In a recent Proceedings article, retired Navy Captain Kevin Eyer critiqued the way the Navy selects and assigns command master chiefs (CMCs).1 It was encouraging to see a senior officer express interest in the health of what is now collectively called the Command Senior Enlisted Leader (CSEL) program—but the article points to a much broader issue. Rather than focus solely on CSEL assignment and utilization, the Navy needs to determine how to use its entire pool of senior enlisted professionals to take full advantage of their knowledge, skills, and abilities to improve warfighting readiness. To consider where the Navy should go, it is essential to understand where it has been.
The Origin of Super Chiefs
In 1948, Machinist’s Mate Chief Richard McKenna was the U.S. Naval Institute’s General Prize Essay Contest winner with the essay “The Post-War Chief Petty Officer: A Closer Look.” His subject was the deleterious effect on senior enlisted morale of the excess number of chief petty officers (CPOs) after World War II.2 He identified the difficulties with the situation as “(1) the subjection to apparently endless series of transfers, and (2) the difficulty of obtaining a duty assignment commensurate with training and ability.”
The other military services encountered the same problem, and in 1958, Congress amended the Career Compensation Act of 1949 to authorize two new pay grades—senior chief petty officer (E-8) and master chief petty officer (E-9). As explained in the Chief Petty Officer’s Guide, “One problem immediately facing the Navy was the definition of roles and responsibilities for the new paygrades, then dubbed ‘super Chiefs’. . . . Indeed, for a considerable period, the major distinction among rates was the pay increment only.”3
With two new paygrades, however, there came opportunity. The Williams Board, convened in 1959 to study the programs and the new rates, recommended the limited duty officer (LDO) program be expanded because of a junior officer shortage and the warrant officer program be phased out. Instead, senior and master chief petty officers would take on some of the warrant officer duties. The issue again was analyzed in October 1963 by the Settle Board, which found that the:
expected functional overlapping of the duties of warrant officers and the new senior enlisted grades had not been demonstrated. The phase-out of warrants had created a void not effectively filled by LDOs and master chiefs—a void incompatible with the Navy’s needs for more, not fewer, officer technical specialists. Accordingly, the warrant officer program was revitalized with a corresponding reduction in the LDO program.4
The potential to increase the technical authority of the new senior chief petty officers (SCPOs) and master chief petty officers (MCPOs) was never realized.
In 1967, the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (MCPON) office was established. In the years that followed, successive MCPONs increased its influence; expanded the nascent cadre of the command master chief (CMC) predecessor—the master chief petty officer of the command (MCPOC); and helped shape the dramatic increase in the professionalization and education of the enlisted force.
In 1978, MCPON Tom Crowe convinced the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) to formalize the roles and responsibilities of the CPO rates. CPOs would be expected to be the top technical authorities within a rating, while SCPOs would be the senior technical supervisors within a rating and occupational field, and MCPOs would provide administrative and managerial leadership on broader Navy, fleet, and force policies and processes. This basic construct remains in place today, but most of the SCPO and MCPO billets are advisory in nature, often “assisting” or “providing advice.” Rather than look for where increased technical authorities could be assigned, the Navy expanded “advisory positions.”
At the turn of the 21st century, then-CNO Admiral Vern Clark and then-MCPON Terry Scott started to think differently. Recognizing the increased capability of enlisted naval professionals, Clark often expressed the Navy’s need to “blur the lines” of authority and responsibility between the wardroom and CPO mess. In 2003, Scott convened the MCPON’s panel to brainstorm where the CPO mess needed to be in 2015. Using strengths-weaknesses-opportunities-threats (SWOT) analysis, the panel explored the authority and responsibility afforded U.S. Coast Guard CPOs, discussed the potential “right mix” of junior officers and chiefs on littoral combat ships, and tried to define the expectations of modern SCPOs and MCPOs to increase the performance of the CPO mess.
With the CNO’s support, these discussions informed new policies to prepare junior CPOs for increased authority and responsibility. Professional military education courses and the Advanced Education Voucher program were introduced, high-potential CMCs were selected to attend the Naval War College, and the CMC/Chief of the Boat course was established.5 Operationally, the chief-to-division-officer experiment filled all appropriate billets on the USS Decatur (DDG-73) with CPOs.6 MCPON Scott referred to this as “recognition that our senior enlisted personnel are truly capable of taking on additional responsibilities. In many instances, they have been underutilized for a good period of time.” Because it was now clear that CPOs could run divisions, the best-qualified SCPOs and MCPOs could be commissioned as lieutenants (O-3s) and lieutenant commanders (O-4s) as required to fill roles as ships’ department heads.
Unfortunately, this program and several others like it, including a requirement for “rating-relevant” undergraduate degrees to advance to E-8, succumbed to poor strategic communication, implementation, and cultural pushback from CPOs and officers.7 The next CNO, Admiral Mike Mullen, and the next MCPON, Master Chief Joe Campa (a graduate of the Naval War College), championed a resurgence of “deckplate leadership,” citing their desire not to disadvantage chiefs at selection boards. They opted not to adjust the degree-requirement timeline, yielding to the concerns of the CPO mess, and canceled the E-8 degree requirement.8 They felt there was a need to refocus a Navy-wide CPO mess that had become overly invested in pursuing off-duty education. Many in the CPO mess lauded this reset. As former MCPON Bill Plackett said, “Campa . . . is directing the chiefs’ mess back to its rightful place [emphasis added] and role within the chain of command. It is refreshing.”9
This reset showed that even at the top levels of the Navy, thought differed significantly regarding the role of CPOs. As a result, most pilot programs were discontinued, opportunity was lost, and traditional models of officer and enlisted promotion and assignment remained.
Time to Think Differently
Traditional Navy organizational structures and attitudes within both enlisted and officer “classes” constrain how far the Navy (and the military at large) has been willing and able to increase the authority and responsibility of enlisted naval professionals. Officers traditionally have represented the Navy’s “professional” class, while enlisted sailors are the “working” class. Chiefs belong to a “blended” class. But with higher retention standards, technically advanced warfighting systems, and training and education yielding a more professional and capable enlisted force, the Navy must question the underlying values and belief systems regarding enlisted and officer capability and utilization. The long-held conceptions of what “enlisted” and “commissioned” mean inaccurately correspond to perceived importance and introduce cognitive bias that in turn shapes organizational thinking. For example, “enlisted” in its adjective form can both enhance personal pride and inform a perception of an organizational glass ceiling that limits opportunity. Outdated personnel models that rely on how a person enters the Navy are a hindrance. “E” and “O” designations refer to paths of entry based on education level, potential, and the authorities vested at that point. But in today’s more information-centric and less manual-labor-intensive work environment, as both enlisted and commissioned naval professionals mature, their skills and abilities can render these models less relevant and even anachronistic. This introduces opportunity for organizational flexibility, but the Navy must be open to the fact that “enlisted” or “commissioned” primarily refer to the way a person entered the organization.
Furthermore, the term “deckplate leader” does not account for the significantly increased competence of current SCPOs and MCPOs. The term most appropriately describes E-6 levels and below; it does not recognize that SCPOs and MCPOs have much more organizational influence. Lumping all midgrade to senior enlisted members into one broad category constrains thinking on how each rate could be used differently. It disproportionally emphasizes lower-level leadership, stifling creativity and initiative and disempowering E-5 and E-6 leaders.
Instead, the focus and energy of SCPOs and MCPOs should be upward, to shape broader organizational systems and processes. To maintain that the MCPO working on a flag staff is a deckplate leader is similar to equating a flag officer with a division officer. “Deckplate leader” may read well on a T-shirt, but consideration should be given to how the term shapes mental models to the Navy’s disadvantage.
The vision and initiatives that CNO Clark and MCPON Scott championed to expand the authorities and responsibilities of SCPOs and MCPOs must be revisited. Navy leaders should ask hard questions. How many enlisted advisors are needed Navy-wide? Could the insight they provide be solicited differently, to allow SCPOs and MCPOs to fill more influential and authoritative technical roles? By law, only 1 percent of the enlisted billet structure is at the E-9 level, so each MCPO in a CSEL billet means one less for technical or program management. The surface warfare community is exploring the concept of a maintenance-professional rating to improve force material readiness and fill the gap in dedicated career maintenance managers. Naval aviation has filled this gap with the aviation maintenance administrationman (AZ) rating and maintenance SCPOs and MCPOs.10
Navy and Coast Guard enlisted professionals have demonstrated that they can handle the authorities and responsibilities of billets such as commanding officer, officer of the deck, tactical action officer, engineering officer of the watch, aircraft pilot, and division officer. The Navy should resurrect the proven model of assigning high-performing CPOs to division-level leader billets and SCPOs and MCPOs to department-level billets. It should also, as in 1959, evaluate the number of chief warrant officer and LDO billets that can be filled by CPO, SCPO, or MCPO rates.
Historically, assigning officers to division- and department-level leadership positions has been done to ensure officers pass through experience wickets to assume the next leadership position. But in these positions, officers are being advised by an often well-educated enlisted professional of equal or senior experience. From a management perspective, this is inefficient. Most aviators filling maintenance officer billets seek the concurrence of the maintenance MCPO before taking any final decision. Thus, the MCPO appears best qualified to fill this department head billet.
Handing most technical management functions and authorities to the CPO mess would free officers to focus on tactical competence. For example, O-4 aviators could use the time previously spent filling maintenance department head billets to increase squadronwide tactical excellence. Surface warfare junior officers could use more time to hone ship-driving skills. Recoding certain department head and division officer billets for CPOs, SCPOs, or MCPOs and providing the requisite training and education to support this realignment would give CPOs opportunities for increased authority and responsibility. It would also afford officers the ability to focus on tactical warfighting proficiency while developing leadership skills and institutional knowledge.
Consideration also should be given to how to convert more officer and civilian billets on flag staffs to E-8 and E-9 billets. There is a need for MCPOs in key billets at sea, but their experience could be leveraged better in key billets on flag staffs. Again, long-standing beliefs must be reexamined. For example, enlisted paygrades are misaligned with the quality and capability of the modern force.11 The Navy should investigate whether this situation is based on objective analysis or on a misplaced belief system. Analysis should compare the cost of assigning officers, senior enlisted, and civilian employees to a given billet or career path. Flag staff billets should be filled based on merit and the ability to meet “best qualified” standards. They should be offered across the entire span of officer, civilian, and enlisted paygrades.
In 2014, the Vice Chief of Naval Operations proposed a review and continual renewal of:
those same principles of competition, decentralized authority, and extended trust that have served us well for over 239 years. If properly nurtured and leveraged through holistic policy change—and better attuned to evolving social and economic forces at work—these founding principles will continue to provide the talented, courageous edge America has always counted on for its bright future.12
Today’s environment is ripe for this opportunity, and many Sailor 2025 initiatives already are taking advantage of it. The concepts offered here require deeper organizational thought—and action. Updating the CMC program is not enough. MCPON, fleet, and force master chiefs must have the courage to look beyond today’s issues and revive the bold thinking and initiatives of 1958 and the 2000s, which sought to apply senior enlisted talent in new and better ways.
Since the grade of CPO was created in 1893, the Navy has invested in the professionalization of its CPO mess, yet it is not fully reaping the benefits. Making the best use of super chiefs deserves a closer look. Today’s super chiefs are capable of increased responsibilities to help the Navy achieve greater operational excellence—its most important objective.
Fleet Master Chief Kingsbury also wrote "Tapping the Power of the Chiefs."
1. Kevin Eyer, “Time to Update the Command Master Chief Program,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 144, no. 10 (October 2018).
2. Richard McKenna, “The Post-War Chief Petty Officer: A Closer Look,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 74, no. 12 (December 1948).
3. Paul Kingsbury, Chief Petty Officer’s Guide, 2nd ed. (Annapolis, MD.: Naval Institute Press, 2017).
4. Office of the Chief of Naval Personnel, Limited Duty Officer and Chief Warrant Officer Professional Guidebook, 2011.
5. Naval Education and Training Command Public Affairs, “Navy Institutes Professional Military Education Continuum,” 21 November 2004. Office of the Chief of Naval Personnel, NAVADMIN 291/04 FY05, “Advanced Education Voucher Program,” 21 December 2004. Edward Flynn, “Naval War College Graduates First Command Master Chiefs,” Naval War College Public Affairs, 22 November 2005.
6. Commander, Naval Surface Force, “Chiefs Moving into Division Officer Roles on Decatur,” U.S. Pacific Fleet Public Affairs, 30 October 2004.
7. Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, NAVADMIN 203/05, “Senior Enlisted Education Initiative: Associates Degree for E8,” 19 August 2005.
8. Bill Houlihan,“MCPON Takes Deckplate Leadership Message to the Far East,” Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Public Affairs, 20 June 2007.
9. Alexis Brown, “MCPON Addresses Deckplate Leadership at San Diego Conference,” Navy Region Southwest Public Affairs, 1 March 2007.
10. CAPT John Cordle, USN (Ret.), “Professionalize Surface Maintenance Managers,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 144, no. 6 (June 2018).
11. Department of Defense, 2008, “DoD Financial Management Regulation, volume 11A, chapter 6, appendix B, 6-B-1,” Office of DoD Financial Management.
12. VADM Bill Moran, USN, “Once Again . . . A Moment Ripe for Change,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 140, no. 12 (December 2014)