Second Honorable Mention, Arleigh Burke Essay Contest
Officers and sailors throughout the fleet have the impression that their senior leadership no longer has the best interests of sailors, the Navy, and the nation at heart. To regain their trust, senior leaders must demonstrate symbolically and substantially that they remain at heart deckplate leaders.
Leadership is either out of touch or uninformed, or just does not care enough to address the plight of our people in meaningful ways."
These words are not the complaints of a "disgruntled sailor" or the accusations of a "misinformed" critic. They are comments contained in a recent report by the Navy Inspector General on the status of readiness in naval aviation. But more than that, these words represent a growing sentiment shared by officers and sailors throughout the fleet: that the senior leadership of the Navy no longer has the best interests of our sailors, the service, and the nation at heart.
Whether or not this perception is accurate, our Navy faces a crisis in leadership credibility. The trust required for an effective combat-ready organization is in extremis. As a recent commentary in Proceedings noted, "the impression among junior officers is that our leaders today have their priorities reversed ... when faced with tough choices, too often the first thought is: `What decision would most enhance my career." And it is an impression that crosses service lines. A current report by an influential U.S. think tank indicates that two-thirds of U.S. military officer respondents felt distrust of their senior leadership. According to a 1998 U.S. Army survey, 18% of Army captains said they were "dissatisfied with their senior officers." This contrasted with only 6%lo who answered similarly in 1988.
On 5 April 2001, The Washington Post reported that several participants on the Mishap Board studying one of the crashes of the MV-22 Osprey that have killed 23 Marines identified "a design flaw that had been known for months but went largely uncorrected" as a primary cause. The participants were willing to discuss the crash under condition of anonymity prior to the release of the report "because they increasingly distrust the Corps' leadership and worry that some of their conclusions might be minimized or omitted in the public report." One board member expressed his dismay at senior leaders' oversight of the program by saying, "People who have been heroes all my life are no longer my heroes."
All naval leaders should be alarmed by these implications. All naval leaders should make direct personal efforts to restore the credibility required for a healthy military organization. All naval leaders should encourage ideas and suggestion from throughout the Navy on how to regain and enhance the bonds of trust that connect superiors to subordinates, and that define the ideals of naval leadership.
Losing the Trust
This loss of trust did not happen overnight. Rather, it is the residue from events and decisions of the past four decades—Vietnam, Tailhook, downsizing, "don't ask, don't tell," and the recent force readiness debate. An additional factor is the natural suspicion of post-Watergate generations toward authority. According to one researcher, today's military personnel "are holding their superiors to far higher standards than in the past."
Other ingredients, less obvious to the public, can be summarized as the "corrosive effects" of a "mismatch between strategy and resources estimated at $30-50 billion a year." This means sailors must make heroic efforts to complete even the normal tasks of day-to-day defense operations. And these efforts are being made during a time when there appears to 'be no direct threat to U.S. security and military forces are being used extensively to support less-vital interests. A recent National Defense University report identified ten key indicators that substantiate a potential strategy-resource mismatch. At least eight of the indicators point to current, severe problems, including "deterioration of the morale and quality of life of the force."
More important than the strategy-resource mismatch itself—arguably, there always has been some sort of gap—is the perception that for much of the past decade senior military leaders refused to admit its existence, or to take action to reprioritize service programs to deal with it. It also is suggested that senior military leadership encouraged the use of military forces for less-vital interests as a means of garnering political support for a larger force structure. This perception is reinforced by the very public 1998-1999 turnaround by the service chiefs in arguing that a force-wide readiness problem existed when they had downplayed it only months before.
Since mid-2000, the new Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Vernon Clark, has indicated that improving naval readiness will be the priority of his tenure. But it will take time to make a significant repair, and improved readiness will not do it alone.
The Perception of Politics
The greatest impediment to restoring trust in senior naval leadership is the perception that personal politics rather than competence determines who fills the highest positions of uniformed leadership, and that service decision making is driven more by personal or political expedience than thoughtful analysis. At its core, the perception of political expediency has a degree of truth because, in a democracy, defense strategy ultimately is a political decision. But when that perception becomes dominant, morale and military discipline break down. As the Proceedings commentary stated, "selfishness and professionalism cannot endure together." Senior leaders are seen as yes men and yes women willing to make their subordinates do make work or—perhaps worse—do work without the necessary tools, resources, or support, all to please military and civilian authorities and their insatiable requirement to do more with less. Official status reports are seen as being full of "happy spin" to prove that one's own service (or command or unit) is better than all others and thus merits more resources (and the commander's promotion). Fortunately, this perception has not yet clouded the overall trust in leadership in combat as it did in the latter stages of the Vietnam War. But it could, which is why it must be stopped.
The War That Won't End; The Hook Stuck to Our Tail
As concerns military trust in authority, Vietnam is the war that just won't go away. Desert Storm appeared to erase its operational legacy, but repairing trust is not simply a matter of success. The reality is that in Vietnam U.S. servicemen and women were ordered into combat for a cause that their senior-most leaders—most notably Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara—already had given up on. And there was no open revolt of the admirals and generals. Shadows from this tarnished image of leadership will not disappear in an era when U.S. forces are being committed to less-vital interventions in a piecemeal fashion by leaders who appear unsure and not ready to stay the course. The Weinberger-Powell doctrine may have brushed these shadows aside for awhile, but they slowly are growing back.
From a different direction, the Tailhook incident also colors perceptions today. The actual incident aside, it is the public reaction of the Navy leadership that still strikes the bad chord. Assault is a crime. It should have been investigated immediately. Various levels of leadership appeared to try to sweep it under the rug. When it was found, the ship ran aground. Innocent officers were punished, guilty ones undoubtedly got away, and flags trampled each other trying to get back in the good graces of Congress. That hook may be rusting, but it remains stuck to our tail. And it is remembered whenever yet another senior-level fraternization scandal is revealed.
The apparent "silence of the admirals"—as former Secretary of the Navy James Webb calls it—has been deafening. It is time for the entire flag community to speak to the sailors. And hopefully it won't be, "Shut up or get out."
It Takes a Flag Officer?
"Mr. Rowe needs to mature," states a retired flag officer about the writer of a recent article in Proceedings. Apparently, the admiral believes that constructive criticism of naval policy gives aid and comfort to those he sees as the Navy's primary peacetime enemy—the Air Force. The arrogance of the response is particularly striking in a military context. Lieutenant Commander Rowe—an officer I have not met, but whom I will use as a representative example—probably is around the same age at which most of the combat heroes of the past performed their greatest missions. As a "junior" officer, he is at a rank to lead troops directly into battle, serve as officer of the deck or tactical action officer, or fly his aircraft in a strike mission. In other words, he is at that rank we need for combat, the ultimate purpose of a powerful navy. He's who we want to keep.
In contrast, the majority of active-duty flag officers have assignments that appear only tangentially connected to combat operations—primarily they serve as staff to more senior flag officers or civilian officials. There are more than 30 flag officers serving on the CNO's staff alone, officers who command no one except small handfuls of action officers and perhaps a yeoman or two. Presumably they are making recommendations that affect the fleet. But many responsibilities carried out by flag officers on the CNO's and other staffs easily could be carried out by more-junior officers, and indeed many once were. Strong leadership abilities don't seem much of a requirement for managing a staff dominated by highly self-motivated commanders.
The cumulative effect is the perception that many flag billets are simply part of a bloated bureaucracy that at best is irrelevant to the fleet and at worse overmanages the Navy. This subtlety erodes the trust in leadership that we would expect to accrue to experienced, seasoned flag officers. How can you trust in leaders who spend the majority of their career time in non-leadership positions? The explanation that "we are more 'mature' and know more than you" doesn't cut it in a world where young chief executives run high-tech businesses and flag officers are shuttled between billets in which they obviously are not subject-matter experts. The other primary excuse—that senior civilian officials will listen only to flag officers—is a self-generated problem. We taught them that. The institutional philosophy that it takes a flag officer to make any sort of managerial recommendation to the CNO minimizes the knowledge and leadership of more-junior officers (and chief petty officers).
Since the current problem of mistrust stems from perception, it is appropriate that the senior leadership of the Navy take some symbolic but immediate actions that indicate their concern:
- Acknowledge to the fleet the seriousness of the crisis. Just admitting there is problem and showing our sailors that their senior leaders do not take their trust for granted would have an immediate positive effect. The senior-most Navy leaders should undertake an extensive series of personal presentations in the fleet concentration areas. The message should be simple: We are aware of the growing breakdown in your trust and are taking definitive steps to regain it (and a description of efforts). We are one Navy, working to a common purpose. I am here to listen to your views and your suggestions on what senior leadership should do about this crisis.
Of importance is that these sessions be fleet—not media—directed. A media-directed effort would appear to be a commercial, a politically inspired one-way sales job. In fact, minimizing the involvement of the Navy public affairs community might be best. The audience is not the New York Times or even Navy Times. The audience for this effort should be the sailor, and the message should be delivered in person and then reinforced, only afterward, by media.
- Reduce "spin." Too much of our public rhetoric—based perhaps on the can-do spirit, but more likely designed to produce pleasing sound bites—makes every Navy program seem a success and every change in policy a revolution. Fleet sailors generally know better and resent the breathless propaganda.
An illustrative example is the rhetoric surrounding the LPD-17. This is a needed and important program; unfortunately, at every briefing it has been touted as replacing the capabilities of four previous classes of amphibious ships. Briefing slides inevitably show ten or so LPD-17 silhouettes boldly superimposed over the silhouettes of nearly 30 older ships. This implies that there is no loss in overall capability to the Navy and nation. Presumably it demonstrates once again how the future Navy can do more with less. This is misleading because many of those 30 ships already have been decommissioned and their capabilities have been lost. More important, LPD-17 cannot—by design—perform some of the operations inherent to the classes it is supposed to replace. It may be that beaching, causeway building, and pumping fuel ashore are capabilities we no longer need, but the briefs imply that LPD-17 can do them all.
This sort of exaggeration seems endemic to many acquisition programs. For the sake of trust in leadership, we should reduce all official spin.
- Send flags to "stand the watch." It should be policy that every flag officer spend one day a month working on the deckplates with sailors. This does not mean inspecting or merely visiting; it means performing some physical task alongside a subordinate. A leader can never gain the full trust of his subordinates without demonstrating that no job is beneath his dignity and that every job is important to the Navy's success. Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig may be right that no one enters the Navy to chip paint and clean the head, but the sight of a flag officer chipping for an hour or two sends a powerful message on how important those jobs are to the overall Navy team. Although this may seem a "gimmick," it is highly symbolic. Sailors follow leaders who understand and share their struggle.
- No medals for captains and above except for personal heroism. The current award system is a segregated process based on rank, with the highest noncombat awards going only to the most-senior officers (and to nearly every senior officer). Awards should be based on unexpectedly superior performance—since captains and above are expected to "walk on water," they shouldn't get a medal for doing so—and every medal should be open to all ranks. The day a petty officer who saves the Defense Department millions of dollars through an innovative suggestion (which has happened) receives the Defense Superior Service Medal (which has never happened) will be the day trust in leadership and the meaning of awards are enhanced.
Immediate, symbolic change is important, but real improvement requires fundamental changes.
- Develop and issue a long-range Navy vision that defines what we will do in the 21st century. "Forward ... from the Sea, " issued in 1994, needs to be updated. Beyond that, the Navy needs a comprehensive plan that convinces the fleet that senior leaders know where they want to take the Navy. It should be updated frequently—but not thrown out and rewritten every few years—and should identify and prioritize our operational principles. The Sony Corporation reportedly has a long-range plan that charts the company's potential path for 250 years. Absurdly long? Maybe. But such an effort would help shape our short-range plans and let sailors know their leadership is actually scanning the horizon.
- Shift flag billets away from Washington and other staffs and to the fleet. Management of a complex organization with many personnel calls for a flag officer. If a billet requires technical or other specific expertise, however, experience should be the primary qualifier. Technical positions need subject-matter experts (who may not be flag officers). As a start, CNO staff positions below the level of Deputy CNO should be staffed primarily by captains, commanders, or, potentially, master and senior chief petty officers.
- Examine and recode all Navy billets. Flag officers should be in leadership positions only, and in general, such billet should have no fewer than 300 subordinates. This would require that we look at billets in terms of expertise, not rank. And that would require a system to identify individual skills and experience beyond what is provided by designation and the current subspecialty system.
- Eliminate all personal aides and flag lieutenants except for admirals (0-10). Personal aides are holdovers from an era when travel was dangerous and admirals' staffs were small. In an era of e-mail, flag writers, and bigger staffs, this privilege should be confined to four-stars. Sailors need to see that admirals can do things for themselves.
These suggestions may seem radical, but the crisis in trust is serious and demands action. In their 1998 Proceedings article "Why Retention Is a Problem," Rear Admiral John Natter and his coauthors identified "lack of confidence in senior leaders" as at the core of all retention problems. Since then the Navy has pursued financial motivators—such as the surface warfare officers' bonus—but these are mere Band-Aids. The real solution lies in regaining the trust, and that requires a demonstration of leadership each and every day.
Navy senior leaders must demonstrate symbolically and substantially that they remain at heart deckplate leaders. Only then will trust in senior leadership be regained. In turn, the next generation of leaders in the Navy will stay in the Navy. Now is the time to begin.