The Surface Force Is Not Broken

Lieutenant Commander Matthew Brown, U.S. Navy

In all these ways I am entirely unremarkable. Most leaders at sea strive for those same ideals. As a sitting captain, and knowing something of taking ships to sea, I have purposely remained silent concerning the investigations of USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and John S. McCain (DDG-56). Those entrusted with command of Navy warships know better than hastily to assign blame in a profession dictated by equal parts of hard work and chance. Any profession in which something as random as weather gets a vote deserves a degree of latitude. So in keeping with the Navy’s proud and holistic tradition of investigating every mishap at sea, I have abstained from comment and awaited the details.

I patiently have waited for more measured perspectives to arrive, for someone to write an article or look into the lens of a camera and say what needs to be said: that while tragic, the collisions of Fitzgerald and John S. McCain are not symptoms of a sick community of surface warriors, but rather the result of sustained, demanding operations in a high risk environment.

Are there lessons to be learned? Certainly. Might some of them point to enterprise-level adjustments throughout the force? Almost definitely. But the people you hear bloviating on television about an ailing surface force are either stale or making judgments with scant information. Absent official findings of fact, they just make them up.

What is not purely imagination is the readiness of your Navy. Make no mistake about it: the U.S. Navy’s surface force is not broken. In a surly rush to judgment, waves of commentators have flooded the media in a shameless grab for attention. The resultant hurricane of speculation from so-called experts has impacted the public, colored our discourse and led the discussion down one rabbit hole after another.

It appears these commentators are convinced the blame lies squarely on our current generation of leaders at sea. Critics have haphazardly posed questions regarding the competency of the modern naval officer, creating a spread of discontent among those entrusted to their charge. Evidence of this can be seen in a recent issue of the Navy Times , where  a dire and tasteless headline reads: “Maybe Today’s Navy Is Just Not Very Good at Driving Ships?” Sadly, the weekly paper buttressed its arguments by using a seemingly endless supply of quotes from former Navy COs who apparently forget that their loyalty should be to the sailor, and not Facebook’s “Like” button.

Even well-considered criticisms of surface warfare professional development, such as those posed by Captain Kevin Eyer and Lieutenant Commander Rob McFall in their contributions to Proceedings and the New York Times respectively, are drowned out by careless nuggets of confidently misinformed wisdom peddled by self-appointed “authorities.” They shamelessly retail their naval service to Fox News or whoever might be paying for it. One commentator looked into a Fox News camera and, with a poker–straight face, said, “Today’s young officers are thrown a pack of CDs and told, ‘Good luck!’”

Free from the look of confusion in sailors’ eyes or even the constraints of truthfulness, many cast stones. Removed from the phone calls of worried moms and dads, these uninformed personalities extol the virtues of some bygone era. Their nostalgia for sextants and other tools they scarcely know how to use amounts to sad fantasy. Ordinarily I’d buy them a beer, give them a ship’s coin, and thank them for their service.

Today is not ordinary. Mothers and fathers of active-duty sailors are worried for their children’s safety—worried that it won’t be battle, but something “less than,” that will rob them of their sons and daughters.

The tragedies on the Fitzgerald and John S. McCain deserve painfully close scrutiny. This examination may uncover ugly truths, maybe even a systemic problem or two within the surface warfare community. But we are not broken. Our surface force is ready, and we will answer should we be tested.

When you’re forward deployed and you take risks, accidents sometimes happen. My job as a CO is no more or less complicated than making sure all sailors are trained to the level of their capabilities—to make them ready.

We will take the lessons of the Fitzgerald and John S. McCain and apply them to how we train and how we fight. We will honor our fallen by working tirelessly to ensure we’re stronger for their sacrifice. And while we’re doing that, former COs of ships will continue to hamper the effort with broadside assaults on the competence of the modern naval officer.

To sailors on board Navy ships at sea, maybe a bit uneasy to sleep below the waterline: Be a warrior. Stand your watch. Be ready. You’re in the best damn Navy the world has ever known.

To mothers and fathers worried for their sons and daughters: I am here for your children. I am a father, and I understand. 

To the former COs whom I still admire: I am now the CO. I will out-drive you, out-fight you, and out-lead you. Not because I’m better, but because I stand on your shoulders. And I’m happy to prove it. 

We have plenty of ships and simulators to go around. Let’s go for a drive. You pick the port, the platform, the weather . . . I’ll be your Huckleberry .

Lieutenant Commander Brown has served in seven ships, including guided-missile destroyers, cruisers, and mine-countermeasures ships. He has deployed to Iraq and in support of every U.S. fleet. He was the plank-owning operations officer of Forward Deployed Naval Forces—Europe and now serves as the commanding officer of the USS Scout (MCM-8).



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