Winner—Arleigh Burke Essay Contest
Linked by high-tech communications systems, commanding officers never again will be alone at sea. They are at the tip of a spear whose aim is now influenced by thousands of well-intentioned but largely invisible hands that act from hundreds of nodes on a worldwide network.
In the U.S. Navy of the 20th century, we were accustomed to being alone at sea. In the middle of a vast ocean, our vision reached only to the edge of the radar or sonar screen; long-distance communications crawled through noisy and intermittent high-frequency radios and painfully slow data links; and commanding officers were charged with making independent decisions, for there were few, if any, avenues to receive real-time direction from seniors. This empowerment to act alone was a unique feature of naval service, a point of pride that distinguished us as different—perhaps even more capable and responsible—than our sister services.
In return for that independence and trust, there was an all-encompassing code of accountability. Every man or woman who has commanded at sea knows this code: absolute authority brings with it an accounting for how and why that authority was used. Much seems to be changing, however. Networking, broadband communication satellites, databases, and global command-and-control systems are linking ships into webs of cooperative detection, decision making, engagement, training, and logistics support. Commanding officers do not seem to be alone much anymore, and their ability to control the fates of their ships independently appears to be eroding as well.
In general, the Navy has made a compelling case for a net-centric transformation, but is it equally clear about, and comfortable with, the changes in accountability that such a transformation might bring?
The core of accountability is a simple, time-tested maxim: commanding officers can be held accountable because they are granted the authority and the resources to achieve their missions and preserve the safety of their commands. In a traditional tactical situation, the captain's crew gathers data, analyzes it, plans a response, and executes it. If the data were not collected properly, if training was poor, if judgment was flawed, or if execution was not carried out competently, the commanding officer had the power to change it, and if he did not, he is accountable for why not. If the sensors were not working, he should have had them fixed; if more data were required, he should have positioned the ship to collect it; if the best team was not on station, he should have altered the watch; if conditions were not favorable to go forward, he should have waited for them to improve. There were no intermediaries, no secret hands thousands of miles away modifying or withholding data, politicizing instructions, or waiting until tomorrow to finish the support tasks required today. The captain was alone. Accountability was clear and appropriate. This is not always true today.
This question of accountability—and the underlying problem of a commanding officer's decaying control of his command's destiny—has emerged gradually, almost imperceptibly, as communications and connectivity have grown. In the early 1990s, for example, I commanded a guided-missile frigate in a high-visibility combat zone. I was the antiair warfare coordinator, and our group of ships was equipped with a modern command-and-control system that linked us, via satellite, to superiors up to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). Invisible to me, a country in the region had requested that the ships in our force provide an antiaircraft shield around its strategic assets, to deter attack by a belligerent in the region. Using that satellite command-and-control system, a superior in my chain of command designed a tactical disposition for the ships and presented it up the chain. The proposal looked brilliant on paper, but it had serious tactical limitations, and in fact impaired the ability of these ships to provide defense to the country or even mutual support among themselves should an attack occur. Before I was aware of the plan, it was presented to the requesting country and approved by the JCS. Although far at sea, I really no longer was in complete tactical control, and apparently no longer alone.
Today, the problem of net-centric accountability is widespread, and in fact, goes beyond tactical issues to touch every aspect of a ship's life—tactical, logistical, training, and administrative. Control of a ship's destiny has migrated relentlessly in two directions: (1) to the periphery of the network; (2) up the chain of command, and each movement has had its own impact on accountability.
On the Periphery
A succession of invisible hands, principally ashore, well away from the commanding officer's ability to control, instruct, or train, are influencing the ship's capability, preparedness, and well-being. These peripheral actors include an almost unfathomable cast of people whose combined good action, inaction, poor action, delayed action, or incompetent action—performed in relative obscurity at considerable physical (and mental) distance from the immediate issues confronting the ship—creates boundaries and conditions that affect the ship's ability to succeed and stay safe. It is the intelligence specialist who misses a clue because he does not understand the ship's tactical situation; the supply clerk who does not aggressively fill the ship's parts requisition; the Pentagon budget analyst who axes a combat system upgrade in favor of a new system that will not be fielded for ten years; the training specialist who allows a weapon operator to pass a course when he has not demonstrated all the required competencies.
That remote persons and actions influence the health of a combat ship is not debatable and probably not even lamentable. On the contrary, it is precisely the network-centric system the Navy has sought to improve tactical responsiveness and lower life-cycle costs. The issue, then, is not whether net-centricity is good but how the Navy will hold people on the periphery accountable, side by side with the commanding officer and his crew, for their impact on the success or failure of the ship.
In the early 1980s, I was executive officer in a guided-missile frigate. On a dark day, we lost a shipmate when a weapons loader rail fell from its trolley system and crushed him. The ensuing investigation disclosed several errors by ship's force personnel, but it also revealed several contributing errors by personnel on the periphery. A training command had not accomplished the training required for loading this rail, but had reported the training as complete. The type commander's manual for performing the task had several omissions that if included and observed by our ship's personnel might have prevented the accident. In successive endorsements to the investigation, the Navy held ship's personnel accountable, but found no one on the periphery to be accountable in any way.
Why the general unwillingness to allow accountability to examine the periphery? There are two reasons. First, it runs counter to our traditions. We are accustomed to assessing accountability only at the point of the spear—the commanding officer—and it requires compelling circumstances to change that focus. The endless debate over Admiral Husband Kimmel's accountability for Pearl Harbor is evidence of how difficult it is to measure the responsibility of forces peripheral to a disaster.
Second, people on the periphery appear innocent. They generally are guilty of only small or easily justified lapses or incomplete perspectives. The problem, of course, is that innocent omissions are magnified, in unpredictable and unimaginable ways, by events and distances, and subsequently may combine with other errors to become something of pivotal importance, over which the commanding officer has little control.
It is vital that the Navy find a way to hold such "innocent" actors accountable, or it will limit its long-term ability to make the network responsive to the needs of the fleet.
Up the Chain of Command
The second direction that control is migrating away from the ship is up the chain of command. The more communications improve, the more tempting it is for superiors—believing their views are better, their judgments more mature, or their authority more compelling—to usurp control and decision making. When control migrates up the chain of command, accountability is muddled and sometimes misplaced. Using my previous example as antiair warfare commander, if an attack had occurred while the ships were poorly positioned, and a disaster ensued, would I have been held accountable? Should I have been?
By tradition, the Navy is reluctant to hold senior officers publicly accountable. This is not to say that senior officers seek to evade accountability, but like industry and government, the Navy is unwilling to have these leaders, who shoulder far-reaching responsibilities, scrutinized for every event that occurs under their command. This is a wise and time-tested approach. On the other hand, as net-centric communications permit greater opportunities for seniors to become involved in directing, perhaps even over-directing their ships and commanding officers, the Navy cannot continue to allow them to avoid scrutiny for their contributions to failures.
A frequent official reason for relief of commanding officers is that their seniors have "lost confidence in their ability to command." Are there no warning signs prior to this precipitous conclusion that a senior should recognize? In a recent, widely published story, the commanding officer of the carrier John F. Kennedy (CV-67) was relieved for lack of confidence after a disastrous material inspection. The failure occurred after a major maintenance period for the ship had been canceled for budgetary reasons. Under these circumstances, are we to believe the commanding officer alone was accountable? An alert senior, understanding that the maintenance cancellation surely would affect the material inspection, would have been hyperattentive to the problem he partially induced, and would have established his confidence or lack of confidence in the commanding officer well before such a disastrous public failure could occur. Indeed, a reasonable person might deduce that accountability became quite muddled in this instance.
Impact of Information Technology
The question of accountability is further confused by two trends in technology characteristic of modern information technology and command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence (C4I) systems. First, decisions made on the periphery are largely anonymous. If an analyst evaluates a contact incorrectly, and that evaluation is promulgated through a command-and-control system to the fleet, there often are no fingerprints to allow an investigator to track back to establish who made the decision, what software tool and version was used in the evaluation, or in what context and for what reasons the evaluation was made. Even with critical mistakes that might influence decisions afloat or in the air, no one really will be able to backtrack the decision process effectively. No doubt, this problem will haunt the investigation of the 11 September terrorist attacks.
Second, C4I systems are designed to take huge amounts of heterogeneous information, not all of it consistent, and develop an orderly interpretation. As they process data, these systems attempt to build a picture of tracks and movement of tracks that obeys preset rules about how real objects behave, but in doing so, they discard data that either do not fit their tracking hypotheses or for which they have no easy way to store or correlate. As a result, ambiguous, uncertain, fragmented, and contradictory data and indicators are cast off as uncorrelatable. As tracks move to higher levels of command, fragments that might have had value in resolving a difficult command decision, or that might have offered the critical clue about a surprise attack, no longer are present. As an example, consider an air contact moving across the Mediterranean. For just a moment, an intercept of a hostile radar is detected along the same bearing line as that contact. If that intercept does not persist, or does not reoccur regularly, any association between the two will be lost, and the contact probably will be classified "unknown" because there is no way, in our current dictionary of data, to create a track that is unknown but has suspicious correlations or conditions. Depending on the tactical situation, a critical piece of data that might have relevance downstream is lost.
Importance for the Navy
Net-centric accountability is significant for the U.S. Navy for two reasons: it speaks to everyday justice, and it relates to the Navy's ability to analyze and correct net-centric errors.
The U.S. Navy is in large measure founded on principles of justice and merit. Young officers and enlisted personnel are motivated by a belief that they will be judged by how well they execute their responsibilities and rewarded or corrected based on facts. If the Navy is unable or unwilling to judge the influence of the network on decisions and results, and in so doing continues to hold fleet officers accountable for misjudgments and omissions made by invisible hands or up the chain of command, it will be thrusting a spear through the heart of principles naval officers hold dear.
The Navy must develop processes to track accountability through the network, or it will have little hope of institutionalizing self-correction in the net-centric environment. If it cannot perform self-correction completely, routinely, and effectively, the Navy never will be able to tune the network correctly, which will undermine its inability to prevent disasters downstream. How will this country, for example, prevent another terrorist attack if it cannot be certain who made critical evaluation errors, and why they made them, prior to 11 September? Accordingly, it is vital to develop an approach to measure, respond justly to, and correct issues that result from operations within the network.
The investigation of the USS Cole (DDG-67) provides insight into the growing problem of net-centric accountability. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Vern Clark, in his statement of 19 January 2001 on the case, has caused us all to consider new ways of thinking about accountability:
The investigation clearly shows the commanding officer of the Cole did not have the specific intelligence, the focused training, the appropriate equipment and on-scene security support to effectively prevent or deter such a determined, such a preplanned, assault on his ship.
So in short, the system—and that's all of us—did not equip this skipper for success. . . . I conclude that none of the deficiencies noted in the JAGMAN investigation warrant punitive action against the commanding officers and others of the crew.
Fixing the System
The Navy can fix the system and adapt courageously to the reality of a net-centric existence. There are four steps:
- Acknowledge that the growing interdependence brought on by networks and communications fundamentally changes the nature, breadth, and extent of accountability. The new culture must acknowledge that accountability no longer is limited to senior officers or personnel in positions of great authority. Junior intelligence analysts, civilians, stock clerks, etc., now are in positions to influence the success of Navy missions. Equally important, and perhaps more challenging, software programs, expert systems, and computing hardware are growing in their "authority" and capacity to make (or fail to make) key decisions. This pushes the tentacles of accountability to the very edge of the network. Who is to be held accountable when software bugs in Washington, D.C., cause lives to be lost in the Persian Gulf?
- Pursue and investigate accountability to every node in the network. In doing so, find appropriate ways to identify and instruct innocent-appearing, but nonetheless responsible, invisible hands without creating a reign of terror on the periphery or unjustly smearing senior officers with accountability for every error made in their commands. This, in turn, will require better technical capabilities and expertise within the DoD investigative services so contributing errors can be found and analyzed correctly.
- Develop and apply technology in a manner that supports understanding and accountability. The Navy must develop technical strategies to identify, track, and time stamp the where, when, and who associated with key decisions made within the network. It also must develop technologies that permit ambiguous and inconsistent data and indicators to move across the network and not be stripped off at the point of origin.
- Commit to developing a new accountability paradigm that is consistent and meaningful in the emerging net-centric environment. As Admiral Clark notes, "Accountability does not equal figuring out who to punish when something bad happens. It does mean holding our people—and particularly our commanders and those with the most responsibility—to account for their actions."
The move to net-centricity is irresistible, inexorable, and necessary. As control migrates up and out to the periphery of the network, our notions of accountability—and our energy and persistence in pursuing accountability to the end of the network—must keep pace.
Captain Johnson, a retired surface officer, served in destroyers, cruisers, frigates, and battleships, including a tour as commanding officer of the USS Vandegrift (FFG-48). Ashore he served in various program development billets and was director of the Prospective Commanding Officer/Prospective Executive Officer course at Surface Warfare Officer School in Newport, Rhode Island. Today, he works for Northrop Grumman Information Technology.