What's the Navy's priority — petty rules, or preparing to fight?

What's the Navy's priority — petty rules, or preparing to fight?
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On Jan. 27 the U.S. Navy relieved Frank Azzarello, commanding officer of the guided missile destroyer USS Forrest Sherman, of his post just days before his scheduled change of command. The timing and severity of the punishment call into question his superiors’ judgment. Commander Azzarello possesses an impressive operational record consistent with an admirable professional career.

Under Azzarello’s command, Forrest Sherman deployed to the Near East throughout 2019 and 2020 and was a highly effective maritime interdictor. Most notably, in November 2019, the ship’s crew seized five Iranian-made 358 missiles, one of Iran’s most advanced weapons. The ship also interdicted various light weapons and smaller missiles, including the Iranian-produced Dehlavieh anti-tank missile, a weapon capable of penetrating the armor on American Abrams and Israeli Merkava battle tanks.

Commander Azzarello’s crime — which has warranted Naval Criminal Investigative Service intervention — was his attempt to frame a captured AK-47, providing it as a trophy for his crew to boost morale and as a reminder of their service. Military regulations stipulate that captured weapons must be properly logged, in part to prevent servicemen from stealing or reselling it.

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Commander Azzarello’s record is exemplary. He enlisted in the Navy in 1993 and was commissioned in 2002 through the “Seaman to Admiral” program. He served as an engineering officer aboard an amphibious assault ship and a guided missile destroyer, then as commanding officer of two patrol craft and as executive officer on a guided missile cruiser. He has received two Meritorious Service medals, four Navy Commendation medals and three Navy Achievement medals. After 28 years of service, like any U.S. officer, his personal integrity is above reproach. Against all that, obtaining a rusted assault rifle as a trophy for his crew may violate the letter of the law, but not its spirit.

Discipline is the core of combat efficacy. Effective strategy must guide technology, force structure and training — but without discipline, a military force will collapse under combat stresses. Indeed, the Iraq War demonstrated this: Although lapses in discipline were rare, the Abu Ghraib nightmare undermined every branch of the armed forces.

At sea, discipline plays a unique role. Soldiers and airmen must deploy for many months at a time to any corner of the globe, but typically they remain in one location. While some are deployed to remote installations, the majority live on larger bases with limited access to leisure facilities and semi-regular communication with the United States.

Even in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. soldiers had access to fast food and cinemas on so-called “super bases.” Sailors, by contrast, live and fight on a mobile platform; they have less contact with loved ones and fewer amenities than they would have ashore. Moreover, as the Navy’s combat fleet has shrunk, extended deployments are increasingly — and unwisely — common; the current pandemic has worsened the situation. The supercarrier USS Eisenhower spent 206 continuous days at sea in 2020 to ensure its sailors were not exposed to COVID-19 — and the Eisenhower is set to deploy again in August in an aptly named “double pump.” This operational pace, although necessary, has eroded morale throughout the fleet.

Maintaining discipline requires clear rules and regulations governing conduct. Sailors and officers are military professionals and should be held to a high standard. But regulation is only half the solution. Commanders are responsible for the welfare of those below them, and maintaining morale requires building robust interpersonal bonds between officers and enlisted personnel, encouraging healthy competition, and rewarding soldiers and sailors when their hard work ensures success. Commander Azzarello hoped to do exactly that.

Of course, the Navy has had severe discipline issues in the recent past. The “Fat Leonard” scandal implicated multiple high-ranking officers, including several flag officers; the public scrutiny surrounding Seal Chief Edward Gallagher’s actions in Iraq reinforced the sense of crisis in the Navy’s leadership. This imbroglio is not an example of those serious lapses, however, and raises the question: Does Navy leadership understand the difference?

Fighting officers are always hard to find, never more so than in peace. It takes a unique mix of determination, ambition and selflessness to command men and women in combat. Naturally, the personality attracted to such a role may be competitive, impulsive and high-spirited. But spiritedness creates a commander who soldiers and sailors will follow into fire without question.

American naval history — for that matter, American military history — is replete with examples of such fighters. World War II’s hard-charging Adm. William Halsey was a spotty student and a personally rambunctious officer, which aided his media perception throughout the Pacific War; his mistakes were as spectacular as his successes, for which he was awarded a fifth star. Adm. Ernest King was notorious for his foul temper, but the Navy recognized he was a fighter. The Marines’ legendary Gen. Lewis “Chesty” Puller’s first combat assignment was in Haiti, where he fought a brutal small war against local rebels and bandits. The late John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMcCain blasts Graham for refuting funeral remark about Kushner, Ivanka Trump Flake, Cindy McCain among latest Biden ambassadors confirmed after delay Meghan McCain to Trump: 'Thanks for the publicity' MORE was a famous Navy maverick but an inspirational example of courage as a POW, for which he was subsequently promoted.

Their personality opposites — quiet, composed, measured — have been found in several excellent officers, with Adm. Raymond Spruance one of the best examples. But even these sorts of officers are equally vigorous and competitive; they challenge military doctrine and strategy, pushing the armed services to innovate and adapt. And when placed in impossible situations, such officers act without fear.

One suspects Commander Azzarello will be phased out of service, retiring with some sort of reprimand, or perhaps a reduction in rank. He may go — but the Navy’s problems will remain.

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Long deployments will continue, with funding difficulties that prevent the service from building the fleet it needs.

These political issues stem, at least in part, from a lack of strategic clarity. As partisan division persists and even serious policymakers are forced to emphasize domestic issues, it falls to the Navy’s leadership to articulate a coherent strategy that, if properly executed, will safeguard American interests, defend allies and deter adversaries.

Sacking officers for petty issues demoralizes the fleet and detracts from the priority of preparing to fight. The Navy should concentrate instead on conceiving and testing a strategy to defeat China.

Seth Cropsey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and director of its Center for American Seapower. He served as a naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations. Harry Halem, a research assistant at Hudson Institute and graduate student at the London School of Economics, contributed to this column.