A week does not pass without a new headline or editorial decrying the readiness, morale, training, or direction of the U.S. Navy. From pilot shortages and an adrift intelligence arm to an overtasked and underperforming surface fleet, the Navy appears to be in crisis. It can inject more procedures, training, and trend analyses, but none of this will cure the underlying troubles that killed 17 sailors in the Pacific last year.
The problem stems from a lack of clear vision. Ask any sailor the following: What purpose does the Navy serve? What are its biggest challenges? What is it doing to adapt? How do you fit into that plan? Unfortunately, few will be able to provide concrete answers. Still, such widespread disconnection seems to have gone unnoticed at the highest levels. While senior leaders seem best poised to answer such questions, they have struggled to inculcate a deep sense of understanding and purpose in the force, which has inhibited leadership development and warfighting innovation. Without a central purpose or shared identity, misguided acquisitions, a culture of procedure over people, and poor long-term accountability have plagued the fleet. To reverse this decay, the Navy must address three key problems: no clear, well-understood vision from senior leaders; little risk-taking by frontline commanders; and little incentives for deckplate sailors to do better.
Drive the Ship without a Rudder?
The most significant problem in today’s Navy is the lack of a clearly articulated vision from the Navy’s senior leaders. Since the enactment of the Goldwater-Nichols Act and the collapse of the Soviet Union, naval leaders have focused on government-oriented bureaucracy rather than maintaining a war footing. Industrial-era organizational constructs, muddled hierarchies, Reagan-era tactics and equipment, and a human resources system maladapted to the knowledge economy inhibit the fleet at every turn. The Navy lurches in every direction, reacting to problems and grasping for solutions, but cannot find a steady path to high performance. Without a well-articulated purpose overriding the Navy’s bureaucratic requirements, sailors have become cynical, fatalistic, and eager to leave.
The building blocks of a unified vision exist in policy documents such as the “Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority” and “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower,” but transforming them into sustained deckplate change is an enormous challenge when leaders have insufficient skin in the game. The system incentivizes leaders to start initiatives for fitness reports (FitReps) and personal buzz. With insufficient time in positions, lack of follow-through by reliefs, and no accountability for programs’ long-term results, however, there is little hope that such initiatives will shepherd in meaningful change or outlast a few promotion cycles or turnovers. These structural issues are compounded as each leader competes for the next promotion, launching a constellation of initiatives, only for most to get lost in the clutter. Nevertheless, the detritus of each program lives on, overwhelming lower-level sailors with an endless procession of new programs without the elimination of abandoned ones. The Navy does not have the right units, morale, or effectiveness because leaders have taken sailors in every direction but with no destination.
This has led to the widespread belief that “Big Navy”—the shore-based staffs overseeing the Navy’s operational units—exists to spite, not support, waterfront commands. Hundreds of offices exist to improve warfighting, readiness, quality of life, equipment testing, etc., but many of these resources languish in obscurity. The only acronymed commands many commanding officers focus on are the ones that will fail their units on a test or certification. Despite persistent calls for decentralization and a restoration of command authority, cumbersome programming and metrics unaligned with warfighting performance dominate commanding officers’ attention.
Excessive, layered, procedure-oriented leadership has detached the Pentagon from the sailor. Examples such as Senator John McCain’s “almost criminal” 100-hour work weeks, the deconstruction of the Navy’s indigenous repair capabilities, and the increase in procedural requirements have led to a service in which a sailor’s life is often mundane, frustrating, and underappreciated.1 The Navy has made a fleet of maintenance men but has done a poor job creating mariners, innovators, and leaders.
The Middle Is Frozen
The bureaucratic, procedure-over-people policies of the Pentagon have trickled down and extinguished the fires of innovation and adaptation in the Navy’s commanding officers, executive officers, and department heads. This aversion to risk has had profound consequences, most notably the “just keep swimming” culture that contributed to the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and John S. McCain (DDG-56) collisions. Few senior officers are willing to change policies in the face of a bureaucracy that demands rigid compliance to hundreds of checklists. It is among these unit-level leaders that the innovation and expertise the Navy needs to hone for future conflicts is dangerously underdeveloped. Senior officers know that all it takes is one grounding or an accounting irregularity to ruin the product of their 20 years of service, so they are, logically, risk-averse. The Navy gives small kudos to risks that pay off and massive punishments to those that do not.
Conservative procedures-and-programs-oriented leaders are prioritized at the expense of warfighters, innovators, and mariners. FitReps are tied to sexual assault prevention, driving under the influence programs, empty statistics, and basic maintenance and training milestones rather than ship-driving skills, warfighting prowess, leadership reviews by subordinates, and other traits that differentiate a great sea captain from a good bureaucrat. As long as frontline leaders are selected, praised, and promoted based on peacetime metrics, the Navy will not develop the wartime force the United States needs.
Recent naval documents such as the “Strategic Review” see a failure to know “what right looks like”—but that is a symptom of the current predicament.2 Someone somewhere knows what right looks like, and a report somewhere probably explains how to do it, but it is buried among the tomes of procedures, protocols, memoranda, orders, recommendations, and lessons learned. It is impossible for commanding officers and their department heads to be experts and remain current in positions that they will fill for only 12–18 months before switching to a new command.
No Incentives Exist for the Deckplates
The Navy’s future is built on the hard work of the enlisted and junior officer ranks. Unfortunately, a culture of punishment rather than incentivization often prevents these sailors from reaching their full potential. Always quick to condemn or silence, the Navy’s culture leads many to jettison the idea of working more than necessary. The most obvious manifestation of this is the advancement system. Rigid and slow, this system of exams and evaluations is more closely tied to time served, collateral duties, and check-in-the-box accomplishments than performance in rate and warfighting skills.
Additional problems lie in an archaic training system that is ineffective at preparing sailors for frontline service. The PowerPoint–based training in many schoolhouses does not equip sailors for the fleet, and months must be spent retraining sailors on maintenance, damage control, and other critical deckplate functions. This deficiency is compounded by a focus on generalism. As a result, many department heads and commanding officers operate on false assumptions about the skills of their people, such as those that led to the John S. McCain’s sea control console misunderstanding and subsequent collision.
An industrial-era personnel system further lowers morale and unit effectiveness. The system is not designed to place sailors in the jobs and locations where they can best serve the Navy. Constant moves and arbitrary billet assignments are among the most cited reasons for separating from the service. These push factors cost the Navy billions of dollars in lower retention of highly trained sailors.
Recruitment efforts also must change to attract individuals interested in the mission and work of the Navy. Touting the service as a way to see the world or get a college education creates false expectations, and too many sailors race for the exit after arriving at their first units. By marketing itself based on compensation and benefits, the Navy has unmoored sailors from their true purpose: to go to sea and defeat the nation’s enemies.
The “Strategic Readiness Review,” completed late last year, recommends the Navy become a learning organization, understanding and innovating based on its past errors.3 Yet, the Navy has shut down the Chief of Naval Operations’ Rapid Innovation Cell, remained detached from innovation networks such as the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum (DEF) and Project Athena, and struggled to implement the results of its Tactical Advancements for the Next Generation (TANG) initiatives. Sailors see this and shy away from grassroots reform as most efforts go unnoticed, unsupported, or unheeded.
Build a Vision
To reverse the rot the Navy needs a hard reset. The recent “Comprehensive” and “Strategic” reviews lay out some necessary tweaks, but they do not fundamentally reimagine how the Navy does business. Yet, what is needed is a bureaucracy stand down: rein in administrative redundancies, shutter unnecessary programs, and identify cross-departmental gaps in the conceptualization and execution of core maritime tasks. The Navy must develop a clear vision and start integrating its organizational chart into a cohesive whole. Additional latitude from Congress would provide admirals the flexibility to usher in meaningful reforms. The Department of Defense audit should be undertaken enthusiastically by the Navy as a chance to earn this latitude by ridding its decks of waste and mismanagement. Implementing rules of program neutrality—eliminating one program for every new one introduced—would ensure the positive results of the audit persist.
Senior leaders need to stop speaking in platitudes about culture change, operating smarter, thinking ahead, and fighting better and go to the deckplates and do it. Leaders should be experimenting with procedures, staying current with the latest innovation efforts, penning articles, hosting discussions with sailors to connect them with the Navy’s global mission and warfighting theories, and visiting ships and squadrons to hear sailors’ experiences. Deckplate innovation should be aggressively recognized, embraced, and funded. These personal touches will rebuild trust between the junior and senior ranks.
Reassert Warfighting Preeminence
A true warfighting culture talks honestly about war, learns how to fight better at every turn, and constantly battles fellow units to be the best. By focusing on training cycle checklists and basic standards, the Navy has lost the high-end intellectual and tactical development necessary for war with advanced, agile, and adaptive peer adversaries. It has squandered the post–Cold War peace dividend with tired ship designs and ineffective experimentation. While in a single generation the Chinese have built a modern fleet with distributed and advanced sea control capabilities, the Navy continues to field the Harpoon, its only and first-ever subsonic, non-VLS-compatible antiship missile, which is not even carried on a majority of surface combatants. Warfighting-first rhetoric rings hollow when the Navy does not prioritize the tools and advanced tactics necessary to conduct distributed sea control.
Current commanders have spent their careers in a Navy that deemphasized high-end warfighting skills in favor of power-projection missions in benign environments. Now these same leaders are asked to fight a high-end, networked war against peer adversaries. To that end, they must be given opportunities to develop and hone high-end warfighting expertise. The Navy must evolve beyond the tedium of canned “treasure coast” scenarios and develop sophisticated, adaptive, fleet-wide battle exercises that pull units at all levels into realistic combat. If sailors are given the chance to participate in the development of bleeding-edge tactics and combat innovation, they will rise to the occasion.4
Empower the Deckplates
With a decisive, well-understood purpose and senior officers emboldened to innovate and take risks, the Navy can pivot to empowering the deckplates. The majority of sailors spend their careers on watch and conducting maintenance. Rather than downplaying that and attracting young men and women with grandiose visions of adventure, the Navy should advertise honestly and entice sailors aligned to the Navy’s missions with proper expectations.
In step with more recruiting transparency, the Navy must promote itself as an exclusive and elite institution the way the Marine Corps attracts the physical elite or the Central Intelligence Agency attracts the information elite. This begins internally, by shifting to a culture in which innovation and talent are prized over hierarchies and procedures.
Externally, change can start by targeting under-recruited communities such as technical and trade schools. Cybersecurity, engineering, and international relations experts also could be recruited as limited duty officers to augment the Navy’s ranks and provide it with the experts and hiring flexibility needed in a force that waxes and wanes based on the vagaries of global conflict and strife. In the profession of war, a force’s hiring, manning, and retention practices must be as flexible as the conflicts it faces.
The quality of the Navy’s training programs and institutions must be improved if it is to be a learning organization with elite characteristics. PowerPoint should be banished. Students should read and study at night and complete real-world exercises and examinations during the day. Sailors crave challenges and a Navy that expects much from them and gives them the chance to shine. PowerPoint and rote memorization will not develop sailors who can save a frigate after it strikes a mine or a cruiser after it runs aground. Intense, personal, and meaningful training will have the added benefit of reducing the need for micromanagement. Specialization and the elimination of redundant documents and policies would liberate frontline units to focus on the mission rather than the bureaucracy.
The Navy should enhance the personnel system by adding nuanced, frank, and useful evaluations and FitReps tied to combat skills and operational performance. If the service wants to be led by warfighters and focused on winning conflicts, leaders must be assessed on tactical and strategic acumen. Leaders need room to risk, innovate, and change, but in the nebulous evaluations and FitReps of present, it is a game of reading between the lines and adding up points. Leaders who are overly cautious and unimaginative should be given poor FitReps. Leaders should be evaluated subjectively and explicitly: interviews, 360-degree reviews, evaluations longer than three paragraphs, and meaningful feedback must be incorporated into every key career milestone and promotion. Such efforts will take more time, but they will bring to the fore the next Nimitz or Halsey. In war, the Navy will want ingenious tacticians and strategists, not plodding bureaucrats, commanding its ships, squadrons, and submarines, so why continue to prioritize the latter?
The Navy should implement force-wide marketplace detailing, where sailors can apply directly for billets and commanding officers and their key subordinates could interview and recruit their crews. By allowing for specific hiring, leaders could craft harmonious cultures rather than the current hodgepodge. Such a system also would allow the Navy to reduce costly permanent-change-of-station moves as billets could be filled more purposefully and logically.
Transform the Navy
Parochial, stratified, and ossified, the Navy’s current system is unable to build, equip, train, and retain the maritime force the United States needs. The issue is not that sailors and commanders do not want to learn and improve, it is that they are able to do little more than tread water under the crushing overhead of today’s Navy. By distilling a clear, widely shared vision, emboldening commanding officers to focus on warfighting and appropriate risk taking, and incentivizing the deckplates with proper recruitment, training, billeting, and rewards, the Navy can transform into the greatest maritime force in history.
1. Karen Jowers, “McCain: Military Personnel’s 100-Hour Work Weeks Must Stop,” Military Times, 14 November 2017. ENS Daniel Stefanus, USN, “Deconstructing Navy Inc.,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 141, no. 5 (May 2015).
2. Sam LaGrone and Megan Eckstein, “Strategic Review: Navy Hasn’t Learned from Its Mistakes, Needs to Be Clear About Ship, Aircraft Readiness,” USNI News, 14 December 2017.
3. ADM Gary Roughead, USN (Ret.), and Michael Bayer, “Strategic Readiness Review,” U.S. Navy (December 2017).
4. Editor’s Note: ADM Scott Swift advocates that large-scale fleet exercises should be used to test ideas and push the limits of contemporary naval warfare: “Fleet Problems Offer Opportunities,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 144, no. 3 (March 2018): 22–26.
Lieutenant (j.g.) Stefanus is the assistant training officer at Amphibious Squadron Six. He previously served on board the USS Anchorage (LPD-23) and is a graduate of the Duke NROTC program—he has wanted to be a surface warfare officer since he was three. He won the 2016 General Prize Essay Contest with “Embracing the Dark Battle,” published in the April 2017 Proceedings, pages 26–31.