be true–but no philosophy could be more profoundly false and self-defeating. Just as our mission as parents is to work ourselves out of a job, our mission as professionals is to groom our replacements.

Which is why it’s always a joy to reconvene with former students or protégés who have made good–folks like Harry Kazianis, my RA in 2011 who has gone on to bigger things as defense poobah at the Center for the National Interest and executive editor of The National Interest. We got together in Washington a few weeks back when I was in town to talk Chinese sea power with the U.S.-China Commission.

I am not among those who deprecate the next generation. In fact, I came away jazzed from last fall’s cruise on board USS Theodore Roosevelt–mainly because talking with younger sailors and officers suggests we have a great generation on the rise.

We can use one to cope with today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.

Thucydides was right: civilization is a thin veneer


Natural disasters furnish a reminder of just how perceptive the Greek historian Thucydides was. A powerful nor’easter struck New England and much of the east coast today . . . and in effect temporarily returned those of us without electricity to tbe 19th century, huddling under blankets and reading by candlelight.

I am writing this by lantern light: tremble before my awesomeness!

Well, we do have Kindle. There’s that. Water is still hot though the heat is off. Nor are outside temperatures life-threatening. This isn’t the Blizzard of 2013, when eight-degree-Fahrenheit temperatures threatened life and limb. Still less is it some fearsome snowstorm on the prairie in days of yore, when little stood between settlers or Indians and the elements. But it is a far cry from blogging and watching Battlestar Galactica reruns this time yesterday.

We can at least conceive of what life without civilization and its conveniences would be like. It would be harsh.

Classical history makes this clear. Thucydides’ chronicle of fifth-century-BC Greece shows how natural and manmade catastrophes strip away normalcy, and do so all of a sudden. An earthquake fells the flower of Spartan military youth, and endangers the city’s survival. A plague of mysterious origin strikes Athens, laying a luminous civilization low overnight. Factional strife tears Corcyra apart, pitting citizen against citizen in a fight to the death to determine who will rule.

We commit a grave error if we think history with a capital H has exempted us from human travails of this sort. Being reminded of that almost makes you thankful for heavy weather and other misfortunes.