That the thinning of the junior officer ranks is necessary under the auspices of Navy “rightsizing” efforts is unquestioned. But what about the philosophy that underlies the recent methodology of junior officer Voluntary Separation Incentive/Selective Separation Benefit (VSI/SSB)? Why does it seem as if our best and brightest junior officers are opting out of the Navy at a time when we need them most to form a highly trained and competent, albeit smaller, cadre of future fleet warriors?
Since the implementation of the VSI/SSB program a few years ago, many of the most professional and competent peers with whom I have worked have applied and been approved for separation under this program. Over time, I believe that most officers come to perceive and appreciate the value of those few select movers and shakers who seem to function as the key proactors in Navy organizations. It is these team players who make all of our jobs easier and more professionally satisfying. They are intelligent, industrious, driven, and most important, competent—both by choice and inherent ability. It appears that most prudent commanding officers are also aware of these individuals and use them accordingly—not only to distribute the burden of carrying an organization but also to fill those critical positions where life and limb are in the balance.
However, these few prime movers are often the target of excessive primary and collateral duty assignments, which, though usually accomplished in a smart fashion, become a liability to the individual’s own quality of life and job satisfaction. Most of us likely remember such an instance. But ask yourself this question: “Where is that officer now?” Keeping in mind that these men and women are not where they are today for want of common sense, VSI/SSB appears to have provided an opportunity too good for many of them to pass up—and this bodes ill for the future of our naval forces.
Are we diluting the quality of the junior officer ranks by throwing out the baby instead of the bath water? The larger numbers of officers whose capabilities are simply lesser than the group previously discussed—whether due to apathy, neglect, poor training, or ineptitude—appear to be remaining en masse in the military comfort zone of mediocrity. These less-ambitious individuals are more likely to fear the severing of the perceived benefits of the Navy’s umbilical organization; consequently, the temporary financial gain for them may be outweighed by the security of the status quo. What could they possibly fear? The worst case scenario would be a few unsurprising failures to promote and the guarantee of severance or separation pay.
I personally have no clue as to the parameters used to select those eligible for VSI/SSB, but I hope that the Navy is not shooting policy from the hip for the sake of expediency. As for thinning the ranks, the efficacy of the VSI/SSB program goes without saying—but the long-term effects are less clear and more significant.
Perhaps a more effective method might be a reversal of this policy, with a renewed attack in the direction of quality assurance of the officer corps in accession programs and in the conscientious administering of the fitness reporting system early in an officer’s service. If this was being accomplished today, it would obviate the tendency to shoulder the rare proactors with the duties transferred from those less-capable officers.
Lieutenant Patch is the senior instructor of the Villanova University NROTC Unit in Pennsylvania.