That was rather like ordering a fleet of concept cars before test drivers take the prototype out on the track. Viewing newfangled vessels as fleet experiments—not finished products ready for action—makes more sense. Build a few, test a little, learn a lot!
And then a skeptic would wonder whether and how a diminutive crew can contain or repair battle damage and continue fighting the ship. Steady-state peacetime operations are one thing. You might get away with minimal manning when nothing’s going haywire. But damage control—fighting fires, stemming floods, shoring up weakened components—is intrinsically and inescapably manpower-intensive. That’s doubly true when a foe is doing its damnedest to inflict the damage. Automated systems can only do so much.
How heavy a punch, and how many casualties, can a minimally manned warship absorb and fight on?
And on and on. Can shipbuilders really construct a “modular” littoral combat ship that can change out its main battery—its arsenal for surface, anti-submarine, and mine warfare—during a quick trip into port amid battle conditions? Is designing an entire advanced gun system to fire a single type of projectile a sound idea, as weaponeers did with Zumwalt? What’s the alternative if, say, the gun round doesn’t work properly or turns out to be unaffordable?
There’s a problem if dead silence greets such what-ifs. All the more reason to keep posing them.
Failing to take a skeptical attitude, then, imparts brittleness to fleet design and operations. Wagering everything on unproven concepts—and failing to cultivate multiple options in case field trials don’t vindicate the concepts—would be alien to a culture founded on doubt. Let’s rediscover and exalt the scientific method. Let’s experiment with new platforms, armaments, and methods before embracing them.
And third, an upbeat mood. Fatalists and skeptics need not be sourpusses. Happy warriors excel at innovation. Eric Hoffer, America’s longshoreman philosopher, reminds us that innovative ages—ages typified by experimentation, and thus by trial and error—tend to be gleeful ages. Classical Athens, Renaissance Europe, and post-Restoration England were buoyant, creative places. Largely free of orthodoxy, freewheeling times encouraged tinkerers to test out all manner of madcap ideas. Some worked.
Our navy, likewise, should be a cheerful navy. Implanting an upbeat culture that disdains dogma would unlock the talents and enthusiasm of officers, sailors, and civilian officials, junior and senior. It would help the fleet work around subpar past decisions while performing better in the future. In short, a navy in which a tragic sensibility and an experimental cast of mind coexist with whimsy would be a navy primed for success.
Let’s get religion. So decrees your Secretary of the Navy for a Day.
James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.
This article first appeared several years ago and is being republished due to reader interest.