A primatologist studying the U.S. Navy would observe that three simian species dominate the landscape. She might comment on lesser forms in the underbrush, but would conclude that submariners, surface warriors, and aviators rule. These are the Navy's great apes.
These warrior apes have admirable strengths: expertise in their craft, professionalism in their role, and huge devotion to their kind. But they also do the Navy harm: their internal interests overwhelm the Navy's broader interests, their single-mindedness impedes the Navy's larger mission, and their internal focus breeds loyalty that causes a profound under-imagination of the Navy's potential future.
In a well-regulated world, the Navy's broad purpose would drive its warfare communities. The great apes seek instead to drive the Navy, and too often they succeed. The Navy's pursuit of transformation is perverted by the great apes, each working solely to gain more resources for the ape's home community and its preferred acquisition programs. While this advances submarines, surface warships, and naval aviation, it leaves other forms of naval force starved for resources and emphasis. The great apes' parochialism makes us even more ready to prevail in the last war, but with no foes on the open sea, their striving to continually refine blue-water readiness robs from our ability to support combat on the land and the nation's warfare needs as they have emerged in this century.
The Navy's natural mission should be evolving rapidly toward a new force structure providing better support in the kind of war we now must fight, but the warrior apes continually impede that evolution and haul the Navy back to a defunct mission definition from the Cold War, one that has no merit other than making their narrow roles seem paramount. In a time crying out for new and imaginative thought about the Navy's role in national security, our great apes keep us set in the past. In short, we have the apes running the zoo.
A Better Zoo
How can we solve this problem? Exhortation and leadership are part of the answer, but they have limits. Navy leaders who transcend parochial interests find themselves contending not only with each of the three dominant warfare communities, but also with their backers in Congress, and the industries they support, all united into three Iron Triangles that surpass the strengths of Navy secretaries and chiefs of naval operations no matter how wise and inspired they may be. Something rather more subtle than a direct order is required. We need to get under the hood.
We've already hammered on the resource-gathering side of things, ten years ago downgrading the three platform sponsors under the chief of naval operations from three stars to two and subordinating them to a single resource leader. That helped. Now we need to complete the task by addressing the other source of the great apes' power, overhauling the Navy's second power sphere, its system for managing officers. The strength of the three dominant warfare communities resides now in the organization, policies, and processes of the Bureau of Naval Personnel (BUPERS). We now need to take on the Bureau to balance out the Navy and get the warfare communities back in the box.
While we're at it, repair the rest of our officer management system, fixing its other woes that keep officers from full service to their Navy and the Navy from full use of its officer talent. Though advanced in its tools, our officer personnel system has changed little since 1942, when the Bureau of Navigation became BUPERS. Staffed always by the best of the best, the Bureau's dysfunctions are made worse because the Bureau's people are so damned good at anything they do, even if that is pushing wrongheaded policies with toxic consequences. Our officer personnel system is failing the Navy mission in many ways:
- The parochial interests of the warfare communities are the primary drivers and major organizing theme of officer management, slighting higher level needs that have their foundation in the Navy mission.
- The Navy doesn't own its own people. The warfare communities do and control them absolutely.
- The primary rationale behind officer assignments—the sacred Triad of Detailing—contains a gigantic flaw.
- The mechanics of assignment transactions are poorly managed.
- Tour lengths are much too short for good efficiency.
- Up-or-out officer management is horribly wasteful.
Let's tackle these personnel problems by starting with a single, unarguable premise: the officers of the Navy exist to serve the Navy. Not themselves. Not their particular kind of warrior ape. The Navy.
If we can agree on that, we can propose changes to the officer personnel system for greater mission support, better efficiency, and reduced community interference. As a minimum, let's decide that an in-depth review of the officer personnel system is healthy and long past due. How do we fix things? With six strategies to better manage officers:
1. Get the Great Apes Out of the Driver's Seat in BUPERS
The role of warfare communities in officer personnel must be greatly reduced. How? By cutting the power of the Bureau's platform shops—PERS-41 Surface Warfare, PERS-42 Submarine Warfare, and PERS-43 Air Warfare—and that of their policy counterparts on the OPNAV Staff. Their power could be reduced if we:
- Reduce these platform shops, the most powerful in the Bureau, to only managing the fill of billets for the various commands, something known in Bureau-speak as "placement."
- Completely remove officer assignments ("detailing") from these platform shops and put all warfare officer assignment responsibility in a single, new shop that is integrated and community neutral.
- Eliminate the community-specialized management organizations on the Chief of Naval Operations Staff and manage warriors as a single community from one integrated organization that replaces these platform-parochial entities.
2. Deemphasize Differences
We must deemphasize differences between the warfare communities by:
- Following the worthy example set by Admiral William Owens and requiring that admirals cease wearing warfare pins on promotion to flag rank.
- Scrub the billet base to remove warfare designations except where clearly required by the nature of the job.
- Remove warfare-community considerations from the allocation of officers to competitive assignments such as professors of naval science, naval attaché duty, and the like, and from all nominative assignments not clearly requiring a specific warfare specialist.
- Shift to universal, community-neutral screening boards for commanding officer, executive officer, department head, and all other assignments qualified through a screening board.
3. Deep-Six the Triad of Detailing
Thirdly, let's take a hard look at the Triad of Detailing, the three considerations that determine an officer's future assignment. As stated in the BUPERS Manual, the triad consists of (1) the needs of the Navy, (2) the career needs of the individual, and (3) the desires of the individual.
What is wrong with this formula? The second item—career needs of the individual—is a ringer. It creates an unsubstantiated and artificial goal in officer assignments that is inimical to the first item, the needs of the Navy. It argues that officers have an equity interest in their careers, which is not true. Nothing in law or regulation supports the idea that career needs affect either the way the Navy's mission is to be executed or the employer/employee relationship of the individual and the Navy. Perceived career needs, however, often dominate the detailing dialogue and keep getting in the way of efficient assignment policies and placement practices.
How did we get to this point? We have kept putting careerists into the Bureau and over time they've converted community goals and an arguably selfish personal interest into a virtue. We certainly don't need this complication to what should be a simple transaction. The first element of the Triad of Detailing covers the Navy's interest in career management, striving to make assignments that give individuals the backgrounds they need for future duties. The third element gives individuals a proper role in looking out for their own self-interest (let's not inhibit that). But we don't need the second element because the other two already cover the career-management interests of both parties.
But aside from wasting time and collecting huge amounts of angst, what harm does it do to highlight career needs? It once again thrusts to the fore the role of the warfare community in deciding the fate of its officers, giving the Great Apes power they should not have and an argument to serve their parochial interests under the guise of career management. The right translation of "career needs" is that which best serves the Navy's mission over the long haul. We should:
- Reformulate assignment policy solely around the needs of the Navy and the desires of the individual, putting career needs into the background. Period.
- Eliminate the Triad of Detailing from all assignment policies and transactions. Kill the concept.
4. Quit Dithering about Orders
In general, we waste time, talent, and money managing our career officers. Even when we cut back the power of the warfare communities and accept that career needs should be identical to the needs of the Navy, we still will have officer personnel policies in place that harm individuals and impede the Navy mission. The waste shows up in three ways: (1) excessive effort in effecting officer assignments, (2) huge reassignment costs, and (3) savage devastation of human talent through the principle known as up-or-out.
The first of these is not hard to repair. Traditionally, each new assignment is result of extensive wrangle between the individual and the assignment officer, often with the noise level raised even higher by commanding officers and flags who should have better things to do. Anxiety peaks, orders are held up, and commands go with billets empty and transfers delayed as this graceless gavotte plays out. Each prospective assignment is fraught with worry and, because we reassign officers so frequently, the worrying comes along often. But when we eliminate career needs as a separate driver of assignments, we can end too-frequent rotation and the horrors of forever seeking a new job. We make the assignment process better when we:
- Stop treating potential orders as invitations to negotiate. Circumstances permitting, allow an officer the option of turning down one—but only one—prospective set of orders, but pull the trigger much earlier in the assignment process. Take primary guidance from the old precept: If you take the King's coin, you do the King's bidding.
- Develop an automated order-making system that takes its major guidance from Navy needs and the inventory of available assets and much minimizes detailer judgment in making assignments. We should consider returning to an objective scoring system that establishes an index measuring the merit of an individual's past assignments and performance in them. The old Fitness Report Index of the 1970s—the FRI number—was mostly a good idea no matter how it was judged by outsiders. Now we have the processing power to truly automate objective officer measurement and should use it far more than we do.
5. Keep Officers in Place Much Longer
We can significantly reduce officer reassignments and relocations if we:
- Lengthen tours across the board to keep experience where it's needed and best serve the command mission.
- Keep successful commanding officers in command for greater durations.
- Continue to explore creative crewing concepts to lessen the hardships of long sea tours.
- Find the price point where dollar incentives make sea duty attractive and spend the money.
- Make homesteading the norm, without penalty.
6. End the Up-or-Out Policy
Of all our officer policies, none is as harmful and stupid as the one that throws away good officers at the peak of their abilities. Can't get promoted? Go away. Up or out, my friend.
The two fantasies behind our draconian up-or-out policy are that we have endless access to gifted individuals and unlimited resources to grow new talent. Neither is real. There are never enough good people and the cost of continually recruiting, training, and grooming new officers is huge. It's a fool's bet that the ensign we're recruiting can do more for the Navy than the lieutenant commander, commander, or captain we're sending home early. And we don't motivate officers by threatening them with decimation.
The up-or-out policy has become a sacred cow, but its wisdom is folly. It's time we asked why such waste is tolerated and take the following actions to end it:
- End the practice of mandatory retirement based solely on failure to promote.
- Permit officers to remain on active duty as long as their performance is sound and they meet the requirements of their assignments.
- Quit acting as the farm system for American business and let the individuals decide whether they want two careers or just the one they already have, which they love, are good at, and serve with deep dedication.
- Recast officer personnel policies and the billet structure around two types: (1) the fast-trackers who are continuously upward-mobile for ever-higher leadership positions, and (2) the rest, who may be sidetracked from becoming Chief of Naval Operations but who have great talent, experience, and motivation for the Navy's routine work.
Mission Matters Most
Mission is the right lens through which to view all officer personnel policies. Does what we do best support the Navy's role in national defense in the post-9/11 age? The answer now is no. We can and must change this.
We've already fixed officer fitness reports to let us reliably see an officer on paper. That was the first step. Our next step, sketched out above, is a major overhaul of the officer personnel system to end the dominance of the great apes and fix the rest of the system's inefficiencies. It will be painful, but we have to do it.