Capable Mariners, But Also a Great Deal More
By CAPT Steve J. Coughlin, Director, Division of Professional Development, USNA
Comprehensible debate is the hallmark of democracy. In fact, it has been said that the mark of “advanced citizenship” is the ability for a nation to dispute internally its most pragmatic issues with the composure of a statesman yet with the ire of a rebel. This is a difficult balance to strike but its end result, in theory, is well-informed and firmly-grounded decision making. But in the process, it will test the patience of even the most stoic citizenry. Just think of the career military veteran who witnesses a peaceful protester burning the American flag after he’s served a lifetime defending it. That’s a tough pill to swallow especially after being responsible for preserving that protesters right to free speech. In the United States Navy, most debates center around strategic policy or any issue involving money. And when we think of money we often think of anything associated with the cost of training, educating, and retaining people. They are the most expensive resource but the most critical asset and it is well accepted that a Navy without high quality people is dead in the water.
Generally speaking, the most expensive people to produce are officers and of those, officers who graduate from the United States Naval Academy enter service at over double the cost of any other accession source. So, for the sake of comprehensible debate, let’s consider one of the oldest personnel arguments in the United States Navy.
Is the cost of operating the Naval Academy worth the price? Is the American taxpayer getting a big enough bang for their buck? If we applied a business model, would our conclusions carry water when justifying the end result? What is the return on investment? Is there any real evidence that the United States Naval Academy is producing the best possible naval officer that money can buy?
Certainly, those are hard questions to answer without any kind of institutional prejudice. And the reasons why are because it is hard to measure people’s performance with a strictly scientific methodology. Because we are evaluating people, who sometimes behave in unpredictable ways, just determining a valid measure of effectiveness for the Naval Academy is difficult. Is it the attrition rate after obligated service? Is it the number of commanding officers or flag officers produced in the out years? Naturally, opinions tend to overrule difficult-to-prove efficiency models and antidotal evidence sometimes injects a cultural bias. On the other hand, if we look at what is taking place at the Naval Academy today it is possible to distill the argument into its most factual, relevant, and objective terms and attempt to address the issue with generally accepted instructional methods that yield the highest probability for success in the fleet for any newly commissioned naval officer. In other words, with all things being equal, is operating a Naval Academy the very best way to make a naval officer? And even though it can be done cheaper, by establishing four simple axioms for Academy midshipmen, it will become evident that the process in which the United States Naval Academy is developing our future leaders is worth the investment in time, effort, and financial resources.
This discussion will describe the ways and means to produce the desired ends. It will leave no doubt that the Naval Academy is producing a highly competent officer with a treasure trove full of hard-earned leadership proficiencies for adaptability under stressful situations. But first, a disclaimer. Nothing in this writing is meant to suggest in any way that officers who are accessed from sources other than the Naval Academy are substandard. Clearly, that is not the case. Those officers are doing tremendous work in the fleet as they always have, and they make up half of the flag ranks. This is intended to be an analysis of the Naval Academy’s officer developing process and not a comparison with other officer producing programs. The aim is to suggest that in Annapolis we are applying the most optimal techniques for this country to produce Navy and Marine Corps officers. So, with that said, let’s break it down and have a quick look at the methods to the madness inside the confines of the United States Naval Academy.
Inside the Yard
There is a set of overarching principles and reminders that guide the daily lives of midshipmen at the Naval Academy. These ideals are not exclusive to the Academy but unlike the norms of society they are engrained in every facet of existence inside the walls. The collective effect of Brigade routine, professional vernacular, and military bearing all speak to the seriousness of the Academy’s mission and where these midshipmen will be serving immediately upon commissioning. Namely, there is an attitude of wartime service that permeates the midshipman ranks as well as the faculty and staff. There is a deep-rooted institutional awareness that the United States is a maritime nation at war and that this conflict will last through the entire careers of today’s graduates. Because these facts cannot be ignored in the presence of monuments and reminders that commemorate generations of such service, every midshipman knows intuitively that the country will place great trust in them and that it is a privilege to lead our Sailors and Marines. The visual reminders in their presence every day and the intense military culture, reflecting our maritime heritage and tradition of battle efficiency on the sea, enforces a personal obligation to be ready for that responsibility. Walking through the Yard midshipmen are inculcated with reminders of those who came before them. Oliver Hazard Perry’s “Don’t Give Up the Ship” battle flag is a vivid reminder of expected fortitude in battle while words can barley describe the crypt of John Paul Jones as a shrine to immortal heroism under fire. Interwoven throughout all of this is a system of honor that guides midshipman decision-making and ethical behavior. So, the first simple axiom for a Naval Academy midshipman is: when exposed to the highest level of military rigor, with connection to our forefathers, and the knowledge that service under arduous conditions is guaranteed in a war that won’t end, where honor is a precondition to leading the sons and daughters of America, that midshipman has the highest probability of success as an officer in the fleet.
From Knowledge, Sea Power
Unless you have lived through it, it is difficult to imagine the academic challenge at the United States Naval Academy. Just the required number of credit hours to graduate is enough to make your head spin when considering all the other constraints on a midshipman’s time. But this speaks to the very heart of the Academy’s mission. The school’s motto is “Ex Scienta Tridens.” When translated from Latin this means “From Knowledge, Sea Power” and implies that knowledge brings men power over the sea comparable to that of the trident-bearing Greek god Poseidon. Therefore, the foundation of naval power is a robust investment in higher education for naval officers. This is important because, among other things, the United States Navy is a knowledge-based organization and the production of intellectual capital in our officer corps is the basis for our future combat effectiveness. Taken further, it can be considered that advanced knowledge in math, science, engineering, and the humanities comprises the primary raw materials in which to mold future naval leaders. Quite simply, this brain equity represents the cerebral component of officership.
The best way to observe the proof of intellectual development at the Naval Academy is by walking through the “underground” passageway that interconnects the main academic buildings in the Yard. This is truly academic ground zero. The journey is symbolic in many ways. Although all midshipmen do not specialize in every discipline of study, every one of them must complete the demands of a core curriculum that stresses understanding in every subject area. Moving down this path one cannot help but conceptualize the natural progression of a midshipman’s awareness in the evolution of advanced thought and the increased complexities of naval service. Beginning under Chauvenet Hall where mathematics is taught, calculating devices from slide rules to microchips represent the building blocks of all computation and discovery. Moving toward Michelson Hall, instruments of early scientific measurement are displayed whose users applied mathematical principles to validate the laws of nature. These laws were then harnessed and designed into precisely engineered technologies, all plain to see in the various Engineering Departments under Rickover Hall. And finally, the Humanities and Social Sciences beyond Nimitz Library round out the midshipmen with the liberal education that John Paul Jones deemed fitting as one of his qualifications of a naval officer. Keep in mind that this is just the evidence of what has always been reinforced in the classroom by a top-notch faculty who represent the collegiate gold-standard of the learning experience. So, the second simple axiom for a Naval Academy midshipman is: when exposed to the maximum level of academic intensity, with all the scientific and engineering knowledge needed to serve in a very complex fleet, in a setting that imbues the student with the greatest understanding of how that technology will be used to wage modern war at sea, that midshipman has the highest probability of success as an officer in the fleet.
Learning the Trade
The Naval Academy has been called many things by many people. Some catch-phrases that come to mind are “Canoe U” and “The Boat School.” But one expression that oddly, yet unintentionally, points to the deeper value of an Annapolis education is the somewhat disparaging term “Trade School.” This title implies that the naval profession mandates some sort of industry agreed-upon set of rules that govern and standardize the behavior and skills pertaining to officers. Although the connotation is somewhat unflattering, it actually boasts one of the greatest advantages in the Yard. The four-year Naval Science continuum that every midshipman must complete as part of the core curriculum is what makes the education whole and utterly relevant to preparing for fleet service. Since every midshipman will be an officer in the sea services, regardless of service assignment, they all master the fundamentals of seamanship, navigation, and shiphandling through the use of full-mission bridge simulators, Yard Patrol vessels, and ocean-going Sail Training Craft. These floating classrooms are designed to get them into the maritime environment under arduous conditions, thus reinforcing the skills that are taught in the Luce Hall classrooms. It could be said that this is the nerve-center of the naval learning experience at the Academy. The faculty of lieutenants who have recently returned from fleet assignments are the trade masters who develop their pupils by bringing to bear all resources and perform as a cadre of fleet experienced mentors. It is difficult to imagine another form of instruction that is more applicable when shaping a future naval officer. The overall result is the midshipman’s intuitive understanding of the fundamental challenges associated with sea service. So, the third simple axiom for a Naval Academy midshipman is: when continuously exposed to the multitude of practical skill sets required of a naval officer, with unremitting hands-on exposure to the maritime elements, through the realism that comes with training craft and simulators, leveraging the credibility and expertise of a sea-going faculty, that midshipman has the highest probability of success in the fleet.
The Leadership Laboratory
It goes without saying that any officer entering the sea services must have a solid intellectual foundation in which to build upon. But what about the intangible traits that will equate to effective leadership immediately upon commissioning? Yes, the fleet is complex and in many ways there is no substitute for experience. However, when it comes to leadership of our enlisted Sailors and Marines, there is no grace period. The Naval Academy addresses this reality in a way that can only be achieved through the leadership-development techniques that are the things of service academy legend, a sophisticated blend of cognitive reasoning in the Leadership Department classrooms with the all-encompassing requirements contained in the Midshipman Regulations. For example, the position in which a midshipman falls into Brigade ranks determines his/her military responsibilities within the midshipman chain of command. Just as a Fourth Class midshipman must obey orders and provide information about professional topics, an upperclassman must enforce rules and take responsibility for subordinate shortcomings. In this sense, Bancroft hall, where over 4,000 midshipmen reside, is the center of gravity in the Naval Academy leadership laboratory. Here, the rigorous daily routine mimics shipboard life with its required reports, inspections, reveille, and taps. In addition, there are military drill-like formations every day and mandatory attendance at meals where small unit leadership is exercised at the dining tables. This forced interaction demands that midshipman-leaders engage their company mates, evaluate military appearance, inquire about studies, and set the example. There is particular emphasis on First Class midshipmen who will be entering the fleet in a few short months. Their leadership role is highlighted by being the only midshipmen in the Yard wearing khaki uniforms and their participation is required in any conduct proceeding or academic evaluations involving their underclass midshipmen. There is no escape from this accountability thereby adding a forcing-function to their leadership development. And for the first time, young men and women feel the pressure to overcome adversity created by circumstances beyond their control. They learn how to get involved, take the initiative, communicate an expectation, build on strength, contend with failure, and follow through in order to achieve a desired outcome. In this case, we’re only talking about academic achievement and adherence to the Bancroft Hall rule book. But astute leadership skills are developed for effective entry into the fleet, regardless of warfare designation. VADM Jeffery Fowler, former Superintendant at the Naval Academy, summed it up by saying “midshipmen are leaders who must make courageous ethical decisions in the face of ambiguity, fatigue, and stress. We must challenge them and shape them. And we must do this through an intensely purposeful, integrated, and continuous development program.” That is exactly what is happening in the daily life of these future officers. So, the fourth simple axiom for a Naval Academy midshipman is: when integrated into a Brigade rank structure that adheres to a military chain of command with highly disciplined regimentation, where strict accountability forces midshipmen to exert leadership under pressure every day, and those leadership opportunities are afforded by academy-style enabling methods, that midshipman has the highest probability of success as an officer in the fleet.
Conjecture from the Archives
When Nicolaus Copernicus proposed his heliocentric theory of the heavens in 1513, his manuscript contained seven axioms that provided no mathematical proofs or calculated demonstrations. Perhaps for this reason, his revolutionary pronouncements were debated for decades before being generally accepted among sixteenth century scientists. Yet, by sheer observation he enlightened the world. With that in mind, certainly any axioms about the relevancy of the United States Naval Academy are fair game for criticism. However, perhaps viewed another way, if we glance through the prism of the past, our history will offer promising examples of prominent Academy success stories. Here is one of them.
On 25 November 1943, the Battle of Cape St. George was fought by Destroyer Squadron Twenty-Three during the Solomon Islands campaign. It was said to be the perfect surface action in World War II and Admiral Bull Halsey called it the “Trafalgar of the Pacific.” So significant in the realm of operational art, it is still studied today at the U.S. Naval War College. After the battle, Captain Herald Stout, Commanding Officer of USS Claxton (DD-571), made an interesting observation about his fellow commanding officers in the squadron, all of whom graduated from the Naval Academy. With great pride he described their unshakable integrity, discipline, and leadership in combat. He spoke of their years of experience at sea and intense desire to learn their profession but credited the Naval Academy with providing them with “the solid cake of necessary knowledge and information over which the icing of each individual’s personality is spread. Bite through the icing, and fundamentally, it is the same pastry.” He went on to say that “each of them had demonstrated a uniformly high technical competence as commanding officers. Reflecting vastly different backgrounds, temperaments, and talents, they all had that solid cake of necessary knowledge, acquired in Annapolis, which enabled them to function as a reliable member of the team.” Captain Stout’s reflection on the development of his peers at the Naval Academy gives us a snapshot in history, when the chips were down, and failure was not an option. But considering all of the moral, mental, and physical dimensions of Naval Academy indoctrination, it is difficult to ignore the correlation between four years in Annapolis and hard-earned victories in naval history.
The United States Naval Academy is not a perfect system and it has withstood its fair share of unwanted attention and criticism. But that has been the exception rather than the rule. With its balance of military rigidity, academic precision, maritime exactitude, and scrupulous focus on leadership skills, all captured in four simple axioms, it is fair to deduce that it is an unsurpassed approach for producing a naval officer. It is an institute of higher learning on par with any top tier college in the country, with world-class laboratories, research facilities and training resources, operated by dedicated faculty and staff who view education through the lens of naval service in the most powerful Navy the world had ever known. Some have said that the Naval Academy is a piece of national treasure and it has been referred to as the “crown jewel” of naval officer development. And since we all know how expensive jewels can be, we should apply critical thinking when contemplating the cost of such an enterprise. However, in the end, it is very reasonable to conclude that the United States Naval Academy is a profitable endeavor in terms of investment in America’s national security on the high seas. Just as John Paul Jones stated when asked to define the qualifications of a naval officer, the Naval Academy is producing an officer who is a capable mariner, of course, but also a great deal more.