This essay is the second prize winner from the CNO Naval History Essay Contest in the Professional Historian category. The content of the original essay has been copyedited prior to publication.
WE HAVE A PROBLEM
The United States Navy faces the greatest global threat since the Second World War. Both the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China now possess modern first-rate navies. Both are deploying some of the most capable warships, aircraft, and weapons in the world. They are at sea in every ocean; they have ambitions that encompass the planet.[footnote:footnote0]
But the U.S. Navy is not idle. In the past two years, the Navy commissioned two first-in-class warships: USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000) and USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78). The F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter should soon attain initial operational capability (IOC). These new platforms will supplement or replace aging Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, and F/A-18 Super Hornets that our Navy has relied upon for decades.[footnote:footnote1]
And yet, none of these new platforms are really new. President Clinton named DDG-1000 for Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr. back in July 2000 — the same year our youngest recruits were born. The X-35, the test version of the F-35, flew its first flight later that same year, in October 2000. Ford is little better; Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told the former president that he would be honored with an aircraft carrier in 2006.[footnote:footnote2]
Some might say it takes a long time for such complicated systems to transition from the drawing board to operations. But, during the same time period, the following technologies emerged and matured: the smart telephone, such as Apple’s iPhone; hybrid automobiles, like Toyota’s Prius; and digital entertainment, exemplified by Apple’s iTunes. In short, the Navy’s most-needed acquisitions programs moved at a glacial pace while contemporary technology sprinted forward.[footnote:footnote3]
We have a problem. Faced with great power competition, the U.S. military cannot proceed at a snail’s pace while upgrading its warfighting machine. The Navy’s leadership has made solving this problem a top priority. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson’s Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, Version 2.0, will call for “high velocity outcomes.” In speeches, he has challenged the Navy and industry to progress technology from concept to IOC more swiftly. The CNO’s vision is clear: we need to “get faster.”[footnote:footnote4]
WE HAVE DONE THIS RIGHT BEFORE
The topic of speeding up military acquisitions is not new. Defense and industrial professionals have written numerous articles and books prescribing various solutions. They usually attempt to either find efficiencies in processes already in place or entirely revise the acquisitions process with something new.[footnote:footnote5]
Ironically, the processes in place are products of history. They were instituted by the Department of Defense in the late 1950s and the early 1960s in an attempt to codify the processes that facilitated two of the military’s greatest successes of the 1950s: the swift development of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and the submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).[footnote:footnote6]
But another look at history highlights that these programs relied upon the human element. There was a significant contribution from some of the brightest civilian scientists in the nation at the onset of these projects. Once past inception, uniformed scientists and engineers did much of the design and development. And there was a leadership element: leadership that selected talent, inspired dedication, and shared a common vision. In short, the success of these programs was not about the processes, but about the people who made the processes.
CIVILIAN SCIENTISTS SET THE COURSE
In March 1953, Dr. John von Neumann, along with Dr. Edward Teller, briefed senior leaders in the Air Force that thermonuclear weapon size and weight were decreasing. A veteran of the Manhattan Project, as well as a pioneer of game theory and electronic computers, Von Neumann enjoyed tremendous credibility with the military. After a subsequent discussion with then-Colonel Bernard “Bennie” Schriever and the special assistant to the Secretary of the Air Force for Research and Development, Trevor Gardner von Neumann, chaired a Strategic Missiles Evaluation Committee, often referred to as the “Tea Pot Committee.” His committee’s membership included Clark Millikan, director of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory; Jerome Wiesner, future science adviser to President Kennedy; and George Kistiakowsky, future science advisor to President Eisenhower. Following a review of the advances in nuclear weaponry and the potential of modern rockets, the Tea Pot Committee reported that thermonuclear warheads would soon be small enough and powerful enough to be mounted on ICBMs and carried deep into an adversary’s country.[footnote:footnote7]
Von Neumann’s committee validated the scientific possibility of ICBMs, but it didn’t set national priorities. It took another scientific council to do so. In March 1954, President Eisenhower tasked his Presidential Science Advisory Council (PSAC) with looking into the potential of a nuclear surprise attack and what the United States could do to prevent it. Dr. James Killian, the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), chaired the PSAC subcommittee that investigated this scenario and the technological capabilities into which the United States should consequently invest.[footnote:footnote8] In February 1955, the Killian Committee recommended “[t]he National Security Council formally recognize the present Air Force program for the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile as a nationally supported effort of highest priority… [and t]here be developed a ballistic missile (with about 1,500-nautical-mile range and megaton warhead) for strategic bombardment; both land-basing and ship-basing should be considered.”[footnote:footnote9] The “ship-basing” requirement turned out to be pivotal, for it laid the scientific groundwork for SLBM development.[footnote:footnote10]
But, like the ICBM, it took civilian scientists to set the Navy’s course for the SLBM. In the summer of 1956, the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Undersea Warfare held a summer study at Nobska Point, Woods Hole, Massachusetts, led by Dr. Eric Walker, the President of Pennsylvania State University, and Dr. Columbus O’Donnell Iselin, the director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Admiral I. J. Galantin, who witnessed the presentations, wrote: “Looking at the trend of technology that already produced the atomic bomb and Nautilus, the study…made a very good case that submarines could provide the cheapest, most effective means of naval strategic nuclear weapons delivery.”[footnote:footnote11] The ubiquitous Edward Teller also furthered the Navy’s SLBM project at the conference when he made clear how quickly warhead technology was evolving: “Why are you designing a 1965 weapon system with 1958 warhead technology? [footnote:footnote12]”Later, after the SLBM project gathered steam, the Polaris Steering Task Group continued to set performance goals. Among other notables, the group included Dr. Charles Stark Draper, the father of inertial navigation, and Dr. Harold Brown, director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and future Secretary of Defense.[footnote:footnote13]
THE UNIFORMED ENGINEERS OF VICTORY
Civilian scientists played a tremendous role in setting the course of the ICBM and SLBM programs, but the people who saw these programs to fruition were uniformed scientists and engineers.
In the case of the ICBM, General Bennie Schriever relied upon a group of officers that were known in the Air Force as “Bennie’s colonels.” Neil Sheehan wrote: “They were bold and clever men of initiative, who believed fervently in what ‘the Boss’ was seeking to achieve, and were entrusted with tasks Schriever would not have delegated to anyone else.”[footnote:footnote14]
Bennie’s colonels were an eclectic and unique group of officers. Colonel Ed Hall, an irascible genius, developed advances in rocket fuel, technology, and design that led to the Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman ICBMs, as well as the Thor intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBMs). Colonel Charles “Moose” Mathison built the launch pads at Cape Canaveral that tested numerous missiles and rockets. Mathison went on to become Schriever’s point man for launching prototype spy satellites. Colonel Richard “Jake” Jacobson started off as Schriever’s director of testing, but he ended up taking over the Thor IRBM after a series of failures threatened both Thor as well as the concurrently developed Atlas ICBM. Jacobson introduced strict quality control and maintenance practices, leading to the success of both missiles. Colonel Samuel Phillips took charge of the Minuteman ICBM in order to rapidly progress the missile to operational status.[footnote:footnote15]
The challenges the Polaris team faced were just as daunting, if not more, than those overcome by Bennie’s colonels: designing a reliable missile and launching system that operated underwater and with a moving frame of reference. Consequently, Admiral William “Red” Raborn also sought out the top talent within the Navy. Undoubtedly, Raborn’s best pick was his technical director, Captain Levering Smith. A former line officer who had served in surface ships throughout the Second World War, Smith had given up orders to command a destroyer in order to become an ordnance engineering duty only (EDO) officer. When he reported to Raborn, he was the Navy’s foremost expert on rockets.[footnote:footnote16] Admiral Galantin, director of the Navy’s Special Projects Office, praised Smith as “the indispensable man.” He continued, “His personal absolute integrity and honesty were the foundation of his scientific and engineering excellence.”[footnote:footnote17] Red Raborn was more succinct: “He is the finest scientist in uniform.”[footnote:footnote18]
The uniformed talent that shepherded the ICBMs and SLBMs to fruition was not an accident, but the product of deliberate personnel policy. The services started this development by investing in the postgraduate educations of most of these officers. Hall earned his master’s degree in aeronautical engineering at Caltech. Jacobson earned his master’s degree at the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory under the guidance of Dr. Draper. Phillips earned his master’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Michigan. Smith studied ordnance at the Naval Postgraduate School. Even those who did not earn a postgraduate degree still obtained a more advanced education than they might otherwise have had. Mathison, for example, had dropped out the Naval Academy in order to become an Air Force pilot, but following the Second World War, he earned a BS in aeronautical engineering from the University of Maryland.[footnote:footnote19] Of note, all of the officers attended graduate school or completed college as relatively junior officers, most within the first 10 years of their career and usually at or before the rank of major or lieutenant commander. Additionally, although these officers were scientifically talented, they also had credibility as “operators.”
The Air Force and the Navy also capitalized on these officers’ educations by assigning them to duties that provided additional research and engineering experience. Hall utilized his master’s degree at the Air Development Center, where he worked with the Rocketdyne division of North American Aviation to build and test rocket engines. Jacobson worked with guided missiles and nuclear warheads. Smith served seven consecutive years at China Lake and the White Sands testing grounds, where he developed his expertise with rocketry.[footnote:footnote20]
IT’S STILL ALL ABOUT LEADERSHIP
Raborn and Schriever were more than program managers. Both men had an uncanny ability to pick talent to accomplish impossible tasking. They both inspired exceptional dedication and innovation from their military and civilian workers. As leaders, they arguably should rank alongside such captains of military history like George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, and Chester W. Nimitz.
Neil Sheehan writes that Schriever’s leadership philosophy could be boiled down to: “study a task, identify the right man to solve the problem… then win the man’s loyalty and back him up while he does the job.”[footnote:footnote21] Reflecting his experience under Raborn, Levering Smith expressed an almost identical leadership philosophy: “the various complexities and hindrances can only be overcome by attracting first-rate technical personnel… [who must be] intellectually honest, have undivided loyalty, and be willing for others to carry out the resulting development without detailed direction.”[footnote:footnote22]
Their leadership skill started with picking talent. Both Schriever and Raborn enjoyed almost unrestricted ability to obtain talent from within their services. This was illustrated by an encounter one Air Force major experienced with General Schriever at the Air Research and Development Command in Baltimore, Maryland. The major, on travel from his command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, passed Schriever in a stairwell, not knowing who the then-brigadier general was. Schriever stopped the major, verified his name, and then ordered, without any explanation, “Go back to Wright Field and report to me in California.” The flabbergasted major had to ask a friend to tell him the name of the brigadier general who had just reassigned him. By the time that major had returned to Ohio, he had official orders to Schriever’s organization.[footnote:footnote23]
Having obtained talent, Schriever and Raborn both had to let their subordinates execute their vision without micromanagement. Sometimes this meant remaining patient in the face of failure; when the first Thor IRBMs malfunctioned, Schriever calmly said: “I expect things like this to happen.” Schriever also tolerated what some viewed as insubordination, saying: “Talented people can be difficult. You have to let them do things their way.” But at the same time, both leaders knew when to step in and make a significant personnel change. Schriever, for instance, allowed the brilliant but abrasive Ed Hall to design and commence the initial work on the Minuteman ICBM, before turning the missile’s rapid development over to Samuel Phillips.[footnote:footnote24]
Raborn and Schriever both demonstrated an ability to share a vision with their subordinates and outsiders. Raborn, in particular, instilled esprit de corps in his military subordinates and civilian contractors, providing Polaris pennants for them to fly above participating laboratories and factories. After Raborn delivered an uplifting address to a factory that had fallen behind, its workers drew up a pledge to recommit themselves to the work of Polaris. Raborn did not limit himself to those working on the project; he explained its importance to the families of workers and servicemen, succeeding so brilliantly that one senior officer quipped: “Polaris couldn’t fail because the wives wouldn’t let it.”[footnote:footnote25]
Both leaders utilized a process that worked for them. In Schriever’s case, he used a monthly day-long briefing to review all aspects of his program. During the briefings, Schriever insisted on being told about problems, saying: “I don’t like to be surprised. Give me the bad news. I can take it. I will not fire you for giving me the bad news. I will fire you if you don’t give me the bad news.”[footnote:footnote26] In Raborn’s case, he turned to a computerized process known as the Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) that identified critical path items and a timeline for completion. While historians have debated whether or not Raborn actually relied on PERT or if it was even effective until after the first Polaris SLBMs were in operation, Raborn undoubtedly developed some sort of method for keeping up with those critical path items, for he quickly corrected issues before they grew into problems.[footnote:footnote27]
Finally, Raborn, Schriever, and their dedicated personnel succeeded because they enjoyed the proper oversight and support from the highest echelons of their leadership. Trevor Gardner, the special assistant to the Secretary of the Air Force for Research and Development, handpicked Schriever to take charge of the Air Force’s ICBM program, assuring him that he would insulate Schriever from the interference of bureaucrats from the Pentagon. Gardner was true to his word; after Schriever identified dozens of layers of management that were hindering his ability to rapidly complete the project, Gardner worked with the Air Force and Defense secretaries to eliminate the red tape and speed up the project. It was due to Gardner’s influence that Schriever obtained the authority to requisition personnel and resources to the remarkable extent that he did.[footnote:footnote28]
In Raborn’s case, his service chief, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke, provided a model of mission command in a memorandum that became known as “Red Raborn’s hunting license.” The memorandum provided Raborn the CNO’s authority with regard to personnel assignment, resource allocation, and the weightiest of decisions in the program. Burke backed up the memorandum with a one-on-one meeting, during which he made clear to Raborn that there was a limit to his assignment: “If you reach the stage where you cannot do this thing, we will kill the project.” Armed with Burke’s expectations, special trust, and confidence, Raborn set off to accomplish his mission. Burke, himself, was content to let Raborn run the program with virtually no interference. His most important contribution for the next five years was determining which programs to cut in order to fund the growing cost of Polaris.[footnote:footnote29]
PEOPLE NOT PROCESS
John von Neumann’s briefing in March 1953 established the concept for the ICBM program. Five-and-a-half years later, in August 1958, the Thor IRBM deployed to Great Britain. Six-and-a-half years later, in September 1959, the Air Force manned the first Atlas battery. And less than 10 years after Neumann’s testimony, in October 1962, the Minuteman ICBM entered service. The Navy did just as well, starting the Special Projects Office in December 1955 and successfully launching two Polaris missiles from USS George Washington (SSBN-598) in July 1960.[footnote:footnote30]
Little wonder then that the Defense Department sought to codify the lessons of these programs. But these programs did not succeed because of a process. As Michael Isenberg noted, “good people make management — not the reverse. In Special Projects, people, more than anything else, were the method.”[footnote:footnote31] Unfortunately, because military acquisitions has focused on process to the near-exclusion of people, it would be almost impossible to replicate the timely success of these programs today.
Since the early 1960s, military-scientific collaboration has atrophied. Part of this was due to the Second World War generation of scientists, who had grown accustomed to military-scientific collaboration, passing from the scene. Part of this was due to the disillusionment of civilian academics with the U.S. government during the Vietnam War. In more recent times, the collaboration of anthropologists with the U.S. counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan has drawn significant criticism, discouraging further participation by scientists.[footnote:footnote32] Consequently, one would be hard-pressed to identify any present-day von Neumanns or Drapers contributing to the national defense, although some civilian research institutions have maintained a strong relationship with the military.
Similarly, while the Navy and Air Force still have uniformed scientists and engineering specialists, none have taken on the same sort of challenges that Smith, Hall, or Jacobson did. Indeed, many programs are now run by “acquisitions professionals,” who may have a significant amount of management experience, but not necessarily a lot of experience with research and development until late in their careers. While the services still send promising line officers to graduate education early in their career, in the case of the Navy, only about half of line officers utilize the subspecialties they earned.[footnote:footnote33]
But, just because we could not replicate Polaris or Atlas today doesn’t mean it would be impossible to do so tomorrow, provided that we start taking the right steps now.
During the Second World War, the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army Air Forces, General of the Army Henry “Hap” Arnold, cultivated a strong relationship with Dr. Theodore von Kármán, the first recipient of the American National Medal of Science, writing: “I believe the security of the United States of America will continue to rest in part in developments instituted by our educational and professional scientists.”[footnote:footnote34] At Arnold’s request, von Kármán recruited a team of brilliant scientists who wrote a multi-volume tome called Toward New Horizons, which laid the groundwork for the Air Force’s expansion into the jet age, missiles, and space.[footnote:footnote35] Just like Arnold with von Kármán, Schriever with von Neumann, Eisenhower with the PSAC, or Burke with the Nobska Point scientists, today’s senior leaders should take the time to establish relationships with some of the top minds in science. This could include greater involvement with the National Science Foundation and more distinguished scientific advisory boards.
The services should continue to send interested and talented officers to some of the best technical graduate schools. This should not be interpreted as a call to only send military officers to science and engineering programs. After all, a well-balanced military benefits from strategic thinkers with a humanities background. But, at the same time, uniformed scientists like Smith or Hall cannot exist unless they are well educated. And once educated, these officers must utilize their education and gain experience. In the case of the Navy, if the Navy personnel database does not contain enough detail to facilitate effective utilization, then the Chief of Naval Personnel should convene a task force to comb service records and solicit transcripts to find modern-day Halls, Jacobsons, and Smiths.
Finally, service chiefs need to identify today’s ICBM or SLBM program. They need to be intimately involved in the selection of that program’s manager, provide clear guidance and empowerment, and obtain the necessary funding to accomplish the program. And just like Admiral Burke, they must also possess the courage to kill a project that does not perform in a timely manner.
Tomorrow’s Red Raborn or Bennie Schriever is already on active duty. The moment when our nation will need them is fast approaching, if it is not already here. But in order to provide them the conditions their 1950s predecessors exploited, the Department of Defense needs to act now. The technological potential of the future is vast beyond imagining. The threats facing the United States are just as great. As the CNO has said, we need to “get faster.” It is time to dust off Red Raborn’s hunting license.
Lieutenant Commander Joel Holwitt is the Capability Development Department Head at the Undersea Warfighting Development Center Tactical Analysis Group. He is an active duty submarine officer who has served in four fast-attack nuclear submarines. A 2003 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he earned a PhD in history from Ohio State University. He is the author of Execute Against Japan: The U.S. Decision to Conduct Unrestricted Submarine Warfare (Texas A&M University Press, 2009), as well as other articles and book reviews published in Proceedings, Submarine Review, Journal of Military History, and Naval History.