Merrick Carey is President of the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution and a former senior aide to Congressmen Jack Kemp and Jim Courter. He also served seven years in the Navy Reserve, including active duties as a FOSIC Watch Officer for CINCUSNAVEUR and as an Air Intelligence Officer for Operation Decisive Edge over Bosnia.
I spent much of the 1980s as a congressional aide to two popular Republican legislators who believed strongly in President Reagan’s efforts to rebuild the nation’s defenses. Working on Capitol Hill doesn’t always expose one to the most uplifting features of human nature, but it is just about the best education available in American political culture and process. Since my job often involved dealing with the press, I received daily lessons in how messages should and should not be communicated in our political system. Some of these insights have direct relevance to the current status and future outlook for the Navy’s Submarine Force. In this essay, I would like to suggest what general themes are likely to be most successful on Capitol Hill and with the general public in creating a positive environment for the always difficult deliberations on submarine funding.
The Congressional Context
The first thing to understand about what it means to be a Member of Congress is that there is never enough time. Not enough time to become conversant on the issues, not enough time to build coalitions, not enough time to meet with constituents. The number of voters, activists, lobbyists, contributors and so on who want to meet with you is always more than your schedule can accommodate. And the array of issues you are expected to vote on is always beyond the capacity of any normal person to keep up with, ranging from farm policy to foreign policy, from warfare to welfare. Worst of all, your two priorities-doing your job well and getting reelected often seem to be in conflict. If you don’t spend enough time campaigning, fundraising, and meeting with constituents, you may not be reelected. But most of the time spent on those activities must be subtracted from the time available for becoming knowledgeable on the issues (unless an issue has particular political salience in your home state or district).
Given such tradeoffs, it is not surprising that most legislators’ schedules become a daily exercise in triage, trying to determine which people and issues most urgently require attention. The people and issues that don’t fall into that category must either be deferred, delegated to staffers, or resolved on an intuitive basis. As a result, even on the most important votes it is seldom the case that more than a handful of Senators or Representatives grasp all the intricacies and nuances of pending legislation. The majority must be content to understand the broad outlines and follow party or caucus leaders in casting their votes.
Lobbyists and activists who work the Hill on a regular basis understand the tremendous pressures of public life, and are skilled in making their points quickly and convincingly. One of the most common tools is the elevator speech, an enumeration of key points so succinct that it can be conveyed to a legislator during the brief time he or she is in an elevator moving between floors. That may be the only time a lobbyist gets to make a case for some program or policy. Since congressional office buildings only have five or six floors, the elevator speech must be very concise indeed. But experienced lobbyists know that in thirty seconds, the right theme can significantly influence a legislator’s view of an issue. It may be a specific fact the legislator has never heard, or a novel way of thinking about an issue. On arcane subjects such as antisubmarine warfare, that thirty seconds may be the first thing he or she heard on the subject all month. The same dynamic often applies to journalists and average citizens, who may be willing to listen for no more than a few seconds. The typical sound-bite on network news programs seldom exceeds twenty seconds.
A Submarine Elevator Speech
Submarines need an elevator speech. They need a concise series of themes that can quickly convey why submarines are critical to our nation’s security. The context of those themes must be very general-easy to understand and easy to embrace-because most Members of Congress, like most members of the press and the broader public, have little experience or interaction with the military. Even among the minority of legislators and opinion leaders who are broadly knowledgeable about military affairs, relatively few will have a detailed knowledge of undersea warfare.
My guess is that only about five percent of Congress-maybe two dozen legislators–Can legitimately be termed knowledgeable about submarines. You need tea times that number to get to a slim majority. The number of journalists reporting in the national media who know subs is probably even lower. That means that the themes used to try to influence most prospective supporters must be very general-50 general that practitioners steeped in the intricacies and lore of submarines may have difficulty taking them seriously. But the purpose of an elevator speech is not to preach to the converted; it is supposed to win over the vast majority of people who think they don’t care. To be effective, the themes must be so accessible that people who know virtually nothing about submarines can grasp and like them.
Submariners have a hard time framing such themes for one simple reason: like all professionals, they know and love their jobs too well. After a few years of duty, submariners become so immersed in the technical language and operational challenges of undersea warfare that the prosaic way in which outsiders think about subs seems unbearably simple-minded. The same sort of professional culture has evolved among specialists in other fields, whether they be doctors or lawyers, astrophysicists or clergymen. In the case of submariners, though, professionalism can become a barrier to communication with other members of a body politic whose support they desperately need. When the scale of a profession shrinks by half in little more than a decade, as the Quadrennial Defense Review apparently portends for the attack-sub force, it is a clear indication that a dramatically expanded public outreach program is needed. The Silent Service seems to have learned the lesson that, as LCDR Michael Baurngartner observed in the January 1993 issue of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW, “Silence Is Not Golden.. In recent years, the submarine community and ONI have produced a number of excellent briefings that persuasively make the case for a robust Submarine Force. Several contractors, most notably Electric Boat and Lockheed Martin, have also done a very good job of conveying key support themes in their advertising. But, to be successful an elevator speech needs to be repeated over and over again to various audiences, and their willingness to listen carefully or for any length of time cannot be assumed. Thus, there must be agreement on a few simple themes. What should they be?
What Is the Message?
For reasons that I will shortly explain, I believe that four themes should be the core of the submarine community’s outreach efforts. Those themes are:
- Submarines are stealthy.
- Submarines are versatile.
- Submarines are a bargain.
- Submarines are essential.
Sounds pretty simple-minded, right? Well, that’s the point. Every one of these themes is understandable to a non-expert, every one is positive, and every one can lead to a broader discussion of submarine virtues if the audience is so inclined. Let me briefly explain why these four themes are the most persuasive.
Submarines are stealthy. This theme is really a shorthand way of saying that modem attack-subs are high-tech-that they are an unparalleled integration of numerous advanced innovations into a unified, effective machine of war. Simply saying subs are high-tech is too nebulous and trivializing to influence perceptions, but referring to stealth invokes a mystique so powerful that a major automobile company appropriated the term as a name for one of its sleek sports cars. Any system that is stealthy is by definition hightech, but in an intangible way that has been shaped by the popular media, it is also much more. It is something really special. Focusing on stealth also directs the audience’s attention to the fact that submarines are the Navy’s most survivable weapons platform, a feature well-attuned to the on-going revolution in military technology and operations.
Submarines are versatile. This theme is important because most Members of Congress and the media probably associate submarines with a handful a traditional missions such as nuclear deterrence and control of the sea lanes. That’s not necessarily bad if legislators understand the enduring importance of these missions. But some audiences will inevitably regard them as Cold War missions that are losing their relevance. Given the predominant thrust of Navy and Marine Corps doctrinal pronouncements toward littoral warfare, it is important to be able to articulate a role for submarines in coastal and land conflicts. The versatility theme does this by raising the numerous littoral application of subs such as mine operations, reconnaissance, precision strike and special operation’s force insertion. It is important for audiences to understand that submarines are the only survivable warships that can be covertly deployed to littoral areas of operation and assist in the preparation of the battlespace from the first moments of hostilities. Many legislators and journalists are unaware of this major selling point.
Submarines are a bargain. At over a $1 billion each, nuclearpowered submarines may not seem cheap by everyday standards, but their combination of stealth, versatility, range and autonomy will make them the best warfighting bargain the Navy can find in the years ahead. Moreover, most legislators and journalists have no idea bow minuscule a portion of the federal budget is consumed by submarine acquisition and operations. Because of the myopic way in which some national media cover procurement programs such as SEA WOLF, a portion of the body politic undoubtedly has a greatly exaggerated notion of the claim that subs exert on federal resources. The entire acquisition cost of thirty New Attack Submarines will be about $50 billion spaced out over several decades. The federal government spends that much on Medicaid every six months; WalMart does about that much business in the same amount of time. When the program is put in these terms, it is clear that in the context of a $1. 7 trillion federal budget and an $8 trillion economy, subs really are pretty cheap.
Submarines are essential. This is the requirements part of the message, the part that asserts a pressing need for submarines. In military circles a requirements discussion normally would precede an exchange on cost or characteristics. But in talking to nonmilitary audiences it probably is better to first make the case that subs are stealthy, versatile and inexpensive before proceeding to the climactic point, which is that trends in the threat create a clear need for a robust Submarine Force today. In the current environment it is probably more convincing to base such threat assessments on technological trends such as the proliferation of reconnaissance satellites and diesel-electric subs rather than attaching the threat to a particular country. Discussions of the Russian or Chinese or Iranian threat are too easily diverted into unresolvable debates over intentions. It is better to use Iranian Kilo purchases or Chinese maritime claims as examples of a broader trend that justifies preservation of robust submarine forces-a trend that demonstrates the end of the Cold War was neither the end of history nor a turning point in human nature.
Clearly, there are other themes that are more complex or challenging that can be easily invoked in any discussion of undersea warfare programs and requirements. But the first step in any communications strategy is to get the attention of the intended audience, so it is important not to overestimate that audience’s enthusiasm for the subject. My advice is to start at sea level with the most important, the most positive, and the most accessible themes. If they are still listening, you can always dive deeper into wake-homing torpedoes, photonic masts, or whatever. But don’t ever lose sight of your basic goal: to persuade policymakers that submarines are a bargain because they are survivable, versatile, inexpensive and essential to American security in the next century.
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