Preparing Sailors to think critically as agile, learning leaders is the foundation for several new revitalizing initiatives for the Naval Education Enterprise, announced by the Department of the Navy in February with its release of the Education for Seapower (E4S) report, along with the Secretary of the Navy’s action memorandum for its establishment.
Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer intends to unify all the department’s educational institutions into a "Naval University System," beginning with a Naval Community College to enhance pathways to higher education for enlisted Sailors. In this bold move, the United States Naval Academy, the Naval War College, Marine Corps University, Naval Postgraduate School, and the curricula of the Naval Reserve Officers' Training Corps and Service Officer Candidates Schools will be at the core of the Naval University System, resulting in a more cohesive whole.
The Naval Education Enterprise will be led through a tripartite approach. A civilian staff assistant – the Department’s Chief Learning Officer, or CLO, – will advise naval leaders on all matters related to learning, direct funding decisions, and form partnerships with the nation’s leading colleges and universities. A three-star admiral position, the director of warfighting development (OPNAV N7), will be the “sole resource sponsor and strategic leader for Navy education.” The flag officer filling this role is expected to work with the Marine Corps Deputy Commandant for Combat Development and Integration (DC CDI) to ensure that all aspects of learning are fully integrated into a coherent naval strategy. Together, they will construct an effective learning ecosystem which prepares the naval services for the future operational environment.
The central premise is to create a more flexible education model based on shorter and more frequent periods of education that yield certifications and courses that will be aggregated (or stacked) for graduate degrees along the course of a seafaring naval career, in addition to greater in-residence opportunities, for both officers and enlisted personnel, to be administered by the Naval University System.
The review findings drew heavily from the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which emphasized the return of great power competition and countering rogue states – a fundamental change from 17 years of war against violent extremism. Further, the NDS observed that military education has become “stagnant” in its preparation of leaders.
The report stated the combination of the strategic complexities of the Cognitive Age and rapidly advancing technologies represents an inflection point that must be leveraged by changing the current emphasis on how the DON educates leaders to be highly proficient in strategic thinking and analysis, the technologies they will employ, as well as professional warfighting competence.
Technologies Changing the 21st Century Battlespace
The Cognitive Age is defined in the study “as an era in human evolution when individual and organizational prosperity and survival are predicated on one’s ability to keep pace with a rapidly changing information environment. As the limits of human ability to process information, reason, and use knowledge are reached, technology will begin replicating, and exceeding, the human mind in specific domains of expertise.”
While at the same time, in an age of shifting geo-political narratives and uncertainty, naval leaders must make rapid decisions informed by their collective operational and tactical knowledge and critical thinking ability. The study further stated naval officers must be both warfighters and diplomats able to operate and interface with populations armed with an understanding of local languages, cultural norms and traditions.
The NEE vision outlines the desired outcomes of these sweeping changes to education: producing leaders of character, integrity, and intelligence steeped not only in the art of war, the profession of arms, and the history and traditions of the naval service, but also with a broader understanding of the technologies available to assure success in war, peace and grey zone conflict — and officer and enlisted leaders of every rank who can think critically, communicate clearly, and are imbued with a bias for decisive and ethical action.
To this end, naval leaders require knowledge of emerging and advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning; quantum computing; cyberspace; hypersonic weapons; directed energy; additive manufacturing; naval application of blockchain technologies and advanced materials; autonomous systems; and robotics and automation. Likewise, naval leaders must be able to evaluate the costs and feasibility of employing such technologies for the greatest strategic and tactical advantage.
Modernizing the Naval Education Enterprise
To ensure the Naval University System is both agile and adaptive, the DON must make better use of available technology to deliver education outside of the standard brick and mortar classroom, according to study participants. The NEE must develop a robust digital backbone to support modern education. Investments should be made in the latest technologies for effective online learning, in virtual reality, gamification, cloud computing (because of its ability to surge collaboration); mobility technology (such as educational apps and tablets pre-loaded with mathematical apps and online textbooks to access information and conduct research); and MOOCs, or Massively Open Online Courses, for example.
At the same time, the DON must provide relevant experiential learning opportunities for personnel to reinforce educational objectives and develop a flexible transcript system to account for this type of learning.
The study stated that curricula across the Naval University System will be examined to ensure its operational relevance to fleet needs and the strategic intent of the Secretary of the Navy and Defense Department.
The NEE will also institute metrics to measure the effectiveness of its new model for training and education and its return on investment in terms of costs; quality of courses, faculty and students; and graduation and promotion rates—along with mechanisms for sharing insights and best practices among the DON’s learning institutions.
Changing Workforce Culture to Embrace Lifelong Learning
The study emphasized that lifelong education is vital for the agility, strategic viability, and long-term lethality of naval fighting forces. A career of professional naval service crosses decades, and service members will experience fundamental changes in technology, weapons and systems, international relations, and the very character of war during that time. To keep pace with change – which is ever accelerating – Sailors and Marines require education and continuous learning throughout a naval career.
For officers, this suggests that the current norm of an undergraduate degree before commissioning and a single 10-month accelerated executive course of graduate study is wholly inadequate to create the operational and strategic leaders needed for the modern Navy and Marine Corps. For both officers and enlisted service members, a more organized and holistic view of service educational opportunities may be required, especially with the advent of the Blended Retirement System, the study found.
The Education for Seapower study was a clean-sheet review of naval learning and focused on flagship institutions like the U.S. Naval Academy, Naval Postgraduate School, and Naval and Marine War Colleges, along with a fresh look at the relationships with civilian academic institutions and corporate learning structures.
The study was directed last year by Secretary of the Navy Spencer and led by the Under Secretary of the Navy, Thomas B. Modly. Members of the Education for Seapower Executive Board, included distinguished leaders and reformers such as retired U.S. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, Ambassador Barbara Barrett, retired U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Ann Rondeau, and Dr. Harlan Ullman. The E4S study was the first comprehensive look at naval education since the 1920 Knox-Pye-King review.
At the West conference in San Diego, in February, Mr. Modly observed, “The prioritization, as it should be over the last several years, has been around readiness, and education, I think, has not been considered a part of that readiness equation at a high enough level. But I think that’s a little short-sighted, and I think that’s what the study found… because at some point if we don’t educate our people properly, it’s going to have a huge impact on readiness.”