Lt. Cmdr. Joel I. Holwitt describes the Humanities versus STEM emphases in naval officer education as a false choice in a 2014 USNI Proceedings article. Dr. Holwitt asserts that both are needed at different stages of a naval officer’s career, more technical at the start of a career and more focused on the liberal arts as seniority increases. This transition of educational perspective is important in understanding how the Department of Navy meets the cognitive demands of the fleet today and develops naval strategists for the future.
An important, and often overlooked, piece to this puzzle is the role of enlisted education. This essay will examine the tremendously underutilized cognitive resource of our enlisted force and the roles emerging technology will have on the type and distribution of work done by naval organizations in the future.
American society provides the talent from which we draw when fielding our naval forces. Historically, we have separated this population into two classes – those with intellectual and moral qualities were chosen as naval officers and those who had the ability to learn naval skills became enlisted Sailors and Marines. This division largely is split on an arcane model of educated elites and the uneducated masses, which may have been appropriate prior to World War I, but which is no longer representative of modern society. The line drawn between workers and managers is becoming less clear in most professional fields today and its artificial distinction must be reconsidered by the naval services. Beyond the social influence on the structure of our naval personnel models, the role of nature must be taken into consideration as well.
This starts by recognizing that officers and enlisted are both human beings. Advances in the cognitive sciences over the past several decades have identified different aspects of human cognition: perception, action, learning, memory, reasoning, decision-making, concepts, language, emotion, and consciousness. These components are all malleable, particularly in younger adults. The naval services are entrusted with highly impressionable 18-26 year olds and it is an organizational decision – not society or nature – on how their talent is used to support its mission. The naval services have a great deal of control and influence over the cognitive make-up of the force, yet they poorly understand both sides of this supply-demand equation.
I will use my personal experience as an explanatory case. I was not a great high school student when I enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17. Selected for a rating in the advanced electronics field, over the course of my enlisted career I completed numerous technical schools. When I entered college 10 years after joining the Navy, I transferred over 60 credits obtained from those schools, few of which actually counted toward a degree. I then served 10 years as a Marine Corps Officer before retiring and eventually became a civil servant in the Department of the Navy.
I did not have any exceptional qualities before entering naval service and was fortunate that the organization developed my professional abilities across my entire career. My point is, I essentially remained the same person over my 30-year career, but the organization’s expectations of me changed over time, and I adapted to those increased demands. Given my unexceptional cognitive and physical abilities, this case, and thousands like it for prior enlisted Sailors and Marines who went on to do great things afterward, provides evidence that the enlisted force has the inherent talent to do much more than what is expected of them today.
To explain how enlisted cognitive abilities relate to the development of naval strategists, consider a ship as a single piece of technology. In general, technology has three components: the apparatus, organization, and procedures. A set amount of various types of cognitive skill and knowledge are required to successfully operate a ship. Today, such knowledge is segmented between the enlisted sailors at the lower end, officers at the higher end, and chief petty officers overlapping the two groups in the center.
I would argue that in this structure there is a tremendous amount of cognitive potential at the lower end which is not utilized; this can be referred to as latent cognition. By providing more education to the enlisted sailors in this example, they would be able to assume more of the cognitive workload (organization and procedures) demanded by the technology, thus freeing up the officers to focus more on leadership, warfare skills, and strategy earlier in their careers. Developing and maximizing this latent cognitive talent provides the foundation for modernizing professional naval education.
As we prepare for the future challenges facing the naval services, accelerating information flows will place an increasing demand on organizational decision-making. The only means to overcome this problem is to become comfortable delegating decision-making responsibilities down to lower levels of command. To do so, the naval services must prepare the cognitive skills of the entire force and move beyond our current, yet outdated, bifurcated system.
A second factor which demands the Department of Navy reconsider how it develops enlisted services members is the potential affect of emerging technology. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, and autonomous systems each offer the potential to reshape naval operations. These technologies will either assist us to do our current functions better or they will enable us to do new things. The 3Ds – dull, dirty, or dangerous - are used frequently to describe the types of work currently performed by humans that will transition to smart machines.
Former naval aviator and current director of the Human Autonomy Lab (HAL) at Duke University, Dr. Missy Cummings, offers a different model (illustrated in Figure 1.) to consider how smart machines will merge with the workforce in the near future.
In a Chatham House Study on Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Warfare, Cummings asserts that routine work, that is skills or rules-based, will be done more effectively by machines in the future. As a result, humans will be available to accomplish more complex tasks that deal with greater uncertainty or functions which cannot be modeled in advance. In other words, emerging technology will change the nature of work and the tasks performed today mostly by our enlisted force. We therefore need to prepare for this transition by changing how we view and leverage the full cognitive capacity of our enlisted force. This starts by improving education, training and experiential learning.
Crucially, the ingenuity of our naval leaders must be recognized as a strategic advantage. Over the course of the Department of Navy’s Education For Seapower study, many experts interviewed by the E4S research team noted that naval leaders possess an inherent ability to operate in complex and uncertain environments and take action to solve problems without being bound by doctrine or convention. They know how to decide quickly using incomplete information. This is largely due to organizational culture and the requirement to operate in dispersed formations, where commanders traditionally have a great deal of autonomy.
Given our potential adversaries’ propensity to use deception and misinformation, the cognitive capacity of our military forces will be as important as any weapon system in future warfare. Perception, reasoning, and decision- making are human endeavors and not the result of artificial social distinctions.
Holwitt made an important observation on the competing intellectual demands made on naval officers; to help optimize naval officer performance, we must educate our enlisted force. In order to prepare the naval services for the challenges that loom over the horizon, we are rethinking our entire approach to education. Part of this preparation must be to fundamentally reconsider how to leverage the full cognitive capability of our enlisted force, as they ultimately provide the foundation on which the institution rests.
Mr. Robert Kozloski is a senior analyst on the Education For Seapower team.
The views expressed here are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense or the United States government.