The Navy is at risk of losing its tactical edge against its competitors. Prior to deployments, ships historically have undergone a lengthy, administratively rigorous certification process to assess and validate a unit’s material, operational, and personnel readiness. But it has become necessary to challenge how well these assessments prepare units and provide ready forces for existing and emerging threats. It appears the current approach simply meets basic administrative requirements and little else. Essentially, the Navy does well at passing inspections, but it is not being prepared for material and operational success in combat with its adversaries. Instead, the administrative standard has become the warfighting standard—a serious mistake.
Distracted from Our Purpose
Ships conduct a readiness preparation cycle known as the Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP), with various phases prior to deployment. The cycle begins with a maintenance availability and progresses through a basic phase, an advanced phase, deployment, and sustainment. During these phases, units prepare for and complete various assessments, certifications, and inspections in areas such as damage control, material readiness, and combat systems operability. In several of these areas, the ship type commander develops and conducts material and operational assessments designed to test, exercise, and validate a fundamental standard of war fighting competence. Ongoing exercises during deployment help units maintain and sustain their warfighting capabilities. The completion and outcome of these inspections is monitored by designated staffs and certifying authorities ashore, who are required to report the status of the ships’ readiness.
These training cycles provide some positive effects. First, certifications and inspections help identify and communicate to flag staffs the impacts that resources shortfalls may be intentionally or unintendedly introducing into the fleet. Second, they can provide commanding officers support and leverage to receive resources and material that are critical to supporting mission readiness. And finally, they help build competence, proficiency, and material readiness while helping identify areas of improvement in preparation for deployments.
Unfortunately, fleet units have become too dependent on the certification process, limiting the crew’s ability to produce fundamental levels of readiness or creatively train beyond certification-dependent scenarios of warfighting—training, instead, merely to the standard of inspection guidelines. Essentially, in a Pavlovian response, units continually rehearse inspection requirements, ingraining a culture of training for inspections rather than one developing their offensive and defensive capabilities to meet evolving threats.
As rigorous as the process is intended to be, fleet opinion and feedback suggests that the current approach to conducting these assessments is insufficient to posture the Navy to meet the adversaries it might actually face. As China’s warfighting capabilities improve, the Navy’s stagnate, because our certification process has not evolved, has strayed from its original intent, and is too administratively focused. The requirements for these certifications and inspections have had very few adjustments and have lost their relationship to original intent. Furthermore, there are many redundant organizations that inspect command programs. In many cases they inspect the same program but have inconsistent and even contradictory standards. For example, the Afloat Training Group (ATG) conducts a routine assessment on a command’s antiterrorism force protection (ATFP) program with an afloat self-assessment (ASA). ATG provides its interpretation of a requirement on the ASA, and the command makes adjustments in accordance with ATG’s suggestions. Later, a fleet command conducts the same assessment using the same ASA but often contradicts ATG’s suggested changes. It appears that the fleet’s understanding of “why” we train and certify has been lost, resulting in an attitude and culture of meeting minimum expectation—with little rigor or creativity. This administratively cumbersome and time-demanding process, coupled with manning shortfalls, is inducing pressure on crew members to accept risk to meet inspection requirements—hiding or concealing broken equipment and cannibalizing critical parts from other equipment or ships, or—in extreme cases—possibly gundecking reports.
For example, when the USS Cole (DDG-67) was hit by a suicide vessel in October 2000, small craft action team weapons were in condition IV (“the condition of readiness for optimum peacetime cruising”), and prior to this incident, the crew had not received any training on threat zones or how to engage a threat. Today, although rules of engagement have changed in certain regions, dhows continue to sail into ship’s threat zones without being challenged. More recently, the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and John S. McCain (DDG-56) collisions demonstrated root causes including a lack of training on ship-driving proficiency, combat console management, and watch-station coordination. In addition, sleep deficiency and outdated faulty equipment ultimately led to miss-judgment that killed 17 sailors. The certification process’s rigorous schedule limits a unit’s ability to prepare for assessments and train for current conditions, known as commanding officer (CO) time. More CO time would allow flexibility within a unit’s schedule to self-assess, train, and prepare for future required events for the command.
Changing Minds and Shifting Mind-sets
Warfare is an intellectual contest of will between thinking and adapting adversaries. The team that can think better and adapt faster will win. As the Navy prepares for operations and war with increasingly capable potential adversaries, it must do more to sharpen its thinking, learn the lessons from history, and expand its individual minds. Much of the current certification process has become a distraction that absorbs man-hours, introduces administration burdens, and reduces crew ownership and accountability for tactical proficiency.
First, although work has been done by type and fleet commanders to review and identify these concerns, these leaders must continue to assess how the certification processes can be streamlined. The now heavily administrative nature of “training” and certifications has diverted the fleet’s time and focus from improving warfighting to preparing for the next assessment. In addition, there are times when the fleet perceives these administrative tasks to be imposed without any rational justification or reasoning.
In 2013, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert initiated the Reducing Administrative Distractions (RAD) program. RAD was created to assess the fleet in strategically identifying ways to decrease administrative tasks and focus on warfighting. The program was successful in limiting requirements in various programs, such as general military training and maintenance material and management, but it was disestablished several years ago. The Navy is at risk of slowly shifting back to an organization overly focused on administrative processes that fail to achieve any measurable success. It should revitalize the RAD initiative, survey sailors’ man-hours, and limit the administrative requirements to put warfighting first.
Second, whether Navy leaders admit it or not, there is an innate fear of reporting in the fleet. The lack of a culture of trust yields a lack of forceful backup and fleet feedback and continues to be a major issue. This fear and anxiety come from a belief that failure to meet certification requirements will affect a leader’s career or disrupt a unit’s readiness cycle and work-life balance. In organizations like the Navy, hierarchies have a purpose and should be respected, but this structure should not impose a fear of reporting. As Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson explains, people naturally want to feel valued. If people feel devalued and fearful, they won’t speak up or perform at their best, because there is no “psychological safety.” Studies show that, if an organization lacks psychological safety, people within the organization will not embrace innovation or give or receive constructive feedback such as asking hard questions, being open-minded, challenging the status quo, or having intellectual courage. Feeling psychologically safe makes a sailor feel secure from retribution and mitigates fear in the workplace. Furthermore, this builds trust within the command. Such trust is important: It enables teamwork and command success. It is time for senior Navy leaders to have frank and open discussions with tactical-level leaders to learn the extent to which fleet belief systems are inhibiting organizational learning.
There are many barriers and administrative hurdles to a more efficient and effective training and certification process and providing robust preparation against current threats. For an organization to overcome operational challenges, it takes commitment from all members, not just a few. If consulted and listened to, fleet sailors can be huge assets to understanding where and how the processes could be adjusted to gain efficiencies and improve effectiveness. The preparation cycles and phases are important and are designed to certify readiness, complement and refine unit-level training efforts, and identify areas of improvement in preparation for deployment and war. Unfortunately, how these objectives are accomplished appear to be harm the fleet’s ability to think beyond administrative and minimum-level standards toward complicated, creative, and unit-defined warfighting scenarios.