Don't sink the Navy's future

Don't sink the Navy's future
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It appears the United States is about to lose its first aircraft carrier since World War II. A Chinese missile didn’t sink the ship. Instead, the USS Bonhomme Richard caught fire while undergoing routine maintenance in San Diego. After four days of crews fighting the fire, the 844-foot amphibious assault ship is presumed to be a total loss. Fortunately, no lives were lost.

Sadly, we were not so lucky three years ago when two Navy destroyers, the Fitzgerald and the John McCain, collided with merchant ships in the Pacific. Those cost the lives of 17 sailors. The investigations that followed revealed a service suffering from inadequate training, poor staffing, and too little sleep.

The Fitzgerald and McCain disasters were emblematic of the serious problems facing the Navy.  There were also a host of embarrassing personnel issues, ranging from criminal misconduct to the resignation of the Navy’s top admiral, to the Navy’s ability to design and build the ships it needs to defend the nation.  

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First, there was SEAL chief Eddie Gallagher. He was tried and acquitted of executing an ISIS prisoner — after another member of the team confessed to the killing. Although Navy leadership wanted to strip Gallagher of his coveted SEAL Trident insignia, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump suggests some states may 'pay nothing' as part of unemployment plan Trump denies White House asked about adding him to Mount Rushmore Trump, US face pivotal UN vote on Iran MORE intervened. This prompted then-Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer to craft a clumsy, back-room, face-saving compromise that cost Spencer his job.

Spencer was succeeded by his under secretary, Thomas Modly. He didn’t fare much better. Modly was forced to resign after an ill-conceived speech critical of Capt. Brett Crozier, the commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. 

Crozier, as one might recall, was relieved of command after the media obtained his non-classified memo critical of the Navy’s bureaucracy and its handling of COVID-19 outbreaks aboard the TR.

Then the Navy did an awkward about-face. Acting Secretary Thomas McPherson — Modly’s interim replacement — along with Adm. Mike Gilday, announced that Crozier should not have been relieved of command after all, and should be reinstated. 

That decision did not survive long, either.

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McPherson, only a temporary seat-warmer, was quickly replaced by President Trump’s real choice, former ambassador Kenneth Braithwaite. Pointedly, at his confirmation hearing, Braithwaite commented on the Navy’s “failure of leadership.” 

With Braithwaite at the helm, the Navy reversed course yet again. Support for Crozier again evaporated within days, prompting Gilday to announce, “If Capt. Crozier were still in command today, I would be relieving him.”

Incredibly, confusion at the top gets worse. Two recent announcements by Braithwaite and his boss, Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark Esper400 'hard-core' Taliban prisoners to be released ahead of Afghan peace talks Esper says officials still don't know source of Beirut blast Esper says US troop presence in Afghanistan will be 'less than 5,000' by November MORE, now threaten the Navy’s very future.

First, Esper stripped the Navy of its responsibility for creating its own 30-year shipbuilding plan. The Department of Defense will take over that function. Esper, a West Point grad, may have enjoyed some ironic satisfaction from the power grab, but he was on solid ground after years of Navy shipbuilding mismanagement and cost overruns

Stunning as that move was, it may prove far less significant than Braithwaite’s decision to scrap a major education initiative. 

A blue-chip panel of three Navy admirals, three Marine Corps generals and two former ambassadors recently spent a year looking at how best to ensure that the nation’s defense needs would be met by the sea services. Their report, “Education for Seapower,” detailed organizational changes and cultural shifts that are needed to deal with threats posed by near-peer strategic adversaries — principally China and Russia. 

The panel found widespread historical support for the need for well-educated officers and enlisted personnel. In fact, John Paul Jones, long regarded as “the father of the American Navy,” was the first to recognize such a need, saying, “Sailors mean more than guns in the rating of a ship.” 

The same is true today, and will be even more important going forward. 

As recently retired Adm. James “Sandy” Winnefeld, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, put it in the report: “Diverse and continual education of our people is absolutely vital to this process. As such, it may be correctly said that the future of the sea services, and of our nation, rests squarely on the education of our workforce and those who lead it.” 

But this is not to be, at least for now.

Unfortunately, the most obvious “problem” with the Education for Seapower initiative is that it was driven by former Acting Secretary Modly. Now tarred, feathered and run out of town because of his very public lapse of judgment in the Theodore Roosevelt-COVID-19 affair, it appears that anything he was associated with is to be shunned as well.

That shouldn’t happen. The only way for the Navy to overcome its myriad problems is by attracting — and keeping — smart people. That means training enlisted personnel in the science and technologies behind the machines they are tasked to maintain. The Education for Seapower initiative would have enabled enlisted sailors and Marines to earn college degrees — in their spare time — using far more flexible and innovative tools than currently available. It would have helped to ensure that our officers have an understanding of history, economics and geography to thoughtfully assess the strategic challenges being posed by our adversaries.

One can’t really blame Secretary Braithwaite (or his bosses) for wanting to clear the decks of the taint of recent disasters, blunders and embarrassments. But politics shouldn’t be allowed to sink the Navy. Nor should we abandon the one truth that underlies all the services’ challenges: Only by attracting, training, preparing and keeping the best people will we prevail. 

And that, quite simply, means education.  

Steve Cohen is an attorney at Pollock Cohen LLP and a former member of the board of directors of the United States Naval Institute. The views expressed here are his alone.