On War #226
July 16, 2007
Tordenskjold Sails Again
By William S. Lind
Last Friday's Boyd Conference at Quantico was the best-attended to date, and, thanks to a visitor from across the pond, one of the most encouraging. That visitor was a delegation from the Royal Norwegian Naval Academy in Bergen, Norway, a handsome and historic town I have had the pleasure of visiting more than once.
I am sure I was not the only person surprised to find the Norwegian Navy manning the registration desk when the conference opened. It was a nice touch, and a commentary on the U.S. military's total lack of interest both in John Boyd's work and in Fourth Generation war, which was the focus of this conference. As usual at such events, almost all the U.S. military participants were Marine Corps captains, among whom the Boydian flame still flickers.
In marked contrast, Boyd is Big Stuff in Norway, as is 4GW. The Norwegians made their presentation at an informal second session of the conference on Saturday, and it was the best news many of us have heard in a long time. Quite simply, the Norwegian Navy is completely recasting the curriculum of their Naval Academy based on Boyd's work.
At present, their efforts are focused on the cadets’ first year, which is exactly correct: if the academy can develop the right mind-set at the beginning, when the cadets' minds are most open, they will have largely won the battle. The key to that, in turn, is to put cadets in situations full of ambiguity and uncertainty, situations for which they have not been prepared, then help them more or less as needed (the less, the better) to find their own ways out.
That is just what the academy is doing, in a wide variety of ways. Many of the practical exercises are done ashore, which is fine; mind-sets can be developed anywhere, not just at sea.
The Norwegians impressed all of us with a lesson they had learned inadvertently. At the beginning of their reform of the curriculum, they said, things got screwed up unintentionally more than once, as is inevitable with major change. The cadets had to unscrew it themselves. Doing so proved to be such a powerful learning experience that now the faculty creates deliberate screw-ups. We could hear John Boyd cackling his approval and delight; the faculty as well as the students had learned how to learn.
I shared with the Norwegians an idea I had come up with during a visit to the U.S. Naval Academy, where the education is as rigid as it is fluid in Norway. How about paintball at sea? Like all naval schools, the Norwegian Academy has small sailboats in which cadets learn basic seamanship. If a paintball gun were mounted on each broadside so the elevation could be changed but not the aim, the sailboat would become an 18th century warship. Naval paintball battles would require the cadets to rediscover and employ 18th century naval tactics, for both single ships and fleets. At least in Great Britain's Royal Navy, those tactics were highly fluid by century's end; maneuver warfare was actually developed at sea before it was born on land. The Norwegians loved the idea and said they would do it; at Annapolis, the midshipmen I suggested it to also loved it but said it would never happen, because they aren't supposed to have fun.
The Norwegians told us they faced a different challenge in extending their Boyd-based curriculum revisions into the academy's second and third years, where much of the instruction is in regular academic subjects such as ,mathematics and English. In teaching English, I suggested, there is one easy solution: have the cadets learn English by reading and writing about naval fiction that teaches maneuver warfare thinking, such as C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower series and C. Northcote Parkinson's excellent naval novels, both set in the age of sail. Could mathematics also be taught with reference to naval tactics, without becoming Jominian? It is a question someone more skilled in math than myself might want to consider.
I have no doubt that along with John Boyd, Norway's greatest naval commander, Tordenskjold, is looking down on the revolution underway at the Royal Norwegian Naval Academy and smiling. The Boyd-based curriculum the academy is implementing might end up producing lots of Tordenskjolds, a man noted for breaking the rules and thereby getting results. While Norway's navy is small compared to that of the United States, it is pioneering a path which the U.S. Navy would do well to follow.
Will we ever see this sort of flexibility and open-mindedness become dominant in the Pentagon and the U.S. military as a whole?