The Navy Needs to Do More Than Rebuild for the Future, It needs to Reinvent Itself

It is time for a Navy-wide campaign to rethink force strategy, design, and culture for competition in a digitized world.

By Frank T. Goertner

When paradigms change, the world itself changes with them. 1

— Thomas Kuhn

Return to great power competition; revisionist powers; renewed capabilities; rebuild our military: such phrases feature prominently in recent U.S. national security guidance. They convey an imperative to look to the past as the nation prepares for a potentially volatile future. For American navalists in particular, they offer nostalgic optimism. Three times in the 20 th Century, the Navy confronted rivals to U.S. sea power and prevailed. As the world returns to similar heights of geo-strategic rivalry, it is tempting for Navy leaders to approach the future via plans to rebuild past success. With concerted effort, the Service can revise known strategies, renew forgone capacity, and return to prior postures for the contests ahead. This approach would appear logical. It would also be a mistake.

The world and its competitive landscape are changing in profound ways. The advance and proliferation of digital technologies among interdependent societies has established digitized information as a new global commodity of unprecedented strategic value. This development is upending competitive norms across and within human enterprises around the world and inspiring new paradigms that will reshape future contests between them. We see this in markets and geopolitics alike.

For the Navy, one such enterprise, this implies that the approaches most pertinent to its future may not be behind it, but around it. This is not to say history is irrelevant. But alongside its lesson, Navy leaders should account for how commercial peers and maritime rivals are preparing their own enterprises for the contests ahead. As important, they should do so free of any assumptions that could self-constrain the Navy’s ambitions for its future within paradigms of its past.

A glance around at the Navy’s peers and rivals suggests that an approach to rebuild for the future is not enough. Navy leaders should promote new competitive paradigms to fully leverage digitized information and harness its strategic value. They need a campaign to rethink force strategy, design, and culture for the contests ahead. In sum, the Navy needs to reinvent itself as a digitized enterprise for the digitized world.

The Market and Its New Norms

“Data [is] to this century what oil was to the last one. . . It changes the rules for markets and it demands new approaches.” 2

-The Economist

Information has always been a source of competitive advantage in the market, but digitized information in a globalized and digitized economy is something new. It is a global commodity that can assume unprecedented levels of strategic value. In industries around the world, control of digitized information has become as – sometimes more – determinative of competitive outcomes than ownership of physical space or manipulation of material goods.

It is a phenomenon that Chris Anderson of WIRED magazine terms 21 st Century Free, 3 and Andrew McAfee and […]