On 11 April 1919, Admiral William Sowden Sims—most recently Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Operating in European Waters, during World War I—became president of the Naval War College and accepted the loss of two stars. Far from being distraught, Sims was overjoyed. Fellow officers urged Sims to make himself available to command the Atlantic Fleet or serve as Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), but he declined and requested assignment to head the War College, his prewar post. Though an ambitious man, Sims understood that the War College had a tremendous influence on the future of the Navy through training and educating its future flag officers.1 During his three years at Newport, he laid the groundwork for the educational system that prepared, among others, future admirals William Halsey, Ernest King, Chester Nimitz, and Raymond Spruance for command in World War II.
Sims’ indifference about his “demotion” was not unusual for his time. Flag officer rank was fluid between the world wars. The Navy treated its three vice admiral and four admiral slots as tools to give officers the authority and/or diplomatic standing necessary to do their jobs, not as a marker of a job’s importance. The U.S. Naval Academy Superintendent, division heads in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV), and the chiefs of the Navy’s powerful administrative bureaus were rear admirals, not because they were less important than three- or four-star billets, but because higher rank was not necessary for the officers in those posts to perform their jobs.
Today, as Congress prepares to cut the number of flag billets, the Navy can draw important lessons from its interwar use of flag rank. As of this writing, the House and Senate versions of the Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act both take steps to reduce the number of general officer/flag officer (GO/FO) billets in the Department of Defense (DOD). Each version would leave the Navy with fewer admiral billets than today’s five, in addition to whichever joint billets are held by Navy officers. The Senate version would also cut the number of GO/FO billets by 25 percent, while the House version would limit service component commanders in unified commands to three-star rank.2 Whatever the final outcome, examining the background of the Navy’s successes in World War II can only benefit the service.
In other words, the Navy managed to appoint capable officers to responsible positions despite Congress’ strict regulation of flag ranks. The congressional restriction of four admiral and three vice admiral billets remained until World War II, and the Navy continued to place those slots in the operational fleet. On the eve of Pearl Harbor, apart from the CNO, every senior billet was still seagoing. The Atlantic, Pacific, and Asiatic fleets were commanded by admirals, and the major type commands (battleships, carriers, and cruisers) in the Pacific Fleet were held by vice admirals.3 In Washington, the critical planning and policy functions of OPNAV were managed by rear admirals and captains.
The interwar Navy maintained the original rationale for senior ranks—i.e., their representational and command function. Though it had limited combat power, the Asiatic Fleet was critical to U.S. diplomacy and presence in the region and thus warranted an admiral. At the same time, the organization of the interwar Pacific Fleet demonstrated the command utility of the rank structure. The three levels of flag officer leadership in the largest fleet formation solidified authority, ensuring that command relations were reflected in rank.
Admirals and vice admirals who reverted to their permanent rank frequently managed important naval districts, supervised key training facilities, and advised the secretary on the General Board. These were important posts that had a dramatic impact on the Navy. Far from being backwaters, these jobs drew on the experience and personal qualities of the officers concerned just as much as leading a fleet or OPNAV. However, the Navy Department understood that these positions, important as they were, did not require three or four stars for maximum administrative efficiency. The paucity of senior billets forced the service to use them instrumentally, where they did the most good for the Navy rather than the most good for the career of Navy officers.
Potential Lessons for Today
Much has changed since the 1930s. Still, the interwar Navy’s use of its senior leadership positions holds possible lessons for the present in two areas. The first is in determining which jobs warrant the authority conferred by admiral or vice admiral status. The second is in the career paths of flag officers. The old system may be impossible to replicate, but it suggests some possible areas for rethinking.
Faced with a shortage of senior officers compared to peer competitors—the Royal Navy, for example, had 11 admirals and 19 vice admirals on the active list in the summer of 1939—the U.S. Navy was forced to distribute those billets where they served best.4 Overwhelmingly, that was deemed to be in operational commands afloat. Since the days of the Great White Fleet, Navy secretaries and officers have argued that senior ranks are not a reward for good service. Rather, the ranks are necessary to give fleet commanders clear lines of authority over subordinates, and the ability to effectively liaise with foreign counterparts.
Throughout the interwar years, Navy practice reflected these claims. Critical work ashore was supervised by rear admirals and captains. In 1931, for example, only five flag officers were assigned to OPNAV in Washington: the CNO and four rear admirals.5 Even in 1941, as the Navy expanded in expectation of war, OPNAV made do with the CNO and seven rear admirals in charge of various staff divisions.6 Likewise, each of the bureaus, which ran the various elements of the shore establishment, nominally were headed by a rear admiral. At times, bureau chiefs were temporarily promoted captains.
Military administration, acquisition, and policy development are more complex today than they were 90 years ago, and the Navy is a great deal larger than it was for most of the 1920s and 30s. Still, the flatter rank structure of the interwar years produced tremendous successes. Between 1919 and 1941, the Navy developed an effective naval aviation doctrine from scratch, designed and built the airplanes and carriers necessary to carry out that doctrine, helped to develop modern amphibious warfare, revolutionized underway replenishment of warships, and laid down the fundamentals of the war plan that successfully defeated Imperial Japan. This was all accomplished with seven senior flag officers and only one, the CNO, stationed ashore. It is unclear how making, say, the director of the War Plans Division—roughly equivalent to today’s N3/N5—a vice admiral or admiral instead of a rear admiral would have improved the division’s high-quality work.
At the same time, the interwar Navy compensated for its relative paucity of senior admiral billets by using the personnel flexibility granted by Congress. Admirals and vice admirals regularly remained in the Navy after their terms ended and reverted to their permanent ranks of rear admiral. Rather than losing their experience and talents, the Navy and the nation continued to benefit from their valuable service as they filled senior positions in the shore establishment.
These shifts were not viewed as a punishment—the most common use of reversion to permanent rank since World War II—but as a natural part of a successful career. In 1930 and 1938 Congress passed legislation allowing, respectively, World War I-era flag officers and former CNOs to retire at their highest active-duty rank. This was extended to all retired admirals and vice admirals in 1942, unless they were punitively reverted, such as occurred with Admiral Husband Kimmel after the Pearl Harbor attack.
Although a full-scale return to this system would be impractical and jarring, it is worth wondering whether some advisory and educational roles could benefit from an officer with recent experience of command at the highest levels. Could, say, the Naval War College or the Navy Warfare Development Command provide more utility to the service if administered by someone who previously ran a combatant command or a numbered fleet? Likewise, are there any junior flag billets that could be assigned to an especially talented captain?
These are questions worth asking, not only because of looming cuts in the flag officer cohort, but also to modernize personnel policy. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has indicated plans to overhaul the officer personnel system to reduce “rigidity” in promotion in the military and put the best-qualified officers in the right jobs.7 Inside the Navy Department, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus’ “Innovation Vision” discusses the need to make the department’s military and civilian personnel systems more responsive and effective.8 Critically examining the norms of the Navy’s flag officer system would meet this goal, and major changes in practice could be made by the Secretaries of the Navy and Defense, although changes to retirement and pensions would require congressional action. The tools for flexibility in flag officer assignments already exist in the U.S. Code. The Navy cannot—and should not—turn the clock back to the 1930s, but it can learn from its past as it prepares for the future.
2. Senate Armed Services Committee, “National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017,” S. 2943, 18 May 2016; House Armed Services Committee, “National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017,” H.R. 4909, 12 April 2016.
3. Bureau of Navigation, Navy Directory (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1 April 1941), 275–355.
4. The Navy List, Containing List of Ships, Establishments, and Officers of the Fleet (London: His Majesty’s Stationary Office, July 1939), 94–96.
5. Bureau of Navigation, Navy Directory (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1 January 1931), 197–98.
6. Bureau of Navigation, Navy Directory (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1 April 1941), 366–70.
7. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, “The Next Two Links to the Force of the Future,” 9 June 2016. www.defense.gov/News/Speeches/Speech-View/Article/795341/remarks-on-the-next-two-links-to-the-force-of-the-future.
8. “Department of the Navy Innovation Vision,” 16 April 2015. http://www.secnav.navy.mil/innovation/Pages/Home.aspx.
9. Donald Chisholm, Waiting For Dead Men’s Shoes (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001), 518.
10. For more information on the creation of the admiral and vice admiral ranks, see Chisholm, Waiting for Dead Men’s Shoes, 493–593.
11. U.S. Code, Title 10, § 601, “Positions of importance and responsibility: generals and lieutenant generals; admirals and vice admirals.”
The Roots of Today’s System
Congress has long kept a close eye on flag officer billets. It did not allow naval flag ranks until 1862. After the Civil War, Congress authorized the ranks of admiral and vice admiral for three leaders—David Farragut, David Dixon Porter, and Stephen Rowan—who served with distinction during the conflict. After Porter’s death in 1891, the ranks lapsed. Congress temporarily revived the title when it made George Dewey an admiral, and then “Admiral of the Navy” after his victory at Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War.
As the Navy grew in the early 20th century, its flat rank structure threatened command efficiency in the fleet. When President Theodore Roosevelt sent the “Great White Fleet” of 16 battleships on its around-the-world voyage in 1907, the fleet was commanded by a rear admiral, as was each of its squadrons. Although the fleet commander, Rear Admiral Charles Sperry, was senior to his subordinates, he lacked the authority of outranking them. Likewise, Sperry’s rank carried a diplomatic penalty. Although he commanded the entire battleship strength of the U.S. Navy, he was inferior in rank to many of the foreign squadron, station, and shipyard commanders he encountered on the voyage, creating awkward protocol issues.9
These command and diplomatic issues festered, until Congress resurrected the grades of admiral and vice admiral in 1915. The legislation initially limited the rank of admiral to the commanders of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Asiatic fleets, and the rank of vice admiral to their deputies. In practice, only the second-in-command of the Atlantic Fleet was promoted; the other fleets were viewed as too small to warrant another senior officer. Subsequent changes to the law in 1916 and 1917 made the new CNO an admiral and allowed the Secretary of the Navy to assign the other six admiral and vice admiral billets at his discretion, rather than tying them to the three fleets.10
Critically, Congress mandated that the new ranks were tied to postings, not people. Admirals and vice admirals retained their permanent ranks of rear admiral and returned to that rank when they left their posts for other assignments or retirement. Although the underlying norms have changed, this is similar to today’s personnel system. In all services, ranks above rear admiral/major general are contingent on holding a specific three- or four-star billet, and officers leaving one of those billets have 60 days to be appointed to a new one before reverting to their permanent O-7 or O-8 ranks.11 Likewise, Congress has to approve the retirements of O-9 and O-10 officers at their final ranks.
Reverting to Permanent Ranks
The Navy of the interwar years made more use of the system’s inherent flexibility than today’s service. Admirals and vice admirals who had not reached retirement age reverted to their permanent ranks of rear admiral and continued to provide valuable service, leavened with the experience of high command. Of the 46 men who held the rank of admiral between its introduction in 1915 and retired before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in late 1941, 27 reverted to rear admiral before retiring, serving for an average of two and a half years. (The officers who retired directly from a vice admiral or admiral billet resumed their permanent ranks of rear admiral on the retired list, with the exception of a handful of officers affected by congressional legislation in 1930 and 1938.) Eight of these men finished their careers commanding naval districts, which entailed oversight of shipyards and other critical pieces of naval infrastructure. Ex-admirals tended to run the most important districts, including those headquartered at New York, Norfolk, and, in the late 1930s, Pearl Harbor. Slightly fewer than half of all vice admirals reached the rank of admiral in the interwar years. The ones who reverted directly to rear admiral had a similar career path to their admiral counterparts, frequently serving as commandants of lesser naval districts.
Other former senior leaders took on duties that made use of their experience to help formulate naval policy. Many ended their careers on the General Board, the panel of senior officers that determined the design specifications of warships and advised the secretary on naval policy. Several ex-admirals and ex-vice admirals spent years on the General Board. For example, William Ledyard Rodgers, renowned as one of the Navy’s finest minds, left his vice admiral post in 1920 and spent the next four years with the rank of rear admiral as the senior member of the General Board, helping the Navy negotiate the aftermath of World War I and the Washington Naval Conference.
Along those lines, six former admirals, including Sims, took on roles in the Navy’s educational establishment: three as president of the Naval War College, and three as superintendent of the Naval Academy. In these positions, they could use their experiences of fleet command to make officer training and education more responsive to the needs of the Navy. For example, in his time at the War College, Sims reorganized its curriculum to develop the skills necessary to plan and execute operations under the conditions of modern war.
This fluidity also extended in the other direction. The Navy was willing to appoint captains to run its bureaus, key organizational billets that came with the statutory rank of rear admiral. In the interwar period, 11 line captains became bureau chiefs, providing vital leadership experience for officers such as future CNOs Harold Stark and William Leahy. Although the Navy’s organization has shifted several times since 1941, the modern-day equivalents of these jobs roughly correspond with a variety of rear admiral and vice admiral billets in today’s structure.