Sea Training: An Oft Overlooked Strategic Asset

Rumours abound that the Royal Navy is to gut its globally respected Operational Sea Training organisation in order to reallocate cash across defence. It is not simply the UK’s martial reputation that would be at stake; the evidence states that operational sea training is a crucial asset on which the Royal Navy should not skimp.

The Operational Sea Training organisation of the Royal Navy is based on centuries of experience in what it takes to win at sea. A centre for innovative approaches to warfighting for all of NATO, this organisation will need to curate that knowledge as the Royal Navy faces a new strategic environment and a very different and highly complex force design built around its new aircraft carriers.

In one of the most comprehensive studies of modern military effectiveness to date, Stephen Biddle discovered an intriguing statistical anomaly. In none of the wars fought over the last century did typically cited predictors of military success (for example, national GDP, the technological superiority of a state’s equipment, or numerical superiority over adversaries) predict victory with more than a 50% probability – that is to say, coin toss odds. Rather, what predicted military victory was successful force employment – the ability to marshal one’s forces as part of a seamless coordinated system of fire and manoeuvre.

The question then arises: why do states – particularly those with high GDPs, which frequently underperformed in Biddle’s study – not use their resources to train and employ their forces in tandem with best practices? The answer, it would appear, is that generating forces capable of effective force employment is perhaps the highest barrier to entry for states to surmount. The key predictor of effective force employment is the product of high-intensity training and deployment that few militaries can sustain. Building an effective officer corps with well-drilled uniformed personnel and developing experience and knowledge in the idiosyncrasies of equipment all require a bespoke specialist training group with clear, high-level direction and leadership.

While Biddle’s observations applied primarily to the land environment, a similar dynamic can be observed at sea. As a recent report found, the US Navy experienced the reverse of this dynamic in 2017 that directly led to the USS Fitzgerald collision, and the USS John McCain collision later that year. A dysfunctional military training rubric is not new. Ironically, a failure to acknowledge the tests, challenges and hurdles in integrating new platforms and technologies can hand a smaller, less capable competitor a military edge.

It is thus somewhat peculiar to consider a growing trend to ‘trim’ levels of at sea training for the sake of short-term ‘efficiencies’, despite recent evidence that this delivers the opposite effect. While the expenses of maintaining forces at a high operational tempo during peacetime are not inconsiderable, they often amount to the distinction between a force capable of constabulary missions and a warfighting entity, with the resulting implications for national deterrence postures and perceptions. 

Sea readiness builds the micro-foundations of an adaptive organisation by forcing officers and crew to both confront the realities of high-intensity operations at sea and contemplate means of mitigating or adapting to them. This is of paramount importance given that successful organisational innovation is not a top-down process. Rather, innovation and adaptation often occur as a result of a process of punctuated equilibrium (rare but transformative change driven by multiple local innovations produced on an ad hoc basis). 

On land, this was illustrated by the gradual evolution from rudimentary stormtrooper tactics to the success of German strategic blitzkrieg in 1939, while this dynamic was illustrated at sea by the emergence of the carrier air wing from a series of initially limited experiments with naval aircraft in the US. Critical to this was a state of readiness either imposed by wartime rigours or peacetime vigilance which forced commanders and their subordinates into a frame of mind that emphasised a ‘fight tonight’ mentality (or training and preparing with urgency as if militaries were required to fight that evening).

Persistent operational training is particularly important at sea: the familiarity of personnel with both their vessels and their counterparts in larger formations is critical to a wide range of naval tasks. For example, it has been noted that the ability of many Western navies to execute convoy missions has atrophied over the past two decades – a factor which would stunt efforts to mitigate the risks posed by state-centric grey zone operations irrespective of the assets available. A similar trend can be observed in the realm of anti-submarine warfare, with an atrophying of available skills imposing a strain on Western navies comparable to, if not greater than, equipment and platform shortfalls.

In an era of persistent great power competition in which sub-threshold competition can transition to sharp limited conflict before reverting to competition, military organisations, and navies in particular, will need to prepare to perform perfectly on a consistent basis and at a high tempo – something that will likely strain the physical and psychological capabilities of crew and officers alike.

It would, then, be of value for military organisations to take stock of a critical truth of organisational theory. Organisations typically succeed and fail on the basis of ‘tacit knowledge’ – details of a particular scenario, non-quantifiable experiential information, and mutual understanding between serving individuals. This tacit knowledge cannot be theorised or simulated ashore – it is learned by doing. Often, the lack of tacit knowledge, as opposed to financial capital, equipment or an appropriate concept of operations, is what dooms an organisation to failure. It is, then, critical to avoid the appeal of trading organisational readiness for budgetary savings. Failure would not simply result in financial loss, but in sailors dying.

Despite not being a visible asset along the lines of equipment, organisational readiness is often the difference between a parade ground force and a warfighting one. Historical examples such as late Imperial China’s Beiyang Fleet illustrate how equipment without appropriate personnel is a wasting asset at best and, at worst, a drag on national capabilities. Moreover, the capabilities needed to make a functioning force cannot be easily attained. Given the diffuse nature of tacit knowledge, it cannot be cultivated in academies.

By the same token, the ability to sustain the rigours of a given deployment cannot be developed by a force without realistically rigorous training. It is, then, critical to maintain and renew naval readiness to avoid the emergence of a constant in naval history – a fleet of well-equipped but poorly manned ships overseen by an uninspired officer corps.

The distinction between sea powers and great land powers that failed to create navies despite their resources is precisely the ability to cultivate the people capable of creating a battle-worthy fleet and not a luxury force. This ability can only be maintained by sustained engagement with the domain in which sailors and officers will operate. 

The Royal Navy’s highly respected Operational Sea Training organisation delivers national, strategic-level benefits in lethality, readiness and innovation during a period in which confluence tensions have narrowed the margin for error to zero. Making changes to that organisation now could have catastrophic consequences.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors', and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


Professor Peter Roberts

Director, Military Sciences

Military Sciences

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Dr Sidharth Kaushal

Research Fellow, Sea Power

Military Sciences

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