Many years ago, one of my contemporaries countered a burst of my surface warfare professional bravado by saying "the surface navy eats its young." He went on to describe the surface navy as a professional and personal environment that he perceived to be "anesthetic to life."
As my career progressed I had many opportunities to reflect on that haunting commentary. It leaped from my memory whenever I saw a ship's captain respond to the pressures of command by tearing up a junior officer. It surfaced at the end of long deployments as my personal life was put to the test. It reemerged whenever I heard that a ship's high operational tempo had destroyed another marriage.
By the end of my career, convinced that my friend was probably right, I rationalized that the apparent disproportionate professional and personal demands-and the extraordinary level of stress-associated with the surface warfare officer career path were the inevitable nature of the beast. Taking pride in having met that challenge, I retired to the relatively tame existence of a government contractor and, with daily doses of "family," the wounds of a 23-year surface Navy career healed quickly.
My new life as a combat system engineer has given me a window to watch many time-tested Navy paradigms crumble. I have seen the conceptual foundation being laid for the 21st Century Surface Combatant (SC-21). I have watched, with doubting curiosity, the birth-struggle associated with integration of females into the seagoing surface force. And I have witnessed, with sad concern, the 600-ship Navy vision of my day eroded by half.
As a great believer in the potential of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) technology, I looked on with satisfaction as the acquisition community reluctantly came to grips with the technical potential and economic necessity of a COTS-based combat system. My peace, however, was short-lived. Somewhere between learning of the three-to-one crew reduction planned for SC-21 and of the proposal to shorten command tours, my friend's comment reemerged with new clarity. I am convinced that the cumulative effect of these changes has the potential to make the surface Navy lifestyle even more hostile to its young.
Clearly, a great many people are working hard to manage the change necessitated by the drastic downsizing and unprecedented technological innovation facing the Navy. The fewer-dollars problem is being addressed by cutting people and platforms. Fewer platforms means fewer command opportunities, which in turn is being addressed by shortening command tours-the same old stuff!
But the Navy is changing too drastically and changing simultaneously in too many dimensions to be kept on course by traditional solutions.
The numbers will change. Meeting global commitments with half the number of platforms and people means longer sea tours, more deployments, more time at sea. Furthermore, as the shore establishment downsizes, fewer quality shore tours will be available. Family separation will increase.
Personnel requirements will change. By leveraging new technology watch stations will be folded together. Small teams of highly trained individuals will fight the ships. The operating, maintaining, repairing sailor of the 1990s will be replaced, in the next decade, by the generic "super operator." The mega-skill set required for these positions will be very perishable. As individual professional demands increase, the requirement to stay at sea to keep those skills sharp also will increase.
Family dynamics will change. Economic stress will increase. Like its civilian counterpart, the two-income Navy family will become the norm. The deployment of one parent will no longer be compensated for by the continuous availability of the other parent. The next generation of Navy dependents will be characterized as a single-parent, latchkey generation. In addition, the coed environment on board ship during deployments will add a new set of stresses to naval marital relationships.
Commanders will change. With "flexible detailing," command tours will be shortened to as little as 11 months, providing that certain milestones are met. Gone will be the concept of commanding officer as mentor, role model, hero. Too many commanding officers will get their command tickets punched at the expense of wardroom/crew motivation and morale. Bold leadership with direction and intent will give way to caution and the fear-of-failure motivation.
Inevitably, the young will be sacrificed.
What components might a more comprehensive solution to these challenges include?
- Permanently deployed surface warfare combatants?
- Blue and gold surface crews?
- Career-long sea duty assignments to the same ship?
- Geographic stability in seaduty/shore duty rotation?
- Large-scale consolidation of enlisted ratings?
- Greater commissioned officer career path specialization?
- Significant increase and restructuring of sea pay?
It's time to look at the whole picture. The Surface Navy must start protecting its young - today!