On the 100th anniversary of the creation of the rank of chief petty officer, then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Frank B. Kelso II said that “In the United States Navy, the title ‘Chief Petty Officer’ carries with it responsibilities and privileges no other armed force in the world grants enlisted people.” Today, the Navy Chief Petty Officers’ Mess (CPO Mess) continues to be lauded as a vital component to mission success. Recent (and not so recent) criticism abounds, suggesting that counterproductive influences are impacting the technical focus and authority of our Navy-wide CPO Mess. I have heard concern from officers and enlisted leaders cautioning a “hollowing” of the CPO Mess—i.e., that we have become “a mile wide and an inch deep” with regard to our technical expertise and focus.
Concerns over the state of the CPO Mess are neither without precedent, nor are calls for analysis of it. Several factors could be influencing the focus of the mess, and it is important to consider the potential (or actual) impacts these have on the Navy’s overall readiness for war.
Expectations of the Chief
The CPO Mess is a cadre of motivated and professional people who have the capacity and capability to achieve whatever is asked of them. With so much change to the processes that influence CPOs, we must first understand what currently demands their attention. Over time, a narrative has developed regarding the role and importance of the chief. Some of that narrative is based in fact, some in fiction and lore. It is important that we understand which is which. In the 1918 Bluejacket’s Manual, “A Short Talk with Chief Petty Officers” provides some of the earliest written insight into the expectations of the chief. The author summarized what he believed to be the chief’s five areas of responsibility: “expert knowledge; training and instructing men of lower ratings; personal conduct that sets an example; complying with the formalities of military life; and working from a sense of duty.”1
Now, 123 years since the Navy has had CPOs, those roles and responsibilities are as relevant as ever. Today, we subscribe to the CPO Mission, Vision, and Guiding Principles that were established by Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (MCPON) Joe Campa in 2007. These lay out the Navy’s expectations of where CPOs’ focus and energy should be directed and include deckplate leadership, institutional and technical expertise, professionalism, character, loyalty, active communication, and a sense of heritage. It is easy to see the similarities in expectations captured in these two guiding documents, but it is harder to determine how well Navy chiefs are fulfilling them. Few should argue that we have not invested ample time and energy toward shaping the character of our CPO Mess. Many, however, are concerned more with the current state of CPO technical leadership and authority and their impact on maintenance cost and warfighting readiness. Several factors could be influencing that focus.
A Full Plate?
In 1995, retired Navy Captain Christopher Johnson spoke of this in “Where’s the Chief?”—an article in which he observed that because of a variety of influences, “Chiefs entered a no-man’s land that has undermined their purpose and self-confidence.”2 To be effective, chiefs must be resourced with the manpower, tools, and time required. Their efforts must also be prioritized. If not, they become frustrated and disillusioned.
Until recently, fleet manning has been a significant source of dissatisfaction. In discussions with chiefs across the Navy, inadequate manpower levels left them frustrated and hard pressed to meet relentless mission-readiness requirements. Through the 2000s, the war on terrorism diverted unit manpower to support increased force-protection requirements and individual augmentee duties. Furthermore, the optimal-manning experiment had a negative impact on surface-force manning levels.
As chiefs struggled to provide “results, not excuses” in the face of manpower challenges, administrative and seemingly endless unit-level certification requirements continued to grow, competing with their planning and prioritization of divisional work. “Sailors said they are increasingly mired in the mess that routine maintenance has become. Even things that should be a quick hit—something as simple as laying non-skid surface on a frigate’s tiny O3 level weather deck—is burdened by paperwork, conflicting requirements, and the lack of contract flexibility.”3 While serving as the command master chief (CMC) for the Naval Safety Center from 2013 to 2015, I had the opportunity to travel with safety-survey teams to get a sense of fleet challenges to safety compliance. In every visit, CMCs and CPOs explained to me the impact that administrative requirements were having on them. One surface ship chief explained, “We’ve done 21 certifications in the last 21 weeks and an INSURV [inspection and survey], including 5 INSURV assessments. Some COs will take on the entire load and don’t ask for requirements to be removed when new ones are added. I can either do 10 things really good or 100 things halfhearted. We choose to do 100 things halfhearted.”
So if chiefs are not busy planning and supervising maintenance and training, they are busy preparing for inspections. These are often heavily administrative and consume time chiefs could be using to supervise or train. Furthermore, senior enlisted on safety-survey teams found that interpretation of policy requirements often differs based on the individual inspecting, further frustrating chiefs trying to meet requirements. In addition, programs and policies aimed at improving sailor “readiness” implemented since the 1970s have grown, and so have the accompanying oversight and administration. For chiefs and first classes who volunteer to take on these collateral duties, the experience gained has merit, but it typically comes at the expense of their primary duties and can undermine division work if not properly prioritized. As a result of fleet feedback, we have implemented the Reducing Administrative Distractions (RAD) initiative to try and alleviate these issues.4
Depth of Technical Competence?
A sound technical foundation is not just important during in-port maintenance periods but is required to conduct casualty-related repairs while under way during routine operations and high-end warfighting scenarios. We must ensure our CPO Mess is capable of creative repair and work-arounds when and if future damage-control (including potential cyber attack) scenarios occur.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, we made several changes to requirements for our enlisted advancement system that many believe have diminished the development of strong levels of technical expertise. Personal advancement requirements were eliminated, formal verification of the completion of Military Requirements and Ratings Manuals was shifted to command leadership, and the Military Requirements Exam was removed as an advancement requirement. Today, voluntary professional military education courses, woefully outdated Military Requirements Manuals, and command-facilitated training are used for developing institutional expertise. The bibliography has become the primary source for professional-knowledge development, and unfortunately, rating-manual completion is typically not verified. Furthermore, one result of the revolution in training was to shift instructional delivery to computer-based training. Since then we have added a lab portion, but we have some members of our CPO Mess population whose technical foundation was established only through computer-based training.5 We also started providing waivers for time-in-rate requirements for sailors earning “early promote” recommendations on regular evaluations. Many similar changes have occurred specific to warfare and rating communities as well.
The selection board has a huge influence on CPO behavior. Selection board precepts state, “Eligibles fully qualified for selection demonstrate an appropriate level of leadership, technical and managerial skills, integrity, commitment to the personal and professional development of subordinates, and resourcefulness in their assignments. Their attributes include rating expertise. . . .” They also state that “Documented rating expertise during the period of consideration and the extent to which the eligible used that knowledge to positively impact his/her command must be considered.” However, boards can influence how collateral duties are assigned. Board precepts state, “Consideration shall be given to the successful accomplishment of major collateral duties affecting mission effectiveness, retention, and morale.”
Many senior officers I talk to perceive that the board influences first classes and chiefs to spend too much time on ancillary activities such as collateral duties, fundraising, and group physical training events, at the expense of their technical leadership. In 2010, “Reviving the Chiefs’ Mess” expressed concerns about a “broadening” effect the board was having on the CPO Mess.6 These perceptions probably exist because these duties and activities are conducted outside the confines of the CPO Mess and are much more visible than the day-to-day mission-focused activities and discussions that occur within it. What we typically do not know is the extent to which these collateral duties and activities are factored into board deliberations.
Duty assignments also shape the depth and breadth of our senior-enlisted experience base. The mission demands of the war on terrorism shifted some warfighting communities into nontraditional tactical skill sets. For example, SEALs and explosive ordnance–disposal personnel began to focus more on land-based missions, and as a result, many of their naval warfighting skills atrophied.
The revolution-in-training initiative and the decision to consolidate maintenance facilities into Regional Maintenance Centers resulted in an “outsourcing” of enlisted maintenance and instructor billets ashore to civilians and shifted the focus of some ratings more toward roles as operators as opposed to maintainers. Enlisted duty in maintenance and instructor billets ashore served to increase the breadth and depth of rating knowledge and technical competence. The impacts of these decisions have been captured in several findings. Vice Admiral Phillip Balisle’s “Fleet Review Panel of Surface Force Readiness” in 2010, better known as the Balisle Report, assessed them.7 And a 2009 Center for Naval Analyses study titled “Impact of Manning and Infrastructure Initiatives on the Surface Navy” evaluated the effect of those ashore billets.8 Although these reports primarily address degrading material readiness and increased maintenance cost, we should consider the potential impact on CPO technical leadership capability as well.
Blurring the Lines?
The relationship between the chief and the officer has been a subject of controversy. For example, in the early 1980s, MCPON Thomas Crow was concerned about the relationship. “A very subtle change has overtaken us,” he said. “The situation I speak of is the role of the CPO versus the division officer. Everywhere I go I see a young division officer with a desk right in the middle of a work center or shop very busy taking over and doing the tasks that once belonged to the CPO.”9 Captain Johnson’s previously cited article observed this shift in the “chemistry of the Navy,” and officers were starting to perform the day-to-day management functions that were the realm and responsibility of the chief.
Today, this abnormal chemistry seems to have reversed, with many senior officers and senior enlisted leaders observing a tendency of chiefs to perform activities that are the responsibility of the division officer, such as evaluation and award writing. Unfortunately, some young division officers are more than willing to pass their administrative responsibilities to the willing chief so they can focus on tactical warfighting skills—and for a variety of reasons (e.g., the “easier to do it myself” mentality, CPO Mess training messages, and modeled behaviors) chiefs will execute them, possibly at the expense of their deckplate leader presence and responsibilities.
Rather than train their division officers to plan and complete these administrative duties, chiefs are more than willing to fulfill them since many may believe this is part of their “make-the-Navy-run” responsibility. As a result, the chiefs’ presence on the deckplates can be reduced or end up fulfilled by more junior personnel lacking the experience required. I observed this as the command master chief of an aviation squadron, and it took active engagement by my executive officer and me to reinforce the relationship and ensure roles and responsibilities were being performed by the appropriate person.
Getting a Fix
In light of the confluence of all these influences, what actual indicators exist that our CPO Mess focus is not where we need it to be? As an organization we must avoid the tendency to “blame the worker” and view these trends and results as indicators of broader cultural, process, or resource challenges. Clearly, the CPO Mess is responsible for leading some amount of corrective maintenance, and its contribution to force readiness cannot be understated. However, are the factors described here having an impact on the mess’ ability and willingness to do more? To determine this, the naval enterprise should have focused discussion and conduct a variety of “deep dives” similar to those producing the Balisle Report.
First, we should gain a sense of the state of CPO Mess’ technical focus and capability. To do this we should analyze what Casualty Report trends, INSURV results, safety assessments, mishap reports, and maintenance rework costs tell us. For example, the Naval Safety Center produces a Hazard and Mishap Analysis report that routinely cites manning, perceived pressure, procedural compliance, and lack of supervision as common fleet discrepancies during safety assessments that can lead to increased risk.10 Discussion should examine the extent chiefs are focusing on their role as technical managers, what barriers stand in the way of chiefs more aggressively asserting technical authority (e.g., contract rules, warranties, etc.), and whether fleet tendencies exist to submit a job without even giving more complicated repair work a try. The surface force has started to do this, but are other communities seeing similar challenges?
As a result of the Optimized Fleet Response Plan, we have greatly improved the health of manning at sea.11 This is paramount because it aligns work demand with the required amount of manpower. There has been some recognition of the value enlisted billets in maintenance facilities ashore provide, and we have started to “buy back” our enlisted footprint at shore-based maintenance centers.12 As manning improves, we must continue to identify, reduce, and remove burdensome administrative requirements and evaluate the efficiency of maintenance practices. We should compare total maintenance time with maintenance “touch time” and work to reduce the gap that overly cumbersome prerequisites and requirements impose. The RAD initiative is a good-faith attempt, but it appears that legacy processes and requirements die a long, slow death.13
To evaluate the health of CPO expertise, focus groups should determine how well our policies and processes support our current enlisted-development strategy, while revisiting the many changes summarized here to ensure they are not having a counterproductive impact on technical expertise and institutional knowledge. This group should work to determine whether our professional development and advancement system is adequately preparing the enlisted force to be technical leaders and determine why or why not.
Many senior enlisted who grew up with these requirements champion the value these had on contributing to the building of a strong foundation of technical acumen. The Naval Nuclear Power Program subscribes to a continuous training regimen intended to build and reinforce technical competence. But many other communities do not. If concerns exist that “old-school” vehicles for developing and reinforcing the value of CPO technical and institutional expertise had merit, we must develop sound approaches to implement them using “new-school” techniques and technologies.
We should evaluate our board precepts and grading criteria to ensure we are rewarding the behaviors captured in our Mission, Vision, and Guiding Principles. This group should work to determine the extent boards may be having on our chiefs becoming too “collateralized.” This discussion should evaluate and confirm that selection-board decisions prioritize technical competence and leadership over other activities that do not directly support warfighting readiness and better communicate that to following boards. If collateral duties do add value, we must better explain why. Another way to incentivize technical and institutional expertise is to bring advancement scores into selection boards for grading and deliberations.
We should reflect on how well leaders Navy-wide understand and are aligned with today’s expectations of the chief and whether those expectations are what we need. Traditionalists will argue the realm of the chief is the deckplate, but innovators see ways to leverage a more influential and educated enlisted force outside traditional constructs. Regardless, these expectations should be reinforced in appropriate officer and enlisted training venues, and since chiefs are evaluated on them, selection-board precepts and grading criteria should be reviewed for alignment as well. We should be mindful that changes to, inconsistencies in, and lack of reinforcement of these written expectations can weaken CPO Mess and wardroom “buy-in” and alignment to them.
Furthermore, we should reinforce the “lanes” in which chiefs and officers are expected to function. Many of us have heard the line “Chiefs run the Navy.” Although it sounds impressive, the role of the chief should not be misrepresented. Perhaps a more accurate verbiage is, “Officers run the Navy; Chiefs make the Navy run.” As such, officers are responsible for establishing priorities and evaluating readiness to meet warfighting requirements, while chiefs lead the daily execution of those policies. Finally, we must ensure our training of prospective chiefs better explains how chiefs train their division officers and how to determine metrics for success in this effort, while avoiding sending the message that encourages chiefs to do the division officer’s job.
Unit-level leaders and CPO Messes should take time to candidly discuss their CPO Mess effectiveness at shaping a culture of technical excellence. The culture of a unit’s CPO Mess is a reflection of the leadership of the commanding officer and the command master chief. Far too often we undervalue the impact unit leadership has, too easily excusing poor CPO Mess performance as a result of organizational and procedural woes. Conversely, COs should aggressively advocate for the resources their chiefs require, work to win command support for de-conflicting mission and training requirements, and better articulate the strain the demands certification requirements and day-to-day operations have on their crews. In most cases, strong command leadership, visible support, and CPO Mess self-accountability can mitigate many of the challenges discussed here.
‘Command Leaders Must Engage’
When chiefs fail to demonstrate the competence and character required to remain effective, command leaders must engage to improve performance. Similarly, strong CPO messes employ “watch-team backup” to hold themselves accountable to standards and expectations. Because the mess should be a self-correcting body when chiefs fail to demonstrate competence and character, it is important to reflect on how well that is being done. Ultimately, the command master chief and other senior members of the mess must develop tactics and techniques to ensure CPO Mess discipline and self-accountability is in place and effective. Contrary to the impression some sources might give, CPO misbehavior accounts for less than .005 percent of the Navy-wide CPO population. However, the negative effects on CPO Mess credibility—even for this small percentage—are too severe for us not to take this role seriously.
Finally, many social and cultural factors also contribute to today’s CPO Mess behavior and focus, including the impact of information technology, social media, generational perspectives, and the general perception of a zero tolerance, risk-averse leadership climate. These should be considered and analyzed as well.
If the Chiefs’ Mess is to continue its proud legacy of leading sailors toward mission accomplishment and command excellence, Navy leaders must reflect on the use of our Navy-wide CPO Mess. Although focus groups may find areas where we can improve, they may also determine that we are not as bad off as some may think, and that perhaps we have fallen into the traps of overgeneralization and confirmation bias. At this particular moment in the 21st century, in an era of rapid change, unrelenting mission requirements, fiscal constraints, and changes to the strategic military environment, Navy leaders and each member of the Navy Chiefs’ Mess must build on strengths and correct/improve on weaknesses even as the entire mess looks outward for opportunities to remain credible and relevant. Regardless of what lies in the future, leveraging the Chiefs’ Mess in collaboration, communication, and coordination efforts from within each command and across warfare communities will be a strategic advantage in conducting prompt and sustained naval operations forward and winning the high-end fight.
2. CAPT Christopher Johnson, USN (Ret.), “Where’s the Chief?” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 121, no. 2 (February 1995), 64.
3. Lance M. Bacon, “Ships’ Crews Face Litany of Maintenance Problems,” Navy Times, September 2014, http://archive.navytimes.com/article/20140921/NEWS/309210027/Ship-crews-face-litany-maintenance-problems.
4. “Navy RAD ‘Takes Action’, Shifts to Phase III,” OPNAV Public Affairs, September 2013, www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=76435.
5. Phillip Ewing, “IG: Computer Based Training Hurts Navy,” Navy Times, June 2009, http://archive.navytimes.com/article/20090609/NEWS/906090338/IG-Computer-based-training-hurts-Navy.
6. CAPT Kevin Eyer, USN (Ret.), “Reviving the Chiefs’ Mess,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 136, no. 1 (January 2010), 48.
7. VADM Phillip Balisle, USN, “Fleet Review Panel of Surface Force Readiness,” February 2010, www.scribd.com/doc/43245136/Balisle-Report-on-FRP-of-Surface-Force-Readiness.
8. David M Rodney, Michael D. Bowes, Christopher M. Duquette, Sarah M. Russell, “Impact of Manning and Infrastructure Initiatives on the Surface Navy,” Center for Naval Analyses, November 2009, www.cna.org/CNA.../d0021247.a2.pdf.
9. Charlotte Crist, Winds of Change: the History of the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy, 1967–1992, University of Michigan Library, January 1992. www.slideshare.net/FleetCPOtraining/winds-of-change-history-of-mcpon-office.
10. Naval Safety Center Annual Mishap Overview FY-14, Naval Safety Center, 2014, www.public.navy.mil/navsafecen/Documents/media/FY14_Annual_Report.pdf.
11. David Larter, “NPC Boss Hails Progress in Closing Fleet’s Manning Gaps,” Navy Times, April 2015, www.navytimes.com/story/military/careers/navy/2015/04/05/manning-fleet-narrow-steindl/25245721/.
12. Mark D. Faram, “Maintenance Centers Give Advancement Edge,” Navy Times, January 2015, www.navytimes.com/story/military/careers/2015/01/12/regional-maintenance-centers-sailor-jobs-advancement-shore/19946885/.
13. LT Jeffrey Withington, USN, “Honor Training is Not Enough,” U.S. Naval Institute Blog, December 2015, http://blog.usni.org/2015/12/08/honor-training-is-not-enough.