Pen#3 Conversation with Admiral James Stavridis, USN (retd.) on Future War

Guest: Admiral James Stavridis, USN (retd.), PhD

The Jeune École (@JeuneEcole_Pod) team sat down with Admiral James Stavridis to discuss the future of war, the US Space Force and professional military education ahead of the launch of his new book 2034: A Novel of the Next World War.

Your new book 2034: A Novel of the Next World War is due out on the 9th March. Until we can read it, what do you see as the nature of future warfare, particularly naval warfare? What do you think navies that operate in the Gulf or the Indo Pacific should do to prevent, prepare or win a future war? 

The February issue of the highly-regarded magazine WIRED is on the news stands now and has roughly the first half of the book which consumes their entire issue — very exciting.  They are also putting a chapter each week online starting this week  and here is the link for that very small appetizer.

As for your questions – the big advances will come in what might be termed the new strategic triad: unmanned vehicles (including, of course, space / satellites); cyber / artificial intelligence; and special forces.  Large conventional forces will be less important than these three.  I’d add to that a premium on maritime forces as well, largely due to the likely scenarios of conflict that might involve China, Russia, and Iran — the nations upon which I focus in 2034: A Novel of the Next World War.  The technologies that underlay this will be advanced materials / stealth, nano-technologies of miniaturisation;  and biotech (particularly human performance enhancement).

Strategically, look for more alignment — especially  at sea — between the so-called “quad” of Australia – Japan – India – United States.  Our European partners (especially UK and France) will also be of particular importance.  In terms of the Gulf, our ongoing cooperation there will come to include more work with Israel and the Gulf Arabs.

What should the US Navy’s integration into the US Space Force look like? Traditionally satellites have fallen into an Air Force function, how does/should this change now?

The US Navy will become an end user of space systems, which will be run — quite well — by the new US Space Force.  Just as the US Air Force itself was created from the old Army Air Corps and split off from the US Army, the new US Space Force will split from our Air Force.  The new trend to watch is the potential creation of a US Cyber Force, dedicated to cyber / artificial intelligence.  That is clearly coming.  Like the Space Force it will not be large, but rather very specialised — another example of “special forces” as discussed above.

US Space Force enlists its first trainees (Source: US Space Force)

Does a future, information-saturated war require specific leadership skills from operational commanders?

Just as the world can be divided into digital natives and those like me who learned it later in life, warfighting is increasingly going to be dependent on a high level of technical competence and fluency in information warfare, cyber, AI, and machine learning.  We need to emphasise these skills in the military educational process as certainly as we do shiphandling or aircraft piloting.

Related is the ability to prioritise information so that the most useful portions bubble into the hands of decision-makers.  This can be enhanced by using AI to separate the wheat from the chaff, but also requires human leadership and sensitivities. Finally, information war will require high speed decision-making.  Everything will move at a highly accelerated pace, and likely in a much more transparent environment.

In your book Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of  Character you talk about the difference between leadership and character and our need to focus on the character piece in order to develop good leadership. How do you think militaries should encourage building character for leadership roles? Do you think a modern military needs to allow more upward communication to enable this?

First is education and encouraging the study of history, ethics, and culture — all of which are interwoven into any conversation about leadership and character.  These differ between nations, of course, but some universal principles (which I talk about in “Sailing True North”) are applicable.  Next we should place our leaders in training scenarios that require them to react to ethical and cultural challenges.  There are plenty of examples, both good and bad, in the history of both the USA and Australia. 

“…Next we should place our leaders in training scenarios that require them to react to ethical and cultural challenges.  There are plenty of examples, both good and bad, in the history of both the U.S. and Australia.”

Shaping scenarios and allowing young leaders to work through them in real time can be a powerful part of improving outcomes in the real world.  Finally, this should be a characteristic that we formally evaluate in our leaders at every  level — including not only “top down” evaluation for peer ratings but even responses for those who work for us.  As the saying in the US Navy goes, you get what you  “inspect “(evaluate and formally rate) not what you “expect.”

You have previously spoken about the importance of education in character building. How do you think professional military education fares in this respect? Are there any key improvements or deficiencies that will affect our people in future war?   If you could redesign the professional military education of a modern navy, what would it look like?

I would give us a passing grade, but not an “excellent” or an “outstanding” in terms of how we educate and inspire our US Navy team.  While we all acknowledge the primacy of warfighting and technical skills, we could do a much better job in leadership, character, ethics, and culture.  There is no easy way to do this, but as discussed above we should be including more required reading in these disciplines (to include history, government, politics, and psychology).  

Some of this can be done in formal classroom settings at academies and warcolleges, but some other ideas might include: reading lists (perhaps of a crowd sourced nature), symposia (especially done virtually bringing experienced speakers in these disciplines), efforts like you are undertaking in the Jeune École effort that are driven from the deckplates up and seek improve our appreciation for these topics, awarding prizes in contests for writing, providing “ethics simulators” as part of our training pipelines, evaluating facility in these areas as we do shiphandling or engineering skills and creating mechanisms for online chat / engagement fora.  

Not everyone can do all of that, but a rational system would ensure that everyone did some work along these lines alongside their baseline training and education efforts.

Admiral James Stavridis is a retired four-star officer in the US Navy who held the NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Commander U.S. Southern Command and Commander U.S. European Command positions. Admiral Stavridis holds a PhD in International Relations from the Fletcher School at Tufts University, where he subsequently served as Dean for five years. Admiral Stavridis is a prolific author and has published hundreds of journal articles and nine books, including Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character. His tenth book and first novel, 2034: A Novel of the Next World War is due out on 9 March 2021 and the full interview on the book with the Diplomatic Courier can be accessed here. Admiral Stavridis regularly tweets from @stavridisj.

The opinions and comments made in this Pen article and on this website do not represent the official position of any government, organisation or entity.

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