The following are Under Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly’s prepared remarks for the National Aviation Symposium at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida, May 10, 2018.
Thank you for the kind introduction, and thank you for the honor of addressing you today at this Naval Aviation Symposium. 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, a bond to the heritage of naval aviation, 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.
— Under Sec of US Navy (@USNavyUnderSec) May 11, 2018
To the spouses who are here with you today, I have nothing but appreciation and respect for the sacrifices you have made over the course of your own “tours” in the Navy and Marine Corps. Robyn and I are so proud and grateful for the opportunity to share some time with you here in the Cradle of Naval Aviation. Our active-duty career in the Navy was relatively short. In fact, Robyn and I met just a few days after my last flight as a helicopter aircraft commander on board the USS Nassau. We never experienced the separation that many of you have – although, I am pretty sure Robyn may have enjoyed that separation from me on occasion.
Nonetheless, 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. We have all witnessed incredible changes together during the past four 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.
This museum is a highly appropriate place focus our attention and inspire our thinking in this regard. This place literally sings of our passion for the sea, and for the air: to fly, fight, and lead, with a sacred purpose, with a love for a special calling that sometimes rivals that of our families, especially when crises arise, and duty calls.
One of our most famous naval aviators, President George H.W. Bush, evinced that kind of tension in a love letter to his future bride, the late Mrs. Barbara Bush. In fact, he wrote the following to her, while still in flight school:
“My darling Bar, for a long time I had anxiously looked forward to the day when we would go aboard and set to sea. It seemed that obtaining that goal would be all I could desire for some time, but Bar, you changed all that. I cannot say that I do not want to go – for that would be a lie. We have been working for a long time with a single purpose in mind, to be so equipped that we could meet and defeat our enemy.”
How many of us tonight are fortunate enough to look across the room and see someone who “changed all that”, too!
And I would say all of us are just as fortunate – and proud – to have walked in President Bush’s footsteps. He personified that love, that singular purpose. Even after the enemy riddled his aircraft, he still accomplished his mission – before being rescued at sea.
But he also personified leadership, and continuous focus on national strategy especially when, at the pinnacle of the free world, he imagined a new world order after the fall of the Berlin Wall: when finally, the Soviet red star set in defeat on the horizon, something neither I nor my classmates, commissioned only six years before, would have ever believed possible.
Some of us – most of us, I’d say, with naval aviation in our blood – feel fortunate to be born into one of history’s inflection points like this.
The Post Vietnam era that lead to the Reagan defense build-up was one. The end of the Cold War was another. But, it was the end of the First World War, exhibiting the potential of airplanes, torpedoes and submarines to change the battlespace, that formed the genesis of this community’s impact on our maritime strategy that persists to this day.
And, today, I truly believe we are living in another historical inflection point of technological and social change, as well as near-peer, great power conflict:
Another age where, as Secretary Mattis rightly warns us, there is no room for complacency:
Another time, when we have earned no preordained right for victory.
In this time, in this age, we have no choice but to innovate, to take risks, to apply America’s most precious resource, our God-given talents, educated and groomed in the service of our Nation, in order to assure a competitive advantage.
Tonight, I want to talk to you about why that innovation is so critical, especially at this new inflection point in history. I want to share how your leadership must push for a more agile force now, more than ever. And I want to discuss why what we believe about a culture of learning matters so much: how it may be the most critical piece of creating lasting legacies of innovation for our children, and grandchildren.
First, we have great reason to be proud, and that pride stands on the shoulders of those who went before us, as this museum vitally reminds us. We have been blessed with leaders who took great personal and professional risk, not only in mastering their aircraft and carrier aviation at the fighting edge of freedom, but also to advance the craft of aviation warfare, and national survival itself.
For most folks, the aircraft carrier and blue-water operations today seem not merely as a part of our naval service, but an assumed national treasure, one that our nation can consistently rely upon to extend our power and our presence to any distant shore. And it is not just with the force of bombs, and missiles and gunfire that this presence asserts itself. Rather, it is through the people whom these massive hulls contain.
Recently Robyn and I had the pleasure of hosting the Vietnamese ambassador and his wife on a tour of the USS George H.W. Bush as a precursor to the USS Carl Vinson’s historic visit to Vietnam just a few weeks ago. The Vinson’s visit was the first time a U.S. aircraft carrier made a port visit to Vietnam since the Vietnam War. When I entered the Naval Academy in 1979, such an event was not even imaginable. By all accounts, the visit was a tremendous success. But, as Ambassador Vinh explained to me last week, for all of its size and majesty as it sat anchored in Danang Harbor, the Vinson’s biggest impact during the visit was the interaction between her crew and the Vietnamese people who welcomed her to Danang. This is why our Navy, and naval aviation, is so special. It is the Sailors and Marines who enable us to fly and traverse great oceans, but also it is those same Sailors and Marines who also extend our presence from the seas and into the hearts of former adversaries, like the Vietnamese, and help us build relationships founded on trust and mutual interests.
Thanks to each of you, that intrinsic value of our forward presence continues to thrive and grow, but as you well know, it wasn’t always this way. It took innovation and serious contemplations about the future to get us to the maritime capabilities that enable such interactions today.
For even right here in the cradle of aviation, our naval services’ ideas about war at sea centered around Alfred Thayer Mahan’s center of mass, of lines of battleships deterring enemy main forces, keeping them at bay, or if need be, destroying them altogether.
But that was all before some innovative young aviators started writing in the pages of naval and national journals alike, arguing for their seniors to contemplate the future of warfare from the sea:
They imagined the vast reach and striking power of the future aircraft carrier, despite being hamstrung by the Washington Naval Conference treaty of 1922, and later, the economic austerity of the early 1930s.
Yet, in fact, these aviation leaders saw those two decades of post-World War I isolationism, treaties that limited ships and overseas bases, and a crippling Great Depression not as a wall to blunt their dreams, but as a challenge to overcome: an opportunity to seize.
What made the largest difference in gradually accepting and expanding the role of naval aviation was the fact that senior officers, like each of you, came to believe in and share the passion and the logic of those youthful aviation enthusiasts.
One set of historians, who focused on military innovation between World Wars One and Two, and especially upon the rise of carrier aviation, noted that for innovation to survive it was critical that senior military leaders not only fence off necessary resources and funding, but also to ensure “viable career paths to attract and retain bright young officers.”
And of course, that’s exactly what Rear Adm. William Moffett did. Admiral Moffett was the hand-picked first chief of the new Bureau of Aeronautics for its first 12 years before he himself paid the ultimate sacrifice – in a tragic accident on board the USS Akron.
He and other leaders like him led a decentralized atmosphere, one of collegiality and equality, where good ideas had no rank, qualities of a special family, one we readily recognize as our inheritance. And from their work came those common symbols of our heritage that we share today:
The first warfare emblem, our wings of gold.
Our distinctive uniforms.
Our professional pride as naval aviators, specializing in war at sea, from the air.
Our edict to Fly, Fight, and Win.
One commentator noted that Rear Adm. Moffett “Tackled the subject with almost fanatical zeal, supported by the whole nation from the President downwards.” But Moffett also personified that generational and intellectual bridge from battleship to naval aviation: From centralized to decentralized warfare – from past to future.
In fact, right here, in this very museum, there is a picture from March 1921 where he accepted a sword from his battleship crew on the USS Mississippi, the ship which he commanded. He was a “battleship guy,” a black shoe, so to speak, but he recognized that circumstances had changed — that adversaries had changed, that technology had changed, and ultimately that our Navy needed to change.
It was Rear Adm. Moffett’s open mind and zeal for innovation, his leadership and his courage that helped to turn what might have been 20 years of naval doldrums into opportunity – and a main cause for our victory in the Pacific in the next Great War.
And as much as individual leadership matters to inspire innovation, it is also necessary to think around corners of the future, and create the institutional means to experiment and learn faster, inside the loops of our potential adversaries.
That leads to my second point: the changes we need now must inspire and perpetuate the kind of processes that brings our intellectual capital into a center of mass, where it matters most for our Navy and Nation.
I am certain many of you are aware of the importance of war-gaming at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, during the interwar years between World War I and II. When Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz spoke of these games in 1965, he recalled that
“The enemy of our games was always Japan, and the courses were so thorough that after the start of World War II, nothing that happened in the Pacific was strange or unexpected.”
Today, in our hyper-complex, ever-more interconnected world, we cannot allow ourselves to focus solely on a single adversary— because we are faced with a full and broad spectrum of them. None of them are true superpowers, but many of them do possess “superpowers” when you consider their disruptive, and destructive, potential. More accurately stated, our biggest enemy today and for the foreseeable future is uncertainty. Therefore, our greatest defense against it will be our own unpredictability – and, more fundamentally, our own agility.
That means we must think anew, and act anew, about the way we prepare for war, so that we, too, are ready for the strange and unexpected — because frankly what is unexpected is what we should expect. And again we can look to our shared heritage for inspiration:
Our naval leaders between the world wars created a “virtuous cycle” of operational learning between naval intelligence, war-gamers in Newport, war planners on the CNO’s staff, and experimenting and challenging those solutions in fleet exercises: where the officers and Sailors of the fleet practiced the plans that they might have to execute.
It was in experimentation with carrier aircraft that this cycle mattered most before World War Two. Through these exercises they refined air operations based on tactical war gaming at Newport, using hard data, hypothesizing and then experimenting with proofs.
One historian illustrated this cycle vividly as an “interactive, evidence-based institutional process that involved the General Board, the Bureau of Aeronautics, war planners in the office of the chief of naval operations, active aviators in the fleet, and through annual exercises, the fleet itself.”
And we don’t have to look far from this very spot to view another inspiring example of institutional, Joint innovation: a replica of one of the 16 B-25s that then-Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle’s crews launched from the USS Hornet and flew in a raid over Tokyo, a few short months after the attacks on Pearl Harbor.
Daunting as it is to stand on the shoulders, or even reference those giants of the greatest generation, it’s important to remember that this kind of innovation is not only part of our collective heritage, it’s in our DNA.
And after 16 years of asymmetric warfare, we clearly need to adjust again — and adjusting after years, or even decades of doing things a certain way, can be difficult and painful. But we need to muster the same courage as those 16 crews demonstrated when they headed for Tokyo, knowing full well that many would never come back. They went anyway, because they knew the moment required it. This moment requires it, too.
We have a lot to be proud of, but perhaps, as we’ve become used to unstable budgets, readiness bathtubs, and the like, we may have lost our focus on how critical that culture of learning is for our institution.
I know you’ve spent this week at AFOTS looking hard at our processes: how to make them stronger, more useful, and more lethal to face our growing maritime responsibilities. I hope you challenged traditional paradigms and thought about how you elevate and empower those young innovators within your commands – regardless of rank, and indifferent to traditional career paths. You know who they are. And I can’t wait to hear how you plan to do it, and how, specifically, I can help.
Finally, I want to take a minute or two to talk about what we as leaders must believe about education and learning itself. How we address this issue matters critically to our ability to develop the agile forces and people we need. From my perspective, this is the most critical aspect of what the CNO calls “The Navy the Nation Needs.”
As you may know, I’ve announced an Education for Seapower study that will take a clean sheet, top-to-bottom look at how we educate our people for greater agility, effectiveness, and lethality.
This will be a hard look at our processes and culture, led by me, the vice chief, the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps and a cast of luminaries from the national security and educational professions. The executive panel we have assembled to help us with this effort includes Adm. Mike Mullen, Gen. John Allen, Ambassador Barbara Barrett, Vice Adm. Anne Rondeau and Dr. Harlan Ullman. The study has generated so much interest that we have also attracted Newt Gingrich, Sen. Bob Kerrey, and Larry Bacow, the newly elected president of Harvard University, and many others to serve as senior reviewers and contributors to the study.
The complex environment that Secretary Mattis so aptly described in that same 2018 National Defense Strategy demands that we think anew about how we educate our people. 100 years ago, those learning strategies were reimagined, and redesigned, by three naval officers:
Captains Dudley Knox, Bill Pye and Ernest King, in their seminal report on Naval Education published in 1920.
Captain King, whom we all know as Fleet Admiral and CNO Ernest King, is the same Ernest King who later relieved Adm. Moffett at the Bureau of Aeronautics after his tragic death. He, along with the other two captains on the study developed what many believe was the most consequential revolution in naval education we’ve experienced as an institution.
The Knox-King-Pye 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 decision making.
Again, it’s our heritage that should continue to inspire us, and just as their report compelled new thinking in the last century, our current circumstances require us to again rethink and determine how to build a true “learning culture” in our naval services, and embrace it as a core value.
As many of you know, “Ex Scientia Tridens” is the motto of the Naval Academy. Those words translated mean “Through Knowledge, Sea Power.” As we think about education and its role in the future of our sea services, no words seem more relevant to me than these. Because 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 culture that rewards people who thirst for it.
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. It is one that produces Sailors and Marines who are prepared to excel in circumstances that are characterized by uncertainty, and by adversaries who are unpredictable.
So although I have no preconceived ideas of what our Education for Seapower Study may find, I do believe that the study’s recommendations will reveal an opportunity to take advantage of this moment in history to institute changes as monumental as the changes we foresee in our security environment well into this century.
I am convinced that our enduring maritime advantage is, and will continue to be, almost entirely dependent upon our agility. By extension, it will dependent upon the agility of the people we educate now to lead it. I have confidence that we have the ability to do this, but it takes commitment and a persistent push by leadership to make it agility a reality.
Truly it’s all of you – this critical mass of leadership here tonight that will – that must – break the mold of our past assumptions, think anew and lead us through another American maritime century, one that our forebears would be proud to see, and recognize as their own. Most importantly, you have the responsibility to identify the “current day Captain Pyes, Captain Kings and Captain Knoxes”– those who are willing to think differently and shape the force we need now– and decades from now. And as you look for them, you probably need to set your nose below the horizon –below the O-6 level.
In this process, great ideas should have no rank.
Just one look across this magnificent museum is enough to tell us, and moreover, to inspire us, about how much can be accomplished when we unbound our imaginations and allow ourselves to think creatively – and differently than those who are wedded to the status quo.
And only one look, at each other, across these tables, is more than enough to remind us, why our love for this profession, and our love for our families, are really not at odds at all.
They are intertwined.
They must be.
And they should be.
For you, our senior leaders, our spouses and families, both officers and enlisted alike, whose lives of service have been so consequential, I thank you with all the respect and admiration one can muster.
It is your shared journeys of leadership, innovation, and courage that represent both our heritage, and our destiny.
In closing I will reference George H.W. Bush and the former first lady once more as in recent days we have had the occasion to both mourn Mrs. Bush’s passing while also celebrating their family’s contributions to our national defense. Mrs. Bush only kept one letter in her engagement scrapbook, and it was the last thing remaining amongst all the many things Lt. Bush sent her during the war.
In that letter he wrote what I know so many of you have felt over the course of your careers,
“I do want to go because it is my part, but now leaving presents itself not as an adventure but as a job which I hope will be over before long. Even now with a good while between us and the sea, I am thinking of getting back.”
We all yearn to get back, to return to the loves of our lives.
But today we must look forward — to prepare our Navy for this century so that those we send in the decades ahead can fulfill their own dreams of “getting back” safely to the ones they love here in the greatest nation on earth.
On behalf of our president, and the secretary of the Navy, allow me to thank each of you again for your patriotic journey, beckoned by a grand calling: returning always to these bonded loves of family and service – past, present and future.
May God bless you all, and may God bless the Sailors and Marines who go in harms way every day to keep us safe – and free.
Go Navy! Beat Army! Thank you for listening, and good night.