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Breaking the Mold

Below are Under Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly’s prepared remarks for the Breaking the Mold workshop at Naval War College, March 7.

The purpose for the two-day workshop, sponsored by the under secretary of the Navy, was to engage top minds within the U.S. Navy and private sector academic and business partners on ways to address future scenarios U.S. military forces may face based upon current and emerging technology and new concepts in maritime and conventional warfare. The workshop focuses leaders to engage on a myriad of concepts and scenarios meant to push conversation, dialog, and analysis of ideas and thoughts outside conventional molds in an effort to stretch and expand strategic and operational mindsets.

Thank you for the kind introduction, and thank you for the honor of addressing you today at this appropriately titled “Breaking the Mold” conference. I recognize that the path each of you has taken to be included in this audience today is unique, but also remarkable and worthy of great pride and recognition.  I also know that there are common threads among you or else you wouldn’t be here:  a love for YOUR country, a love for YOUR Navy, and an intellectual and emotional passion for helping us get it right as we consider what national and maritime security will mean in this new century.  My own active duty career in the Navy was relatively short, but I have a profound appreciation for, and connection to, those of you who started along this path around the same time I did in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Whether on active duty, as a Navy civilian, or even in the private sector, we have all witnessed profound changes together during the past 4 decades.  These changes will impact the U.S. Navy and our nation for years to come.  The changes are coming at us fast—so we need to be prepared to break free of the organizational paradigms, and behaviors, and biases that suited us in the last century.  They are not well-suited for today, and certainly not for the future.

When we were first confronted by terrorism on a massive scale on 9-11 many people realized that perhaps simply “cracking the mold” was necessary to shift our focus and forces on a new, unconventional adversary. We actually adapted our tactics and capabilities quite well to address this threat militarily, and we continue assess and adjust to how we defeat them in the new battlespaces of social media and ideology.  After sixteen years of war with this type of adversary, however, I think that simply “cracking the mold” may not be enough because no longer are we faced with a single rogue terrorist actor, rather, today we are faced with a broad and varied spectrum of them.  We see this across every area of the world in which our naval forces must engage.  These transnational actors inspire each other and use the tools of modern technology and social media to build connections across borders that threaten our people and our allies and friends around the world.  Some of them, are actually states, like North Korea and Iran, who have recognized that their paths to survival are through an ascendance to great power status of their own making.  They have both chosen to do so by directly and indirectly confronting the United States in order to demonstrate our vulnerabilities, and in return, to elevate their own prestige.

NEWPORT, R.I. (March 7, 2018) Rear Adm. Jeffrey A. Harley, president, U.S. Naval War College (NWC), welcomes attendees of "Breaking the Mold; A Workshop on War and Strategy in the 21st Century." (U.S. Navy photo by Edwin L. Wriston/Released)
NEWPORT, R.I. (March 7, 2018) Rear Adm. Jeffrey A. Harley, president, U.S. Naval War College (NWC), welcomes attendees of “Breaking the Mold; A Workshop on War and Strategy in the 21st Century.” (U.S. Navy photo by Edwin L. Wriston/Released)


More alarming, though, in recent years we have seen changes that have eclipsed the dangers these rogue actors, and rogue nations, have presented over the past decade.   If you have read our new National Defense Strategy, you will see this emerging challenge clearly articulated.  Its implications are alarming and, rightly so, and they will drive investments in our defense capabilities going forward.  We are entering an era of Great Power Competition on global scale and so we must be focused on responsibly developing forces that protect our people and our interests, and our friends and allies around the world.

The National Defense Strategy is a very cogent and realistic document. It is aligned with the National Security Strategy of the United States which was published just a few weeks before the NDS, and it very plainly directs the Department of Defense to Compete, Deter, and Win alongside our allies and partners. It is a strategy that recalls President Reagan’s commitment to preserve peace through strength, while enabling decisive victory in conflict if necessary. It is the Department’s preeminent strategic guidance document and it will set the course for the Department of the Navy for years to come.

As the strategy describes, great-power competition has reemerged as the central challenge to U.S. security and prosperity, and this geostrategic fact is demanding prioritization and tough strategic choices. It is increasingly clear that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model and they will use whatever tools that are available to them, both lethal and non-lethal, legal and illegal, to gain influence and authority over other nation’s economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.

Both China and Russia aim to shift the regional balances of power to their advantage. It is their stated intent to weaken or fracture the U. S.-led alliance and partnership network that has ensured security and prosperity for so many around the world.  If unaddressed, the erosion of the United States’ military advantage vis a vis China and Russia could undermine our ability to deter aggression and coercion in key strategic regions.  Therefore, we must correct the trajectory of the past several years so that both countries understand that the United States is not in retreat, but that we will advance our interests and influence around the world.  Those interests are primarily defined by actions that will promote global peace and prosperity through what Secretary Mattis describes as a “Constellation of Partnerships” with nations who share our values and security interests.

While the strategy prioritizes the challenges from China and Russia, it does not ignore the growing and pervasive threats from North Korea and Iran, and it also continues our commitment to defeat violent extremism and the horrors being perpetrated in the name of Salafist-based ideologies. In essence, it is a realistic strategy, but also a very ambitious one that cannot be executed without a significant commitment of national resources, and perhaps more importantly, a significant application of national resolve and urgency—and an approach to maritime supremacy that “breaks the mold” of conventional thinking.

As Secretary Mattis has stated,

“In a world awash in change and increasing threats, there is no room for complacency. History makes clear that no country has a pre-ordained right to victory on the battlefield” (Mattis).”

The Secretary is certainly correct that there is no pre-ordained right to victory. Rather, it occurs when a nation is prepared not only for the fight that it sees coming, but also when it is prepared for the fight that it does not.  So it follows that the NDS is structured to address the full range of adversaries we may face in this rapidly changing security environment.  The future Joint Force must be lethal and resilient in contested environments, disruptive to adversaries who seek advantages across the globe, and flexible enough to address and defeat threats across a broad conflict spectrum.

Fundamental to this future force will be the preeminence of our maritime superiority because America is, and will always be, a maritime nation. Command of the seas is central to our nation’s security and prosperity, and our maritime forces continue to be in great demand around the globe.  China and Russia are heavily investing in expanding their conventional and unconventional naval capabilities, and Iran and North Korea present challenges to our naval forces in different, but still very disruptive and dangerous ways.

Therefore, given the increasing complexity of the competitive geostrategic landscape, the National Defense Strategy’s mandate for how we construct our naval forces must address a broad range of competing challenges:

  • A return to great power competition, but not to the exclusion of other threats.
  • An emphasis on lethality and readiness, but not to the exclusion of new platforms and technologies for the future fight.
  • A recognition that we must advance our nation’s interest and influence on the seas, but not to the exclusion of building alliances and partnerships that seek peaceful conflict resolution, with preparedness for the use of decisive force if necessary.

So what does this mean for you as think about how to break the mold of old paradigms and ways of thinking? In a word, I believe that breaking the mold will require a preeminent focus on the need for AGILITY. Agility is THE term which I believe best describes the overall organizational quality that has determined, and will determine, who and what survives in any increasingly competitive, rapidly changing, and unpredictable environment.  This is the environment our Navy faces today so I think we will ultimately be judged by how well we transition our forces and our supporting organizations to a future in which AGILITY is their defining characteristic.

Therefore, we must advance agility when we think about, and build, our future force structure. We need more ships and aircraft and vehicles, but that equipment must provide flexibility, adaptability, faster development cycles, reduced maintenance requirements, greater lethality, and an industrial strategy that sustains a modern, flexible and sustainable industrial base.

NEWPORT, R.I. (March 7, 2018) Thomas B. Modly, 33rd undersecretary of the Navy, addresses attendees of "Breaking the Mold; A Workshop on War and Strategy in the 21st Century.” (U.S. Navy photo by Edwin L. Wriston/Released)
NEWPORT, R.I. (March 7, 2018) Thomas B. Modly, 33rd undersecretary of the Navy, addresses attendees of “Breaking the Mold; A Workshop on War and Strategy in the 21st Century.” (U.S. Navy photo by Edwin L. Wriston/Released)


We must also advance agility in how we manage the business mission of the Department. We must have faster access to accurate information and we must reduce the overhead and bureaucracy that impedes rapid decision-making.  We must also understand the difference between being a smart buyer and a bad customer.  We cannot build and maintain an agile organization if we promote an adversarial relationship with industry.  Rather, we must promote competition, but with integrity, transparency and collaboration around common interests.

Most importantly, we must advance agility when we think about our people. We need to recruit and train people who are innovative and creative and courageous.  People who are comfortable with uncertainty and who can collaborate and trust their teams and leaders under stressful conditions.  We must also tap into the vast knowledge and spirit of the private sector as partners with our men and women in uniform, as well as our civilian workforce.

While I believe we would all agree that the Navy needs to become more agile in all of the areas I just mentioned, I also think we would all agree that defining, and even more importantly, measuring agility is not a simple task. For most of us, agility is not unlike Supreme Justice Potter Stewart’s famous statement about pornography.  In commenting on the definition of pornography and how it related to a particular movie that was at the center of a Supreme Court case, Justice Stewart said,

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that”

I suspect most of us, could paraphrase this and say, “I shall not attempt to define what is embraced in the term “agility.” But I know it when I see it, and many of the things the Navy does today are NOT THAT.”

But we shouldn’t despair. There are some very concrete organizational qualities we can truly observe and measure to determine whether we are building and leading a more agile organization.  I would like to offer five of these qualities for your consideration.  This is not a comprehensive list, but I do believe that if nurtured, each of these organizational qualities will contribute to a more agile Navy— and as we progress in building and encouraging these qualities “we will all know when we see it.”

The first of these qualities is velocity or speed. In a time of rapid change, organizations have to learn to do things faster.  Every major enterprise that has emerged as a leader in their respective industry over the last 20 years has improved in this area—and often by quantum leaps.  When you started your careers think about how long it took to shop for something in a catalog, or to book an airline ticket, or to have a package delivered.  Think about how long it took to transfer money, or just get cash for spending.  More significantly, think about how long it took for well-established institutions to lose their competitive advantages.  Now think about Kodak, or General Motors, or Sears and Roebuck, or even a more current example of the Internet age, America Online.  Once the tide and pace of change begins accelerating, it is impossible to stop it.  Speed is critical to survival in such an environment.  For the Navy, this speaks not only to how fast our weapons can fly, or how quickly we can move forces from place to place, it has much more importance with respect to how it characterizes our processes and decision-making. When we look at our acquisition programs, for example, I think we can all agree that our lack of speed when compared to commercial industry is clearly costing us money, and stifling our ability to incorporate technologies at the velocity of change.  The same applies to how long it takes us to hire qualified people, or move beyond them if they are unable to perform adequately.  When compared to some of our geostrategic competitors who have discovered ways to shortcut innovation through nefarious means, or who can more quickly leverage commercially available technology, our lack of speed is quickly becoming a competitive disadvantage.  In the end, if we don’t correct this trajectory, it WILL end up costing us much more than just money.

The second quality is adaptability. Agile organizations adapt quickly to changing conditions.  They do not allow themselves to stagnate or be overcome by changes in their environment.  Boston Consulting Group has studied the concept of corporate “adaptiveness” and discovered that there are in fact concrete ways to measure a company’s capabilities in this regard.  Not surprisingly, when examined within competitive environments that are defined as particularly “turbulent” the most adaptive companies on the BCG index far outperformed those who were lower on the scale.  This conclusion seems obvious, but the overarching point of this work was that a high adaptability score for such companies did not come by accident.  Rather, those companies who successfully built adaptive organizations did so intentionally, and invested in it commensurately.  For us this means we must consider and invest in adaptability across the entire Navy enterprise.  We must foster flexibility in our people, design and construct both adaptable platforms and force deployment models, and ensure that both people and platforms are enabled by flexible business and operational processes.  We must also encourage an understanding of the world and the geopolitical context in which we ask our forces to deploy.  Our people must be able to adapt to the multiple potential environments in which they may be asked to operate—and fight.  They cannot afford to be ignorant of them.

NEWPORT, R.I. (March 7, 2018) Thomas B. Modly, 33rd under secretary of the Navy, and Rear Adm. Jeffrey A. Harley, president, U.S. Naval War College (NWC), listen to a presenter at the "Breaking the Mold; A Workshop on War and Strategy in the 21st Century." (U.S. Navy photo by Edwin L. Wriston/Released)
NEWPORT, R.I. (March 7, 2018) Thomas B. Modly, 33rd under secretary of the Navy, and Rear Adm. Jeffrey A. Harley, president, U.S. Naval War College (NWC), listen to a presenter at the “Breaking the Mold; A Workshop on War and Strategy in the 21st Century.” (U.S. Navy photo by Edwin L. Wriston/Released)


The third agility quality is collaboration. Collaborative cultures may appear to be on the opposite end of the spectrum from bureaucratic ones. This does not have to be the case—and we cannot allow it to be the case in our Navy.  I have often observed that the Department of Defense, like most great bureaucracies, is the great “self-siloing” organization.  It tends to have an aversion to working across organizational boundaries, and organizations and sub organizations have a bias toward protecting themselves, along with their domains, their budgets, their identities, and their hierarchies fiercely.  Some of this is to be expected in a culture that is inspired historically by a traditional military command and control environment, but some of it also leads to unhealthy behaviors that inhibit collaboration and resolutions that are in the best interest of the entire enterprise.  Our propensity for siloing is perhaps one of the most difficult cultural challenges we have to overcome–but we have to overcome it.  Agile organizations collaborate across internal and external boundaries, and most importantly up and down the chain of command. This collaboration fosters a greater enterprise appreciation of the organizational strategy, and encourages greater enterprise focused solutions that are not simply optimized for a particular sub-organization, or command, or ship, or SYSCOM, or program.  This means that leaders in our Navy, whether they are military or civil servants, must set very high standards for collaboration, openness, communication, fairness, compassion, intensity, and commitment if there is any hope of impacting culture in a positive way that enhances overall agility.   Leaders must demonstrate zero tolerance for organizational silos and an aversion to the accumulation of power, while building broad coalitions that align resources and momentum in a common direction.   Fostering greater collaboration as a critical cultural characteristic will also help us improve our ability to work with allies and partners around the world with whom the NDS identifies as critical to our ability to secure our interests.

The fourth quality of agility on my list is visibility. This is a key element as it exists in all organizations that move quickly, adapt, and share information freely.  These organizations allow for the best authoritative data available to drive decisions.  For us in the Navy this has as much applicability to a theatre of maritime operations as it does in the back office.  The proliferation of platforms with sensors, and our ability to integrate and understand all of the data they produce, will be critical to the success of the future warfighting mission.   But all this data has to make sense, and we must figure out how best to exploit visibility to the right level and at the right time so that we increase lethality and our ability to defend ourselves.

The same organizational value of visibility holds true for our business environment—and in this regard I will put it quite simply: we need to know where all our stuff is, and we need to know how much it costs, and we need to know how long it is going to take to get it where it needs to be. Today, I don’t think anyone in our organization can answer those questions with a high degree of confidence.  In the future, however, lots of people in our organization will be required to do so.  This is why the financial audit effort is such a high priority for me, and why it is so critical to the entire enterprise.  The financial audit, despite its name, should never be viewed as solely a finance-driven effort.  Rather, it is an enterprise imperative, because the corrections in visibility, accountability, and overall enterprise behavior, will accrue to our warfighting mission directly.

The fifth quality of agility is innovation. Agile organizations are adept and comfortable with trying new things–with experimenting, failing, measuring, trying again–all with a view towards finding new solutions to current and anticipated problems.  For those of you who have not read it, and have an interest in understanding how the breakthrough innovation of manned flight happened in the last century, I commend to you the Wright Brothers biography written by David McCullough.  The Wright Brothers’ story is remarkable.  It is great history, but it is also a pure innovation case study.  Even though this occurred over 100 years ago, Orville and Wilbur Wright demonstrated that innovation is driven by constant trial and error, meticulous documentation, and the deliberate construction of a culture of learning.  We need a “learning culture” in the Navy.  We must embrace this as a core value.  As many of you know, “Ex Scientia Tridens” is the motto of the Naval Academy.  Those words roughly translated mean “Through Knowledge, Sea Power.”   As we think about innovation and its role in the future of our Navy and Marine Corps no words seem more relevant than these.  While we surely must invest in more ships, and aircraft, and submarines, and armored vehicles, and new missile systems, nothing will be more important than the investment that we make in knowledge—and on creating a force made up of people who thirst for it.  Rapid technological advances are driving the raw technical requirements for this mandate, but knowledge is not purely defined by technical competence.  For knowledge to truly produce sea power we must create a culture in the Navy and Marine Corps that is committed to learning as a lifelong process—and a lifelong passion.  Such a culture is not merely defined by certificates or degrees accumulated at regular career intervals, but rather it is one that encourages innovation and risk taking and produces Sailors and Marines who are prepared to excel in circumstances that are characterized by uncertainty, and by adversaries who are unpredictable.

NEWPORT, R.I. (March 7, 2018) Thomas B. Modly, 33rd under secretary of the Navy, and Rear Adm. Jeffrey A. Harley, president, U.S. Naval War College (NWC), pose for a group photo with attendees of the "Breaking the Mold; A Workshop on War and Strategy in the 21st Century." (U.S. Navy photo by Edwin L. Wriston/Released)
NEWPORT, R.I. (March 7, 2018) Thomas B. Modly, 33rd under secretary of the Navy, and Rear Adm. Jeffrey A. Harley, president, U.S. Naval War College (NWC), pose for a group photo with attendees of the “Breaking the Mold; A Workshop on War and Strategy in the 21st Century.” (U.S. Navy photo by Edwin L. Wriston/Released)


This last quality has specific implications for this institution and the other educational institutions across the Navy such as the Naval Academy, the Post Graduate School and the Marine Corps University. We must break the mold with respect to how we think about the role of education in the career progressions of our Sailors, Marines, and Officer corps.  In this regard, we are at a point in history not unlike that which was addressed by Captains Ernest King, Dudley Knox, and Bill Pye in their seminal report on Naval Education published in 1920.  The report laid the foundation for the education of naval officers for years to come with a greater emphasis on developing officers with an understanding of strategy, policy and national security thinking.  It is hard to imagine an agile naval mind that is well-prepared for our current turbulent security environment being able to lead without these characteristics.  Therefore, I am commissioning a comprehensive clean-sheet review of Naval Education to determine how well we are educating, not merely training, our naval forces today–and for the future.  While I do not want to presume any conclusions that may come from this “Knox-King-Pye Redux for the 21st Century”, I suspect some major course corrections are in order, as they are for most every institution that expects to survive and thrive in this century.  So as you think about your tasks over these next few days, I ask that you consider agility and its components and its implications for the future of naval education when you experiment with what may result when you “break the mold.”

I will conclude by citing one of the many memorable quotes of John Paul Jones, as it relates why agile minds will matter so much in our future Navy. Jones famously said, “Men mean more than guns in the rating of a ship.”  It loses nothing in the translation when we say, “People mean more than weapons in the rating of a service.”  Jones’ quote recognizes a profound point of truth that is perhaps even more relevant today than it was over 200 years ago.  Our maritime advantage is, and will continue to be, almost entirely dependent upon the quality of our people.  It follows, therefore, that the agility of our future force will be almost entire dependent upon the agility of the people we identify now to lead it.  Therefore, I encourage you to think about breaking the mold in a way that allows us to recruit, train, equip and EDUCATE the most quick-minded, flexible, collaborative, innovative, and transparent people we can find.  If we do this, we will set the Navy on the course for maritime superiority well into this century.

The future dictates that our maritime forces will have to contend with something agile and so we must find and develop people who are agile enough to defeat it, and give them more responsibility. I predict we will have to break the mold to do it, but if we do, it will set our Navy, as it sails into uncertainty—on a course for agility and ultimate victory.

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