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Loss of Confidence Doesn’t Cut It

By Commander Doyle Hodges, U.S. Navy (Retired)

By focusing personal accountability on a few officers, the Navy seems to miss the degree to which they must operate in an environment of risk created by decades of institutional choices beyond these individuals’ control. The Navy cannot just fire its way out of the current crisis. When the service has simultaneously lost confidence in a fleet commander, a strike group commander, a squadron commodore, and a ship’s commanding officer (as well as his executive officer and command master chief) in its most active and challenging theater of operations, the problem is at least as likely to be with the Navy itself as with certain individuals.

The Navy has released few details regarding the two collisions or its investigations. Since I retired four years ago, I have no access to details of either collision beyond the scanty information in the supplemental line-of-duty report released in the Fitzgerald ’s case, which focused more on the heroic and extraordinary efforts of the crew to save the ship than on causes. The observations I offer are focused on the surface force generally, rather than on the specific incidents in the Pacific. They are informed by my experiences commanding a forward-deployed salvage ship in Seventh Fleet and a destroyer of the same class and vintage as those involved in the fatal collisions.

Resources, Requirements, and Risk

Over the past 20 years, the resources available to man, train, and maintain surface ships have trended down, while new missions and increased tempo have trended up. The surface force has been doing more with less, resulting in increased risk.

The causes and severity of the resource-requirements mismatch are not news. A USNI Blog “Midrats” post from 2010 by Raymond Pritchett (“Galrahn” of Information Dissemination) outlines a pattern of related issues dating to the early 2000s. In 2010, retired Vice Admiral Phil Balisle prepared a comprehensive report on the state of fleet readiness for Admiral John Harvey. It built on an earlier report prepared by Rear Admiral Kevin Quinn and Vice Admiral Derwood Curtis, identifying causes dating to the 1990s. Navy leaders have testified to Congress at least since 2011 as to the extent and severity of the challenges. But in the wake of the Budget Control Act of 2011 (better known as Sequestration), the level of resources devoted to address known shortfalls has been swallowed up by the scope and pace of increased requirements.

It is difficult to draw a direct causal arrow from the resources-and-requirements mismatch to the current spate of mishaps. But we were certain that operating with 20 percent fewer sailors and more junior sailors than in the previous decade spelled trouble. The decisions to cut these resources from ships were made by dedicated Navy officers and civilians doing their best to squeeze as much naval capability out of every appropriated dollar as possible. But the decisions also were not made in coordination with one other. As a consequence, the risks from one set of reductions may have compounded the risks from others, even as we increased the demands on the fleet. And as long as the failures that emerged could be blamed on flaws in individual leadership rather than systemic choices about risk, there was little institutional incentive to assess this risk honestly, or to change course.

Just Say No

The U.S. government has a well-developed system for the authorization, appropriation, and allocation of defense budgets. The system for the development and implementation of strategy is less rigorous, more dynamic, and far more reactive. This is unavoidable to some extent, but it is not unforeseeable. As a result, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, the Navy often must respond to crises with the Navy we have, not the one we want. This is especially true of forward-deployed naval forces, which are positioned as a hedge against the unpredictable nature of threats to the security of the nation and its allies.

Had the increase in operational demands been recent, or had the resources to deal with them been increased, such an explanation would suffice. Instead, demands have grown for years while resources have steadily declined. Guidance from the Seventh Fleet commander in the wake of the collisions emphasized a commanding officer’s authority and responsibility to say no to tasking if he or she believed the ship to be unready to execute it. This sounds great on its face, but it is disingenuous to suppose that an O-5 or O-6 in command should be expected to say no when the Navy’s senior leaders—who have better visibility into resource and requirements issues—keep saying yes. If more resources cannot be obtained, prioritization as to what requirements should be dropped is the responsibility of the Navy’s senior leaders in dialog with theater commanders and the Department of Defense. This decision should not be delegated to a ship CO who knows that failure to get under way only shifts the requirement to another ship, and may reflect poorly on his or her command in the eyes of seniors.

Balancing Command Accountability and Institutional Accountability

Command accountability is at the heart of the naval service, as it should be. But it cannot be the sole answer to the crisis we are seeing across the Navy. The comprehensive reviews directed by the CNO and Secretary of the Navy are promising in their scope, but unrealistic in their timeframes. If the initial actions—firing these officers and mandating a common set of standing orders—are indicative of what is being focused on, the Navy is off course.  

The readiness-requirements mismatch and the increased risk it carries was created by decades of bad choices made in good faith by Navy leaders. Many of them are the same leaders who are now relieving those involved in these mishaps for what appear to be a different set of bad choices that also were made in good faith. Such an approach to “justice” undermines public trust in the “loss of confidence” justification for relief. If those who were relieved showed poor judgment, the Navy should say so. It should also provide specific examples of poor judgments, taking into account the increased risk that the institution placed on them. Failure in an environment of increased risk is not evidence of poor judgment, however. And when those assessing such decisions are the same people who helped create the environment of risk, everyone involved deserves a fuller explanation.

Commander Hodges is a retired surface warfare officer who commanded USS Safeguard (ARS-50) in Seventh Fleet from 2005-2007, and USS Ross (DDG-71) deployed to the Middle East from 2009-2011. He is currently a PhD candidate at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and a Visiting Research Associate in the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership at the Naval Academy.  



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