Inside the Navy's Nerdfest

NavyCon uses sci-fi to shed light on future of combat

Battle of Hoth / Youtube
December 3, 2017

The debriefing was as vicious as you'd expect it to be, the Navy commander methodic in his dissection of one of the greatest failures in military history. The massive loss of life and strategic capabilities were inevitable once the officers of history's greatest military force allowed large sections of the region to "develop into a safe haven" for lawlessness and terrorism, "the perfect environment to allow a rebellion to grow."

"Once maritime dominance is established, resistance from shore rarely stops," says Cmdr. BJ Armstrong. "Without small ships to run intercept the blockade was simply a dismal failure."

Armstrong, an academy instructor with a PhD in War Studies from King's College, is not talking about the Middle East or Northern Africa of today or the sinking of the Bismarck in 1941. He's focused on the loss of the Death Star and the Battle of Hoth, two "cautionary tales" that have much to teach the future officers of the American military.

The first exhibit to your right as you enter the U.S. Naval Academy Museum documents all of its alumni who have gone to space, while the second floor hosts 50 gorgeous 18th and 19th century dockyard model ships donated by industrial titan and New York National Guardsman Henry Huddleston Rogers. The model of a British 3rd rate, 70-gun ship sits in the shadow of a poster declaring "Gort, klaatu barada nikto" and something called the "xur ko-dan armada." The conference room across from the model is now crammed with the best-dressed nerds the United States military has to offer. They are here for NavyCon, which is like ComicCon, but for the "rough men [who] stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm."

There are about 40 people at each of the two afternoon sessions on this brisk Saturday. Despite its billing, the conference looks nothing like your average comic book fan gathering. There are no costumes. There are six active duty military men in full dress uniform in attendance from the Navy, Marine Corps, and Army. Only 13 attendees wear glasses, while the facial hair—one mustache, six beards, none of them of the chinstrap variety—is expertly trimmed. About a dozen midshipmen have elected to attend the event rather than travel to South Bend to watch Navy lose a heartbreaker to Notre Dame.

They share many laughs at the pithy observations of today's speakers, particularly Defense News writer David Larter, retired Navy enlisted. Larter's presentation focuses on the "Mistakes of the Empire" in Star Wars. In between his quips about the rebel alliance's tactical resemblance to ISIS and Darth Vader's failures as a leader—"force choke in private, praise in public"—are actual lessons about institution building and educating military commanders. Vader choking "Admiral Bozzell"—here someone interjects that it's "Admiral Ozzel"—represents the "zero defect mentality" of leadership that cripples military leadership. He points to military command's trigger finger in laying off errant captains who have caused public relations headaches.

"Is the Navy force choking people for simple mistakes and is that making leaders too cautious?" he says. "A healthy organization struggles with these issues and does so publicly."

The Empire comes in for further scorching by Cmdr. Armstrong, who lays waste to the idea that it had any chance against Jedi rebels. One need only study naval architecture to grasp the point: The Empire's "improper fleet architecture" left it unable to provide "constabulary duties" in peacetime, which allowed rebellion to fester. More than that such a system stifles leadership as ship captains are taken from a pool of those "at the ends of their careers" rather than young leaders.

Capt. Mark Vandroff, a long-time ship builder and commander of the Carderock Division of the Naval Surface Warfare Center, joins the dogpile heaping scorn on Palpatine. Vandroff disputes Armstrong's simplistic reliance on constabulary forces, saying that building constabulary forces would "bankrupt" the Empire. But he also acknowledges the Empire's miscalculation of the political realities of the galaxy and understanding of supply chain that ultimately undid the Death Star—even after an otherwise flawless acquisition and building operation.

"If your strategy doesn't make sense it doesn't matter what you buy," he says.

Vandroff's presentation scores eruptions of laughter, particularly his application of acronyms. I laughed along with everyone else as he explained, "the Death Star was clearly an ACATID program" that had "adequate IOT&E" to meet the Empire's "JUON" or "Joint Urgent Operational Need," but I was also painfully aware that I was not in on the joke. The knowing laughter served to remind the civilian that the comic book talk was mere cover for substantive issues.

NavyCon started off as a joke on Twitter by naval officers and military historians over the summer. Academy instructor and museum director Claude Berube saw the jokey hot takes and arguments over Star Wars, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, and other programs, and realized there were important lessons to pass on to the next generation of officers. He cobbled together a dozen presenters, many with doctorates, active duty commissions, Marine veteran and Congressman Mike Gallagher (R., Wisc.), and popular sci-fi author David Weber to deliver shockingly prescient lessons about military strategy and warfare.

"We are constantly trying to reason out what our future fleet would look like. We know that many fiction authors have picked up a lot of ideas by looking to the past," Berube says. "When you look at the breadth of knowledge in that room, these are some of the best naval thinkers around today."

How eager were our nation's leading defense figures to participate in NavyCon? Assistant Secretary of Defense for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Dirk Maurer took time off from countering weapons of mass destruction to listen to an Army lieutenant discuss non-state actors in Firefly and a Canadian PhD candidate discuss port policy as it relates to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

The conference ends with a generous question and answer session with David Weber, who claims to have set South Carolina's record for attempts to enlist in the Navy owing to his flat feet, epilepsy, and deafness in one ear. The man is a rock star in this room, but his reverence for the audience bleeds through into the talk as he quotes Patton, Clausewitz, and Grossman. The future belongs to the U.S. Navy, he says.

"The Air Force might be able to handle near earth, but if you're talking deep space, the only institution is the Navy," he says.

We retire to a conference room and sip scotch from a table given to Commodore Matthew Perry by the Japanese emperor. Berube says his institution is already planning for next year's event.

"The feedback we've gotten is that we need to do this again and we need to expand this," he says.

Published under: ISIS , Navy , Star Wars