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Focus on Critical Thinking is Key in New Navy Education Study

Naval ROTC Midshipmen listen to safety instructions at the USS Buttercup Damage Control Wet Trainer during Sea Trials at Naval Station Newport in Rhode Island. Sea Trials is a 10-day event, during which Midshipmen must perform a series of scenarios and properly demonstrate the skills they have developed throughout their training. Navy photo

THE PENTAGON — Teaching Navy officers and enlisted sailors how to think, not what to think, is the prime focus of an ongoing study that seeks to radically shift how the service educates its personnel.

The Education for Seapower report is expected to provide Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer with a number of recommendations to revamp how the Navy promotes, organizes and encourages continued learning among its ranks.

“It’s a clean sheet review and there’s nothing off the table, absolutely nothing. We’re expecting some very bold recommendations to the Secretary (of the Navy) come early in December,” Steve Deal, executive director for the Department of the Navy’s Education for Seapower study, told USNI News.

Undersecretary of the Navy Thomas Modly, who announced the study in April, has made revamping Navy education a primary goal for his office. Signifying the importance of education, Modly frequently invokes the motto of his alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy – Ex Scientia Tridens — which roughly translates to through knowledge, sea power.

Deal, a retired Navy captain, is shepherding the work from a Pentagon office suite a few doors away from Modly’s office. So far, the study group has met four times and received presentations from civilian scholars, futurists and the heads of all Navy educational institutions, including the U.S. Naval Academy, the Navy War College, Naval Post Graduate School and the head of the Reserve Officer Training Corps. Several dozen other experts have been interviewed by members of the study team.

The discussions will become the basis of the study group’s final report. The supporting documents provided to the group will also be part of the final report, which will be released to the public following the Secretary of the Navy review of the findings.

Instilling critical and strategic thinking skills among the ranks of enlisted and officers is emerging as among the study’s main themes, now that it has passed the half-way mark on its mandate to produce recommendations to Modly’s office in December.

Recommendations will not be finalized for several weeks. However, USNI News understands wargaming and exercises will likely play a prominent role in the study’s recommendations for teaching critical and strategic thinking.

Also likely to be included will be suggestions about preparing sailors to incorporate emerging technologies into naval operations. As the study team considers what future threats and engagements will look like, and the tools needed for these scenarios emerging technologies will likely be considered vital to maintaining a U.S. competitive advantage.

The Navy is already working on establishing ready, relevant learning to train sailors in a variety of skills. The idea is to provide training to sailors at the waterfront using computer-based courses, at points in their careers when skills are needed.

In terms of future engagements, the National Defense Strategy (NDS), released in January, hints at the importance of using new technologies to help the U.S. military maintain a competitive edge against near-peer powers possessing resources that are far better than what the U.S. military has faced recently.

“Today, we are emerging from a period of strategic atrophy, aware that our competitive military advantage has been eroding,” the NDS states.

This is a shift from recent engagements, where U.S. military technological dominance was all but assumed. With Russia and China increasingly using their militaries to exert their influence in their regions, the U.S. military’s period of entering conflicts where battlefield dominance was assumed is over.

When announcing the Education for Seapower study, Modly stressed education was going to be a vital part of fulfilling the NDS’ call to sustain military advantages globally and in key regions.

“Continuous learning — and sharing hard-won knowledge – represents a combat-proven key to victory for our naval services,” Modly wrote in his memo announcing the study’s formation.

  • proudrino

    I disagree with the statement that there has been a shift in the understanding that U.S. military technological dominance can not be assumed.

    There have been plenty of individuals making this claim for some time. However like modern-day Cassandras they were ignored for some time because the last administration had other priorities. Flag and General officers were promoted for identity politics and not for merit as warfighters. The previous NDS was a political document focused on issues like the rights of women in developing nations and sexual orientation as a national security issue. Bridging the technological gap was simply ignored by “leadership” at the highest levels and we have the policy and results to prove it.

    In the meantime, the crews of the Fitzgerald and McCain couldn’t competently use the technology they had to navigate safely but you can be sure they had successfully completed their transgender and SAPR training and had the Page 13s to prove it.

    I fully support this administration’s focus on warfighting as the DoD’s mission. Doing more to train and equip warfighters is an important step in the process.

    • Mr. Speaker

      “Bridging the technological gap was simply ignored by “leadership” at the highest levels and we have the policy and results to prove it.”

      I patiently await for your peer reviewed study that shows a correlation between a decline in utilizing military technology and EO training.

      • proudrino

        The previous administration was more concerned with “breaking barriers” than “bridging technological gaps.” That is fact that doesn’t need to be studied. It is also fact that dominance in all domains declined over the past decade. You can try to skew this into an attack on the current administration (or pathetic defense of the last one) but the fact remains that DoD under the previous administration were bad stewards when it comes to warfighting and military readiness. The vacuum was replaced with identity politics and promoting the wrong people to high leadership positions for the wrong reasons.

  • proudrino

    Just to show how cyclical these issues are, an article in another publication talks about a LT who wrote a Proceedings article entitled “The System of Naval Training and Discipline Required to Promote Efficiency and Attract Americans.” Sounds like it could have been written for the 2018 Seapower edition, no? Well, it was written in 1890 by William Freeland Fullam.

    • NEC338x

      Older than dirt or another reader of War on the Rocks this morning? ;<)

      • proudrino

        Not mutually exclusive conditions but the latter!

    • vetww2

      Why does a fore topman need an education, reef away,

    • vetww2

      Brilliant redearch. May it ne ever so.

  • proudrino

    So only Trump supporters need critical thinking skills training. Boy are you in a hate-filled bubble with that kind of comment. I’d argue that pretty much 100% of the population needs critical thinking skills. Mindless Hillary voters are a problem for society too. Or are you suggesting that she was a perfect candidate who should have received 100% of the vote despite her ethical lapses and socialist positions. If that’s your view, maybe you need critical thinking skills.

  • Curtis Conway

    At least they are not lemmings following a communist/socialist over the cliff, who knows not their World & American HiStory, can add 2 + 2 and get 4 every time, believes in and supports Law Enforcement and protects Individual Freedoms & Private Property Rights, self-defence Rights, and understands the concept that at some point every Liberal Politician runs out of other people’s money, and pursues selfish desires while not assuming responsibility for their own lives (job, abortion, welfare).

  • Curtis Conway

    Don’t drown, burn, or suffocate, and make sure none of the crew does either. Vigilance is the word, and presence of mind as to ‘where the current events are going’ is critical thinking.

  • Ed L

    Interesting. Growing up i was taught in the Rural school and by my parents. That I need to get the information and make the decision based on facts. Example preparing for a full gale we would always rig heavy weather lifelines and gather harnesses and other equipment in case we had go on deck later. I would tell my people and the JO’s “Mother Nature has no respect for manmade equipment

    • vetww2

      I went to what many believe is the greatest high school in the world, Stuyvesant, in N.Y. and we learned the same thing.

  • RobM1981

    What a radical idea. It’s only been doctrine since George Washington led the troops…

    So, tell me USN, are you saying that you weren’t already doing this? We know that you stopped teaching celestial navigation at the USNA, so maybe there’s the answer. “Don’t know how to do it, just believe what the machine tells you.”

    The real question is what responsible adult ever wandered from the path, to begin with?

    Even Red-Right-Return has to be viewed with a critical eye. We all learned that, all those years ago…

    • proudrino

      The short answer is that Navy decided to wean out the idea that watchstanders should use critical thinking skills. The Fitzgerald, McCain, Antietam, and other less public incidents; prove the Navy got to the point where the technology trumped all else. Fitzgerald’s crew, for example, didn’t see a ship almost three times their size until about one minute before impact because of a reliance on technology.


    Didn’t we have a Revolution in Training in the middle 2000s for all of this?

    The Navy was awarded the Phoenix Award for it, it must have been a huge success, why do we need another revolution?

    Any attempt to radically change education and training needs to recognize that without a significant increase of resources, both people and money, in the short term since stopping the current system is not really an option and changing it while trying to maintain it is self-defeating. Additionally, it needs to be based on well thought out requirements and actual results and not wishful thinking of some well intentioned academics. Finally, recognizing that when you change everything at once, there is no way to tell why the wheels fell off is an absolute requirement.

    Just recognizing that there are different styles of learners in the Navy, as well as competing requirements for learners and their supervisors during a given day, would be a great starting place.

    After all, if you don’t know where you want to go, every road takes you there. To many of these initiatives seem to be Fire! Ready! Aim! Repeat!

    • proudrino

      “SWOS in a Box” was also supposed to provide ready, relevant training to the Fleet. How’d that work out?

      I’ve got to agree with you on two points. You say an influx of increase of resources, both people and money, is a self-defeating proposition. Throwing resources at the problem is always the knee-jerk reaction and it rarely ends up well. The idea that simulators, wargaming, and exercises are the solution is a part of this theme.

      Also, there are different styles of learners. Years ago, I got to tour the then new facilities at Great Lakes. The Navy replaced the old learning system for new recruits with a process that included a great deal of computer-based training for much of the basic indoctrination. I wondered what happened to those recruits who didn’t learn that way.

      The CNO has championed changing Navy education. It’s a good fight to take on. Why is it, for example, that we spend hundreds of thousands of tax dollars to train and educate a submariner officer when they can transition to civilian employment after just one operational tour?

      • USNVO

        I think you misunderstood my post. Throwing money and people at a problem rarely solves it, but not properly resourcing it pretty much guarantees it will fail.

        I call it “Driving to Juneau”. I can drive in Juneau (feel free to pick you own island or isolated place), I can drive somewhere outside of Juneau, but I can’t drive from somewhere outside of Juneau to Juneau without something else, an airplane or a ship, to transport me and my car to Juneau. There are insufficient resources to both continue to deliver training the old way and also to develop and implement the new training paradigm. You need to invest (more resources) to save.

        Let’s take the RiT as an example.
        First, the Navy decided that Navy training needed to be updated, using new methods to enhance training and, primarily, reduce time lost in training. Notice I intentionally used the word lost because anything not directly associated with Sailors actually performing their at sea mission (or land mission, or air mission, etc) is lost time. It is needed, but it is a loss and should be minimized.
        So there were three goals, reduce the training footprint and expense, reduce the personnel dedicated to training, and reduce the time Sailors were in training. This is again straight forward. In simplistic terms, for every 365 man-days you reduce from training (either the trainer or the trainee), you gain an additional Sailor employed at sea.

        But here is where they went wrong and we will just look at trainers.

        First, they cut the training personnel based up on the projected end-state requirement. Then they had those reduced trainers try to implement the “Revolution”. Notice, the personnel were largely sized for the current requirement. Well, not really. Since the shore based commands were always at 80pct manning, the training commands, not being stupid, inflated the requirements so they had enough people when only 80pct manned. But the problem was, there was a promise of being able to reduce trainer manning, but only if you invested to gain the reduced manning. You needed additional people to simultaneously deliver training the old fashioned way and develop, implement, and continuously improve the new training methods. After 3 years the wheels had fallen off and the same people who cut the billets in the first place were begging for more people to implement the change.

        But it is not just people. Developing training course-ware, training aids, and instructor development tools is expensive. Let me give you an example. At one time, one of the Navy training sites had 4 complete CIWS systems they had to support training (not sure what it is today, been out of the loop for awhile). And actual, hands-on demonstrations had a significant impact on the course length since those were largely 1 on 1 evolutions. If you could reduce the hands on work by use of a computer model that simulated the CIWS maintenance, you could save a week or more of time per class as well as reduce actual systems by half (big savings there). But, in order to do that, you needed a lot of money to develop the computer based training tools and new courseware that let you get rid of the bottleneck and reduce TTE. Again, you have to invest (increase resources) in the short run to save in the long run. Again, they took all the benefits upfront, before they actually materialized, and remarkably the wheels fell off so they didn’t have enough funds to continue the old way or to continue to develop the new digital tools.

        On your final point, the answer is pretty simple. Typically, the Navy retains roughly a third of the junior officers it trains beyond the fist tour. But that is OK because the Navy also needs roughly one third of the number of department heads as it has JOs (The aviation world is a little different here for a variety of reasons). Is it efficient? Not really, but it is still better than the alternative.

  • Donald Carey

    Don’t believe a word of it. I still remember being told an E-5 wasn’t paid to think. You can bet your bottom dollar that attitude still prevails within the senior ranks and, especially, the officers.

    • proudrino

      I don’t think that attitude prevails today. I think the current attitude is much worse.

      Back in the day “an E-5 wasn’t paid to think” was shorthand for an E-5 is too junior to understand everything that is going on. The CPO community dealt with much of these issues. Good ideas did filter up out of the process.

      Another way of looking at it is paying one’s dues. When that E-5 became an E-6 and took on added responsibilities, they had more latitude to express relevant comments about how to do things. And maybe with a different perspective than when they were not in charge of anything. I’m not saying it was a perfect system but it worked well.

      Today, E-3s are being taught to openly challenge their leadership if they have their feelings hurt and, if not satisfied file a complaint as they have been trained to do. How much time is expended in dealing with these complaints?

      • Donald Carey

        Your attitude is exactly what I was talking about. An E-5 8404 (you SHOULD know what that is), was often in charge of things under their purview, as was I. Your comment/attitude is both narrow-minded and insulting.
        p.s. I’m a retired Registered Pharmacist, I KNOW how to both supervise and think.

  • Grampa Joe

    So sad, Were two (2) recent Westpac collisions with tankers and sailors lives lost lives because of inadequate training? Inadequate funding for training? Inadequate leadership? Lack of integrity and political interference? Political sabotage?

  • Streeter

    Critical Thinking Skills… Hmmmm sounds like perhaps some of the stuff learned in Economics, History, English and Political Science classrooms might just have some relevance… An engineer can easily deduce that two planes plus two planes equal 4 planes, and to be fair, 2 planes with x capabilities require 2 planes with y capabilities to counter them. It takes a little more to determine what to do with 2 planes, two mines, a few DF-21s, satcom is down, watch-stander training is behind and my crew hasn’t slept for 22 hours. WWII was not simply about how many carriers there were in the Pacific or the number of soldiers Ike had available on June 5, 1944. It was about one adversary led by a raving lunatic, and another that was steeped in the Bushido warrior code.

    • vetww2

      Ditto for the ETO. Patton epitomized this philosophy and suceeded despite opposition and obstacles which were placed in his path.

    • disqus_CbFK3MPhJu

      english history poli sci, you are joking right?

  • vetww2

    I was a “BURKEIAN” in the Vietnam days. I will never forget when the Joint chiefs finally wanted to shut down Haiphong harbor. at a10 A.M.meeting.

    Chair, “Arleigh, When can you present a comprehensive plan?”
    Burke, “How about 2, this afternoon?”
    Chair, “Incredible.”
    Burke, “Why, it’s been on my desk for 5 years.”

  • wilkinak

    The Navy is already working on establishing ready, relevant learning to train sailors in a variety of skills. The idea is to provide training to sailors at the waterfront using computer-based courses, at points in their careers when skills are needed.

    “USING COMPUTER BASED COURSES” = They still haven’t figured out that this doesn’t work.