The U.S. Navy is not prepared for a major conflict at sea—a belief based on my observations as a repair locker scene leader on board the USS Makin Island (LHD-8). As the ship completed her final predeployment underway in September 2016, I spoke to my repair locker about the end of unchallenged U.S. Navy supremacy at sea. I warned it was a matter of when, not if, a U.S. Navy ship would be intentionally fired on by hostile forces. My warning mostly was ignored, as naval combat is a foreign concept to the majority of the fleet, especially since the end of the Cold War. Even then, it was only a concept. To most sailors, the crews’ biggest threat is within the ship itself.
During my ship’s predeployment leave period in October 2016, Houthi rebels attempted missile attacks on the USS Mason (DDG-87), Nitze (DDG-94), San Antonio (LPD-17), and Ponce (AFSB[I]-15) near Yemen.1 When we deployed, my sailors’ demeanor had noticeably changed. Navy leaders and the intelligence community had been aware of the changing world, but many junior enlisted were shaken by the attacks. Damage control drills no longer were viewed as tedious training requirements; we were deploying where these attempted attacks occurred, which gave the drills new relevance and importance.
With the exception of the crews of the Mason, Nitze, San Antonio, and Ponce, all combat action ribbons worn by sailors today are from expeditionary actions in the war on terrorism. Four out of 287 deployable ships, with crews constituting less than 0.5 percent of active-duty sailors, represent the entirety of U.S. naval combat demonstrated forces. These few combat-tested sailors likely will not be the last to join this exclusive club.
In January, the Defense Intelligence Agency released its unclassified assessment of China’s military capabilities, China’s Military Power. The cover image is a Chinese warship, foreshadowing to the U.S. Navy that any military confrontation with China will most likely be at sea or in the air over the sea.2 There is no greater threat to the U.S. Navy globally than China’s military. Should the United States and China engage in limited, regional naval conflicts, U.S. sailors will be exposed to a situation the U.S. Navy hasn’t experienced since World War II: an existential threat to ships at sea.
The best way to counter this threat is holistically—the Navy is modernizing weapon systems and capabilities while transitioning to conventional naval warfare from the combat support role that for 18 years has been required by the war on terror. The service is seeking to build more ships and increase survivability through new naval tactics, techniques, and procedures. But the Navy also must look to its service culture and recognize that sailors are just as important, if not more important, than faster missiles and a larger fleet.
Navy leaders must create, foster, and instill combat culture fleetwide, from the oldest master chief to the newest seaman recruit. Case studies and historical lessons, such as those recorded by former commanding officer of the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) Bradley Peniston in his book No Higher Honor, should be mandatory reading to sharpen the reality of surviving horrific damage to a ship—and saving it.3 The concept of “Save the Mission, Save the Ship, Save the Sailors,” in this order, must be a cultural aspect of the Navy and taught at every pay grade, on entry into service, and frequently reemphasized.
In January, Vice Admiral Richard Brown, Commander of Naval Surface Forces Pacific, said at a surface warfare conference referencing naval combat in World War II:
Naval engagements went something like this . . . opening salvos of 5- to 16-inch shells began slamming into ships’ . . . Usually, the . . . senior officers, even admirals, were killed immediately—but what happened? Quartermaster[s] 3rd [class] took command of pilot houses . . . engineers kept . . . screws turning, damage control teams kept the ships afloat, and [junior officers] . . . continued firing . . . and we won.4
Commanding officers must rigorously train their crews to operate without experienced leaders. Crews must be prepared to function and fight after the bridge is destroyed. The entirety of a ship must be inoculated against easy defeat through a singular action. Battle bills must be written to strategically distribute senior and key personnel to ensure survivability and continuity of command. Redundancy is resiliency. As a final measure, commanders should ensure clear understanding of the commander’s intent across pay grades. Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis demonstrated this concept by visiting Marines in foxholes in Iraq to ensure his commander’s guidance—given to officers—had trickled down to the trigger pullers.5 This way, in the absence of established leaders, a ship understands its mission and can continue the fight.
General quarters drills should be more frequent, more randomized, more realistic, and more dynamic. Commanders must challenge their crews to perform damage control and mass casualty drills under only the light of battle lanterns and flashlights. These drills risk personnel safety, but not performing realistic drills invites operational risk because the crew may not be prepared. Dedicating time and manpower toward minutiae, such as battle-lantern placement and functionality, during combat is a waste and must be scrutinized. Damage control assistants should be encouraged (or required) to creatively conceptualize scenarios alongside combat information center officers to create combat action plans. These plans must be rehearsed and understood by crew members owning sections of the ship for damage control or combat purposes.
Senior enlisted sailors must emphasize the importance of damage control culture on board ships. Deckplate leaders must enforce minor standards, such as proper wearing of flash gear, and push for organizational reform, incorporating more damage control knowledge and response to combat into a ship’s enlisted surface warfare specialist (ESWS) qualification. Just as every submariner who proudly wears dolphins is expected to know how to save his or her submarine, that culture and standard must become the enforced minimum in the ESWS program fleetwide. The combat culture these shifts will instill is the muscle memory that Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell L. Smith wants for sailors in damage control, seamanship, and readiness.6
But every facet of warfighting the Navy is improving or innovating depends on a single fulcrum—sailors. Beyond accelerating a culture shift and increasing or enhancing training methods and metrics, the Navy must prepare sailors mentally and spiritually to make the sacrifice and leap into a fire or a flooding room to save the mission and the ship. The Navy must look to military communities familiar with precombat stress and engaged combat stress, such as naval special warfare and the Marine Corps, to determine how their mental training can be implemented fleetwide to help sailors perform under the stress of attack.
A 1990 study, “Physical and Psychological Effects of Sustained Shipboard Operations on U.S. Navy Personnel,” focused on the crews of ships deployed in the Arabian Gulf.7 A similar study should be conducted on the crews of the four combat-proven ships—the Mason, Nitze, San Antonio, and Ponce—to glean psychological information that can be turned into fleetwide actionable recommendations. This information also should be used to develop a combat mentality and create readiness training at Recruit Basic Training. Each sailor on board a ship is vital to the ship’s mission and survivability. The Navy must prepare its sailors to minimize the risk of mental breakdowns in kinetic battles. The notion must be dispelled that the Navy is a “safe” armed service, and an aspect of Marine Corps culture must be mimicked: As every Marine is a rifleman, every sailor is a damage controlman.
Sailors in the fleet must recognize they swore an oath, signed a contract, and wear the uniform. They no longer are individuals, but part of a greater whole defending freedom and democracy. The Navy must value, train, and prepare each sailor as a warfighting investment, and equip ships and crews to win decisively. Should the Navy fail to prepare for combat by forging a battle mind-set fleetwide, it risks being ill-prepared for an already deadly and continually growing list of adversaries.
1. Andrew Tilghman, “Cruise Missile Attacks on Navy Ships Will Likely Warrant Rare Combat Ribbons,” Military Times, 8 August 2017; Geoff Ziezulewicz, “Four Ship Crews Receive Combat Action Ribbon,” Navy Times, 3 November 2017.
2. LtGen Robert T. Ashley, U.S. Army, China Military Power, Modernizing a Force to Fight and Win, Defense Intelligence Agency, 3 January 2019.
3. Bradley Peniston, No Higher Honor: Saving the USS Samuel B. Roberts in the Persian Gulf (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2019).
4. Paul McLeary and J. Freedberg Jr., “‘Be Ready to Fight Now’: Top Admiral on Russia & China,” Breaking Defense, 15 January 2019.
5. Jim Proser, No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy: The Life of General James Mattis (New York: Broadside Books, 2018).
6. Mark D. Faram, “MCPON’s Marching Orders,” Navy Times, 13 February 2019.
7. Ralph G. Burr et al., “Physical and Psychological Effects of Sustained Shipboard Operations on U.S. Navy Personnel,” Navy Health Research Center, 2 August 1990.