Too much ‘can do,’ not enough candor

Too much ‘can do,’ not enough candor
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“The price of greatness,” said Winston Churchill, “is responsibility.”

In the wake of two horrific accidents involving U.S. Navy guided missile destroyers colliding with merchant ships — resulting in the deaths of 17 sailors — we have seen little greatness, though we saw many acts of individual heroism by sailors who saved their shipmates. So, when the Navy recently released its investigation of the accidents, concluding there were too many failures on many levels, it underscored the importance of responsibility.


Far more than in the civilian world, the Navy takes responsibility very seriously. The ships’ captains were relieved of their commands, assorted underlings were reprimanded, and several senior admirals were relieved or took early retirement. Five Navy officers still face criminal charges including negligent homicide.


Here, the Navy acted appropriately, ensuring that accountability reached up as well as down. That was not the case in 2016 after Iranian Revolutionary Guards seized two Navy riverine fast boats and captured 10 American sailors. Following the investigation of that incident, only junior and mid-level officers were held to account for failures in training and procedures.

As the investigative report of the McCain and Fitzgerald collisions stated — twice — “No single person bears full responsibility for this incident.” But, it notes, “The responsibility of the commanding officer for his or her ship is absolute.” The report then explained, “The crew was unprepared for the situation in which they found themselves through a lack of preparation, ineffective command and control, and deficiencies in training and preparations for navigation.”

It is little wonder that polling shows Americans’ confidence in the military is higher than in any other institution. Compared to how the Navy holds people accountable, at all levels, can we find anything remotely similar in big business or in Congress?

In the months that followed the accidents, national news media carried stories that ascribed part of the problem to a Navy too small and under-resourced to do what is asked of it.  The Navy has said it needs at least 355 ships to secure American interests at sea. But with only 276 ships, the Navy is dangerously under strength. That means deployments are often twice as long as the six months that most operators think is optimal. As retired Navy Captain Dick Costello said to one of us, “We’re running them hard and putting them away wet.”

Perhaps the best single snapshot of the enormity of the problem is this: In 2007, the Navy was able to meet 90 percent of the validated requirements of our combatant commanders.  In 2014, that number was less than 43 percent.

The Navy isn’t the only under-strength service. The Air Force faces a pilot shortage — it needs at least 1,500 jet and drone pilots just to carry out current missions. Gen. Philip Breedlove, the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, notes that the Air Force is smaller today than when it was created in 1947.

That assessment is on target. But we didn’t reach this breaking point overnight. Military and civilian leadership have known for years that our armed forces have been burning the candle from both ends and making do with insufficient resources. But there has been reluctance to disclose these shortfalls to Congress — or the American people — until it’s almost too late.

More than once, the House Armed Services Subcommittee on SeaPower and Projection Forces held hearings at which admirals, generals and civilian leaders were asked whether they had sufficient resources to do the jobs with which they were tasked. Invariably, they would answer, “We can do it, even though there will be acceptable risks.”  

The reason these risks were termed “acceptable” is that our current notion of acceptability — or accountability — often does not reach high enough. Too often, in the face of failure such as ship collisions or captures, we limit punishment (accountability) to relatively junior people. Yet these operators had little to say in determining the resources made available to them, or in creating a culture of mediocrity within which they had to function.

That’s where military culture comes undone, because military people are “can do” professionals. Navy officers are steeped in the tradition — perhaps myth — embodied by Elbert Hubbard’s 1899 essay, “A Message to Garcia,” which relates the value of individuals taking initiative. The job will get done, even if it appears impossible.

Perhaps it’s time to add a dimension to the Navy’s adherence to accountability: the need to be candid. It is essential for senior officers to tell Congress when they don’t have resources necessary to do the jobs asked of them adequately and safely. The military’s “can do” attitude is at once a blessing and a curse. We take comfort in a military that gets the job done, no matter what; yet, realistically, we cannot keep asking our military forces to do so without the resources they need.

In his 1902 second annual message to Congress, President Theodore Roosevelt said, “A good Navy is not a provocation to war.  It is the surest guaranty of peace.” That statement rings even more true today, when good is not sufficient.

The U.S. military bears the responsibility for keeping America secure. But maybe it’s time we start holding accountable those who bear the responsibility for providing the resources — and for keeping our military forces well-trained, well-armed and well-fed.   Maybe its time to modify our proud and rigid fixation on “can do” and have an honest dialogue with Congress and the American people on the resources our military forces need if we truly want a Navy that can be “the surest guaranty of peace.”

Randy ForbesJames (Randy) Randy ForbesDaschle Group hires first GOP lobbyist Overnight Defense: US sanctions NATO ally Turkey over Russian defense system | Veterans groups, top Democrats call for Wilkie's resignation | Gingrich, other Trump loyalists named to Pentagon board Gingrich, other Trump loyalists named to Pentagon advisory panel MORE, an attorney, served in Congress for 16 years, chairing the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces and was a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Naval War College.

Steve  Cohen, also an attorney, served on the board of directors of the U.S. Naval Institute for 10 years.