The Navy’s officer corps crisis reflects something bigger. The U.S. Navy is in violation of the law as regards Joint Professional Military Education (JPME). It is not in marginal or tangential violation—it is in full blown, egregious violation that thumbs its nose at the intent of the Goldwater-Nichols Act (GNA).1 This is merely a symptom of a much larger problem, however.
Why is the Navy having difficulty sending its mid-grade officers to professional military education at places like the Naval War College and the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College?2 It may be that the Navy has officer sea billets that are going unfilled because of a post-Cold War, post-911 operations tempo (optempo) that never adjusted the Navy’s operational commitments (ends) with its human ways and means. Another possibility is that the Navy has never reconciled its quota of officers under the Defense Officer Procurement Management Act of 1980 with GNA’s PME requirements for joint education.3 The latter implies that the Navy simply has ignored the problem rather than trying to solve it. In either case, the Navy officer corps, quite simply, is too busy—and too small—to allow its key mid-grade officers to attend JPME. And this has been the case for some time. What it needs more than a 350-ship fleet is a properly manned, trained, and educated fleet for the number of ships it has today, which is currently hovering around 280.4
The Navy is undergoing much soul-searching in the aftermath of the collisions of the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62), Lake Champlain (CG-57), Louisiana (SSBN-743), and John S. McCain (DDG-56).5 These tragedies point to what social psychologists call “artifacts,” or more fundamental problems within a specific culture.6 The accidents are linked to the failure to send Navy officers to legislatively mandated midgrade education billets, as becomes clear when the reality is accepted that today’s Navy does not have enough officers to meet its commitments. The education shortfall is not new, but it is far more serious than it has been since the GNA was passed more than 30 years ago.
Not Enough Bodies
GNA’s governing document for JPME is the Officer Professional Military Education Policy (OPMEP).7 From 2000 to 2004 I served as deputy director of the Navy element at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College (CGSC). I ensured the OPMEP quotas were met for Navy officers in order to meet the Joint Chiefs of Staff requirement for one Sea Service officer in every staff seminar. This was always a struggle. I was constantly on the phone with the assignments officers, often into the summer as classes were starting, to get our quota of officers.
As the law states in the OPMEP: “Seminar mix at Service ILCs [intermediate-level service colleges] . . . must include at least one officer from each of the two non-host Military Departments.”8 Translation: At CGSC, the Air Force and Navy departments will provide one officer each to each seminar for the Command and General Staff Officer Course (CGSOC).
The current requirement for sea service officers at CGSC is based on the following agreed-upon totals for 74 staff groups:
USMC: 28 students (fully manned)
USN: 44 students (23 short: only 21 Navy officers assigned this year)
USCG: 2 students (1 short: only one assigned this year)
The Marines’ ability to meet their quota further darkens the message the Navy is inadvertently sending about education. Even when the Navy provided Individual Augmentee (IA) officers overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan, it still met the bulk of its commitment to JPME billets at CGSC. But now the Navy provides fewer officers during a time of presumably less intense war and deployment.
If the Navy fails to calibrate its education priorities and conduct a thorough attitude check, it might find that all that new-generation high-tech equipment it plans to buy will be in the hands of uneducated, non-joint officers who have no idea about concepts such as strategy, geopolitics, and military thought.
Unravel the Interconnected Problems
The Navy has failed to reconcile its needs with additional officer-career path milestones in education resulting from GNA. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson has implied—especially in public statements in the wake of the recent rash of accidents—that the Navy has both manning and optempo problems.9 But the Navy also seems to have a cultural problem. It is bigger than what some have referred to as a surface warfare with a can-do attitude on steroids.10 Not only are surface officers not being sent to JPME billets; all Navy line communities seem to be shorthanded. The Navy seems to be doing ever-more with less, which will lead to the logical conclusion of trying to do everything with nothing. This is the trajectory that leads to accidents and empty PME seats.
Congress also bears some of the responsibility, particularly in its oversight of GNA and JMPE. The Navy’s habitual shorting of JPME billets since the OPMEP first appeared has been known, but the key congressman who took these matters seriously, Ike Skelton, has passed away, and no one has replaced him as a guardian of GNA’s education policies.11
A Larger Set of Cultural Issues
The Navy always has had the reputation among the services of being the least enamored of JPME education, even though it established the first U.S. officer PME institution, the Naval War College.12 The Navy ethos of prioritizing operations above everything else, even when budgets and manning do not support the readiness to maintain optempo, has caused the fleet to begin “cracking.” In 2010, retired Army Major General Robert “Bob” Scales wrote of the U.S. military as a whole that with the then-drawdown of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, there was “a window of opportunity” to refocus on education. He especially warned against relying on “the tender mercies of individual service personnel systems to fuel intellectual reform.”13 However, the wars did not wind down as much as it was thought they might, and the high Navy optempo has not diminished, even as the size of the fleet has shrunk.
The Navy needs to take more than just a “round turn.” It needs to value education and readiness. Its leaders must be honest with Congress and the nation. The Navy must take care of the fleet it has, as well as focusing on the fleet it wants. The recent accidents and the shorting of bodies at JPME institutions both indicate that the service is too busy—too busy to get better and too busy to learn.
Commander Kuehn is a professor of military history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. A former naval aviator, he is the author of Agents of Innovation (Naval Institute Press, 2008) and the coauthor, with D. M. Giangreco, of Eyewitness Pacific Theater (Sterling, 2008). He has published numerous articles and editorials and was awarded a Moncado Prize from the Society for Military History in 2011. His latest book is America’s First General Staff: A Short History of the General Board of the Navy, 1900-1950 (2017), from the Naval Institute Press.
Photo caption: A seminar classroom at the Army Command and General Staff College in September 2017, lacking Navy representation.
1. The title of this article follows from an earlier piece by Robert Scales that addressed PME DoD-wide: “Too Busy to Learn,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings (February 2010), 31-35.
2. Local records available to the author at CGSC show the Navy is short 23 of its allotted 44 student billets for U.S. Navy officers. Sources at the Naval War College also indicate that the Navy did not fill its allotted seats in the most recent term for the Navy Command and Staff Course at Newport in the Fall of 2017. The author has no data for the Air Command and Staff College or Marine Corps University, which have equivalent ILC staff courses.
3. For a good discussion of the problems posed by DOPMA, see Bernard Rustker, Harry Thie, James Lacy, Jennifer Kawata, and Susanna Purnell, “The Defense Officer Procurement Management Act of 1980: A Retrospective Assessment” (Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Management and Personnel, 1992).
4. “Status of the Navy,” http://www.navy.mil/navydata/nav_legacy.asp?id=146.
5. See letters in response to the Fitzgerald accident in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings October issue (pages 9 and 84).
6. Edgar H. Schein, “Organizational Culture,” American Psychologist 45, no. 2 (1990): 111.
7. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction (CJSCI) 1800.01E, Officer Professional Military Education Policy (OPMEP) (Department of Defense: Washington, DC, 2015).
8. CJSCI 1800.01E, OPMEP, page B-2.
9. Anna Fifield and Dan Lamothe, “Top Navy Admiral Orders Fleetwide Investigation Following Latest Collision at Sea,” Washington Post, 21 August 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/stricken-us-destroyer-arrives-in-singapore-after-collision-10-sailors-missing/2017/08/21/8ad075b0-8646-11e7-a50f-e0d4e6ec070a_story.html?utm_term=.681ae23e6375.
10. CAPT John Byron, USN (Ret.), “Our Navy Has a Serious Problem,” Florida Today, 3 October 2017, http://www.floridatoday.com/story/opinion/2017/10/03/our-navy-has-serious-problem-opinion/729257001/.
11. John T. Kuehn, “I Liked Ike . . . Whence Comes Another? Why PME Needs a Congressional Advocate,” Joint Force Quarterly 83 (4th quarter, October 2016): 40-43.
12. John T. Kuehn, America’s First General Staff: A Short History of the Rise and Fall of the General Board of the Navy, 1900-1950 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2017), 14-17.
13. Scales, “Too Busy to Learn,” 35.