The passing of retired Rear Admiral Wayne E. Meyer, the father of the Aegis weapon system, and George Steinbrenner, principal owner and manager of the New York Yankees—as discussed in last month’s Proceedings—brought into focus some common strengths shared by these two titans: They both took troubled organizations mired in mediocrity and built them into highly successful, world-class teams that delivered excellence—at sea and in the ballpark. And their legacies for the nation go well beyond the U.S. Navy and major league baseball, respectively. Their management styles offer lessons for the Navy and for the nation in the area of ballistic-missile defense (BMD).
The current Aegis anti-air warfare (AAW) and BMD “teams”—of Navy and Department of Defense, service and contractor, shore-based and seagoing components—are built on decades of tradition, culture, and practices that have, over many years, produced effective systems that are at sea and operational today. This record of excellence is based on several factors:
1. A clear line of ownership and leadership: A single leader was clearly in charge, responsible, and accountable. This clarity was amplified by a coherent chain of command that put responsibility for key activities and events in the hands of highly competent and experienced professionals.
2. A leadership of Navy professionals: Men and women, uniformed and civilian, who understood the operational, technical, and support dimensions of naval warfare and the material establishment.
3. An Aegis culture: Aegis is in many ways a unique weapon system. It was developed and put to sea by a culture that Admiral Meyer established and that has been learned and expanded by professionals who have served in the program. Today’s Aegis BMD professionals retain close contact with the program’s “graybeards” while cultivating the next generation of Navy Aegis professionals.
As with the New York Yankees, championship teams can be very fragile. No one fully understands all the dynamics at play when a championship team comes together. “Chemistry” is an oft-cited characteristic. Time and again, however, history demonstrates that professional, capable leaders with clear lines of responsibility and accountability––coupled with a “culture of winning”––are the vital ingredients for champions.
Since 2002, the DOD Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has slowly but surely (and sometimes arbitrarily) put in place new and at times unproven processes, contracting structures, reviews, reporting channels, and organizational changes. It continues to do so today, with the ever-changing leadership in MDA looking to recommend even more, potentially ill-conceived––if well intentioned––changes. These actions already have had significant effects:
1. Reducing the authority of the Aegis BMD program director and subordinating elements of that authority to others in the MDA organizational structure. The other MDA members include functional managers responsible only for certain aspects of a large number of programs, most not closely related to Aegis BMD. This is not to say functional management is bad or that functional leaders are incompetent, but when it muddies the leadership principles and results in a lack of clear lines of authority and responsibility to the Aegis BMD, then it violates the integrity of the program to sustain the integrated system-engineering model.
2. Placing people in the chain of command who are not Navy professionals, have never been (nor will ever go) to sea, and have little or no knowledge of “things Navy” or the maritime environment. Factors in the success of Aegis have included all engineering duty officers assigned to Aegis BMD having strong backgrounds in naval combat systems and acquisition. But more important, most have comprehensive and in-depth knowledge of the Aegis weapon system and the several variants of the Standard missile.
3. Breaking up and diffusing the successful Aegis culture by imposing unproven and at times alien processes and practices. For example, as a vital element of the overarching system-engineering process, the Aegis BMD program office has worked hand-in-glove with the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations and the Fleet—Aegis ships are Fleet units. This allows Aegis BMD to focus on real warfighter requirements from initial concept development and engineering to testing, Fleet introduction, and in-service engineering support. This aspect of the Aegis BMD program is now manned by surface warfare officers selected from the best and brightest in the Aegis fleet.
Certainly well intentioned, the MDA initiatives recall the approach CBS took with the Yankees in the 1960s. Tinkering with an organization by those not intimately familiar with the forces at work inside that organization—and its operating environment and culture—is ripe for failure.
To be sure, ballistic-missile defense is not baseball. In fact, some might say it is significantly more complex to hit a rising fastball delivered by seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger “The Rocket” Clemens at the height of his career. However, there are parallels in the risk of making changes to Aegis BMD and changes that were made to the championship New York Yankees in the 1960s.
In the end, we should understand that “corporate tinkering” with a team that has been in existence for a long time, that has been very successful, and that shows every indication of continuing that success, is a recipe for disaster. Wayne Meyer knew this from the start; George Steinbrenner learned it.
In short, don’t break up Aegis BMD team––it’s the nation’s “BMD Yankees.” And there is a whole lot more at stake here than a league pennant.