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Early in his career, a young U. S. naval officer comes to understand that the Navy is run by the “operators,” and that aspirations for early responsibilities, rapid promotions, and challenging jobs will be realized best through operationally oriented assignments.
The finest personal accolade an officer can receive is, ‘He’s a great operator.” Implied is individual performance that effectively directs people who conduct movements. Operators can be found most frequently on the bridges of ships, in the maneuvering rooms of submarines, ■n the cockpits of aircraft, in the staff operations center, or at a console in a control facility.
Very few operators become truly great ones, but most are pretty good. Poor operators, like poor baseball pitchers, are yanked in the early innings of a career. And it takes more than a few years of very hard work at sea for an operator’s service reputation to rise from good to great.
The notable characteristics of a Great Operator are limitless self-confidence, optimism, demanding leadership, opportunism, aggressiveness, and a penchant for adopting an offensive attack on immediate problems. He makes things happen. He takes control of things that are already happening. He is quick to act, acts with force, and shuns no responsibilities. When things go wrong, he shoulders the public blame but relentlessly and privately condemns failures in subordinates. When things go well, he will be munificent with praise for others. He loves personal challenges, eschews boredom, is adventurous and fearless but never foolhardy. His greatest satisfaction springs from successfully finishing a job that “couldn’t be done.”
The universal constraint on the Great Operator is that he must work only with what is on hand or that which can be begged, borrowed, stolen, or otherwise diverted from some ready source. He needs only to be told by his boss "'hat results are desired. When subjected to micro-management, he tends to self-destruct. A Great Operator takes to command like the proverbial duck to water, not for the ‘perks” but to provide more latitude in action and more msulation from above. On periodically submitted duty assignment request forms, he will scrawl a single request 0ver all the blanks, “Commanding officer of anything, anywhere!”
Despite this fierce independence, the Great Operator is never disloyal to his seniors. When a conflict does arise, be will do his damnedest to convert the boss over to his 'Vay of thinking. Good morale almost always marks the environment of the Great Operator. Subordinates will occasionally grumble about the incredible amount of work jnvolved, but will then add the proviso, “But it’s interest's and I’m learning a lot.”
This is not to say that the Great Operator is not without fault. He can be hard to keep up with or to satisfy. Juniors "utli tidy, perfectionist personalities tend to get nervous eye-tics, ulcers, and divorces from lengthy exposure to Great Operators, particularly in small units. And because 'be Great Operator prefers driving ships, aircraft, subma- r,nes, and people to pushing paper, he is, at best, only a marginal administrator. He often hides this deficiency by putting all his faith, trust, and backing behind a gifted subordinate. This cop-out or brilliant leadership (take your pick) usually works well because of the Navy’s abundant reservoir of good administrators. Brobdingnagian egos are common among Great Operators, but, curiously enough, resented only by strangers, rarely by shipmates.
The major shortcoming of the Great Operator, however, lies not in the interpersonal realm, but in his sublimation in short-term, high-risk, essentially specialized situations.
As a result, he has great difficulty comprehending_____ or
even identifying—long-term problems. In fact, he is convinced that only short-term problems are real, and that continued solutions to each in turn will eliminate or indefinitely postpone the distant ones.
Most Great Operators are chameleons. When things are running smoothly, the Great Operator will make jokes, carry on like an ensign, fall asleep in his chair on the bridge, wander around the ship, make small talk with cooks, bakers, and bos’n’s mates, party, or dream up some crazy new way of doing things. But when things are tense and personal frenzy levels rise, he is cooler, calmer, and firmer. At the peak of any crisis, he is a fiery icicle. As a result, Great Operators don’t usually look like much in nonoperating situations. Their true service reputations are spread by word of mouth among shipmates, bosses, and others who see them in action. Because the Navy is small enough and because most naval officers are worse gossips than their wives, the word gets around rapidly.
Operators, as a postulated military “class,” are frequently indicted in the fictional media as bom troublemakers, driven by personal ambition for promotion and fame. This is wrong. Operators rarely think that far ahead. Great Operators, moreover, will deliberately exclude such factors as impertinent to the problem at hand. Allowing personal ambitions to color judgment is the typical mistake in the short-lived careers of Poor Operators.
Great Operators come in a variety of personal moral tones. Some are saints, some sinners. None, however, are liars. They tend to be straightforward and fiercely loyal to shipmates, to the Navy, and to the nation. They hold in great esteem all other operators (from all walks of life), people who have been shot at, professional athletes, mariners, marines, and beautiful women. Their politics are conservative, but they are suckers for underdogs and fast- talking salesmen. They are cynical about politicians, naval reservists, military pomp and ceremony, equal opportunity programs, women in combat, and the Naval Supply System. They respect the Soviet Army, the British Navy, the Israeli Air Force, and the French Foreign Legion. They love Australians, Canadians, Iranians (under the Shah), and are comfortable with almost all other nationalities, but are suspicious of the French. Their favorite liberty ports include San Francisco, New Orleans, Ft. Lauderdale, Honolulu, and New York. Overseas they enjoy Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Athens, Palma, Lisbon, Barcelona, and all ports in Scandinavia and the British
Isles. Best of all is any Australian seaport city.
Great Operators do not always appear in large numbers on the Navy’s annual promotion lists. They are constantly sticking their necks out. They are generally working with dynamic forces. Worst of all, a Great Operator usually travels through travail and trouble at a very rapid pace. “Watching his six” is very difficult. In fact, Great Operators are so poor at covering their own asses that someone else has to do it for them.
One of them I knew was very lucky. He was a captain relegated temporarily to the Pentagon. After a week or two of 16-hour days, he left his office safe unlocked a few minutes prior to a random security inspection. Compounding this violation, found inside was a wholly unauthorized (but very convenient) list of the combinations of dozens of other safes in the large office. Thanks only to a massive cover-up by his seniors and a voluntary round-the-clock three-week inventory effort by his subordinates, he escaped relatively unscathed, eventually retiring as a four- star admiral after a legendary career as a Great Operator.
Many others have not been so fortunate. Probably the finest officer I served under was retired as a commander, the scapegoat for an unfortunate aircraft accident. Several other Great Operators had the misfortune of having their ships run aground by dumb subordinates or run into by errant merchantmen. Naval aviators have to be particularly lucky to survive. They can oversee most of what is happening on a bridge, but they can’t control many of the actions of a junior pilot in a distant cockpit. For the Great Operator, promotion to the higher ranks depends upon talent, luck, and a good bit of help from his friends, both senior and junior.
At various points in his career, Evil Fates, Fickle Chance, and the Bureau of Naval Personnel conspire to implant the Great Operator at a paper-laden desk in a remote warren of the Pentagon or some equally motionless edifice. To survive, he may simply grin and endure it (at the risk of ulcers or alcoholism), or he may scurry endlessly about, stirring up needless excitement and a high level of personal visibility among seniors (at the risk of his service reputation). If he’s wise, he’ll use the opportunity to bolster his shaky administrative talents and try his hand at long-range planning chores. Success at the former is not unknown. Great Operators who become Great Planners come along once or twice a generation.
Administrators are plentiful in today’s Navy. A few of them are pretty poor, the rest pretty good. There are no Great Administrators. (To say an officer is a Great Administrator is pure damnation by faint praise, usually implying a fear of flying, panic-in-an-emergency, or simply general chickenheartedness.)
Like the Great Operator, the Good Administrator is basically an efficiency expert; paperwork and routine are his media in lieu of the operator’s hardware and motion. Good Administrators almost always can be found in an office setting. The desk, telecoms, and secretarial staff are their immediate tools.
The notable characteristics of a Good Administrator include high native intelligence, unlimited confidence in “the system,” an unholy awareness of Murphy’s Law, an abhorrence of crises of any sort, and a penchant for solving present problems along traditional lines. Although the Good Administrator may accept a challenge, he will not actively seek one. Although he may enjoy being in charge of things, he’s not really comfortable with responsibilities- He loves routine, knowing full well that most of military life is routine. He respects traditions, the chain of command, and bosses who are interested in his work- Micromanagement from above doesn’t bother him much, since he knows that if he’s worth his salt, he can pass it back uphill faster than it can flow down.
The juiciest challenge for a Good Administrator is 3 grossly disarrayed procedure, office, network, or paperwork system of almost any kind. First, he’ll attack the noise level, carefully appeasing and subduing the loudest squeals. Then, he’ll start dissecting the system, step-bystep, with documentation and in great detail. Because he s an apt student, he’ll grasp each function with remarkable ease. He’ll integrate, modify, alter, or otherwise upset individual “rice bowls” to make each function contribute to the overall product of the system. When he’s finished, an efficient, workable procedure will be the result. It be relatively immune to changes in personnel, politics, °r hardware. Its endurance and strength of purpose will then become either a foundation stone of naval administration or a supreme bureaucratic blunderbuss (take your pick)- Good Administrators promote pretty good morale bot up and down the line. Because they are bright and intern' gent and because they were exposed to a lot of psychology and sociology in college, they understand people qulte well and tend to be fair, even a bit soft, with their juniors- And their seniors, particularly of the Great Operator class. consider them pure gold. Unfortunately, junior Great Op erators consider them worse enemies than the Soviets- Early in their naval careers, Good Administrators are forcefully exposed to operations. They are ordered 1 drive things that move, direct things that shoot, or contrj^ activities in which there is much action and danger- many cases, they get by these tests, though they ach'C little satisfaction from the results. What they do gai*1 * personal confirmation of areas in which their talents do n lie. Because the basic nature of the Navy is dynamic,
odically “punch his career ticket” in assignments to operational billets. These become periods of maximum personal risk where the real trick is for him to look, feel, and act like an operator without sticking his neck out or uncovering his ass. Tragedy ensues, usually in combat or a crisis, when the Good Administrator is faced with critical operational jobs “that can’t be done.” He can’t do them.
Aside from this, the faults of a Good Administrator are few. He is alert, respectful, competent, well-educated, and loyal. He leads well in normal routine and is, overall, extremely dependable. He has difficulty in adjusting to rapid changes, precisely the opposite of the Great Operator. When faced with quick decisions, he will opt for the status quo. He is inherently short on imagination, preferring careful analyses to brilliant insights. He is overly cautious about personal risks and promotion opportunities. It’s not so much that he can’t or won’t make decisions— he can and he will, but he’ll take a long time to do it.
A Good Administrator, except in an operational crisis, "'ill look the part of the traditional naval officer. He’ll make good use of his command “perks,” will be very demanding about “looking good around the ship,”* and he makes an outstanding presence for the Navy and the nation on foreign visits. Like the Great Operator, he has a chameleon quality—cool and calm in normal routine, but °ut of his element when solely responsible in a crisis. He receives his greatest satisfaction at the end of each “business day,” when the train is still on the track, when all the httle pieces of problems have been sorted, solved, and filed away, and when nothing startling has happened or is threatening to happen.
The Good Administrator is a political conservative, through and through. Neither underdogs nor fast-talking salesmen have much appeal to him. He holds in esteem Germanic orderliness, Scandinavian cleanliness, Japanese efficiency, French cooking, mariners, marines, morning colors, beautiful women, and all senior Great Operators, ^e feels that keelhauling would benefit most Great Operators junior to himself. He is thunderstruck by the normal disorder of southern Italy or the Philippines. His favorite
'This is another damnation by faint praise, implying that the aviators who tty in “dutiful formations when in eyesight of the carrier can’t fight their way out of a PaPer bag in distant combat.
liberty port (after Australia) is Monaco or Cannes. He is extremely patriotic, resolutely dedicated to naval service, and makes for an eternally loyal friend and shipmate.
It is easy to ridicule the idiosyncrasies of the Good Administrator, but it is wholly wrong to underplay his contribution to the running of the Navy. Although he may not do too well in combat, he’ll gladly die trying. He is invaluable in peacetime, in preparation for wars, and in salvaging the service from congressional budgetary carnage. Great Operators tend to be flamboyant, a quality that does not wear well over time. If the Navy hadn’t been blessed with plentiful Good Administrators, it would certainly have succumbed to interwar politics long ago.
As the Good Administrator’s career develops, he will compete with the Great Operator for both operating assignments afloat and administrative jobs ashore. Eventually, the top leadership billets will be filled by one or the other of these two types, with the nod generally going to the Great Operator for the very top jobs and to the Good Administrators for most of the second echelon billets. A small percent of the latter are occupied by senior technologists or specialists. Because the Navy is the most technology-dependent service, these officers have very satisfying careers. But they rarely have much of a vote in how the Navy is run. (Now-retired Admiral Hyman G. Rickover is a notable exception.)
Naval planners are a curious lot. They are almost impossible to identify. The work they do is applicable to the distant future and its value measurable only then. And the very nature of long-range planning is studious, quiet, and thoughtful, making for a work environment better suited to a university than a navy. Worst of all, there have been so few Great Naval Planners and so many rotten ones over the past three or four decades that the talent itself seems to have atrophied into extinction.
If official titles and published position descriptions were believable, the Navy would be amply represented in the arcane world of planning. Every staff, from the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations to the lowest echelon, has— on paper—some form of a planning section, division, office, or officer. Most are nothing more than glorified file clerks, concerned more about the security than the content of the so-called plans in their custody. And there are plenty of plans. Fantastic quantities of war plans, contingency plans, strategic plans, exercise plans, and development plans are constantly in production.
The real planning—that affecting long-term needs, types, and quantities of forces and providing foresight into the future—is done by upper echelon leaders on a personal, ad hoc basis. It is rarely recorded and of very short longevity. It changes with the tides of Congress, budgets, current events, and assignments of individuals. It is reactive, not creative. It provides good solutions to short-term problems and ignores long-term effects. It is the type of planning to be expected from Great Operator leadership— wonderfully effective for today but ignorant of tomorrow. It is, in fact, Lousy Planning.
It is often argued that long-term planning really does exist, but is only evident in official speeches, five-year force projections, testimony to the Congress in budget hearings, and the senior promotion lists. Yet, force projections are essentially dream-sheets beyond a year or two, devise unrealistic budgets, and are markedly changed with successive issues. Speeches and testimony are better sources, but the former are too general and the latter too specialized. Analyzing promotion lists is lots of fun, but is actually simply more naval gossiping.
There are many embryo good naval planners in the fleet today. They are pretty good operators, pretty good administrators, but not exceptionally talented for either of these career patterns. They read a lot. They are extremely observant and curious, rarely opinionated, and always learning about things outside their assigned specialty. By any common benchmark, they are above average naval officers, but have only moderate promotion potential. They are too imaginative to be successful as administrators of routine, and they are not forceful enough to be great operators. Thus, they leave the ranks of potential future leaders, opting instead for a civilian career or transferring into some specialty field.
Hence, if good long-range planning is ever to be done at the senior level, the people concerned must come up either the administrative or operational ladder. This implies these individuals will undergo some miraculous metamorphoses. Good Administrators will set aside details and routine and become imaginative. Or Great Operators will stop thinking about immediate problems and attack the longer range issues (which they never really believed in the first place). The potential for either of these groups of otherwise outstanding naval officers to produce anything but Lousy Planners is miniscule.
There is nothing novel or startling about the theory that the Navy suffers from Lousy Planners. At almost predictable periods during the past 40 years, the realization of planning inadequacies has forced some form of organizational action, usually at the instigation of a mature, frustrated senior officer. The old General Board provided the decades of long-term guidance that led to the Navy’s distinction in World War II. In 1951, the board was abolished, despite then-Captain Arleigh Burke’s magnificent and prescient contributions to it. Planning chores fell to secondary staff levels and ad hoc committees. In the late 1950s, provoked largely by Admiral Burke and Captain George H. Miller, a specific Long Range Objectives Group (OP-93) was formally opened for business and staffed by a succession of “front-running,” high-caliber officers. The work of this group proved influential throughout Admiral Burke’s tenure as Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), but lessened significantly thereafter. A loss of direct access to the CNO was one cause for this decline. Changes in personnel was another. Probably most significant was the impact of reorganization to accommodate Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s new systems analysis approach to management. Budgeteers and bean-counters soon superseded planners.
Since the formal demise of OP-93 in late 1970, planning responsibilities have moved hither, thither, and yon throughout the Pentagon, the Center for Naval Analyses, the Naval War College, and a succession of Blue Ribbon Panels, study groups, and planning committees. There was Project 60, Project 2000, The Beaumont Study, The Surface Warfare Master Plan, The Naval Aviation Plan, Sea Plan 2000, The Navy Study Groups of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Strategic Planning and the Maritime Balance: An Experiment, The Sea-Based Air Master Study Plan, and, most recently, establishment of the Long Range Planning Group (OP-00X) in 1980 and its demise in 1983.
Almost all of these efforts were chartered to rewrite the future of the Navy or large segments thereof. The more specialized the charters, the more enduring the results. Most, however, were viewed with respect only while in the making, ridiculed when published, and soon forgotten-
But vacuums must be filled. Because there has been no effective long-range planning, because the Great Operators either can’t or won’t think beyond the current crisis, and because the Good Administrators must keep the ship afloat and on course, the Navy has been relying upon customs, traditions, and usage for its long-term guidance.
A number of issues highlight this inadequacy. One is the lack of evidence to prepare for a nuclear war at sea; another the lack of evidence to seriously prepare to ensure the survival of our strategic oceanic links to Europe and Japan; yet another the lack of attempts to answer the mounting concerns over the survivability of surface warships, or of any ships, in future conflicts.
The lower-level issues that fill the pages of professional journals these days seem to reflect these basic voids m long-range planning—the CVNs Forever Syndrome; the square-pegged frigates; the gold-plated cruisers, destroyers, attack submarines, ballistic missile submarines, aircraft, and missiles; the Arapaho “giveaway”; the vertical/ short takeoff and landing “hideaway”; the 16-inch guns and the battleships; the moribund Merchant Marine; the Navy’s role in space, etc. All of these, and probably a dozen more, provoke an uneasy feeling among naval leaders that our proud and capable Navy is concerned only with solutions to near-term crises. As for the long-rangc planning issues, like that Great Operator from literature Scarlett O’Hara, we’ll just “think about them tomorrow.
A 1944 graduate of the Naval Academy, Captain O'Rourke command®^ several all-weather fighter squadrons, an ammunition ship, and the v Independence (CVA-62). Prior to retirement in 1974, he directed t Navy Fighter Study Group. A former member of the Naval Institute ■ Board of Control, Captain O’Rourke authored “A Good New Idea (° the Arapaho concept) and “CVNs Forever! Forever?”