Like the chiefs of McKenna's time, many now stay on to protect their retirement benefits. In years past, 20 years of service were required to obtain the coveted 50% retainer pay. Every year many chiefs, senior chiefs, and not a few master chiefs request retirement as they reach their 20-year point. Congress, to support a drawdown, authorized a temporary reduction to 15 years of service as the minimum to warrant retainer pay (at a lower percentage). Thousands have applied for this early retirement—which should have been a wake-up call for the U.S. Navy.
Some chiefs—not wanting to face another two or three years of what for some has become a test of endurance—apply for early retirement. It has become an endurance contest because of our drawdown to a new force size, and the effect this smaller force has on advancement. With very limited prospects for advancement, it is no wonder that an accomplished chief petty officer would want to move on to where he or she could enjoy greater financial success. Our own retention motto—"move up, not out!"—sends a subtle and unintended message: If you can't advance, then perhaps it is time to move out.
The youngest chiefs in our Navy—recruited after Congress changed the retirement plan—face a retainer of only 40% after 20 years. Seeing the frustration of their older peers, they often consider a career in the civilian sector. This should be no surprise. Facing perhaps another 10 to 12 years as a chief with limited opportunity for advancement, young chiefs see greener pastures and move on, often to much higher-paying positions.
Chief McKenna wrote of the same thing a half-century ago. In his time, it was the motivated and goal-oriented first-class petty officers, facing limited advancement opportunity, who made the decision to leave. Now, it is not only the same type of first-class petty officers, but also our midcareer chiefs who all too often opt to leave the Navy—and time away from home—behind them.
What about those who stay? They have spent possibly their most productive years in the Navy. Many do not look forward to five or more additional years of service. These are the same leaders whom our junior sailors approach for career advice. For many, the answer to a young sailor's question about staying Navy must be tempered. We stress that making a career in the Navy means enjoying the lifestyle—spending time at sea and deploying frequently. We stress that we don't do it for the money, but at the same time, our years of service and our desire for that pension belie our position. But how can we promote a career in the Navy when we routinely see our benefits reduced and our pay capped and spend more and more time on deployment? Most of those who stay for 20 years don't stay any longer, except for those who see possible shore duty or the opportunity to get a little more college before retirement.
Today, we hear cries that we soon will have a hollow force similar to that of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and find that we need more time under way by the existing ships. Carrier battle groups deploy early, cutting short already precious time at home. The battle group's sailors must work harder and longer. The newest bodies filling bunks in the battle group lack training. While the battle group steams toward possible harm's way, the crew must train many sailors who weren't on board for any part of the training cycle.
How Can We Fix the Situation?
Is it any wonder that many sailors and chiefs decide to get out? How do we correct the problems? How do we keep the young chief who is a hard charger? How do we keep the motivated and top-notch first-class petty officer long enough to make him or her a chief?
There are no easy answers, but sailors in the fleet have plenty of suggestions. Unfortunately, these suggestions seldom make it up the chain of command to the policymakers. Some solutions won't be popular. Others will require some pain for one group or another. Yet in all cases, the question must be asked: What is right for the Navy?
Personnel accounts must be funded to support full manning of all ships and squadrons. Achieving this won't be easy and does involve sacrifices. Where will the dollars come from? Who will get hurt? Which rice bowls must we break? What are the positive effects of the pain?
Given that the present fiscal situation is unlikely to change, manpower accounts can be funded after the Oliver Hazard Perry (FFG-7) class is decommissioned completely. As these ships get older, the maintenance costs continue to rise. We could eliminate at least five different strands of training that support only the FFG-7. Then we could concentrate our remaining maintenance dollars on our newer ships instead of letting them drift into disrepair.
What about the downside of decommissioning the Oliver Hazard Perry class? There will be fewer command opportunities for commanders and fewer executive officer billets. The surface warfare officer community may shrink further, but it is pretty obvious that the surface community has too many officers at the lieutenant commander and commander levels. Will there be pain with this breaking of a rice bowl? Yes, but we will have a better surface force and a better Navy once it happens. Also, the operational effect of doing away with the FFG-7 class must be considered. What ships will we use then for drug operations off our coast and boarding inspections in the Middle East?
Further, enlisted advancement rates must be stabilized. As strands of training and the resultant Navy enlisted classifications (NECs) pass into memory, we must manage the community. The year-to-year fluctuations of advancement rates at the senior level are inexcusable. Our senior leadership must convince Congress that we need three to five years additional early retirement authority. Once we have that tool, we must use it like a scalpel. Instead of soliciting requests, we must screen the rates where we need to reduce and tell people that it is time to go home.
This involves a great deal of personal pain—but once again, the end result is a better Navy. Simply sending sailors home isn't enough unless we develop a long-range plan for each community that reflects the composition of our Navy. Stabilizing advancement rates to within two to three percentage points of every other rate would eliminate a great deal of dissatisfaction throughout the enlisted force. No longer would sailors in one rate see near-zero advancement opportunity while other sailors' opportunity reaches 50% or better.
Chief McKenna told us why the chief of the post-World War II era was dissatisfied, and gave us some ideas about quelling that dissatisfaction. Some of his recommendations were followed, leading to a higher level of satisfaction. But in entering a force reduction, we have produced another period of dissatisfaction.
Instead of dwelling on the past—and holding on to dreams that advancement rates will return to the growth levels of the late 1980s—we must concentrate on the future. Manpower accounts that keep the right number of sailors on ships and a steady advancement rate across all ratings of the same pay grade will eliminate major sources of dissatisfaction. Once that is accomplished, we will retain our motivated and hard-charging chief petty officers and our potential chiefs of the future. Failure to do so means that the hollow force will be back with us soon. The good of the Navy demands that we act—and act quickly. Do we have the courage to make bold changes, or will we cling to the dogma of the past? Once we answer that question, we will know where our Navy is going as we enter the 21st century.
Master Chief Butler is command master chief of the USS Halyburton (FFG-40) and served previously as command master chief of the USS Monongahela (AO-178).