I may suffer a credibility gap with some readers—particularly aviators—when I describe surface warfare as thrilling, but I'd always felt our profession provided a diverse and exciting life. I'm not so sure anymore.
There were numerous instances during my last two sea tours, as commanding officer of the Fife (DD-991) and executive officer of the Bataan (LHD-5), when junior officers came to me for career advice. During each conversation I asked the officer whether he or she intended to remain in the Navy past the initial obligation. On several occasions I was asked what I would do, were I faced with that choice as a junior officer in today's surface Navy. I usually was able to answer with the right amount of enthusiasm and encouragement, but I also was forced to reflect on just how much surface warfare has changed over the 20 years since I was a junior officer. The technological advances are obvious, but the nature of a division officer's or young department head's job also has evolved. In particular, five aspects of life as a SWO have changed profoundly and would affect my decision to continue with the Navy.
My generation of surface warfare officers had more fun. This is a gross generalization, but here is why it is true.
Our operations at sea were meaningful and geared to combat a real-world threat. We chased Soviet combatants, hunted their submarines, and protected battle groups from the air threat. We trained hard to make sure we could fight and win a war at sea. We knew what we were doing was important, were willing to sacrifice to achieve our mission, and obtained tremendous satisfaction from doing our jobs right. We were saving the Free World!
Although Saddam Hussein provides interesting interludes, surface warfare in the 1990s can be a life of drudgery. Nontraditional missions such as preserving marine life, humanitarian operations, and maritime interdiction operations, and the sheer monotony of managing gender integration, plastic waste disposal, liberty behavior, and similar "hot" issues are just a few of the time consumers with which today's SWO must contend. Before anyone packs me off to a re-education camp, I am not advocating that we nuke the whales, remove women from ships, let Third World children starve, or encourage alcohol abuse. I am saying that based on what I have observed, managing an effective plastics waste disposal program, saving turtles entangled in fishing nets, and making sure that your personnel do not engage in sexual misconduct just don't provide the same thrill—nor, more important, the same pride and sense of accomplishment—as meaningful operations at sea.
We also had more fun ashore. "Join the Navy and see the world" was an accurate description of our lifestyle. Our wardrooms enjoyed plenty of exciting port visits, minus the restrictions that govern liberty today, and our intense operations fostered a camaraderie that carried over to liberty. Port visits today are fewer and may bring more wardroom discussion on how to prevent the crew from using jet skis than on planning social events. Conduct-ashore standdowns, accompanied by page 13 entries, might prevent liberty incidents, but they also dampen enthusiasm, diminish fun, and make a port visit just another management task.
Degree of Difficulty
Today's junior surface warfare officers have a harder job than my generation did, and we expect a lot from them. The technical demands are immense. Although we have streamlined the basic SWO qualification process, it still takes considerable time and effort for a division officer to complete watchstation qualifications, become a competent watchstander, and master the technical aspects of his or her primary duties. Division officers frequently are expected to display technical expertise in matters that formerly were viewed as chief petty officer territory.
To these considerable duties we have added complex management responsibilities. Training, planned maintenance, personnel qualification standards, and cleanliness always have been the foundation for any successful SWO, but over the years we have made some of these programs more difficult to administer. We seem to take some form of perverse pride in making any task harder than it needs to be. I could write for pages just on the time and effort it takes a wardroom to write and act out the great Broadway show we call the Tactical Training Strategy. In addition, we have added various "cats and dogs" to what seems an endless list of management programs. It therefore has become more common for a SWO to take his eye off the ball and lose track of what is really important. There are division officers, department heads, and executive officers who prioritize as if dental readiness were as vital to combat readiness as firefighting capability.
But shouldn't a competent SWO be able to examine any list of programs and drop the small stuff to concentrate on the big picture? Absolutely! How about Navy rights and responsibilities? Fuel conservation? Environmental protection? Sexual harassment prevention? Involvement in the community? Navy nutrition month?
Good leaders routinely de-emphasize certain areas to dedicate resources to big-ticket items, but the sum of all the requirements we place on our officers is staggering, and what frequently goes away is time and enthusiasm for good SWO training and professional development. Even in the small sample of "fringe" programs listed above, there are solid arguments for focusing on each one, and our system demands that we excel in every one. We maintain these expectations even when reality dictates that we acknowledge shortfalls, or at least change the way we do business. As a result, we compromise our standards—and honesty—in things that are vital to readiness, such as status of readiness and training reports, casualty reports, fuel figures, planned maintenance, personnel qualification standards, and training reports. These measures of readiness simply become figures to be manipulated in our drive to do it all, and to look good doing it.
During one of my recent tours, an experienced, competent junior officer brought me the results for an exam that ships self-administer prior to a Propulsion Examining Board visit. I was impressed by the tremendously high scores, even for personnel who had recently reported aboard. When I questioned the validity of the results the officer readily admitted that he had altered the scores, in accordance with existing practice. He was stunned when I directed him to record the actual grades, and he made it clear
that he viewed my action as naive. He, like many of his peers who shade the truth to deliver the product that superiors demand, had lost respect for our system and was just playing the game.
One of my closest advisors frequently has told me that most problems in the Navy can be traced to an overabundance of white male Naval Academy graduates (I am one). She has cited our "old-boy network" as the underlying cause for our rigid thinking, our tendency to cover for each other and to preserve the system rather than confront issues, and our unwillingness to change unless forced by outside influences. In keeping with the code of the old-boy network, I of course ignored her. My service on board the Bataan , which had more than 200 women in the commissioning crew of 1,000, has given me a new perspective.
The presence of a large number of women and minorities should have a positive effect on any command climate. Different backgrounds and perspectives spawn new ideas and make planning and problem solving easier. I found that having many women and minorities on board made us "old boys" listen better, made us more willing to try new solutions to old problems, and in general helped us to communicate more effectively up, down, and across the chain of command. In short, diversity has forced the Old Guard to be more open, and more careful, and that has caused improvements in a wide range of areas throughout the Navy.
Simply watching the news, however, tells us that not everybody in our organization is doing this right. We have some leaders who cannot or will not accept the changes that gender integration has brought about, and thus improperly lead this process. Many in the junior ranks feel they are subjected to excessive micromanagement to pay for the sins of senior officers who still don't get it.
That said, administering, managing, and leading gender integration, especially with a large crew, is such a huge challenge that those who have not experienced the process cannot truly comprehend. I still cringe when I recall the Bataan precommissioning unit's first I Division's and Captain's Masts. Teaching 1,000 sailors % of whom had never been assigned sea duty before—how to live and work together at sea required intensive, continuous effort by the entire wardroom, chief petty officer mess, and senior enlisted leadership. The Bataan was successful, but since we have not yet figured out how to legislate hormonal activity, gender integration will continue to be an issue for the Navy. The scope of the problem and level of effort required to do it right have made gender integration its own mission area.
Quality of Life
The number one issue affecting quality of life for surface warfare officers is our community's failure to take care of individuals. Note that I use the term individuals instead of people. The Navy has great people programs, all of which can be implemented, monitored, and glorified in press releases. Absent from our culture, however, is a sincere concern for individuals.
"Surface warfare officers eat their young' has become a tired cliche, but it is valid. An all too frequent phenomenon is the officer who publicly emphasizes the importance of our people and their families yet demonstrates limited interest in the professional or personal welfare of these individuals. We practice our own version of Darwinism and only become concerned if retention drops (hence the recent emphasis on mentoring). This makes the officer ranks fertile breeding grounds for cynicism.
Are we really more callous about our people than we were two decades ago? I'm not sure, but two factors make it seem that we are. First, careerism and self-interest are more prevalent. This can make junior officers feel that they are more appreciated for their contributions to a superior's career than to the defense of our nation. Second, civilian employers have improved tremendously in this area—from child care to retirement plans—and we suffer by comparison. The phrase "The Navy takes care of its own" does not have as much substance as it used to.
All the armed services have suffered from careerism to varying degrees, and it clearly becomes more threatening during peacetime, when combat skills become less obvious, and less valued, than bureaucratic skills.
Many of my contemporaries are reluctant to criticize the present system because it has served us well. We had command and made captain, so it can?t be too bad, right? Sure, we lost some good officers along the way, but isn't this business all about survival of the fittest?
Unfortunately, it may be that the best careerists are surviving, not the best war fighters. A young officer must now break out early and start mapping career milestones. Joint duty, war colleges, Washington staff assignments, and aide and executive assistant billets leave little room for fun jobs and no chance to right oneself after a rough start, an opportunity I certainly had. This focus on ticket punching over at-sea experience, reduced command opportunity, and the annual budget battles in Washington and the growth in bureaucratic power that they have spawned have made the careerist's values part of the SWO culture. "What have you done to make me look good?" hardly ranks with "Don't give up the ship!" but that is what today's SWO is most likely to hear as she searches for words of inspiration. The desire to achieve the next career milestone—whether it be selection for executive officer or promotion to admiral—drives many officers? daily thoughts and decisions. I've held counseling sessions with junior officers intending to review such mundane topics as training and planned maintenance, only to find them more concerned with getting the right job to facilitate becoming an Aegis or new-construction commanding officer. Directing them to fix their equipment and qualify as a SWO before worrying about their command tours was viewed as evidence that I was exceptionally shortsighted.
Frequently, careerists have no real love of ships, sea duty, or sailors. Sea duty done "right"—don't take risks, play the system, take the right jobs, look good—is just part of playing the game. In its worst form, careerism fosters a culture that is not receptive to bad news, covers up problems, and emphasizes style over substance. Interestingly, these characteristics describe any large, politicized bureaucracy and echo the charges leveled at the Naval Academy by Professor James Barry two years ago.
Our Culture Needs Repair
There still are many positive aspects of our profession. I mentioned technological advances, but even more significant is the superb quality of our people. There were numerous occasions on the Fife and Bataan when I marveled at the accomplishments of our sailors and officers. They handled any task thrown at them, regardless of its difficulty or the personal cost it imposed.
My comments are not aimed at the capability of our ships and crews but instead are focused on how our community runs. Some might argue that our problems could be eased by money—more money yields better training, better equipment, greater job satisfaction, more ships, more port visits, and better retention—but hefty budgets only mask the real issues. It is our culture that needs repair.
Operating at sea and visiting foreign ports is by nature adventuresome. If you give good junior officers opportunities to have fun, in a culture willing to confront problems and take care of its own, they will stay. I would. Low pay, inadequate housing, and other "dissatisfiers" will drive some people out, but only the tremendous job satisfaction that comes with great sea duty will keep our top SWOs in. Our leaders must look at the maintenance, training, and operations of our ships and crews with the goal of creating great sea duty (and not use a Plan of Action and Milestones to do it). If we distill all the enjoyment out, we will be just another federal bureaucracy.
Captain Wooldridge is a third-generation white male Naval Academy graduate assigned to U.S. Commander-in-Chief Pacific.