The United States has been at war in Afghanistan and Iraq for almost ten years now. For most of the country this may be of only passing concern, but for the soldiers and Marines and their families whose livelihoods are tied to the war, every year has come with an increased cost. They count the deployments and feel the conflict’s demands, while the rest of the population has different, more immediate concerns. So too has the Navy’s surface fleet.
A sailor’s day on a Navy ship is difficult, involving seemingly endless watches, multiple places to be at the same time, and constant maintenance. But in the background of a flurry of activity looms the question no one asks: What for?
The truth is that the surface Navy is divorced from what most preoccupies the rest of the U.S. military: Afghanistan and Iraq. Granted, geographic constraints and rapidly changing ground conditions, especially in Afghanistan, prevent the Navy from carrying out its traditional fire-support mission to any great extent. Ships have shifted operations south, regularly deploying to the Somali Basin for counterpiracy operations. This worthy venture takes up six months of a ship’s two-year schedule. The remaining time is spent on maintenance periods and a lengthy training cycle, in preparation for the next deployment.
But, in a twist of priorities, ships spend more time preparing for inspections than they do for deployment. And rather than preparing crews for real-world operations, assessments focus on the ship’s paperwork. Proficiency percentages and numbers of events conducted per quarter weigh more than the quality of training, so ships finish these cycles knowing what is required for inspection, but with little idea of what to expect on deployment.
Such a mindset comes as a surprise to junior officers just reporting to their ships. They are energetic and eager to make a difference. Too often their enthusiasm is snuffed out with the drudgery of making and remaking binders for the next administrative inspection. Soon the leadership tenets they studied become as useless as the calculus theorems they once knew. Junior officers need something to believe in, so they can explain to their sailors the reasons for the long work hours and the months spent away from home.
There are signs the Navy is taking notice, such as last year’s slogan swap from “Accelerate Your Life” to “A Global Force for Good.” This change acknowledges the new role the service must take to remain relevant. In a 2009 interview, Captain Phil Altizer, head of advertising for the Navy Recruiting Command, said the campaign purposefully featured shots of sailors delivering humanitarian supplies. “That call to service—that does resonate powerfully with millennials,” he noted (“Sailors Take Aim at New Recruiting Slogan,” Navy Times, 14 October 2009).
So, until the surface Navy’s “harder” capabilities are called into service, ships must go to work conducting humanitarian missions and protecting sea lanes through antipiracy and counter-smuggling operations. These are not new missions, but their impact is not often clear to the sailors who execute them. At all echelons of leadership, the Navy needs to do a much better job of communicating the value of the surface fleet’s contribution.
When commanding officers, department heads, and division officers brief subordinates on what effect their mission has on the nation’s larger goals, sailors move and act with purpose. Is that not what all commanders expect of their units?
At a recent Army-Navy football game, the Navy midshipmen and Army cadets traded pre-game taunts. Midshipmen chanted “watch our bowl game,” because the cadets’ team had finished the previous season with a losing record. In a particularly incisive retort, the cadets responded: “Watch our war.” That remark hits a sensitive spot in the Navy’s psyche.
The conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are not the surface fleet’s wars, but maritime security, humanitarian aid, and a continual overseas presence are essential elements of the overarching U.S. security policy. Our sailors need to know that.