A 96-Year Old Report Can Teach Us About Velocity in Naval Learning


The era between the 20th century’s world wars has become a favorite for recent historical analogy. Writers have harkened back to the kindling of innovation, the introduction of new ideas like the development of aviation, the development of amphibious warfare, the strategic use of submarines, and the emergent role of wireless communications, all while the services struggled with reduced funding for defense. The recent call among American national security leaders to reinvigorate the uses of war games has followed in the wake of these ideas.

If technological innovation was married with doctrinal advances, resting on the developments of the military exercises and war-gaming tables of the era, then perhaps it is time to ask the follow up question: Where did those ideas come from? How did the U.S. military, and other military forces, create the officer corps that would prove so operationally creative at the gaming table, technically adept in introducing new technologies, and practically able when war finally came?

Preparing from the Keel Up

The U.S. Navy provides an interesting history to consider when examining this question. The keel is the very bottom of a ship, the first thing laid down in the construction of a vessel. So deep under water, it is often forgotten. Visitors focus on the armor, sensors, and weapons that adorn the ship above the waterline. While the keel doesn’t shoot anything or find enemies to cue the weapons, if it isn’t strong or laid deep enough, the ship will simply capsize or break up in rough seas.

The keel of the U.S. Navy’s officer corps during the interwar years was a system of education and training developed to mold an officer into the leader the navy and the nation needed. This system was not simply an extension of tradition, or “the way we’ve always done it” made up of a hodgepodge of unquestioned best practices. Instead it was specifically designed by three captains who had risen to prominence during World War I, who studied the issue in depth, and who continued to have an important influence on the navy for decades.

In 1919, immediately following the end of the war, Captains Ernie King, Dudley Knox, and Bill Pye were ordered to form a board to consider the education and training needs of the U.S. Navy’s officers. One of the deficiencies identified in the aftermath of the Great War was an uneven understanding of the strategic and higher operational elements of naval warfare, as well as the lack of professional preparation. Some senior leaders didn’t discover the study of strategy until they had to do it. The Knox-King-Pye Board met to consider the ways officers had been educated and prepared for their jobs in the past, and then assess those past methods with the challenges they perceived in the future. After months of work, they produced a report which became the foundation of the naval officer’s standard career path through World War II.

Ultimately, the Knox-King-Pye Board outlined a career path focused on education as much as training, learning, and development ashore as much as time at sea. The report, formally titled “A Report and Recommendations of a Board Appointed by the Bureau of Navigation Regarding the Instruction and Training of Line Officers,” was published in the pages of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings during the summer of 1920. USNI has kindly made that original available for War on the Rocks (W)Archives readers via their impressive Proceedings Digitization Project.

Naval Education and the Velocity of Learning

The first important observation within the Knox-King-Pye Board report was that advances in technology and weapons in the first decades of the 20th century made the volume of knowledge needed for naval leadership more challenging than it had been previously. Sound familiar?

In terms which precede our modern warnings that things are changing faster and more dangerously than ever, the board recognized that it was no longer possible for naval officers to anticipate or understand all the technological or technical aspects of all elements of naval warfare. From their reading of history, they also understood war as an essentially human phenomenon which could not be resolved through technological solutions or carefully crafted scientific theories or engineered through equations. A certain amount of specialization of the officer corps was required. Aviators would need to be able to spend some part of their career focused purely on aviation. Submariners also had technical skills to master that would require their focus. Surface sailors had so many new weapons and sensors to become proficient in that it required tactical acumen and dedication to learn them all. The purely generalist officer may have been the best of the past, but would be insufficient for the future.

Yet, despite the need for specialization, the authors tacked back toward the generalist mindset in their discussion of the needs of the Navy. The problem with focusing on the technical training is that it does not give officers the grounding in strategy, policy, and national security thinking required as they move up through the ranks toward greater responsibility. When looking at the naval officer of their day, the authors wrote that “at present he is educated only in preparation for the lowest common grade.” The training that came with specialization needed to be balanced by education of a generalist nature, focusing on operational thinking beyond specific tactical communities, strategic reasoning, doctrinal texts, and executive leadership. Ultimately, the Knox-King-Pye Board placed great emphasis on nurturing the well-educated subordinate to seize the initiative. The superficial questions of rank and proximity to higher rank seemed ancillary to the captains, despite holding senior rank and having served on major staffs themselves. Naval professionalism required an overarching naval mindset, one that had to be built through generalist education and which technical focus would distract from.

This need for balance in the naval force, between specialization and generalization, resulted in a career progression that attempted to synthesize service at sea and specialist duties on the one hand, with educational programs and generalist staff duties on the other. As naval professionals progressed through the ranks, the Knox-King-Pye Board envisioned a tiered approach to education, which alternated operational assignments with opportunities for extended studies ashore throughout a career. The board suggested the introduction of three post-graduate education courses beyond the undergraduate education received for commissioning.

First was the General Line Course, which was an academic year of study at the Naval Postgraduate School on subjects relevant to naval service. These included international relations, strategy, the latest weapons technology, and updates on maritime technical advances. Second was the Naval Command and Staff course, roughly equivalent to the junior program which operates under the same name today at the Naval War College. This would prepare officers for their first significant commands and for duty on major staffs. Third was the war college course, or the Senior Course, designed to prepare senior officers to make sound military decisions at the flag level, including both policy and strategy. These courses of study were in addition to a stated need and desire to also send officers to civilian graduate schools, and each curriculum built on what an officer had learned in the previous course. Unlike today’s much more limited efforts at education, this sequence was not considered “nice to have.” The board instead asserted that the government must “require it, in order that the naval service may be maintained in the highest possible degree of efficiency.”

Modern students of military affairs might look at these requirements and question their feasibility. That much technical training, and that much general naval education, as well as attendance at civilian graduate programs, layered on top of the necessary time at sea, simply will not fit inside a naval career. However, it is important to point out the historical variance in the definition of the word “career.” Today’s military professionals operate under a system that assumes 20 years makes a career of service. However, that period is a creation of the downsizing efforts following World War II when vesting for “voluntary retirement” was uniformly reduced to 20 years for both officers and enlisted across the military. Prior to that time, the U.S. military would have considered a 20 year “career” as a laughable and unworkable idea. The Knox-King-Pye report explicitly defines their program as taking place over a “career of forty years’ commissioned service.”

The Search for 21st Century Questions and Answers

The Knox-King-Pye report is a fascinating primary source to consider in light of today’s discussion about modern military personnel policy and education. These captains explicitly took on many of the subjects which are part of our debate today, thought through the implications, and clearly elucidated the principles which would come to govern the U.S. Navy’s officer corps for decades. It was a system that helped produce not only admirals like Nimitz, Halsey, and Spruance who led the Navy through World War II, but also the next generation who led the service into the Cold War like Chief of Naval Operations Bud Zumwalt and the strategist J.C. Wylie.

What happened to this system, which produced not only the naval luminaries of the middle decades of the century but also the creative problem solving and the strategic, operational, and tactical thinking of the period?  Mark Hagerott suggests Hyman Rickover’s ascendency and wresting of control of the submarine force brought on the rise of the technical and tactical communities in the Navy. This combined with the limitation of the length of a “career,”with military wide 20 year vesting, and resulted in the death of the generalist half of naval education and professional preparation. My own experience as a naval aviator — where I was encouraged to “stay in the cockpit” and remain in specialist billets as much as possible while on shore duty, and to consider broadening or generalist opportunities as “career killers” — anecdotally supports the idea that we have lost something.

Admiral Richardson has called for “high velocity learning” in today’s navy to face challenges with the speed the 21st century appears to require. While the organization might need to learn and solve problems at high velocity, the principles illuminated in the Knox-King-Pye report suggest education of the individuals inside the organization takes time. It requires tending of the professional garden through study over the course of an entire career.

Advances in educational methods have introduced new ways to deliver courses using digital media and online learning, even if they don’t necessarily create high velocity. This opens the opportunity to ask questions about how we educate our service members, when we educate them, and how we pay for it. The services have experimented with distance learning. It is reliant on knowledgeable instructors who are highly educated, which the services rarely produce themselves. It does not always work. By instead requiring physical attendance at a school, the services could be diverted from their current path of treating education as a hobby completed in officers’ spare time.  Then again we may want to question whether a single 10-month minimalist master’s degree works even if in a brick-and-mortar school.

The military is also facing the introduction of a new retirement system, without the rigidity of the system that came with the post-war voluntary retirement and the later reforms of the all-volunteer force. This opens the prospect of examining how we define “a career,” both in length and our expectations of an officer or NCO career path. This is an opportunity, and a responsibility, that the military has not faced in decades and something that should not be left to the slow drift of incremental policy guidance.

Perhaps it is time not only to read the Knox-King-Pye report to help us understand how these questions were addressed previously, but also to consider launching our own holistic studies of education, training, and the definition of a career in the 21st century.


BJ Armstrong is an active duty naval officer reading for his PhD with the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London.  He is the editor of the “21st Century Foundations” series from the Naval Institute Press which include his books 21st Century Mahan and 21st Century Sims, as well as David Kohnen’s recent volume 21st Century Knox. These are his views and do not represent those of the U.S. Navy or any part of the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Haley Nace