Navy's new 'Age of the Mind' initiative is critical to defense

Navy's new 'Age of the Mind' initiative is critical to defense
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The U.S. Navy’s recent decision to focus on “Education for Seapower” comes not a minute too soon. The initiative, announced last week, seeks to organize the many disparate education programs offered to Navy and Marine Corps enlisted and commissioned members alike at various stages of their careers under one Naval University System. It is an effort whose primary aim is to ensure that every member of the Department of the Navy maximizes their opportunity to gain useful education, from associate’s degrees offered through new “Navy Community Colleges,” to doctorates offered through the Naval War College, the Naval Postgraduate School and other affiliated universities.

In short, it’s a move to facilitate every sailor and Marine reaching their intellectual potential, thereby bolstering the human foundation of American seapower in the decades ahead. Such an investment will be critical as the nation moves into the coming era of great power competition with China and Russia.

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Much will be written about the administrative aspects of the initiative, the creation of a  three-star Naval University president, a civilian Fortune 500-like “chief learning officer” and an “N7” flag or general resourcing leader. Some will ask questions about how long it will take to implement the initiative, whether it is budget neutral, or if it simply will add another layer of bureaucracy to the Department of the Navy. Many of these questions will come from uniformed leaders of the Navy, who over the past two generations have favored engineering-based approaches to problem-solving rather than deeper intellectual examination.

Resistance also will come from entrenched civilian bureaucrats who instinctively seek to oppose new initiatives that threaten established programs. But the real focus ought to be on the intended goal of this initiative: More intellectually prepared sailors and Marines.

Make no doubt of it, this next era will be dominated by the mind. Thus far, the Navy has divided its history into the “Age of Sail,” the “Age of Steam,” the “Nuclear Age,” and most recently, the “Missile Age.” What comes next will be the “Age of the Mind,” as sensors and networks make ships, aircraft (manned and unmanned) and weapons extensions of the human brain, with its unique ability to recognize complex patterns and respond in an innovative manner at the speed of thought.

In a world in which ongoing advances in machine autonomy will be catalyzed by rapid progress in artificial intelligence, a core element of securing seapower advantage in the future likely will be linking the human mind with increasingly capable machines in innovative ways. Our enemies no longer study American doctrine; they know we won’t use it in war anyway.

An important aspect of the Education for Seapower report is its emphasis on the importance of critical thinking and strategic education. Inundated by quarterly business reports, weekly sporting events and hourly news cycles, Americans have become far too shortsighted. There always has been an assumption that Americans will handle the future when they get there, and while there is some historical basis for this perspective, it seems increasingly unlikely to hold true in the future.

The nation needs a new generation of naval leaders who can think deeply and across the span of time stretching before us, to address the strategic challenges facing the nation. It needs leaders who have a multidisciplinary understanding of history and science, who appreciate the impact of economics and demographics, and who can see various historic streams and scenarios with clarity that comes only with true critical thought. Such skills have become scarce in an age where annual budgets, bumper stickers and PowerPoint slides substitute for analysis and strategic formulation.

That is why the new Education for Seapower is necessary and must be nurtured to ensure its continuance beyond the next two or six years of the present administration. While pursuing an education in a specific academic discipline is important, the final degree is not the most important product. It is far more important for education to teach sailors and Marines how to reason for themselves, as well as to afford them the opportunity to learn how they, as individuals, best learn.

This is the life skill, the training and disciplining of the human mind to take in information, organize it, and then utilize it under changing circumstances. It is this goal that the secretary of the Navy’s new program seeks to achieve. To adopt and amend a quotation applied to Winston Churchill, in an age where war will occur literally at the speed of thought, Education for Seapower seeks to mobilize the full potential of the human mind and send it into battle.

Jerry Hendrix is vice president of Telemus Group and a retired Navy officer with experience in strategy, force structure planning, carrier strike group operations and anti-submarine warfare. He has held posts with senior staffs including the Chief of Naval Operations Executive Panel, the secretary of Defense’s Office of Force Development, and the Office of Net Assessment.