A Leadership Lost at Sea

How do 9,000 ton ships, with 100,000 horsepower, known for their agility, get T-boned by huge, lumbering merchant ships? Who’s running our ships? Who’s running our Navy?

I’ve a friend who recently, having not been in a cockpit for 10 years, tested for and received his certification to fly a large corporate jet, I think mainly to keep busy. He’s a remarkable pilot: former Blue Angel, shot down a MiG in Vietnam, etc. When I first met him I thought there was something of the “fly by the seat of his pants” nature about him. I later learned that he and a small number of other – superb – pilots were actually all incredibly focused men who continuously studied their “business.” I’ve met few people who study as hard as these men, few men who are more diligent about understanding their “jobs,” as well as understanding their own strengths and weaknesses.

There are similar folks elsewhere: submarine captains, Navy SEALS (and other special operations personnel), etc. Some doctors fall into this category as well.

There are common threads: they’re all closet perfectionists; they take their professions very seriously; they appear calm, but they’re exceptionally demanding of themselves. They believe in training, seemingly inordinate amounts sometimes, but whatever it takes to get better. They set very high standards and they don’t give ground on those standards. (I knew a surgeon who, after 40 years “in practice,” and having received considerable recognition among his peers as a master in his craft, would regularly be found studying procedures the night before an operation.)

It’s interesting to note that after flying F-18s for the better part of 20 years, if you go to a staff job for two years, when you return to operational forces, perhaps to command an air wing, you’ll go back through refresher training. No exceptions. And if you’re in the fleet flying F-18s, you still regularly re-qualify landing that aircraft on the carrier. Absolutely no exceptions. When my friend, despite his obvious expertise, returned to an operational squadron after flying with the Blue Angels, he had to go through refresher training. Once in the squadron he – as with everyone else – went through regular monthly, quarterly and annual training regimens. Again, no exceptions.

There are analogous steps in submarines, and in several other combat arms.

Which leads us to the Navy’s recent troubles with destroyers getting rammed, and several other mishaps. One glaring exception to demanding training is driving ships. Driving ships is pretty much OJT. The 26-year old lieutenant in charge of that $1 billion guided missile destroyer while the captain sleeps learned his trade “on the job.” While there is a SWO school, it bears no meaningful resemblance to the aviation training squadrons that award flight wings.

Informal discussions about what might be done to increase professionalism in the SWO community always yield the same answer: there needs to be an accreditation and re-accreditation process that is maintained with a very high degree of rigor.

But, in fact, the SWO community has become a dumping ground: fail in training in another community and you end up in the fleet. Few people “flunk out” of SWO training? There are some excellent officers in the SWO community. But the truth is the Navy as an organization simply doesn’t invest in that mission. After all, anyone can drive a ship. Right? That is the Navy SWO community.

Two weeks ago the Vice Chief of Naval Operations stated: “We have allowed standards to drop.” He then said the problem is about “leadership at sea.”

The fleet is overtaxed, the personnel aren’t trained in naval warfare or ship handling to the level they should be, we haven’t invested in our security to the level needed; all this is true. But what’s also true is that for years the Navy’s senior leaders – not the ones at sea, the ones in Washington – knew it and said nothing. No one stood in front of the Secretary of the Navy or the Secretary of Defense and said “No more,” no one testified in Congress that a host of bad policies were breaking the fleet, and in the end, no one resigned in outrage.

There are a host of issues here, but in the end, they boil down to one failure, a failure of senior leadership, a failure not of lieutenants and commanders, but a failure of the admirals.