What is Broken About Naval Education


By Steven Deal

We’ve read a lot over the years about naval education as a national security imperative.  And it is.  What we haven’t read or heard much lately about is exactly what to do about it.  How will we know that naval education is making a difference?  What is its return on investment, and how can we measure it?

For nearly a decade while serving in various positions within our sea services, I was determined to find out.

In 2018, I directed the first study on naval education in over 100 years – since the famous Knox-King-Pye Report – and briefly served as Deputy Chief Learning Officer for the Department of the Navy.

Four years earlier, I served under then-Chief of Naval Personnel (later, Vice Chief of Naval Operations) Bill Moran, helping to establish what is now known as the “Sailor 2025” personnel policy transformation program.  This effort – combined with the talent management programs which then-Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army for Personnel, James McConville (later Chief of Staff of the Army) championed – evolved into the larger “Force of the Future” reforms for the entire U.S. military led by the late Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter.  I was seconded to his staff, too.

The pavers of change were laid at each step of those incremental programs of progress, by leaders of real vision:  in law, in education and personnel management policy, in budgets, and most importantly, in meeting the expectations of those wearing the cloth of our nation, and their families.

Looking back, there is a straight line to be drawn between those past transformational efforts, the elevation of education as a warfare enabler today, and how much further we must go still.  The very human, crooked nature of the path actually required to achieve such a vision – to make people “strategic” – is all our own, merely part of the human enterprise for change.

Yet throughout my time in those roles, I was constantly confronted by seniors and peers alike: what is broken about naval education and its supporting systems for people?  What are we trying to fix?

Maybe we’re trying to improve the formulation of naval policy and strategy at the highest levels.  Did a failure of imagination make a difference in arguing for the nexus of naval and economic national power as an alternative to a lingering land campaign?  Were we ill-prepared to make a comparison of circumstances at the right time, in front of the right leader: in order to prevent a mistake – or even seize an opportunity – within the fleeting moments of a strategic vacuum?

Or maybe we don’t need to fix anything.  More than once, while serving in Khost Province with our provincial reconstruction team from 2010-2011, elite Army officers in combat command (obvious “deep selects” for higher responsibilities) would grab my kevlar vest to expose the “U.S. Navy” tag on my Army camouflage blouse, look me in the eye, and proudly proclaim, “I went to the Naval War College.”

But in all the above studies and experiences, that is not what I heard from our more junior Navy officers at all.

They believed that naval education mattered, but due to an inscrutable, Procrustean bed of personnel policies, could not imagine how it might matter for them.

They wanted greater opportunities to learn, despite heel-to-toe promotion gates which often foreclose them; but few were given signals of confidence in their learning, or how their unique skills earned through that learning would be used.

They knew that people are not interchangeable parts, yet the totality of our ancient personnel policies, including selection and credit for advanced education, treated them as if they were.

They innately understood that education was key to leveraging and retaining their talent.  Education was the opportunity to invest in our people, in deeds, not mere words; to reveal discrete and diverse talents, to identify and groom those who love to learn for a deeper bench of national security leadership – which is the true purpose of talent management, rather than mere replication of hierarchy.

They knew that education was how we learned about our people and developed them like the diverse warfare enablers and deterrents they truly are, as warfighters, technologists, and yes, ambassadors of naval statesmanship for our nation’s continued sovereignty and prosperity.  They knew that the most advanced weapons systems and platforms can’t fulfill their strategic potential without human operators who have fulfilled theirs.

And merely telling them all the above – what they already knew, and still know today, over and over and in placating terms – does not create real change, nor will it prevent a single one of our most talented from leaving if we cannot concretely demonstrate how we value them and their achievements.

Without much fanfare, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro recently released his 2023 Naval Education Strategy.  After striving against some gale-force bureaucratic winds to publish our own 2018 comprehensive report and 2020 strategy, it was gratifying to see many of the same concepts and ideas distilled into a very readable package, now crossing the span of two polar-opposite administrations.

For those of us whom have toiled internally for years to effect real progressive change for our Marines, Sailors, and their families, seeing such agreement across the gulf of political chaos could signal real movement, indeed.

So I was thrilled to be asked to talk to the Education for Seapower Advisory Board in September about our 2018 Study and Report.  Many wanted to learn what we examined back then, and why.  A real mark of seriousness about the topic was the presence of former Secretary of the Navy Sean O’Keefe, who chaired the Board.  His sense of gravitas set the course for the Board in historic terms, as did the strategic overview and call to action by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Michael Mullen, who among others led the 2018 Education for Seapower Board.

This was yet another opportunity to advance naval education for the future of our national security.  This was another gathering of luminaries and great thinkers ready to dive deep into the hard questions of our time.  This was another blessing – another Secretary seemingly ready to translate political capital and will into real change, to elevate naval education where it truly belongs.

But the question still persisted, even at this level:  what is broken about naval education?

The length of the 423-page report we assembled in the summer and fall of 2018 may have been an impediment, yet answers about what is “broken” are readily evident; some in the executive summary, declaring how the Navy in particular does not seem to value education as an institutional priority.

As the report itself summarized: “There is no overall strategic direction or leadership for naval education or naval organizational learning; nor a successful value proposition for education as a unifying naval warfare capability; nor effective unity of command in its resourcing, policy and programming for education; nor correct prioritization for education’s vital role in balancing the character and nature of war.”

Some needful, supporting detail was deeper in the bowels of the report, but readily extractable from the unique surveys we sent to the naval educational institutions and our personnel commands themselves, testing the critical links between education and talent management and learning how few Navy officers ready for command (or post-command) are sent to our constellation of military and civilian strategic courses of study.

The study also underlined how much the Navy could learn from its sisters and brothers in the Marine Corps about valuing an ethos of continuous learning.  Perhaps the quote from Commandant Gray on the essential link between critical thinking and leadership – on the first page of the report – provided a small hint.

For the record, the Department of the Navy again listed what was broken in the Secretary’s signed Decision Memorandum of February 2019 for the world to see – but this time, with directed, measurable actions for the naval services to take – some immediately, some over time, all with a sense of urgency.  This decision instrument was no deux ex machina thrown under an autopen machine, but an apolitical document fully staffed, lawyered, agonized over, and reviewed, line by line, by our senior most four-star naval officers and senior executives before Undersecretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly forwarded and Secretary Richard V. Spencer signed it.

Our proudest moment in that instrument was the creation of the U.S. Naval Community College, which graduated its first cohort at the beginning of this year.  Some may allege that was not a strategic decision – yet I disagree.  If we want to be re-invited to the kitchen tables of America, if we want families to start talking about the values of national service again, education may be one of few open doors left to push.  The experiment of our entire All-Volunteer Force may be on the line.   And our strategic leaders will be unable to implement their strategies, good or bad, without first-class talent.

We also established a unique lens for naval education at the Secretarial level – the chief learning officer as a staff assistant reporting directly to the Secretary, much like similar legal, information, technology, and acquisition assistants have served for years.  Our tiny Office of the Chief Learning Officer was short-lived, mostly due to the political winds of the day.  But only the Secretary can fence off resources for education as an untouchable priority amongst the usual competing budgetary forces that shape our destiny.  The CLO, or whatever we choose to name it, is a unique position in almost any military or corporate setting, and in this case, she or he acts as the Secretary’s right hand, uniting a vast intellectual portfolio, both civilian and military alike; someone whose sole job is to leverage the most important asymmetric advantage our nation will ever have.

Change happens slowly in bureaucratic institutions designed to continue to do the same things over and over, and to do them well.  It takes vision and execution combined to break through “what we’ve always done before” – to prevent us from always preparing to fight the last war.  It also takes political will and personal courage.  No, efforts like these don’t always end well for leaders of action who champion them, and that is exactly why we can never stop trying.

So, when will the Navy know that naval education is no longer broken?

Maybe one answer is this: when the Navy’s best and brightest feel the same about our naval education institutions as those elite Army officers who grabbed my combat vest downrange: because they have been chosen to be educated by these institutions at critical junctures throughout their careers.  Because they have been selected for their positions as strategic leaders due to how well they continuously learn and grow, and mentor others to do the same.  Because of the critical thinking and, courageous intellectual might that they will uniquely bring to ongoing national security discussions with civilian leaders.

For those future leaders are the ones who will fight our next war, or better yet: attract and support strong allies and partners, orchestrate what should be a significant naval portion within our national security strategies drawn up throughout the interagency, and hopefully, deter war altogether.


Steve Deal, Captain, U.S. Navy (Ret.) was the Executive Director of the 2018 Education for Seapower Study and Report.  He served as a member of the Senior Executive Service as Deputy Chief of Staff to the Secretary of the Navy and Deputy Chief Learning Officer for the Department of the Navy.  During his twenty-seven years on active duty, he commanded Patrol Squadron Forty-Seven, in Ali Air Base, Iraq; Joint Provincial Reconstruction Team Khost, Afghanistan; and Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing Ten in Whidbey Island, Washington.

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