Third Prize, General Prize Essay Contestduring World War II and subsequent conflicts, is crumbling in a new era. An overemphasis on threat avoidance and the growing cancer of administrative burdens has led to a cautious leadership focused more on the wonders of technology than on the spirit and ingenuity of its people. The failure to understand risk, trust leadership, and inspire sailors to perform is paralyzing this century’s Navy and rendering a new generation of naval warriors impotent. Technology designed to make our sailors more lethal has instead created a psychological change in our service, as the concept of seeing the enemy equates to failure, and our most pervasive concern is favorable press.
In the past 25 years, only one ship, the USS Cole (DDG-67), has sustained damage from hostile fire or terrorist action. Prior to that, the USS Stark (FFG-31) was inadvertently attacked by an Iraqi aircraft during the Iran-Iraq War in May 1987, and the USS Samuel B Roberts (FFG-58) struck an Iranian mine in the Persian Gulf in April 1988.1 Remarkably, those are the only U.S. Navy ships to incur damage from hostile forces since the end of the Vietnam War more than 40 years ago.
Few naval personnel remain in the service who were directly involved with the forementioned experiences. Instead, our sailors are inundated with daily nerve-deadening battles to appease the Navy’s most damning enemies: political and public relations. So when Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert exhorts his Navy to “Be Ready,” the question most sailors are asking themselves today is, “For What?”2
Risk and Courage
In a recent work studying junior-officer retention, Commander Guy Snodgrass cites “risk aversion and a shift towards centralization of command authority” as a leading reason for leaving the service.3 In short, “this is a perceived removal of decision making from operational commanders, constituting a shift from a leadership-centric Navy to a service more focused on risk-mitigation and metrics.”4
The Navy has produced some impressive heroes over the past two decades. The gallantry of special-warfare operators, naval aviators, submariners, and surface warriors has been proven time and again. After a suicide boat ripped a hole in the side of the Cole, for example, her sailors exemplified this courage, as accounted by commanding officer Kirk Lippold. Of the immediate aftermath of the explosion, he recounted:
Fire Controlman Third Class Dyon Foster, who had rushed toward the source of the explosion to get to his emergency station, heard . . . cries for help and came to the galley. He looked at the mass of tangled equipment and saw two or three bodies in the wreckage, but there was no way to get them from where he stood.5
With the help of another sailor, FC3 Foster lifted massive steam tables that had crushed the legs of Hull Technician Fireman Jeremy Stewart, who had been working in the galley as a food service attendant and was now suffering multiple compound fractures to his legs.
According to Lippold, as Foster and others prepared to extricate Stewart, they told him, “This is going to hurt.” Stewart replied, “I don’t care, just get me out of this galley.” Then, “straining to lift the twisted metal off Stewart’s legs, they succeeded in pulling him out and got him to a triage station, where Hull Technician Second Class Christopher Regal saw him. ‘Chris, you’ve got to save the ship,’ Stewart told him. Staring down at him in disbelief, all Regal could whisper in response was ‘Jesus Christ,’ when he saw how badly injured Stewart was.”6
Even in extreme pain, Stewart’s first thought was not of his own comfort, but for the safety of the ship. His words exemplify the spirit of the Cole crew and underline the mettle of the Navy’s enlisted ranks.
Caution and Black Swans
Author and statistician Nassim Taleb has written extensively on the probability of seemingly random events such as terrorist attacks and plane crashes. Taleb defines the term “black swan” as “an event, positive or negative, that is deemed improbable yet causes massive consequences.”7 He argues that the potential for black swans is actually much higher than the public perceives.
Naval planners are consumed by thoughts of black swans. Intelligence and operations officers alike consider ranges of potentially hostile missiles, aircraft, and radar sites while making decisions to move ships, aircraft, and personnel to particular locations. They weigh the possibility of a black swan occurring against the benefit of maneuver; for example, a missile launch from North Korea versus moving a ship into the Sea of Japan.
More than any other public institution, the U.S. military—the U.S. Navy, in particular—respects the potential for black swans. It takes measures such as stand-off distances, no-fly areas, and restricted operating zones to ensure sailors and aviators don’t inadvertently trigger an incident. And when something does happen, the Navy apologizes profusely to international leaders in an attempt to de-escalate.
Black swans have a particular psychological power. An event like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, though statistically very unlikely, was a jarring event for Americans in this century, changing forever the way we think about security and air travel.
The attacks on the Stark, Samuel B. Roberts, and Cole caused a similar amount of shock for the U.S. Navy that would lead to changes in how the service conducted air defense, mine-interdiction warfare, and anti-terrorism/force protection.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
In combat there is a fine line between respecting the threat and failing to engage that threat fully. Since the turn of the 20th century, technology has allowed us to engage the enemy beyond visual range (BVR) or over the horizon—without having to see him. Our tactics have evolved from this concept. Air-to-air engagements with the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile and surface-to-air engagements with missiles such as the SM-2, for example, are predicated on the earliest possible detection of a threat and employment well beyond eyeball range. There are notable exceptions to this rule, such as the visit, board, search, and seizure mission in surface warfare and the phase of an air intercept known as “the merge” in naval aviation, but such scenarios are only encountered after all BVR options are exhausted.
Even our naval strategies are beginning to conform to this paradigm. For example, the new concept of anti-access/area denial is built around the notion that the best way to confront the enemy is by seeing him only on a radar display, never operating within range of his weapon systems. This has led to a psychological change in our Sea Services: We mistake simply seeing the enemy for failure. Strike groups, surface ships, and aviation squadrons build metrics around the need to avoid threats—don’t fly into the surface-to-air missile ring; don’t station too close to the critical contact of interest; don’t sail near the surface-to-surface missile maximum range.
To be sure, avoiding unnecessary conflict is virtuous, but eschewing it as the basic goal for our training scenarios and underlining it as a best practice for operating our Navy is a recipe for future disaster. This results in a culture that rewards officers who have studiously accounted for every black swan imaginable. We promote those who meet prescribed metrics for canned scenarios rather than consider the training value of those officers who lead, take decisive action, and might fail greatly. In today’s Navy, Theodore Roosevelt’s “man in the arena” has become a terminal lieutenant.
Apart from training and warfare, a BVR culture has pervaded the daily life of naval officers and enlisted sailors. When it comes to domestic issues such as sexual assault, drinking, or operating a motor vehicle, to name just a few, today’s leadership keeps sailors at arm’s length with proscriptive documents such as the Page 13 and computer programs such as courses on Navy Knowledge Online (NKO).
The concept of the Page 13 document replaces commanding officers’ guidance with bureaucratic fine print. Whenever a sailor checks into a command or chops into a new theater, he or she is required to visit the unit’s administrative office to sign a plethora of documents, each one forbidding him or her from a particular activity: “Thou shalt not drink and drive,” “Thou shalt not commit fraternization,” “Thou shalt not ride a motorcycle without our permission.” These forms are signed by the service member and placed in a folder. If he or she is found to have broken the rules, there is irrefutable proof that the sailor received warning against such high-visibility foibles.
Similarly, sailors complete dozens of NKO courses each year. Designed with the best of intentions, these courses either lull sailors to sleep for hours or result in them clicking through each presentation as fast as possible. They are ineffective at improving awareness of important issues to the service. These administrative burdens are an unfortunate substitute for leadership. By attempting to force responsibility on sailors through mass-training and documentation, the naval service is paradoxically robbing itself of one of its most sacred military qualities: The responsibility of leadership.
The Navy’s tradition of leadership is among the most unique and effective in the world. There are the first-, second-, and third-class petty officers associations alongside a tough, tested chief petty officer’s mess that buoys and guides a young junior officer corps. At each level of rank, sailors can be lauded, disciplined, or counseled. A strong commanding officer sets the tone, ensuring fairness and standing up for those under his or her care.
Today, however, with the yoke of a growing number of Navy administrative directorates bearing down, naval leadership is implicitly telling its service members that a piece of paper or training certificate holds more weight than the words of a chief, division officer, or even the commanding officer. A leadership beyond visual range of sailors on a day-to-day basis is attempting to spoon-feed life lessons through the world-wide web and a paper-mache bureaucracy.
A Matter of Trust
Both the operational and administrative aversion to risk that has gradually permeated naval culture is the result of one factor: mistrust. Perhaps not a blatant, open lack of trust in individuals, but rather an unwillingness by upper echelons to allow unit-level commanders and individual sailors to do the right thing on their own. Over time, the consequences of sailors breaking the rules has gradually become too troublesome to deal with, and instead of individually punishing the offenders, higher headquarters impinges on the rights of all sailors. This was not the result of one order or stroke of the pen, but rather a gradual whittling of culture that likely came in the form of a fitness report bullet or positive story on cable news about “progress” in the naval ranks.
Gradually, this attitude—when one sailor fails, we all fail and should be punished—stuck. This “zero-defect mentality” teaches officers and enlisted alike that, should their career be marred in any way, they will quickly find themselves unemployed.
While this may decrease the number of conduct offenses each year, it has created a duller, less imaginative service more concerned with appearance than results. When the best sailor is the one who can color-code a “tracker” spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel, the standards of our service have fallen hard.
Recent efforts to counteract this deficiency have lacked the boldness of purpose required. The irony of the movement to “reduce administrative distractions” is that it came with its own acronym (RAD), bureaucracy, and administrative requirements. In fact, this crisis of confidence was just as evident more than a decade ago when then-Captain Sam Tangredi wrote:
Crisis in trust is serious and demands action. 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.8
Be the Change
Even today, in a Navy laid bare by the transparency of social media, sailors who write and recommend serious changes are marginalized. The service has recently begun to celebrate “innovation” in the junior ranks through organizations such as the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell and The Athena Project. However, the service appears open only to comfortable change in the form of computer programs or white papers; critics of naval leadership in forums such as the Naval Institute or Center for International Maritime Security are referred to by many flag officers and senior leaders as “outsiders.”
The most important way forward for officers and enlisted alike is to remain engaged. Be respectful, be well-informed, and continue to press for change. Do not be discouraged and leave the Navy in disgust. Do all you can with the time you have to improve the culture, and when you are in a position of responsibility, enact change.
In the meantime, the naval service could make several bold changes today that would signal a belief in small-unit leadership and renewed trust:
- Do not rely only on canned scenarios and BVR technologies to train our service to fight. Inspire innovation and excellence in our large-scale training evolutions by making the two coastal fleet training units—Commander, Strike Force Training Atlantic and Pacific—competitive billets for junior and mid-level officers of all aviation, surface, and subsurface designators. Evaluate units on their knowledge and application of tactics rather than solely focus on hitting a prescribed wicket.
- Abolish the Page 13 and the majority of mandatory NKO courses. The most audacious move is simply to trust sailors to do the right thing and leaders to hold their people accountable. When the cameras are rolling and the political rhetoric abounds, the strongest statement is a reasonable, just service. When the team is continually punished for the actions of a minuscule amount of its members, it loses its effectiveness as a warfighting force.
- Promote officers who are tactically sound and strong in character; administrative proficiency should not be considered. Pushing paper may make the job of higher headquarters easier, but it should not define the highest calling of a naval leader.
Above all, a sea change is required in the way we consider our service. We must recognize that people—not technologies, platforms, or payloads—make the service better. A new generation of naval leaders is eager to employ the various capabilities of this great naval force in creative, paradigm-altering ways that will define the future of warfare. The people behind those decisions will forge the future of our Navy and ensure our unfettered control of the seas in the next century. We must ensure that they are not buried beneath a mountain of administrative detritus or sanitized by a stultifying promotion process before they reach their true potential.
Admiral Greenert admonishes his service to “Be Ready.” Our sailors are ready to meet the enemy and bring him to bear. The warfighting spirit of this generation is no less than its forbearers; what lacks is a leadership willing to put that spirit to the test for the good of the country and the naval service. In this century, the U.S. Navy requires leadership built on trust and character more than it needs the bells and whistles of new technology at sea that can keep us farther from harm. The struggle for a courageous leadership that can invigorate the next generation will define the course of our naval service in this century.
2. Chief of Naval Operations, 20 June 2014, www.navy.mil/cno.
3. CDR Guy Snodgrass, USN, “Keep a Weather Eye on the Horizon: A Navy Officer Retention Study,” USNI Blog, 20 June 2014, http://blog.usni.org/2014/03/20/keep-a-weather-eye-on-the-horizon-a-navy-officer-retention-study.
5. Lippold, Front Burner.
7. Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (New York: Random House, 2007).
8. CAPT Sam Tangredi, USN, “Regaining the Trust,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, May 2001, vol. 127, no. 5, 179.