In 2012, I was watching a U.S. Fleet Forces brief to Pentagon leaders on a new concept called the Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP). The proposal was to maximize forward process by creating a 36-month cycle with four phases: basic, integrated, sustainment, and maintenance. One key idea was to train as a team—and keep the team together—to maximize forward-deployed readiness. I still remember one particular slide titled “assumptions,” and there were two:
1. Maintenance will end on time
2. Manpower will be increased to support the plan
I remember sitting in the back row (after eight years on sea duty) thinking to myself, “Well, that’s not going to work.” From my Naval War College education, I recalled that planning assumptions are essential to the success of the mission. If they are true, the mission is likely to succeed; if they are not true, the mission is almost certain to fail.
There were some philosophical underpinnings to the OFRP that may have applied at the time but should now be actively challenged by changes in the strategic landscape. A demand-based system from the geographic combatant commanders (CoComs) called for more ships than the Navy’s force-generation staffs had available and, as there really was no peer competitor, the Navy was focused on counterpiracy and supporting land wars—including shifting troops to perform Army missions. My experience as a type command personnel and maintenance officer told me that neither of these assumptions was likely to be true. History will show that this was pretty much the case. But that was then.
The New Normal
Things have changed in the past ten years. With the Chinese and the Russians rapidly approaching a “peer competitor” status—or perhaps already there—a fundamental rethinking of OFRP is necessary. In short, the Navy must start playing The Infinite Game. In this book by Simon Senek, leaders aim for success over the long term and do not focus on building for the quick win on the short-term horizon. While this book is geared toward businesses, it could be applied to the Navy for whom the currency is “readiness” and not money.
According to recent reporting, the naval forces have been deployed for longer periods during the past five years than ever before. Maintenance is backlogged and people are moved from ships in one phase to another to keep the forward-deployed ships fully manned at the expense of the rest of the force. This mentality will not work in a major war of long duration—an infinite game. In finite games like football or chess, the players are known, the rules are fixed, and the endpoint is clear. The winners and losers are easily identified. OFRP is perfect for this scenario—ramp up, fight, regroup. But that is not a winning strategy in a world in which the opponent has more resources, proximity to the fight, and little to lose in the long run.
In infinite games, like business or politics or life itself, the players come and go, the rules are changeable, and there is no defined endpoint. There are no winners or losers in an infinite game; there is only ahead and behind. The more Senek started to understand the difference between finite and infinite games, the more he began to see infinite games all around us. He started to see that many of the struggles that organizations face exist simply because their leaders were playing with a finite mind-set in an infinite game. These organizations tend to lag in innovation, discretionary effort, morale, and ultimately performance. The leaders who embrace an infinite mind-set, in stark contrast, build stronger, more innovative, more inspiring organizations. Their people trust each other and their leaders. They have the resilience to thrive in an ever-changing world, while their competitors fall by the wayside. Ultimately, they lead the rest of us into the future. Leaders who want to adopt an infinite mindset must follow five essential practices:
• Advance a Just Cause
• Build Trusting Teams
• Study their Worthy Rivals
• Prepare for Existential Flexibility
• Demonstrate the Courage to Lead.
So how to apply these to the current naval structure? The Navy does a pretty good job on the first two (Just Cause and Building Trusting Teams). It does the third at an academic level, but what surface warfare officer (not at the Naval War College) could recite the order of battle or maritime strategies of China or Russia? When I moved into an apartment in Germany to find all fixtures missing—including the kitchen cabinets—I asked why this is happening. The reason was cultural; every time a German family moves, they know the previous family will have taken all the fixtures, so to avoid the cost of buying new ones, they take theirs along as well. I remember thinking, imagine how much time and money they would save if they just stopped doing that right now, all at the same time? The Navy could do something similar today, with very little in the way of new resources.
Stop the Music
A fundamental change in the Navy’s approach to readiness to the “infinite game” would require all of the following to occur:
1. Set the bar high. Expect a ship to be combat ready from the day it leaves the maintenance phase until the day it begins the next one. Maintain the same bar for certification of each warfare area but stop assuming that all 300 sailors on a ship, many of whom have done multiple deployments, have forgotten everything they ever learned. Assess, train to the gaps, and certify. Again, this requires the implementation of the remaining actions to be achievable.
2. Redistribute the force manning evenly so that every ship is manned to the same level. This could be accomplished simply by resetting the manning priority numbers to the same “coefficient” , across the OFRP and stop moving the deck chairs around on the Titanic. Let the bathtub settle out to one level across the force—even if it is only 90 percent, and let the commanding officer train (and keep!) the team he has, with a slow and steady – and planned – turnover rate. Then (and this is a big one!) increase manpower funding to “raise all boats” together toward the 100 percent requirement that is already validated.
3. Leverage the incredible virtual and simulated training capabilities that were not in place at the time that the OFRP was developed—a true paradigm shift from my generation! These include the Navigation, Seamanship, and Ship handling Trainer, the Mariner Skills Training Center, where, as Vice Admiral Roy Kitchener recently shared, “SWOs get better training than ever before,” and the Combined Integrated Air and Missile Defense/Anti-Submarine Warfare Trainer for combat training. The crew on a ship in maintenance could maintain proficiency using shore-based trainers and perhaps even other ships, with resources and facilities available today. The challenge may be capacity, but that could be mitigated with prioritized scheduling.
4. Change the operational employment schedules to maximize operational availability and schedule stability using updated assumptions, something the OFRP promised but has often failed to deliver. There are several models to choose from, including the forward deployed naval forces in Rota, Spain, or in Japan. Of course, this would have to go hand-in-hand with changes to the maintenance strategy, but it seems to be working for these ships.
5. Realign destroyer squadrons and amphibious readiness groups into two categories. Tactical destroyer squadrons would deploy as surface combatant commander staffs for deployments and readiness squadrons would manage the ships in maintenance. The ability to focus on a single mission would yield immediate benefits in both operations and maintenance. Note: every active-duty “peer reviewer” who looked at this article underlined this section and wrote “totally agree”!
6. Focus on team performance at the ship level. Instead of focusing all the turnover in one OFRP phase, accept that turnover is part of the process, but continue to add new personnel at a constant rate to fully functioning teams and leverage the knowledge of the team to bring them up to speed. Neck down to two phases: operations and maintenance. The new surface manning experience model, which serves to align talent and experience to fleet needs, could be a path to this process. In addition, a shipboard continuous training plan and watch team replacement plan are essential foundational processes to keep the team performing in the long run.
7. Fix the inefficient process for intermediate maintenance. Focus on the capability to fix what is broken and leave the major lifecycle repairs for the depot drydocking. As one experienced mentor put it, Shipboard Sailors are “maintainers,” not a “repair” force. We used to have a separate command for this (Shore Intermediate Maintenance Facility—SIMA, whose sole facus was intermediate maintenance)—an idea whose time may have come (again). Allowing the crew to focus on training while they rely on maintainers to fix the ship, the Navy could increase both material readiness and operational readiness at the same time instead of having to choose.
Strikingly, there are minimal financial or infrastructure barriers to this process. However, there are significant cultural barriers that would need to be addressed:
1. The crawl-walk-run mentality accepted today must die. Could the Navy do this in a sustained war? No. Then we shouldn’t do it now.
2. The idea of carrier strike groups or amphibious readiness groups training as unbreakable “fighting units” across the cycle must die. Does the Navy deploy this way now? Will we do it in a long war? No. Groups are broken up after they transit, and others units come and go all the time. Then Navy rarely keeps the “team” together in real life, and it should stop training like it will.
3. The fundamental manning equations must change, by challenging the calculations that account for the workload and are used to create a ship’s manpower document (for example, expand the baseline to four underway sections to mitigate fatigue and better support circadian watch rotations). They do not recognize “phases” nor do they make assumptions about what percent of this requirement the Navy will fund. If people are the Navy’s priority, it should act like it: fund the manpower account to (at least) 100 percent and implement a manning policy that levels the force to the full requirement
4. Lose the idea that somehow deployments are “bad.” Based on my multiple sea tours, I would much rather be deployed to the Arabian Gulf than sitting in a drydock. Lay out a reasonable schedule and stick to it—stability matters to the Navy workforce. Accept some risk in maintenance as the Navy does with the ships in Rota and fix the big stuff in drydock. That said, keeping deployment lengths to six months would go a long way toward changing this mind-set.
Two reasons. First, U.S. enemies are already playing the infinite game. While the Navy focuses on readiness in increments of one to three years, they are planning for the next three decades. Keeping the force at a higher operational readiness would ensure the Navy enters the fight with ready forces that have the capability and depth on the bench to take the first hit and come back fighting. Second, it would give sailors credit for the capabilities they have built over a career, a schedule they could depend on, and the knowledge that their leaders trust their abilities to build, maintain, and fight their units at any time.
As Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday stated at the Surface Navy Association’s national symposium in January, “It is time to Get Real and Get Better: The Navy which adapts, learns, and improves the fastest gains an enduring warfighting advantage . . . [this requires] a culture that assesses, corrects, and innovates better than the opposition.” Changing the “O” to “Operational” and the “R” to Readiness would be a huge first step towards “getting real.” This approach speaks to the final two of Sinek’s tenets: existential flexibility and the courage to lead. The Navy is already doing this in some areas. Last week, I was on board my old ship the USS San Jacinto (CG-56), which had returned from deployment six months prior and was scheduled to deploy again in six months. I asked the captain if he felt ready. “Of course,” he said, “since we returned from deployment, we have kept training new folks to replace those who left, and we are as ready now as the day we returned. We had to touch up a few warfare areas and repeat one certification (out of 17), but by looking at the long term and not accepting a ‘readiness bathtub’ mentality, we are ready to go.”
That commanding officer is playing the infinite game. The Navy should too.