SMH 2018 and “Cross Functional” Officers

I’ve been distracted by the publication of Learning War and the warm welcome its received, so this follow-up post on the Society of Military History’s Annual Meeting (SMH 2018) is later than I intended. What strikes me as I review my notes from the meeting is how “cross-functional” U.S. naval officers of the early twentieth century were.

Cross-functionality is a common concept in software, but unusual in a military context. I’m using it here to refer to naval officers who developed experience and skill in many different specialties—surface ships, submarines, aviation, and politics—that together created an integrated fleet. Just as many development teams today encourage broad expertise across a variety of domains and technologies, the U.S. Navy of the early twentieth century encouraged officers to develop familiarity with different aspects of naval warfare.

This theme appeared in several papers. Scott Mobley used textual analysis of two different version of William Leahy’s diary (one recently discovered at the U.S. Naval Academy) to assess Leahy’s view of the American intervention in Nicaragua in 1912. Leahy was a Lieutenant Commander in the Pacific Fleet and served as chief of staff to the intervention’s commander, Rear Adm. William Southerland. Leahy also served as the military governor of Corinto, requiring him to employ both strategic acumen and political skill. Leahy was not the only U.S. officer with a political role in the early twentieth century. A talent for foreign relations—which I think of, with apologies to Clausewitz, as “war by other means”—was desirable. Even junior officers were encouraged to develop their political skill. It was essential when communication mechanisms were slow and small ships—like those in the Philippine archipelago—were the most visible local representation of the U.S. government. I believe it made officers better equipped to deal with the inherently political challenges of high command, which include not only collaboration with other nations, but the competing incentives of different services. “Jointness” is inherently political.

Ryan Wadle gave a valuable paper on “generalists vs. specialists” in the interwar (1919-1939) U.S. Navy, a fascinating topic with important ramifications for today. Wadle used Henry Yarnell as a vehicle for his analysis, charting the major developments of his career. He started as a surface warfare officer, became head of the Newport torpedo station, and then a staff officer. Later in his career, Yarnell was head of the Bureau of Engineering, commander of the battle force’s aircraft carriers, and commander of the Asiatic Fleet. Yarnell was a “triple threat” officer, with a rich experience commanding surface ships, submarines, and aircraft carriers. He and Ernest King—who went on to become the Navy’s commander-in-chief during World War II—are the most famous examples of this cross-functional skillset, but they are not the only ones. Our discussion afterwards focused on how culture was broadly cohesive across the Navy during this time and not divided into the factions (submarines, surface, and aviators) that we see today. We left wondering what specific mechanisms the Navy used to incentivize this broad familiarity and what it might take to create parallel incentives today. The current paradigm “channels” officers into specific specialties and inhibits them from developing experience in other arms of the service.

This is obviously undesirable, because without a broad understanding of how the various elements of the fleet can be used effectively together, it is difficult for teams of officers to self-organize to solve complex problems. Specialization—in military forces and in software teams—encourages the development of top-down control mechanisms that reduce the speed of decision-making and discourage individual initiative. This is true within a specific service, but also across them during “joint” operations. A century ago the Navy avoided this by encouraging officers to develop a richer set of skills. My time at SMH 2018 has me wondering how the Navy might address this challenge today as it attempts to encourage what the current Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. John Richardson, calls “high velocity learning.”

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