Does the U.S. Navy Need a Culture Update?

Does the U.S. Navy Need a Culture Update?

Tradition and instutional memory are vital to any organization. But is the U.S. Navy stuck in the past?


Here's What you Need to Remember: The ideal naval culture is one that’s fatalistic, skeptical, and upbeat.

Riddle me this: what one thing would you change about the U.S. Navy if you were appointed Secretary of the Navy for a Day? And not just any garden-variety secretary of the navy, but an omnipotent secretary empowered to alter the thing of his choosing.


My answer: the culture. It’s the common denominator among naval pursuits. Get the institution’s culture right—get the habits and attitudes of the people comprising it right—and countless other things fall into place. And they will do so almost of their own accord. Inculcating healthy attitudes toward hardware, operations and tactics, and prospective foes bolsters the likelihood of managing these domains well.

Or at least that’s the gist of a recent late-afternoon conversation here in the hallowed halls of Newport, where the ghosts of Alfred Thayer Mahan and Raymond J. Spruance waft about in twilight hours. Such conversations constitute a great joy of working at the Naval War College. They can be high-toned, pondering matters of grave strategic import. They can be silly.

Or they can be both, straddling the serious and the inane. Debating which widget to create or perfect, what policy to institute or abolish, or what institutional trait to instill or modify falls into this category. Strategists like Monty Python and Mike Tyson are as apt to put in an appearance as Thucydides and Clausewitz.

Banter furnishes a focal point for serious thinking nonetheless. It helps us identify problems and issues and set priorities. And setting and enforcing priorities is what strategy’s all about.

Granted, it’s not immediately obvious why a mythical all-powerful official would expend a silver bullet to change something as seemingly malleable as culture. Military institutions are hierarchical institutions reliant on obedience. Why not just issue the requisite orders and watch as the hierarchy executes them?

Because it isn’t so simple to modify how an institution transacts business. Big bureaucratic organizations have distinct worldviews and ways of doing things that give rise to what Robert Komer calls institutional “repertoires.” That’s their virtue—and their vice. Bureaucracy, that is, is good at mass-producing routine acts in steady-state surroundings. Machinelike organizations aren’t so good at keeping up with transients. They tend to keep doing the same thing as the world changes around them.

Repertoires are a problem if you believe Florentine scribe Niccolò Machiavelli, who insists that staying apace of changing times is central to the art of statecraft. So it is for rulers and generals. So it is for leaders of all types. So it is for big, unwieldy institutions.

Komer was mainly critiquing the U.S. Army in Vietnam. He upbraided the army leadership for fighting the conventional war its institutional culture had preprogrammed it to fight rather than the counterinsurgent war actually raging in Southeast Asia. Rather than conform to the nature of the war, the leadership tried to fit the war to its preferred mode of fighting.

That seldom works out well. But Sixties-era groundpounders were far from unique in being enculturated into orthodox ways of thinking and acting. The U.S. Navy operates not on dry land but on the featureless saltwater plain that is the sea. It remains susceptible to Komer’s diagnosis nevertheless, despite the drastically different operating medium.

Some of the greats testify to it. Franklin Roosevelt, who served as Woodrow Wilson’s assistant secretary of the navy, wisecracked that the sea service was like bedding: “To change anything in the Na-a-vy is like punching a feather bed. You punch it with your right and you punch it with your left until you are finally exhausted, and then you find the damn bed just as it was before you started punching.”

The organization springs back to the same shape, unperturbed by efforts to institute change.

Not to be outdone, FDR’s secretary of war, Henry Stimson, portrayed the Navy Department as “a dim religious world in which Neptune was God, Mahan his prophet, and the United States Navy the only true Church.” Religions change slowly. If indeed there’s a religious character to navy culture, and if the goal is to make the navy agile and adaptable, then the task before navy leaders is to nurture a culture in which agility and adaptability are the institutional religion.

That way the leadership can turn fixed habits of mind to advantage. It can conscript the logic of bureaucratic culture to combat dogmatism.

Hence my wish as Secretary of the Navy for a Day: I wish for a naval culture that’s fatalistic, skeptical, and upbeat. First, fatalism. Sounds dour, doesn’t it? And in a way it is. But fighting forces must take a tragic view of the profession of arms, accepting that certain facets of martial competition and strife are permanent and immutable. Such a worldview erects a bulwark against complacency.

For example, a fatalistic U.S. Navy would refuse to yield to narratives holding that history has ended. It would scoff at the notion that U.S. maritime mastery is a virtual birthright. It would reject claims that the oceans constitute a safe haven from which the navy can bombard foreign shores, land troops, and otherwise reap the fruits of maritime command—and can do so without wresting command from enemy fleets.

A fatalistic navy would never issue a directive like …From the Sea, its first post-Cold War venture in strategy-making. The preamble to that document proclaimed that there was no one left to fight following the Soviet Navy’s demise. The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, consequently, could turn their energies to exploiting command of the sea. In effect sea-service potentates sought to repeal an iron law of naval warfare—the law that a navy that wants to exploit maritime command must first win maritime command, perhaps at great cost and hazard.

There may be a lull in seaborne competition, as indeed there was for ten, maybe fifteen years after …From the Sea appeared in 1992. But while there may be permanent victories over particular foes—Japan, Germany—no victory puts a final end to seaborne competition and warfare. There will be other opponents.

So a U.S. Navy without a fatalistic worldview is a neglectful navy. It lets basic functions of naval warfare atrophy while cherishing the belief that America still rules the waves. And indeed, the post-Cold War navy let such fundamental missions as surface and anti-submarine warfare languish, along with the implements needed to prosecute them.

A navy without a tragic outlook is also prone to disparage new rivals. It fails to take them seriously, overlooking the fact that weaker contenders can amass advantages over the strong. It ignores the bleak reality that, given sufficient resolve and nautical resources, a newcomer can take to the oceans to contest a dominant sea power’s hegemony. It’s happened before.

And may again. Even if China, or Russia, or Iran never constructs a navy powerful enough to vanquish the U.S. Navy outright, it could prove a troublemaker of the first order. Indeed, it could exact a higher price for sea control than Americans and their elected leaders are prepared to pay. If so, it would win by default, even without triumphing in sea combat.

A fatalistic naval culture, then, assumes that the navy will have to fight a peer navy again someday. A service animated by hardscrabble assumptions works to preserve and expand its material and human advantages in preparation for that day—even when no antagonist has yet appeared on the horizon.

History has not ended—nor will it.

Second, skepticism. Skeptics abjure hype about the next big thing. A fatalistic navy nourishes an experimental mindset. A new ship is a hypothesis. So is an airplane or weapon. Skeptics know that hypotheses exist to be disproved. Only after repeated efforts to disprove a hypothesis fail should anyone accept it. Until builders have reduced the latest big idea to engineering and subjected hardware to rigorous field trials, then, no one should assume it will work in the real world.

Just the opposite: many great ideas never pan out.

Think about all the great ideas that have gone into fleet design over the past decade or two. To name one: “minimal manning.” The navy conceived the notion that it could substitute automation for manpower and save big bucks on salaries and benefits. It envisioned assigning just 175 sailors to operate a 15,000-ton Zumwalt-class destroyer—a vessel that displaces half again as much as a cruiser operated by a crew of 330.

Or, the leadership foresaw operating a 3,000-ton littoral combat ship with 40 sailors, compared to the 300 needed to crew the slightly larger Oliver Hazard Perry frigates the LCS was replacing. Good idea if it works. A skeptic, though, would insist on testing the hypothesis before deciding that the LCS would comprise over one-sixth of the U.S. Navy fleet. (The initial tally was 55 LCS hulls, while the goal for ship numbers hovered around 300 until recently.)

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!