Is the U.S. Navy ready to fight? The short answer is that we won’t really know until we’re in a fight and that uncertainty alone should be a major cause for concern. We do know that a conflict with China, perhaps over an attempt to occupy Taiwan by force or attempting to enforce sovereignty over the South China Sea by interfering with freedom of navigation, would require the best efforts of a navy prepared to prevail in such a conflict. Would ours be so prepared?
A recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by Journal editorial writer Kate Bachelder Odell asks that question. She cites a report prepared for Congress by retired Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Schmidle and retired Navy Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery which concludes that the surface navy is not focusing on preparing for war and is suffering a crisis in leadership and culture.
The study, entitled “A Report on the Fighting Culture of the United States Navy Surface Fleet,” draws on input from 77 current and recently retired members of the surface forces of various ranks and rates regarding the culture of the service and how it relates to recent accidents including the fatal collisions of 2017 and the fire that resulted in the loss of the USS Bonhomme Richard last year. When asked if these and other accidents were related to a broader cultural or leadership problem in the navy, 94% replied in the affirmative.
One recently retired senior enlisted leader said, “I guarantee you every unit in the navy is up to speed on their diversity training. I’m sorry that I can’t say the same of their ship handling training.” I can comment on the latter later but what’s this about diversity training? The navy promotes and assigns based on qualifications and the needs of the service, not diversity concerns. At least I hope it still does. Other respondents complained about a focus on administrative programs and bureaucratic matters rather than on preparing for combat which is their mission. Diversity training is not part of that mission.
Former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman has expressed his concern regarding a culture of risk aversion in the navy that the report believes is corroding readiness. Lehman has noted that the fleet admirals that won World War II in the Pacific, including Chester Nimitz, who ran his first ship aground and William (Bull) Halsey, who often bent the rules, would never have made flag rank in today’s culture.
And speaking of culture, I have previously written of the need, in my opinion, for a cultural transformation in the surface navy. The creation of the surface warfare specialty and the surface warfare commands at the three-star level were a result of the 1973 Fleet Staff Reduction and Reorganization Study Group recommendations which included my proposal, as a member of that study group, to combine the several surface “type” commanders in existence at the time into a single surface warfare command on each coast. My intent was, in addition to eliminating redundant staffs which was our tasking, to establish a surface warfare community equal in status and prestige to the aviation and submarine warfare communities. That objective was never, in my opinion, fully achieved and the mindset today remains largely as it was then, that it takes special people with the right stuff to become an aviator or submariner and lots of training before they ever set foot in a submarine or cockpit, but just about anyone can be taught to drive a ship in a relatively brief period of time.
And it seems almost every officer on board a ship gets a chance to try. Many of our ships are overstaffed with ensigns, more of them than there are mission-related jobs on board for them to fill. This is mostly in order to provide a large enough base from which to select department heads because of low retention rates, especially among women, who leave in large numbers after their tour of sea duty in order to start a family. The superfluous ensigns, many of whom have job titles that would seem to have little relation to the ship’s mission, dilute the limited training opportunities which should be reserved for those who show the most promise for advancement to command and are surface warfare career-motivated. Our simulator and classroom training is excellent, except for the lack of training craft to complement the simulator training, but some of it seems wasted on those who do not aspire to command and have no intention of staying in the navy or in surface warfare if they do. (By way of disclosure, I teach ship handling, seamanship and navigation at a navy simulator facility.)
Surface warfare officer career patterns seem more about building careers than building professionalism. Command of a warship and its crew is a unique, demanding and complex responsibility requiring expertise not only in ship handling, contact management and resource management, but warfighting skills as well. To acquire the requisite competence requires years of experience, yet our commanding officers spend a relatively small percentage of their time in service actually at sea. There is no substitute for actual experience at sea. That competence does not automatically convey with rank and it atrophies through disuse while ashore. To improve professionalism, increase readiness and reduce the risk of avoidable accidents we should select for command only the best who have demonstrated excellence at sea and who are obviously comfortable and confident in command and focus the bulk of our training on them. We should keep them in command for at least three years if they are performing well, not two, and they should be offered follow-on commands. This obviously would involve a lot of sea time and is not a career for anyone who does not love ships and going to sea and is not willing to sacrifice time with family. Command of our warships is too important to be influenced by a perceived need for more command opportunity or be regarded primarily as a stepping stone to promotion.
There are many factors other than culture, of course, that are cause for concern regarding the readiness of our navy for war but that will have to await another column. These factors include: the urgent need for a much larger fleet, assurance that we have the industrial capacity and funding to build it rapidly enough to deter and keep pace with China’s massive naval buildup and how to prevent the flawed ship designs that have produced, for example, the LCSs with their problematic propulsion systems, lack of warfare modules and survivability issues, the DDG 1000 class which was limited to an expensive three-ship buy and which still lacks ammunition for its gun batteries and the USS Ford (CVN 78) which has been in commission since 2017 and has yet to deploy.