In January the U.S. Navy announced a crash program to convert the USS Ponce, a 41-year-old amphibious transport, into a floating base for helicopters, minehunters and Navy SEALs in the Persian Gulf. Adm. John Harvey called the ship’s three-month conversion a “remarkable feat.”
Equally remarkable is whose idea it was, though not exclusively. For decades the Navy has occasionally used big, cheap, mostly empty vessels to stage troops, boats and copters in conflict zones. But in recent years these “motherships” have become a core Navy concept, thanks in part to steady cheerleading by a 36-year-old, New York-based civilian IT consultant and part-time blogger with no military experience or college degree.
Meet Raymond Pritchett, better known by his internet handle “Galrahn” — a bit of nerdy wordplay referencing the Star Trek Klingon commander Gowran. For five years, he has used his blog Information Dissemination to argue for ships like Ponce, among other naval initiatives. Pritchett even claims credit for naming Ponce‘s vessel category. “Many people tell me that the term ‘mothership’ was very infrequently used as part of the Navy lexicon until I began writing about the concept,” Pritchett tells Danger Room.
The Ponce plan perhaps represents a high-water mark for Pritchett and Information Dissemination, but there have been other instances where the wonkish blog with the unwieldy name has helped shape naval developments. Increasingly, Information Dissemination is the go-to site for meaningful public discussion of maritime strategy, naval leadership, warship design and the nuts-and-bolts of managing a diverse, globally deployed force of sailors and Marines. In naval community that can sometimes veer into hidebound and even deliberately thuggish behavior, Information Dissemination is a progressive ideas machine.
Certainly, there are other naval forums out there. But few are as credible, and none have experienced such a swift rise in popularity and influence as Information Dissemination. Indeed, at least one traditional naval forum has suffered a precipitous decline recently, helping create the opportunity for Pritchett and his upstart blog to capture a huge chunk of the Navy’s intellectual terrain.
Information Dissemination currently reaches up to 14,000 daily readers, despite a clunky layout, occasionally thick jargon and sometimes sloppy editing. At its worst, the blog can be frankly boring for the average reader.
Still, 14,000 daily readers and the power to influence the Navy ain’t bad for a blog that began in 2007 almost by accident. The way Pritchett explains it, he was interested in trying out the whole blogging concept but didn’t really have a strong preference when it came to subject matter. All he knew was he didn’t want to write about his IT job. A big fan of naval history, he decided to focus on today’s Navy, instead. “That was what I enjoy reading about,” Pritchett says.
On the strength of long, analytical articles written with an almost Spock-like emotional detachment, Information Dissemination quickly attracted a core readership in the Navy and naval policy circles. Early on, Pritchett’s topics included the usual maritime grist: piracy, budgets, shipbuilding. But he addressed them with fearless disregard for many readers’ limited attention spans. Many posts included charts, tables, links to budget documents and detailed lists of ship deployments. The detail could be exhausting, but it was also a refreshing change compared to the shrinking column inches in print journals.
These bases covered, Pritchett concentrated increasing attention on a progressive naval agenda. He took the Navy to task for its vague, sometimes confusing strategy and for failing to communicate the importance of naval forces to the American public. He poked a hole in the popular practice of predicting war with Iran by tracking the movements of American aircraft carriers. As Information Dissemination’s ethos firmed up, so did its readership. “After the first year I knew I was getting somewhere,” Pritchett says.
Invitations rolled in for Pritchett to participate in official conferences — and also to embark on Navy ships to observe firsthand the technology and tactics he writes about. A 2008 cruise on the notorious Littoral Combat Ship Freedom generated an insightful series of articles and laid the foundation for Pritchett’s advocacy of mothership vessels. Pritchett says he has sailed on eight Navy ships, in all. That’s more than many professional military reporters.
In March 2009 a China analyst writing under the name Feng, whom Pritchett describes as “the smartest person writing about the rise of the Chinese navy [that] nobody had ever heard of,” penned Information Dissemination’s first major guest post: a technical assessment of Chinese anti-ship ballistic missile systems. Seized upon by The Drudge Report and other more mainstream media outlets, Feng’s article racked up 6 million views, and fueled a continuing panic in Washington over Beijing’s so-called “carrier-killer” missiles.
“His contributions were so impactful that I started looking for more authors,” Pritchett explains. In addition to Feng, he signed on liberal analyst Robert Farley, a conservative counterweight named Brian McGrath, and Chris Rawley, a prolific writer and Navy officer. Handing over the bulk of the writing allowed Pritchett to focus on managing, promoting and improving the blog.
The blog’s influence quickly deepened, perhaps hastened by the crisis surrounding Proceedings, a journal published by the U.S. Naval Institute. For decades Proceedings had been the Navy’s main intellectual forum, easily beating the Naval War College Review. Last year Proceedings‘ editors and the new board of the Naval Institute fought a bitter and very public battle over the Institute’s editorial philosophy, potentially damaging the magazine’s credibility. Whatever ground Proceedings surrendered, Information Dissemination was positioned to claim. But only because Information Dissemination already possessed credibility of its own.
“Over the past half decade, there has probably been no one, outside perhaps [NATO chief] Admiral [James] Stavridis, who has made a stronger contribution to the maritime strategic dialog than Raymond ‘Galrahn’ Pritchett on his blog Information Dissemination,” says Capt. Jerry Hendrix, himself a highly regarded naval thinker. Not coincidentally, in June, Stavridis contributed his first essay to Information Dissemination.
Stavridis’ article is a powerful endorsement of an outsider, who in just a few years has become an intellectual leader for the world’s most powerful navy.
H. Lucien Gauthier III, an enlisted sailor and writer, compares Pritchett to another outsider, who made a name for himself in the military and the culture. “I’m not sure there’s been anyone since Tom Clancy to come out of left field, so to speak, and have such an impact.”
A certain mothership currently deployed to the Persian Gulf attests to that.