For the U.S. Navy, 2017 was a horrible year, a year that saw two different but profound failures that shook the American public’s confidence in its Navy and—for those who looked behind the headlines—in the Navy’s ability to deter a war at sea or, failing that, to fight one and win it.
The first was a running exposure of contracting corruption associated with the support of deployed Seventh Fleet ships that seemed to reach from its confessed mastermind—Malaysian “Fat Leonard” Francis of Glenn Defense Marine Asia—deep into the roster of the fleet’s senior leadership and beyond.
The second was two costly and fatal collisions at sea in the Pacific: one in June between the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and the containership ACX Crystal, off Shimoda, Japan; the other in August between the USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) and the tanker Alnic MC in the congested approaches to Singapore.
These two collisions punctuated a year in which on 31 January the guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam (CG-54) ran aground while trying to anchor in Tokyo Bay, and on 9 May, the USS Lake Champlain (CG-57) collided with a 52-foot fishing boat off Korea.
All this highly visible bungling comes at a time when the United States and its allies are facing challenges in the Pacific and elsewhere on a scale arguably not seen in generations. In Western Europe, the postwar order that brought prosperity to hundreds of millions and the end of the Cold War seems to be disintegrating, pulled apart by Brexit and other powerful centrifugal forces. Among the former Soviet satellites in Central Europe and the Balkans, progress toward representative government and the rule of law as recognized in the West are being reversed. Farther east in Turkey, a NATO ally now buying weapons from and finding common cause with Russia, President Recep Erdo?an is steadily advancing a campaign to reverse a near-century of progress toward secularization and democracy. Meanwhile, wars are being fought in the Middle East and in Southwest Asia between sects and tribes that, were it not for their lethality and advanced weapons, would have an almost medieval cast.
Among the threats confronting the United States are:
• A pugnacious, nuclear-armed North Korea, determined under its bizarre 37-year-old dictator to continue its strategic weapons programs (reportedly boosted by leaked Russian missile propulsion and warhead technologies), making fast progress toward deploying an operational intercontinental ballistic missile capability already real enough to have panicked Hawaii over a weekend last winter.
• A chesty Russia, 17 years into the reign of former KGB officer and later director of Russia’s Federal Security Service Vladimir Putin, boldly reasserting the rights of a great power first in the Ukraine and its “near abroad” but also in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. This while President Putin waxes nostalgic about the past glories of Stalin’s USSR while dispatching assassins abroad and overseeing canny manipulation of Western public opinion through social media.
• A revitalized and newly ambitious China, under the leadership of “National Helmsman” for life Xi Jinping and having managed to convert its huge population into an asset rather than an anchor, now successfully retooling its economy into the world’s most powerful. This while aggressively seeking to reassert the special status and influence throughout Asia that its imperial predecessor enjoyed five centuries ago and while floating a navy with maritime aspirations unimagined in China since the early 15th century.1
These destabilizing threats all arise in the context of an increasingly dangerous maritime operating environment that sees likely U.S. adversaries deploying technologies no less capable than those of the United States on, over, and beneath the oceans.
The sobering international picture is further complicated by continued expensive and exhausting U.S. military deployments to regions in seemingly endless, confused conflict without clear purpose or paths to victory; fighting that has generated armed radicals and spawned impoverished refugees, both in unmanageable numbers. (The U.S. intelligence community’s current worldwide threat assessment describes these last unfortunates as “human displacement,” an oddly cavalier treatment of the refugee crisis and of the population flows that have been an impulse behind the unraveling of Europe.)
At home, the nation faces a deeply cleft society; a White House in obvious disarray; a Congress just barely capable of enacting legislation to fund core government operations; a public increasingly isolated from its all-volunteer military; and a diminished, demoralized, and depopulated State Department presumably being reformatted on the fly under a new secretary, while a third national security advisor in 14 months supplants retiring Army Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster.2
“Fat Leonard” Plays on
Although it still is playing out, the huge Navy contracting corruption investigation that first hit the national news in 2013 already has exposed years of illegal practices in the provision of pier-side services to U.S. Navy ships deployed to the western Pacific. Since at least 2006, the Navy has been defrauded of millions of dollars, money paid against padded or wholly fictitious invoices following port calls in Asia, including some visits steered by insiders to what the chief conspirator called his “fat revenue ports.” Crimes supporting the ongoing fraud evidently were committed by dozens of individuals, many of them active-duty Navy officers, to include flag officers and captains.2
The investigation first became visible in September 2013 with the arrest in San Diego of the scandal’s central figure, 58-year-old Leonard Glenn Francis, the Malaysian-born owner and chief executive of Singapore-based Glenn Defense Marine Asia (GDMA), and three others: Alex Wisidagama, Francis’s nephew and GDMA’s government contracts manager; former USS Mustin (DDG-89) commanding officer Captain-select Michael Misiewicz; and John Beliveau, a senior Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) agent. The latter three would be charged, tried in federal court, convicted, and sentenced during the next several years to 63 months, 78 months, and 12 years in prison, respectively, in addition to fines. In January 2015, Francis pleaded guilty to three charges of conspiracy and bribery but apparently has not yet been sentenced.
Through early December 2017, the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Diego had charged 28 individuals with conspiracy to defraud the United States or making false statements. Of that number, 19 had by then been tried, found guilty, and sentenced to jail time and fines. One of the 19 was the first active-duty U.S. Navy admiral ever convicted of a federal crime. On 17 May 2017, Rear Admiral Robert Gilbeau, a Francis familiar since 1997 when he was assistant supply officer in the USS Boxer (LHD-4), was sentenced to 18 months at the Federal Correctional Institution, Terminal Island, after conviction on a single count of lying to investigators.
The record suggests Francis first began his campaign of seduction and corruption of Pacific Fleet operators and logisticians sometime in the late 1990s. Seemingly every one of Francis’s contacts with U.S. sailors (officer and enlisted) had as its goal the eventual corruption of his interlocutor. By 2006, his decade-old campaign had flowered into a vigorous criminal enterprise aggressively signing on enthusiastic co-conspirators.
Between 2006 and 2013, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Diego, Francis and several of his employees and a few early recruits easily suborned a host of senior and mid-grade Navy officers, petty officers, civil servants, and others (most American) through a flood of notably tawdry inducements. Among these were cash bribes, extravagant vacations, prostitutes, hand-rolled Cohiba cigars, Kobe beef, Versace handbags, and roasted Spanish suckling pigs.
No one has denied the essential truth of what has emerged from these many proceedings, but some old Asia hands—echoing Rudyard Kipling—have intimated that only naïve outsiders do not know the East was ever thus. Others have argued—weakly—that GDMA did provide high-quality support services to deployed ships in a region where such are hard to find.
Almost inevitably, the suspicion (or fact) of widespread criminal or even doubtful behavior among officers rattles the Navy’s personnel management system, a system based on orderly and interconnected promotion and assignment processes that move officers up, along career paths, and eventually home or into retirement. It happened after the 1991 Tailhook incident, even though most of the suspected transgressors were relatively junior. It happened again in Fat Leonard. “Fat Leonard Scandal Jams Up Dozens of US Navy Flag Moves,” read the headline in Christopher Cavas’s column on the subject in Defense News.
Like what happened after Tailhook ’91 and would happen again in November 2017 after the Fitzgerald and John S. McCain collisions, in March 2014 then-Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus appointed a “consolidated disposition authority” (CDA) to review Fat Leonard cases the U.S. attorney had determined “substantiated less-than-criminal allegations” and should be processed by the Navy administratively. The CDA in this matter was Admiral Phil Davidson, Commander, U.S. Fleet Forces.
On its face, dealing with the Fat Leonard scandal ought to be a routine exercise in law enforcement, complicated only by its size and scope and the overlap of civil and military jurisdictions. The sequence—the suspicion of a crime; an investigation to collect evidence and establish facts; then one or another of the familiar forms of legal process to determine guilt in the face of a presumption of innocence—is familiar and seemingly straightforward. But it is not, which sometimes leads to bizarre outcomes, none more so than the many months during which the serving Chief of Naval Intelligence was denied access to classified information while his conduct was being investigated.
As of mid-April, the Fat Leonard investigation continues, as do the associated legal proceedings.
We Must Do Better
The revelation of the moral collapse of some senior Navy officers in the western Pacific was joined last year by equally serious operational failures on those same waters. They were professional lapses of a different type entirely, but they also were troubling evidence of the Navy officer corps’ failure to meet another of the historic, high standards of the profession.
What emerged last October from the U.S. Navy’s own investigations of 2017’s two fatal collisions was persuasive evidence that neither the John S. McCain’s crew nor the crew of the Fitzgerald was mission ready; indeed, neither was ready for a routine ocean transit. Those doleful in-house conclusions were confirmed by an investigation of the John S. McCain collision completed this March by the Transport Safety Investigation Bureau of Singapore’s Ministry of Transport. (Japan’s Transport Safety Board apparently conducted an investigation of the Fitzgerald collision, but its report has not been made public.)
The Navy’s reflexive response was the quick relief of the John S. McCain’s and Fitzgerald’s commanding and executive officers, the Fitzgerald’s command master chief, and the commanders of Destroyer Squadron 15 and Task Group 70. The several beheadings included three more symbolic gestures: advancing the scheduled retirement of the Seventh Fleet commander by two weeks, accepting a request for early retirement from the three-star commander of U.S. Navy surface forces, and the reported early retirement of the commander of the Pacific Fleet.
The paired catastrophes, however, revealed broader failures than those attributable to inept deck watches operating under darkened ship conditions or to the immediate chain of command. They raised broad questions about the way in which crews were being assembled and trained and ships prepared for deployment in an under-resourced, undermanned, and overcommitted force.
The core question is, of course, do these serious lapses ashore and afloat suggest the U.S. Navy’s incapacity today to execute its peacetime presence and wartime combat missions? Is the Navy duplicating the unseen, slow decline of the Royal Navy in the era between Trafalgar and Jutland?3
The Royal Navy’s decline, brilliantly described by Andrew Gordon in The Rules of the Game (Naval Institute Press, 2012), was apparent to no one until its astonishing failure off Jutland in the spring of 1916 decisively to defeat the German High Seas Fleet. The flash of recognition can be marked quite precisely: It came to Vice Admiral David Beatty in HMS Lion’s charthouse mid-afternoon 31 May, when—after earlier watching in consternation as first HMS Indefatigable and then Queen Mary exploded and sank—he reportedly told Lieutenant Chalmers, “There is something wrong with our ships . . . and something wrong with our system.”
There was, in fact, nothing wrong with Beatty’s ships, but much was wrong with the system: For decades the Royal Navy had used the wrong metrics to measure combat readiness, raising a generation of senior officers whose skills were a bad match with the requirements of modern warfighting. That “something wrong” with the system had been percolating for just over a century. It took a stunning operational failure to make the Grand Fleet’s flaws apparent.
Last year’s twin crises in the Navy—the eruption of the Fat Leonard scandal and the obvious unreadiness of several deployed ships and crews to meet operational requirements—are connected in that both demonstrate a failure of leadership that would be troubling anytime, but is especially scary in these parlous times. Together they constitute evidence that, à la Admiral Beatty, there is something wrong with the system.
The response to the former has been seemingly interminable, multilayered legal proceedings, where efforts to balance the enforcement of law against the rights of individuals have produced distortions of process, the best example being the treatment meted out to Vice Admiral Ted Branch, a 37-year-veteran most recently Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Warfare, who was edged into retirement.
The Navy’s response to its evident operational problems triggered an investigation by Fleet Forces Command and a broader, secretary-level strategic readiness review under a newly established Readiness Reform and Oversight Council. Both in-house examinations found an overworked and under-resourced fleet regularly sacrificing mission readiness to reflexive responsiveness and an overlying command structure that distorted the process of balancing resources—ready ships and trained crews—against deployment requirements. Why it took two tragic and expensive failures to expose these lapses is not clear, but it almost certainly is the consequence of a can-do spirit that in the austere past took pride in “doing everything with nothing.”
One hotly debated concept emerging from the readiness review is to relocate some traditional Pacific Fleet force management functions from the operators in Hawaii to Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk (a realignment explicitly prohibited since 2011 by congressional language meant to sustain Hawaii-based missions and functions). That idea was dismissed publicly last February by Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott Swift, who insisted that force generation and operation responsibilities should remain in Hawaii or in San Diego, where they are today.
The same glaring problems have prompted the interest of Congress, eventually expressed in S. 2452, a bill introduced at the end of February as “the surface warfare enhancement act of 2018,” which would “provide for the improvement of the capacity of the navy to conduct surface warfare operations and activities.” S. 2452 has special heft because of its sponsors, John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Roger Wicker (R-MS), chairman of its Subcommittee on Seapower and the powerful godfather of Ingalls Shipbuilding in Congress. (The Fitzgerald recently arrived on board a heavy lift vessel at Ingalls, in Pascagoula, to begin repairs under a $250-million+, two-year contract.)
Their lengthy bill would direct a “comprehensive review of operational and administrative chains of command” in five specific areas and require a report to Congress by the end of September on the results of this review. Other sections of the act address broadly crew training and certification, ships’ material condition inspection and reporting, a ten-year limitation on foreign homeporting of most surface combatants, the length of work weeks, qualification requirements for certain officer bridge watches, and shiphandling training, etc.
If, in fact, resource constraints and not management and leadership failings lie at the heart of the Seventh Fleet’s operational problems, then the recent agreement in Congress to fund government, including the Departments of Defense and the Navy, at historically high levels in FY2019 (and also including a breathtakingly high deficit) should be the sovereign solution. As Rear Admiral Brian Luther, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Budget, described to the media in a storm of buzzwords in mid-February, the Navy’s proposed budget had as its goal “restoring wholeness by growing the readiness, capability and capacity of the Navy . . . to build a more lethal, resilient, and agile force to deter and defeat aggression by great power competitors and adversaries in all domains across the conflict spectrum.”
Would that it were so easy.
1. These threats and others were cataloged in mid-February by Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and presented to Congress in a “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community.”
2. What is known publicly of the investigation has come largely from a snowstorm of press releases from the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Diego, journalist Craig Whitlock’s pieces in the Washington Post, and from frequent items by editor Sam LaGrone and other reporters at USNI News.
3. LCDR Colin Roberts, USN, former commanding officer of the USS Zephyr (PC-9), explored this same historic parallel in his “In the Long Calm Lee of Midway,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 144, no. 1 (January 2018), 18–22.
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