Saturday, July 11, 2015

Why we need technical leaders

Electromagnetic Maneuver warfare not important? Ask the Japanese, whose broken code was used to cue submarines. From National WW2 Museum.
It's World War Two in the Pacific.  The US is fighting a desperate battle against Japan.  US submarines coming home complain that their torpedos aren't working.  The torpedo manufacturers say they are fine.  You're in charge.  What do you do?

1. Tell your people to get er done? 
2. Tell your people to bring you "solutions, not problems."?
3. Quote "Message to Garcia?"

If you're Charles 'Swede' Momsen, you do none of these.  You take a bunch of torpedos, shoot them into a Hawaiian island, find one that doesn't work, dive in yourself to save it, and figure out that the firing pin wasn't igniting properly.

Kahoolawe apparently pissed off the Navy, so it endured plenty of explosions. Here it was subjected to Operation Sailor Hat, courtesy of Wikipedia.
Charles Momsen was a technical leader.  Actually, he was a technical badass.  Before he courageously helped solve the submarine torpedo firing pin fiasco, he invented the Momsen Lung, experimented with deep diving gas mixtures and invented a diving bell that rescued Sailors onboard the USS SQUALUS.  Eventually he went on to command a battleship, evacuate Japanese troops from Mongolia and retired as a Vice Admiral.  His distinguished career left us valuable lessons on how to have the right blend of raw leadership and technical prowess.

Charles Momsen. Navy Officer, Submariner, and Technical Badass. From Wikipedia.
We have to start with a sad fact though: technical knowledge isn't viewed as "cool".  It's easy to be the "Renaissance Man" that can spout off random memorized facts and sounds knowledgeable on many subjects, the "jack of all trades".  Today's world of short attention spans and 140-character conversations certainly celebrates this "I'll just Google it" attitude while denigrating real scholastic achievement.  It's much easier to be the cool kid in school then the good student.  But once cold hard reality sets in, all the coolness in the world won't rescue you from the bottom of the ocean, nor will it fix messed up torpedoes.

"Get-r-done" didn't invent this. From Wikipedia.
Not only that, but technical knowledge is hard.  It takes hours of homework and days spent in the library, reading long texts to finally get that knowledge to click.  Sadly, we aren't even trending in the right direction.  PISA 2012 concluded that "Students in the United States have particular weaknesses in performing mathematics tasks with higher cognitive demands, such as taking real-world situations, translating them into mathematical terms, and interpreting mathematical aspects in real-world problems."  I don't think the Navy is running out of "real-world" problems.

Bad trends...we have less and less people good at science, but China is getting better. From NCEE.
The World War Two Pacific Theater was complicated.  US submarine tactics were not refined, nor were aircraft carrier operations, amphibious operations or joint operations.  Plenty of people treated submarines as little more than scouts, supporting the "real" fight for the mighty guns of the battleships.  Momsen and others had the foresight to see submarines as fundamentally changing war, a view that brought him into direct opposition of many battleship Admirals of the day.  Being a technical leader often puts you on the outskirts, attempting to justify to the "real" warfare commanders that what you do is important.

Electromagnetic Maneuver isn't important? Joe Rochefort begs to disagree. Ask the Japanese how that worked out. From Wikipedia.
Today's Pacific Theater isn't any better.  The PRC talks about and actively practices the informationinzation of warfare, synchronizing cyber and electromagnetic effects on a complicated battlespace.  This is happening while the DoD eliminates information warfare from the lectionary and places non-technical leaders in charge of technical commands.  Apparently all the War College instruction about effects based operations was for nothing.  Think about it: if someone hacks your insulin pump and kills you, isn't it the same effect as shooting you?  If ship defenses don't work because someone turned them off, isn't it the same effect as taking a missile to the side? 
Khan had all sorts of "natural" leadership traits. He also lost.

Technical leadership isn't meant to sit on a shelf or hide in the must be balanced with exposure to the real world.  Technical leaders don't hide behind their desk.  They jump into the fray, bringing their knowledge to bear on a problem.  We act like technical skill and real leadership are two mutually exclusive traits, but Momsen and others have proven that wrong time and time again.  Yes, there are plenty of technically skilled people that sit behind a desk and couldn't lead the average trash detail onboard a ship.  But there are plenty of so-called "natural" leaders that would walk into a cyber operations center and be completely overwhelmed.  Many of these people have maintained a "get-r-done" attitude their entire career, but the minute they encounter any sort of technical hiccup, they are at a loss of how to fix it.  With the future of warfare being more, not less, technical in the future, we can't afford to have a stone-aged mentality in charge of our Sailors.

The Navy needs to cultivate technical leadership in its officer corps, and especially in the Information Dominance Corps.  The only current efforts are focused on bachelors and masters degrees, but technical leadership is more than just degrees.  The Naval Postgraduate School has a number of graduate certificate courses that let you take 3-4 classes in a particular subject.  This is perfect for honing knowledge without a full-on degree, and the courses can be taken via distance.  There is currently no incentive to take them though, because there aren't any prime billets coded for the subspecialty.  If the Navy coded competitive, desirable billets with these subspecialties, it would encourage Naval Officers to expand their technical knowledge.

This sort of leadership won't stop an incoming DF-21D. From Wikipedia.
But let's not stop at formal education...what about warfare devices?  Despite having warfare devices for a number of years, we still do not have a centralized, classified distributed learning mechanism to ensure everyone is trained to the same standard.  At my last command, we began building this on Intellipedia, and despite it being a side project, it helped ensure a consistent level of knowledge among IDWO candidates.  I wish I would have had such a system when I was qualifying submarines, especially in the shipyard.  It still boggles my mind that despite having massive shore commands, we would rather rely on self-created "gouge" to train the next generation of Naval Officer than fact-checked distributed training.

The Navy has even gone backwards on some of the simplest training it used to provide.  NKO (a terribly designed system, only slightly worse than CAS) used to provide free Microsoft product training.  As silly as that sounds, being able to crank out custom forms in Word and Excel helped me immensely on-board the submarine, and as much as I hate to admit it, the PowerPoint skills are useful on a large staff.  But those courses are long gone.  We spend an inordinate amount of money on Sexual Assault and other required GMT, yet we can't afford to train Sailors on the basic tools they use everyday?  Why are we surprised when our Sailors continue to use only 5% of software functionality if we don't train them?

Chester Nimitz, technical leader that helped convert submarines from gas to diesel to nuclear.
We need more people like Vice Admiral Momsen.  We need to encourage lifelong technical learning in our officer corps, not just a "check in the box" degree focus.  Our future maritime battlefields promise to be more technically complex.  Advanced anti-ship cruise missiles, quiet diesel submarines, hypervelocity projectiles, cyber warfare, and space will make our next fight downright scary.  "Git-r-done" and "natural" leadership won't work against an enemy that is attempting to out-think us.  Our nation will need Navy Officers that are technically competent, mentally strong and who can effectively lead the next generation of Sailors into the fight in any domain.