Captain John Tully is a U.S. Navy Foreign Area Officer and currently serves as the Navy Foreign Area Officer Chair at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey California, leading and mentoring Navy and Joint FAOs in Monterey. He also leads the Coalition Warfare Research Task Force as part of the Naval Warfare Studies Institute.
Following commissioning, Tully entered the submarine service and served at sea aboard USS TUCSON (SSN 770), USS PITTSBURGH (SSN 720), and USS SPRINGFIELD (SSN 761). He deployed throughout the Pacific, to the Middle East, and to South America. These tours included combat operations in support of OPERATIONS ENDURING FREEDOM and IRAQI FREEDOM.
In 2006, while serving as submarine operations and Tomahawk missile strike officer on the staff of the Commander, U.K. Maritime Forces, Tully lateral transferred to the Foreign Area Officer (FAO) Community.
Tully’s most recent assignment was as the Director, Africa Engagement Group and Africa Campaign Integration at Commander U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa. His past FAO assignments include Senior Defense Official/Defense Attaché (SDO/DATT) at U.S. Embassy Djibouti witnessing firsthand the establishment of China’s first overseas base, U.S. Africa Command (where he is a Plankowner), as the Africa Command Liaison Officer to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Abuja, Nigeria, and as SDO/DATT at U.S. Embassy Yaoundé, Cameroon with additional accreditation to Equatorial Guinea.
Raised in St. James, New York Tully graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1995 earning a Bachelor of Science in History. He earned a Master of Arts in National Security Affairs from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in 2001.
Tully’s awards include the Legion of Merit, the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, and the State Department Meritorious Honor award.
I came to Monterey and NPS, the first time, as a student in 1999. I was in awe of the experience, knowledge, and professionalism of the faculty and other students. I knew immediately I was in the right place. When I graduated, I knew NPS was someplace I wanted to come back to, so that I could give back even just a little of what I had experienced as a student.
That first time here, as a student, I was a submariner. When the time came later in my career to lateral transfer to the Navy’s then-new Foreign Area Officer (FAO) community, it was my NPS education that made the difference. And even though my FAO region did not align with my regional studies degree, what I learned about international relations, international organizations, and our interaction with allies and partners was directly applicable. But the most important thing I learned as an NPS student was how to learn and think critically—how to ingest, digest, and assess information—and to do it quickly and efficiently.
When I was presented with a sliver of an opportunity to come back to NPS on staff, I leapt at it. I’m a firm believer that as officers, one of our most important responsibilities is to set the navy up for success after we leave. I’ve been lucky to have a varied career in the FAO community and I have a lot to give to the next generation.
In general, I try to build the connectivity between FAO students at NPS and the operational fleet and joint force. This is a connection that can help in both directions. The fleets get access to a body of FAO students who can help address their challenges. At the same time the FAO students gain a better understanding of the problems facing our operational forces and the challenges they will be tasked to deal with after graduation. In the end both the fleet/joint force and the FAO students win because we end up with officers who are better informed and connected with today’s challenges. Over the past year, I think I’ve come to better understand the mutually beneficial nature of this relationship. But also, the amount of work it takes to make this connection happen in concrete ways.
The key initiative here is certainly the Naval Warfare Studies Institute. This is an NPS-organization established specifically to manage the links between the school and the fleet. It leverages the faculty and student research capabilities of NPS to connect the Fleet to industry and research capabilities to address current operational challenges.
This is an incalculable advantage NPS has over other institutions. Where else can you study alongside security professionals from around the globe, build relationships and friendships with them, and gain such a deep understanding of their countries’ perspectives on the major questions of the day? That mutual understanding is a massive benefit to both sides. Having spent three years embedded in an allied navy and two as a liaison to an international organization, I’ve seen this from the other side and can state without hesitation that the level of understanding I developed and the connections I made in those situations were invaluable to my subsequent work. I imagine that our foreign students experience the same thing. That degree of mutual understanding can’t be developed through a couple of planning conferences or meetings. It takes extended exposure.
This is easy: We can’t do it alone. Consider the scope of the challenges we face globally. Regardless of where you look, they’re just too big for us to face on our own. It may be allied forces in a fight alongside us. It may be a partner force engaged in a fight we aren’t in. Or it could be a question of access. Think how difficult global operations become when we don’t have friendly foreign governments supporting the U.S. You only have to look at the Sahel today to see the consequences of failure in this regard. France, because of a collapse in relations with its partners, is being forced to withdraw forces that were actively combating threats to French national security.
For me, coming to NPS as a student and interacting with foreign military students was a watershed. It sounds basic, but I draw a direct parallel to the first time I really spoke with someone for whose first language wasn’t English. I’d studied German for a few years in High School. But until I actually stood across from a native German speaker and tried to communicate with them, in my heart I didn’t really understand that this person thought about the world in German and wasn’t just speaking German by choice. It took sitting in class with foreign officers and listening to their perspectives on the issues of the day to really understand that they were coming at things from a different direction – to realize that they weren’t just Americans with accents. They had different paradigms, perspectives, and values.
This was a massive wake up call for me. But realizing this early in my career, and learning how to communicate and work with people who were different in a safe, academic environment was a real benefit. I was not a Foreign Area Officer at the time, but it set me up for a subsequent Personnel Exchange Program tour and later transfer into the FAO community.
In my current position, I love having international students in my class. My teaching focuses on Security Sector Assistance. Having a foreign perspective, from someone on the “receiving end” of our assistance and cooperation programs adds untold value to the educational experience. My international students never disappoint and always bring up new, and often difficult, perspectives.
For the first part of my FAO career, our engagement in Africa was heavily focused on peacekeeping and combating violent extremism. I think the change in priority and focus was laid bare to me during my time as Senior Defense Official in Djibouti as we witnessed the construction and opening of the first Peoples Republic of China overseas base. That event redirected and focused how we engaged in the region, and it seemed to me really drove home to policy makers the seriousness of the changes afoot in the global security order. We were forced to deal with the fact that a strategic competitor could impact our ability to conduct operations critical to safeguarding U.S. domestic security. Their proximity to our base in Djibouti, which we were using to support combat readiness of ships, aircraft, and personnel conducting operations throughout the region was a real eye-opener. It drove home that perhaps things we could assume away in the past could no longer be safely assumed.
Over the past several years, as our focus has shifted from the global war on terrorism back to strategic competition, our SSA priorities have shifted accordingly. This has led to a shift in both what and where we are focusing our efforts. But not always in ways that are immediately logical. Certainly, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has focused attention and huge amounts of resources there. And Taiwan and the South China Sea keep much attention focused that way. What is perhaps less intuitive is that we’re also seeing a shift in how we use SSA in lower-profile areas as well. As a retired Flag Officer mentioned to me, it’s the areas away from the spotlight where we have greater ability to ‘shift the field of play’ because it is often not as firmly set there as it is closer to our adversaries.
This transition hasn’t been easy or quick in the SSA realm. It’s taken time to get the right authorities and programs in place to have the impact we need. For several years we’d been relegated to trying to achieve effects in the strategic competition realm while using authorities linked to combatting terrorism. That’s not a great match of authority to effect and it caused some real problems.