Where Have All The O-3s Gone?

By Lieutenant Llewellyn D. Lewis, U.S. Navy

Am I disgruntled? Maybe. Though not in the way, or for the reasons, most of my seniors seem to assume. And I think I can say that retention is not only an aviation problem. For every naval aviator opting to trade in his gold wings for Delta or United silver there are even more nuclear submariners becoming electronic engineers and surface warriors becoming stockbrokers. I recently overheard a surface warrior remark, "It's a good thing the arsenal ship is going to be heavily automated, because by the time it shows up there won't be anyone left to drive it."

There are two major perceptions about the current retention problem that need to be dispelled before any discussion can take place:

This is a "Generation X" thing, and as soon as we all grow up (or suck it up, etc.) the problem will go away.

I am in year group 1990. I entered the Naval Academy at the height of the Reagan era. I do not remember Vietnam, but I do remember the humiliation of the Iranian hostage crisis. I had many personal reasons to make the military my career, not the least of which was the belief that in so serving, I could contribute to the defense of my nation and thereby contribute to the greater good. Too often in conversations with older officers and retirees I hear the subtle intimation that my generation is not as patriotic or dedicated as previous ones. I would suggest that my generation entered the service with no less commitment, no less love of country, and no less idealism—and no less proud than any.

Let's not judge those of us born in the late 1960s and early 1970s too soon or too harshly. The World War II generation did not know it was the World War II generation until it was over; who knows what challenges and adversities lie ahead? We are not the World War II generation, nor are we the Vietnam generation. It would be a disservice to try to judge this peer group based on our knowledge of those. In the rush to explain the current emigration, let's remember that we are dealing with educated, professional, and well-intentioned officers and not the skateboard rats and coffee house bums of popular culture.

All this has happened before, and today's situation is no different from the 50s/60s/70s/80s (pick your favorite decade).

To be truthful, this widely held view is almost more patronizing than the generational prejudice. Many things in the current environment are similar to the downsizings and economic upturns that have affected military manpower in the past, but nothing is ever "the same." The answers arrived at in response to 1970s questions will not address the 1990s situation.

I believe it is a question of perspective, of seeing the forest, not only the trees. There are many common socioeconomic threads between the present situation and previous retention crises. The growth of commercial aviation and the penchant for major airlines to hire military aviators (and cheaply acquire millions of dollars worth of training and experience) is well documented. A strong economy is creating great opportunities for men and women with leadership and management experience. The technical expertise and problem-solving skills learned in nuclear power school and the advanced degrees awarded at Monterey are in great demand in the civilian workplace. These are just some of the trees—and familiar ones at that. But, they do not make up the entire forest confronting today's junior officers.

There also are questions about political correctness, the use of the military as a social proving ground, decreasing emphasis on good order and discipline, eroding retirement benefits, and decreasing societal recognition of honorable service. All of these issues and their effects on job satisfaction must be considered with the same openness and scrutiny that is paid to questions of pay and benefits. Seeing officer retention from the perspective of trend analysis or as a purely economic question ignores the struggle for the military soul that is going on today.

The recent canonization of an insubordinate junior lieutenant and the pillorying of a senior general officer in our sister service were just the latest spectacles in a long line of publicly humiliating scandals for the Department of Defense. These scandals have distracted us from our only true mission, which is to fight and win the nation's wars. I think it safe to guess that there are more staff officers, civilian employees, and special commissions in the Department of Defense studying social issues than combat readiness. Is there any reason to believe that the bad publicity and bad blood of the scandals would not temper the enthusiasm of junior officers?

The main difference between past cycles and today's environment is just that—the environment. Believe it or not, mission matters. At the height of the airline hiring and economic boom (which coincided with the Reagan-era balloon in military spending) of the 1980s, there remained a legitimate threat to hearth and home. The post-Vietnam decrease in military structure and manpower was related more to domestic politics and the restructuring to an all-volunteer force than to a fundamental change in mission and threat. Today, in spite of our nearly perpetual engagement overseas, the inability of our national leadership to establish a role and promulgate a sense of mission for the military has those in uniform feeling left in the lurch. As entire services search to establish new roles and missions, is it a surprise that individual officers are wondering about their personal purpose in the grand scheme?

In many ways, today's predicament more resembles the early interwar period of the 1920s, when the country had just won the "war to end all wars." The banality of the world situation does not lend a sense of urgency, or even need, to the visceral human reaction to defend one's home. One easily can justify leaving hearth and home to defend the world from godless communism. It is a harder sell when the ideology being forwarded is not "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" but "aggressive multilateralism." I know many who were willing to risk life and limb to defend Europe from the Soviet horde, or to overturn Saddam's aggression and ambition in the Gulf, but few who are willing to do the same to advance the do-gooder interventionist agenda of the U.N. Secretary General.

Hand in hand with the perception that we do not face any major threats or adversaries is the reality of a shrinking fleet and the therefore reduced opportunity for advancement and command. Since the fall of 1990, my community alone, maritime patrol, has undergone a 50% cut, and other aviation communities have disappeared entirely. The strategy and decisions behind those cuts and changes in force structure are not in question; junior officers recognize changing economic and geopolitical realities as well as admirals and congressmen do. The fact remains, however, that for my entire commissioned career, the Navy has been downsizing, opportunities for command are disappearing, and there is no sign that the situation is about to change. Much of the pain is past, but should its effect on the attitudes of junior officers be discounted?

The Navy cannot stop being the Navy. We hold no expectation that the nature of Navy life will change. We know that we will be away from friends and family. We accept that fabulous riches and material wealth will not be found standing the mid-watch. We cannot all be Chief of Naval Operations or Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. There have been periods of lower readiness, lower morale, and higher operational tempo. We aren't at war, and even tactical air aviators have a higher probability of being injured in automobile accidents or training exercises than of coming to harm at the hands of an enemy. Life today is "not bad."

Acceptance of the realities of service and the current sense of security will not keep us in, but it does make possible the decision to stay in. There is much debate over the need for, and effect of, bonus programs such as Aviation Continuation Pay, Sea Pay, Nuke Pay, etc. In an all-volunteer military, the Navy must respond to the realities of the civilian work force; therefore, it is logical that some direct response be made in an effort to keep critical skills—such as piloting a multimillion-dollar aircraft or operating a nuclear reactor. But the fact remains that mid-grade lieutenants "jumping" to the airlines lose money in the near term. Most entry-level middle managers, salesmen, or brokers won't make a junior lieutenant commander's salary. Often, it is not the lure of easy money that inspires decisions to resign; it is the belief that the short-term sacrifice in salary is offset by greater increases in other quality-of-life issues.

A senior tactical air captain I had the good fortune to work for recently said his counsel to officers considering getting out was to make sure you know the color of the grass under your feet before you look to the other side of the fence. What we need now may simply be some "help" in seeing the color of the grass under our shoes. When making what is at best a subjective decision about relative prospects for the future, one must consider realities—pay charts, medical benefits, deployment schedules—as well as perceptions—of promotion and command opportunity, retirement benefits, the relative ease of a civilian lifestyle on a family, etc. Mostly, the decision to "stay Navy" is going to originate from a calculated risk that not only is the grass green now, but also that it will stay green. In hard numbers, all the officers accessed during the Cold War are not needed in the post-Cold War world, and the pyramidal structure of the force requires natural attrition. But the attrition becomes unnatural when officers decide to leave the service even when their personal prospects are good, but they have no confidence in the condition of the "lawn" in the coming years.

The challenge both for those of us approaching the decision point and for our leaders is that this is fundamentally a period of uncertainty. The Chief of Naval Operations has made an effort to end the era of "doing more with less," but it seems that he can no more assure that than Willard Scott can guarantee a white Christmas. Personnel matters are at the end of the whip, and in no way is this period of global and organizational transformation at an end. In such an environment, Navy leaders need to address the issues that can be addressed, and they include retention and special-duty pay. More than once, I have heard a fellow junior officer state that he would stay "if the Navy just made an effort."

So here's my heretical statement as an aviator: the bonus doesn't make people stay in, but it sure does make the decision easier! Maybe increasing special-duty pay for the first time since the early 1980s is that called-for effort. Maybe requesting legislation allowing military members to invest in 401(k) plans or other retirement vehicles is a start. Perhaps a change in the up-or-out structure of career progression needs to be examined. Our system goes to great lengths to determine which officers are not suited to greater responsibility, and makes no effort to allow individuals perfectly suited to their present level to stay in. If nothing else, a fraction of the Navy's recruiting dollars needs to be spent on encouraging those of us already predisposed to career service to stay in.

The converse also applies. If there is no need for our skills, experience, specialty, education, or personality, tell us that as well. Better a self-selecting smaller group of overworked, dedicated officers than hordes of unhappy lieutenant commanders and commanders denied the opportunity to command or challenge themselves. The truth, even when painful, is better than a vacuum. In the absence of honest appraisals and a truly critical fitness reporting system, perceptions of inflated potential arise and officers with true talent can get lost in the mix. The new fitness report is an improvement, but it already is a "system" that can be manipulated. If every officer who received an "early promote" were actually promoted early, would anyone be promoted on schedule?

Most officers I know care honestly and deeply about the future of their service branch and the Navy as a whole. Even officers who are set on finding another career can continue to contribute, up to the day they depart. Unfortunately, there is a perception that the opinions and thoughts of those most affected by current policy don't matter. When asked about a recent (in)famous e-mail circulated in the aviation community addressing various problems and issues, a squadron commanding officer reportedly remarked, "You weren't supposed to see that!" The idea that junior officers aren't fit to contemplate such "high" subjects is patently insulting, and in itself helps foster an environment of mistrust. The situation doesn't call for new "process action teams" or scores of pollsters querying the officer corps; it merely requires that the existing chain of command respond to concerns and honestly answer the questions of those who contemplate resigning. There is a tremendous amount of energy, talent, and intellectual ability stored in the ranks of our junior officers, and Navy leaders can choose either to employ it in helping address this situation or to idly stand by while it moves to the civilian world.

I offer these observations not with the desire to fill the role of Cassandra or to serve as an advertisement for the "bonus." For my part, I have made the decision to stay—mainly because I love my job, feel challenged, and still am having fun. But I hope these comments will spark debate and bring attention to a question as important as any weapon procurement battle on Capitol Hill. It takes as many years to create a senior lieutenant commander or commander as it does to field a new weapon system. Within the spirit of "people come first" leadership, neglecting the process whereby the Navy retains the best officers to lead its sailors and employ those high-priced weapon systems is malpractice. It may not be possible to alter the environment that brought our "patient" to this point, but the situation cries out for attention to the symptoms, at least.

Lieutenant Lewis , a 1990 U.S. Naval Academy graduate and a P-3 pilot, is assigned as the Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia desk officer in the Political-Military Affairs Division on the staff of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.

 

 
 

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