Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Challenges of the 21st Century Conversation

I've never taken a poll, but I would guess that about half the readers of this blog have read Ian Toll's book Six Frigates, the story about the birth of the US Navy. The story captures the time period between about 1775 until the War of 1812, the last war between the United States and Great Britain. It is an excellent book that captures the history of the US Navy, but also describes in detail the first maritime strategy of the United States as our nation struggled in competition with the major powers of Europe at the time.

Karl F. Walling told a similar story on Thursday during the Conversations with the Country. We have previously discussed his article A Backward Look at Some Forward-thinking Maritime Strategists (PDF), and with only a few exceptions, the story he told on Thursday was almost exactly what is published in that JFQ article. I have read the article several times, including waiting for my plane on Wednesday, on the plane Wednesday, and before I went to bed on Wednesday. The presentation itself was average for me, but the slides were good and the jokes were good. Talking with folks about his presentation afterward, many who had heard the content noted it was not his best presentation. The content was very good though, because for those who had not heard it before or had never read the JFQ article, many told me they enjoyed his presentation a lot.

The Need for Consistency

As Professor Walling was giving his presentation, and as I was observing the crowd reaction, several thoughts came to mind. First, lets start with one item that got me thinking throughout the day.

The first conversation was about homeland security primarily, so I will call it building the moat. It occurred during the founding era from 1776 to 1825, between the followers of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton’s followers, the Federalists, were often veterans of the American War for Independence. Hamilton himself was General George Washington’s right-hand man throughout the war and until Washington’s death in 1798. These veterans remembered that on July 2, 1776, 2 days before Congress declared independence, the British sent the largest maritime expedition in history thus far to capture New York City, with 10 British ships-of-the-line (the aircraft carriers of their age), 20 frigates, and over 100 transports carrying an army about twice the size of the one Washington had to defend the city. So no one should be surprised that Washington, who had no navy, was unable to confront the British invasion at sea. Outnumbered on land, he lost more than half of his army to the British invaders on Long Island and Manhattan and had to abandon the city to the British, who occupied it until the end of the war. No one is quite sure how, but a fire started as the British moved in, and over 60 percent of the city burned to the ground. For these veterans, this was their 9/11, the burning of New York City.
This type of storytelling for the Navy works, and it was very effective in the room I was in. American business owners tend to know who Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, or George Washington is. It is also appropriate to compare the Great Fire of New York City in 1776 with 9/11, an analogy everyone understood. However, there is one part of this that bothered me a bit, and it bothered me because as the day went on the attempt to associate historical function with modern function began a process of blurred comparisons, and ultimately some confusing rhetoric.

The power of history as a maritime narrative for the Navy when having a conversation with the American people was very evident from my perspective during Thursday's symposium. The intent was clearly to keep things generic, to maintain a very high level of conversation to insure that regardless of whom makes up an audience, there were no confusing details or unnecessary depth. I've read many folks in the comments over the last year suggest they would want to attend one of these conversations. I assure you, if you fully understand the maritime strategy concepts discussed here, including the liberal use of acronyms used in blog posts, the Conversations with the Country forum is not for you. That forum is for people who read this blog and often don't understand anything the rest of us are discussing. There are many people like that in America today.

However, when presenting even generic narratives, we need to insure consistency among the services. British ships-of-the-line were not the aircraft carriers of their age, they were the AEGIS cruisers and destroyers of their age. That distinction may sound too detailed at first glance, but later in the day Major General Williams compared aircraft carriers to airfields at sea, and General Conway went into detail describing Sea Basing as building a port at sea to support Marines with a logistical lifeline from sea. As this was happening, it dawned on me that the services do not share the same dictionary for 21st century capabilities. Perhaps it is time for the Naval War College to write one, and I do not jest when I make that suggestion.

HMS Africa was a 64-gun third-rate ship of the line of the Royal Navy that displaced 1,379 tons as a battleship. She led a 3 ship squadron during the War of 1812 in a failed attempt to run down the US Navy frigate USS Constitution early in the war. This is one of many tales detailed in Ian Toll's book. HMS Africa was three times smaller than today's Oliver Hazard Perry frigate, so how is it possible we call her a battleship? Because in relation to the ships of her era, the rating system for surface combatants at the time accurately described what the ship was. We call the Zumwalt class a battleship on this blog, but CDR Salamander describes the ship as a light cruiser, while the Navy calls the ship a destroyer. CDR uses light cruiser based on the metric of displacement from the time period of WWII, but I'd argue he fails to account that light cruisers played two primary roles in WWII, AAW for task forces and ASuW when leading destroyer squadrons on torpedo runs. The Zumwalt isn't primarily a AAW or ASuW platform, instead is a naval fires ship, which for the record is what battleships were in WWII. Relative to other ships of the modern era, the Zumwalt will have the highest displacement of any surface combatant of the modern US Navy, not to mention be capable of carrying more missiles (the weapon of the modern era) than any existing surface combatant in the world, and we aren't even talking about the Advanced Gun System.

My point is not that our modern rating system is exactly right (which it is btw), the point is the Navy is trying to tell a compelling narrative leveraging naval history to relate the narrative to more American citizens. If we are going to do that, we need to evolve our maritime dictionary to the 21st century while maintaining proper historical context. When Professor Walling calls the battleship of 1812 to the aircraft carrier of 2008, he is inconsistent and doesn't give the same visually driven description that Major General James Williams did when he described today's aircraft carrier as a mobile air base at sea. The fact is, the aircraft carrier of today has absolutely nothing in common with the role of a battleship of 1812, just like the nuclear submarine has nothing in common with anything fielded by Navies before the 20th century.

The Navy, probably through the Navy War College, needs to write a 21st century maritime dictionary for the maritime services that captures the evolution of seapower to the 21st century. Next time the Navy, Coast Guard, and Marines stand in front of the American people, the services need to be consistent in terminology. Consistency is very important in these endeavors, and I had a good chuckle more than once watching Marines be very consistent with their ideas while the Navy made more than a few poor historical associations during the discussion. History is a great relational tool for any conversation with the American people, but until historical context is applied properly to modern capability using the same definitions, the services will fall short on clarity in its communication.

The 21st Century Evangelist

Another aspect of the Professor Walling presentation that had the hamster in my head running the wheel full speed was when this part was discussed.
The second national conversation to which I would draw attention is about securing free use of the global maritime commons and sea control. It began in the 1890s under the leadership of another forward-thinking maritime strategist, Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan of the Naval War College. Mahan was an evangelist — some even say a propagandist — for the Navy.
When the group broke for lunch, I was having an entertaining conversation in the lobby with some of the CHINFO folks, in particular a pair of LTs who I found interesting because both were familiar with the blog, each for different reasons. Following that conversation, RADM Frank Thorp walked up to me, introduced himself, and after a brief conversation escorted me into the dining area for lunch... all the way to a back table where the two of us sat down for a half hour conversation.

For the discussion I had with the two LTs, and the discussion I had with Admiral Thorp, the subject was specific to blogging. With the LTs I explained that what I do is nothing like what they do, and I explained a bit of what I do here and highlighted the differences. That same conversation came up with Admiral Thorp, who properly questioned the purpose for an official Navy blog. I made two points to Admiral Thorp, and I'll let the audience decide if I'm right or wrong.

First, CHINFO would have a hard time running a blog for navy.mil, and I don't think it would work. As a pair of sports fans, we used an ESPN driven analogy to describe what we do. If getting Naval information out to the masses is SportsCenter, then navy.mil already has anchors manning the desk telling the people the news of the day. On navy.mil, the Navy is Stuart Scott. It would be hard, if not impossible, for the Navy to evolve its conversation with the American people beyond that function.

As a blogger I'm the guy on Sportscenter who Stuart Scott interviews to describe the football, basketball, or baseball action, except I don't need the SportsCenter anchor to have that conversation. Whether it is the Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, or MSC, my role is to be the color analyst, and give an opinion regarding not only the play that just happened, but describe what plays work, why they work, and in the case of this blog, when it comes to the subject of maritime strategy we attempt to forward new ideas and new plays for the playbook. How exactly would the Navy do that? Which LT, LCDR, or CDR in CHINFO is going to be given the flexibility to second guess the value or purpose of something navy.mil is reporting in the news? I'm not saying the Navy doesn't need to blog, indeed the Navy needs to blog, but there is an evolution required if the Navy is going to blog and that evolution will be top down with policy, not bottom up due to desire.

The second part of the discussion I had with Admiral Thorp was about Professor Walling's discussion about a Navy evangelist. Either intentionally or unintentionally, the professor highlighted during his presentation that the Navy always had an evangelist when attempting to have a conversation with the country. Professor Walling also noted that critics of a Navy evangelists have a role in the conversation specific to the message of the evangelist. From 1776-1825, the evangelist for the Navy was Thomas Jefferson, who wrote that the nation needed to adopt the Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation for the sole purpose of raising taxes to build a Navy. Ultimately, Jefferson built the wrong Navy, but at least he pushed the conversation forward that the nation needed a Navy.

Mahan was noted as the evangelist starting in 1890. He ultimately got many, many things right in his strategic thinking, but he also advocated a battleship heavy Navy that lacked enough destroyers to manage the problems the nation faced at sea in WWI. Professor Walling notes Franklin Roosevelt and Carl Vinson as the evangelist of the period between WWI and WWII, but the strategic thinking leading into WWII was clearly flawed. As it is noted in Captain Hughes great book Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, with the exception of mine warfare vessels, every type of ship entered WWII serving one function for the fleet, but came out of WWII serving a completely different purpose as part of the battle force.

Let me carry this one step further than Professor Walling. The evangelist during the cold war was Admiral Rickover, one who had his fair share of critics throughout his remarkable career. A very complicated man, Admiral Rickover got it exactly right by promoting the necessity of nuclear technology for the Navy, and in particular the submarine service. The most recent example of the evangelist of the Navy was Admiral Cebrowski, who was ultimately run out of the Navy by his critics, only to have his ideas twisted and perverted to help contribute towards the mess we find ourselves in today. As I told Admiral Thorp, the Navy does not currently have an evangelist which the Navy may need to sell the strategy and have the conversation with the country, and almost certainly needs if they have any intention of being credible regarding shipbuilding. I also told Admiral Thorp the Navy is very unlikely to have an evangelist anytime soon because of the conditions of our time.

The simple truth is, the next evangelist for the Navy will be online. The next evangelist will probably not be an Admiral in the US Navy, rather the evangelist for the Navy will be more similar to how information is disseminated in the era by which the conversation takes place. If I was playing the role of futurist, I would suggest the next evangelist for the military services will ultimately be a distributed number of popular and respected bloggers that make up an evangelist networl.

I'll take it one step further... the Army and the Marines already has their evangelist network, because in classic 21st century form the network core for the evangelical network of those services appears to be the Small Wars Journal, where a number of active duty officers ALREADY contribute to the strategic discussions regarding the challenges facing those services. I don't know if the Small Wars Journal is the model for the Navy or the Navy blogosphere to follow, but I do know the Navy doesn't have that kind of online network forum yet. If I was to make a suggestion, I know where I would suggest the network forum should evolve from.

The Road Ahead

While I have been a bit nitpicky of Karl F. Wallings presentation during the Conversations with the Country on Thursday, he has done a remarkable service for the Navy. His contribution is brilliant because it captivates audiences with excellent content, which he constructed perfectly to send the message the Navy wanted to send to its target audience. The Navy held 18 of these conversations with the country, the Durham conversation was supposedly the last, and Professor Walling presented at all of them. His presentation is the model for the Navy to follow in the future. By linking well understood American history and easily articulated strategy to a modern context, Karl F. Walling's illuminates the Navy's message to a broad audience in a way that can be generally understood. It is a message that comes off as personally relevant, and specifically connects with the audience in a way that builds a relationship between the Navy and the American people.

Before his presentation, I was introduced to Professor Walling. I assure you, he was quite unimpressed, and I doubt he could pick me out of a lineup. However, if I was to make a suggestion, I would be interested in seeing him produce a follow up that answers many of the open questions he concludes his presentation with.
Should we focus on securing our moat? What is a moat in the age of nuclear missiles, and how could a navy supply such a moat today? What kind of moat is required in an age of international terrorism and illegal immigration? Or should we focus on free use of the global commons? What does that mean in the age of space and cyberspace warfare? Or should we focus on projecting power from the sea as far as necessary to defeat a distant enemy, such as al Qaeda in Afghanistan? Perhaps we must do all of the above. Fine, but how do we diversify our strategic portfolio so that we can protect our most vital interests without becoming overextended militarily, economically, and politically? What roles might a variety of allies, both formal and informal, play as we hedge our bets against the worst case while striving to achieve better cases? These are just the tip of the iceberg of the questions we must address to have a viable strategy in the future.
Does the current Maritime Strategy answer these questions? If the Navy answered these questions on Thursday, I missed it. An enduring strategy should, and would... answer these questions. If the Navy wants to hold a conversation with the country, it may be necessary for the Navy to have an evangelist, using a common dictionary shared by the three maritime services, who can answers these questions in a way that relates history and strategy to the context of the 21st century maritime environment and challenges. That evangelist didn't perform that duty during Thursdays conversation, probably because that evangelist (or evangelist network) doesn't exist for the modern conversation with the country.

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