WASHINGTON — A small but often influential study group reporting directly to the US Navy's chief of naval operations (CNO) is to be disbanded, the current CNO directed last week.
The CNO Strategic Studies Group (SSG) at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, has been working on particular CNO-directed topics since 1981. The group, according to the Navy, is tasked only by and reports directly to the CNO.
Organized each year with about 18 to 22 members, many of whom are considered bound for flag rank, the SSG is thought of as a concept demonstration team, often taking on topics that could have great potential but are not being pursued in other Navy organizations. Study topics have included the integration of rail guns into operational concepts, the convergence of cyber power and sea power, and the development of synthetic fuels.
But Adm. John Richardson, the current CNO, is seeking to accelerate learning and information processing and reportedly has decided the eight months each group takes to study a problem and generate a report is too long. On March 30, he directed retired Vice Adm. Phil Wisecup, the current SSG head, to stand down the group after the current team completes its work.
"The CNO has been pretty vocal about this desire to speed up the learning process, as well as making sure manpower and resources get to the fleet," a Navy official said April 6. "This is an example of those two ideas converging."
In a March 31 note to senior Navy leaders, Richardson observed that "security and leadership development environments have changed so dramatically that I believe it's time to reassess the best way forward in these areas."
Those dramatic developments, the Navy official said, "point to the last three or four years. The resurgence of Russia, China, ISIS, North Korea, Iran. Three years ago you certainly wouldn't put Russia and China to the height we have today. We didn't have ISIS. Now North Korea has nuclear weapons. The fiscal environment is different, and with the manpower cuts to headquarters it makes the need for those bodies in those positions more important."
A senior retired officer familiar with the issue explained that "there was a question about whether that group couldn't be used better. To have 18 captains up in Newport working on one problem wasn't as valuable as having that same manpower working on various problems in real time."
A way to study the problems given to the SSG, the senior retired officer said, could be to throw the question to more professional study groups. "A think tank might do a better job over eight months," the officer said.
And while the number of officers assigned to the group was relatively small, there was a growing sense they could be better used elsewhere.
"The officers can do more for you in many tasks," the retired senior officer said. "This could put them back in the Pentagon," into CNO's Operations, Plans and Policy unit.
One suggestion to study key problems might be a reversion to another now-disbanded group, the officer said.
"We could maybe bring back Deep Blue," a Navy operations study group in the Pentagon set up by CNO Adm. Vern Clark in the aftermath of the September 2001 attacks. The group produced a number of significant and often highly classified innovations before being dissolved in 2008.
"I think we are feeling that loss, of having a cell that can solve multiple problems in a few months," observed the retired senior officer.
The full text of Richardson's March 31 note to senior leaders is below. He references current SSG director Phil Wisecup and his immediate predecessor, retired Adm. James Hogg.
"This note is to inform you that yesterday I asked Phil Wisecup to stand down the SSG after the current team of fellows completes their work. I took this action after careful consideration. This group has a very distinguished history that has contributed to the formation of many amazing leaders. As well, the SSG has produced some ground-breaking ideas that have moved our Navy forward. But the security and leadership development environments have changed so dramatically that I believe it's time to reassess the best way forward in these areas.
"I'm sure you all join me in my respect and gratitude to Admirals Wisecup and Hogg and their predecessors, and the teams that they led, for their terrific guidance at the helm over many years. Sirs, we are in your debt.
"I also assure you that we will take very good care of each and every member of the SSG team as we make this transition.
"Thank you and very respectfully, John."
Christopher P. Cavas was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.