Today, great power competition is the nation’s strategic focus, a shift from the regional land wars of the past 20 years. The Navy, long accustomed to uncontested sea control, faces new challenges from adversaries bent on denying access to the global commons. To win this competition, crews will need to demonstrate high proficiency across the range of maritime skills, from everyday seamanship to full-on maritime combat. Are they ready?
Historically, can-do culture pushed Navy crews to take on challenges such as great power competition and win. But more recently, as the Navy has prioritized operating with a short-term time horizon, can-do culture is showing its flaws. The expectation that crews will respond to every tasking with a can-do attitude is creating a long-term readiness deficit and, in some cases, putting sailors at risk.1 As China and Russia’s capabilities expand, the Navy needs to question the short-termism of “can-do.” It needs to turn can-do into combat ready, a sailor-oriented and readiness-centric culture that places the most important long-term mission—winning the great power competition—above everything else.
What’s Wrong with Can-Do?
In response to the Seventh Fleet collisions of 2017, the Navy commissioned the Comprehensive Review and the Strategic Readiness Review. Both identified a “can-do” or “must-do” attitude as a factor in the readiness gap the collisions revealed. To meet operational goals, leaders in the Japan-based surface force routinely employed forces that did not meet full readiness standards.2 They imposed a can-do culture from the top down, expecting that crews would find a way to be ready in the short term. This was not unique to surface forces in Japan, as the Strategic Review showed. While an advantage in combat, must-do culture had deleterious effects on long-term readiness across the Navy.3
Although Navy leaders have made an effort to correct the trend in degraded readiness, worrying can-do forces still exist. At the expense of long-term readiness for the high-end fight, the Navy continues to embrace short-term-ism in force employment, proficiency training, and crew manning.
Can-Do Force Employment. Much like an individual’s work-life balance, a healthy operations-maintenance-training balance is essential for the Navy’s long-term success. That balance has tilted heavily in favor of operations in recent years. Operational tempo has been trending higher nearly every year for the past three decades. Although the Navy’s battle force shrank from just under 600 ships in 1985 to fewer than 300 in 2017, the number of forward-deployed units has remained nearly the same. That equates to more than 35 percent of the total fleet deployed today, compared to about 15 percent at the height of the Cold War.4 Carrier operations in particular are highly stressed; deployments are extended frequently, and carrier usage was higher in 2020 than in any year since the Arab Spring of 2011.5
The demand signal from combatant commanders for Navy deployers is not going away. That the Navy met just 44 percent of combatant command requests as recently as 2015 suggests operational commitments will continue to outpace available deployers, regardless of the size of the fleet.6
Commanders have been using the can-do attitude to make this high operational tempo work. For example, Japan-based ships and higher headquarters in 2017 believed a high pace of operations led to a high state of proficiency. More operations would make crews better. But these commanders undervalued human performance factors such as fatigue, and the stress of the high operational tempo actually led to an overall degradation in long-term readiness.7 At times, an operational surge to meet key operational demands will be unavoidable, but when it becomes business as usual, it results in a “normalization of deviation” from a healthy balance of maintenance, training, and operations.8
Can-Do Training. The Navy’s current model for crew training and deployment certification hinges on short-term proficiency instead of long-term readiness. This is the “inspection mind-set,” in which a crew crams for the next inspection to meet the ship’s schedule milestones and deploy on time. The inspection mind-set exists on an institutional level; the Comprehensive Review found that unit evaluation processes throughout the surface fleet were focused on analyzing specific events without a broader view of performance over time.9
Can-do culture drives this short-term model. While inspections are necessary for ensuring crews are safe to operate the complex equipment on board their ships, inspection results cannot be the sine qua non of performance metrics for crews and their commanding officers.
Can-Do Manning. The Navy’s top-down can-do culture also manifests in consistently undermanned ships. In the Navy’s manpower requirements process, the Navy Manpower Analysis Center develops a ship’s manning document (SMD) based on required operational capabilities and the potential operational environment. The SMD assigns a ship a number of billets that represents the manning required to perform the Navy’s work and deliver a specified capability. Amazingly, the Navy hardly ever meets the SMD numbers because of budgetary constraints and friction in the manning process. As recently as early 2019, the service had a manning shortfall of more than 6,200 sailors across the fleet.10 That number has continued to grow, with commands across the waterfront consistently listing manning as their primary concern.11
The Navy has operated apace thanks to the can-do culture instilled in commanders and crews. That sailors have kept ships at sea with higher operational tempos and simultaneous manning shortfalls is nothing short of remarkable. But can-do is taking a toll. Manpower surveys on forward-deployed ships show recurrent themes of exhaustion, high stress, and lack of sleep.12 This is unsustainable, and a shift in the way the Navy approaches manning and operations tempo is required.
Charting a New Culture
The Navy must make deliberate cultural changes if it hopes to have a chance at prevailing in great power competition. Fortunately, high-level defense officials and fleet commanders are speaking about the “high-end fight,” and flag officers have ordered their forces to “prepare for battle.”13 This renewed focus on warfighting presents an opportunity to foster a culture of combat-ready across the fleet.
Combat-ready culture values the intellectual and professional development of sailors to maximize their warfighting potential. It aims to align the fleet’s priorities around warfighting readiness before any other activity, because that is what enables the Navy’s sea control mission.
Crews need time apart from maintenance and operations to train and develop warfighting readiness—to slow down and think, study, practice tactics, and bond. Finding that time is extremely difficult, but during other conflicts, the Navy understood the value of rest time and found ways to provide it. For example, during World War II, a common practice for submarines was for maintenance crews to relieve crews returning from war patrols. This gave returning sailors time for rest and training while the fresh maintenance crew repaired the ship. Commander Eugene Fluckey, commanding officer of the Barb (SS-220) from 1944 to 1945, recounts that after returning from a war patrol,
Uncle Charlie [Admiral Charles Lockwood] also arranged for relief crews to take over the two-week refit of the submarine the day she arrived. Thus, within 24 hours the entire crew was on the beach at Waikiki soaking up sunshine, fresh milk, beer, and sports. Rest was important: The best and freshest food, often unavailable to others, was channeled to the [Royal Hawaiian Hotel]. . . . During our second week of rest and recuperation, the crew was broken up. Torpedomen were sent off to school to train on the new type of electric wakeless torpedo we would be carrying. Leading men and officers checked up on vital repairs. . . . My days were filled with studying the charts of our area.14
This passage reads as if it were from another time, but it is simply from another culture—a combat-ready culture. Fluckey understood that real, long-term readiness depended on the well-being of the sailors and uninterrupted, specialized preparation time away from the ship. This is the kind of thinking a combat-ready culture embraces.
Whether or not changes come from the top, commanding officers must adopt a combat-ready culture, prioritizing training, crew health, and rest as much as possible. Something as simple as resurrecting the military social clubs in a ship’s homeport could be groundbreaking. Until the past few decades, venues such as officer clubs served as gathering places where multiple wardrooms across Navy communities would go to mingle and discuss the events of the day. Conversations might veer into tactics and best practices, informally fostering a competitive, innovative spirit. There is nothing stopping commanders from doing something like this today.
Another area for innovation is the way the Navy approaches operational proficiency training. Crews need to know what war at sea and the high-end fight really look like. They must train like they will fight, studying the enemy’s doctrine and tactics, as well as the operational environment. They must understand the ship’s equipment, how it works in detail, and how to employ it effectively. And they must expect to take battle damage, care for the wounded, and make repairs to stay in the fight.16 Crews that fail to prepare with realistic scenarios will not be ready.
Crews also need opportunities to try bold, creative battle tactics. Although inspections may test proficiency in each warfighting area, they fail to provide a holistic scenario in which crews can bring all their tactical warfighting proficiencies together. Tactical development exercises and other routine exercise scenarios provide some simulation, but they typically are scripted and do not replicate the experience of full-on maritime warfare in the high-end fight. Combat-ready culture seeks out training opportunities that provide a realistic, open-ended wartime environment that fosters problem-solving and innovation.
In response to the lack of holistic warfighting readiness assessments, the Pacific Fleet recently resurrected the Fleet Problem exercises for deploying ships with Fleet Problem XXIII.17 Before this exercise, there were few venues in which operational-level naval formations were permitted to rehearse their wartime tasks free from the constraints of the formal training process.18 Restarting the Fleet Problems is a welcome development, but more must be done. Rather than a handful of exercises each year, the Navy needs an institutional culture that puts the Fleet Problem construct or something like it at the heart of crew proficiency training. Imagine the lessons learned if every deploying ship had the opportunity to demonstrate warfighting proficiency in a Fleet Problem exercise. Imagine the buy-in and sense of purpose among crews if commanding officers were evaluated not based on inspection results but on their performance in realistic wartime scenarios—for their ability to marshal their crews’ strengths and achieve warfighting objectives.
Finally, the Navy needs a combat-ready culture to change the way it approaches fleet manning shortfalls. Today, it accepts undermanned ships as the status quo. Combat-ready culture changes this mind-set to one that believes the analytics behind the SMD numbers and then mans ships appropriately. Put a different way, the Navy needs to view an undermanned ship as if it is not ready for combat.
Studies show that when ships are fully manned, crews perform better, are better rested, are more mentally fit as measured by improved mood state scores, work fewer hours in port, and are better able to take leave and special liberty than crews from “normally” manned (95 percent fill and 92 percent fit) ships.19 The readiness benefits of fully manning ships are real. The cost would be high, but a combat-ready culture demands nothing less.
Metrics and Standards
One of the Strategic Review’s recommendations for measuring readiness is adoption of a “training and readiness matrix” to define what each ship must accomplish in each phase of training.20 This would be a good start to ensuring a common standard for warfighting readiness for every ship in the fleet. The Navy also should track readiness-related variables, such as the delta between manning carried on board and the SMD requirement, sailor self-reported mental health, continual training examination results in key warfighting areas, and performance on Fleet Problems. Regardless of the specific metrics or how they add up, combat-ready culture thinks hard in advance about what it will take to win instead of learning the hard way through combat. The Navy must constantly redefine what readiness for the high-end fight looks like for each type of combatant.
Lessons from Outside
Luckily for the Navy, its sister services can help it move from short-term can-do to long-term combat-ready. As the Marine Corps searches for ways to integrate with and enhance the Navy’s capabilities, readiness should be part of that discussion. The Marines know the value of combat readiness after fighting two wars for two decades, and their experience training and preparing for combat could inform the Navy’s approach to preparing for the high-end maritime fight. Integrating Marine elements on large combatants or perhaps even within surface or submarine warfare training commands could bring the combat-ready culture inherent in the Marine Corps to Navy crews and staffs.
As a lean service that also performs dangerous missions at sea, the Coast Guard also can teach the Navy lessons about long-term readiness. The Navy will need the Coast Guard as an augmenting force, especially in conflict below the threshold of combat. Coast Guard cutters have recently integrated with Navy formations for combined operations and exercises.21 They should continue to do this as often as possible to acclimate the fleet with their capabilities and strengths.
In addition, the Navy can learn from allies and partners around the world. With only some 300 combatants, the Navy needs to pursue the force multiplier associated with global partnership. A combat-ready culture recognizes the potential “thousand-ship navy” that is possible only through integrated multinational operations with U.S. allies.
Readiness Is at the Heart
The Navy’s can-do culture has served it well over the years, pushing sailors to do the improbable against terrible odds. In recent years, however, that mind-set has had fatal consequences. Against today’s budgetary backdrop, operational pressures, and new challenges, the Navy must shift from short-term can-do thinking to a long-term combat-ready culture, still valuing commitment and perseverance but ensuring that readiness is at the heart of everything it does.
Posterity remembers Captain James Lawrence’s exclamation, “Don’t give up the ship!” It captures the essence of a can-do attitude: an order from the commanding officer to his sailors to keep fighting. Few remember, though, that these were the words of a man mortally wounded, who ordered his men to blow up his own ship’s magazine store, “a man who had fought gallantly but ineffectively, losing a valuable ship to a thirty-man boarding party in an action lasting less than fifteen minutes.”22 Unless the Navy makes readiness its business and ingrains it into its culture, it too could be resigned to Lawrence’s fate, no matter how gallantly its sailors fight.
1. See LT Jeff Zeberlein, USN, “Can Do Is Not Working,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 147, no. 12 (December 2021).
2. U.S. Fleet Forces, Comprehensive Review of Recent Surface Force Incidents (26 October 2017), 102.
3. Hon. Michael Bayer and ADM Gary Roughead, USN (Ret.), Strategic Readiness Review (3 December 2017), 20.
4. Bayer and Roughead, Strategic Readiness Review, 19.
5. Megan Eckstein, “No Margin Left: Overworked Carrier Force Struggles to Maintain Deployments after Decades of Overuse,” USNI News, 12 November 2020.
6. Mackenzie Eaglen, “Putting Combatant Commanders on a Demand Signal Diet,” War on the Rocks, 9 November 2020.
7. U.S. Fleet Forces, Comprehensive Review of Recent Surface Force Incidents, 19.
8. Bayer and Roughead, Strategic Readiness Review, 3.
9. U.S. Fleet Forces, Comprehensive Review of Recent Surface Force Incidents, 18.
10. Sam LaGrone. “Fleet Forces: Navy Short 6,200 At-Sea Sailors,” USNI News, 26 February 2019.
11. FCM Rick O’Rawe, USN, “Manning Still Matters, A Fleet Perspective,” The Proceedings Podcast 197, 1 December 2020, 11:35-12:30.
12. U.S. Fleet Forces, Comprehensive Review of Recent Surface Force Incidents, 98.
13. MC1 Nathan Laird, USN, “PACFLEET Commander Talks Winning the High-end Fight with Hawaii-based Navy Leadership,” U.S. Pacific Fleet, 15 April 2019, and Ben Werner, “New Commander of Submarine Forces Tells Sailors ‘Prepare for Battle,’ ” USNI News, 6 August 2018.
14. RADM Eugene B. Fluckey, USN (Ret.), Thunder Below! (Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 63–66.
16. See CDR Trevor Prouty, USN, “Forward Battle Damage Repair Keeps Ships in the Fight,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 148, no. 1 (January 2022).
17. ADM Scott Swift, USN, “Fleet Problems Offer Opportunities,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 144, no. 3 (March 2018).
18. CAPT Dale Rielage, USN, “Bring Back Fleet Battle Problems,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 143, no. 6 (June 2017).
19. CAPT John P. Cordle, USN (Ret.), “Manning Matters (!),” U.S. Naval Institute Blog, 20 December 2019.
20. Bayer and Roughead, Strategic Readiness Review, 61.
21. Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power (December 2020), 8.
22. Ian Toll, Six Frigates (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2006), 414.