Is the Navy totally at sea?
The U.S. Navy is adrift in unfriendly seas. Befuddled by tough choices, dogged by inadequate training and crippled by poor judgment, our sea service is ill-prepared to meet its greatest challenges since World War II.
Look at the forces lining up against it: A bellicose China that threatens Taiwan and the entire Western Pacific, as well as a resurgent Russia, bent on claiming the entire melting polar region as its own. Our Navy appears to drift from shoal to shore, pursuing strategies and tactics that seem obsolete from the day they are implemented. From fleet design to basic training, our admirals and senior civilian leaders are behaving in ways reminiscent of Jimmy Breslin’s “The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight.”
The most egregious examples, of course, involved two destroyers stationed in the Pacific. In separate incidents in 2017, each collided with a merchant ship in what were clearly avoidable accidents. A total of 17 sailors lost their lives, and investigations by the Navy and journalists concluded that the collisions stemmed from inadequate training combined with understaffed and overworked crews.
A more recent study commissioned by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) reaffirmed those findings and illuminated a problem that was even more insidious: a “paralyzing zero-defect mentality” that pervades the Navy. One mistake, and an officer’s career is over. (The Cotton Report noted that had such a culture existed prior to World War II, four of America’s greatest admirals — Chester Nimitz, William Halsey, Ernest King and William Leahy — never would have risen past the rank of captain, and never would have helped lead us to victory at sea.)
Today’s understaffed, overworked Navy ought to come as no surprise. The Navy’s operational tempo had surged during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as Navy aircraft supported ground operations. As my Naval Academy roommate, retired Capt. Dick Costello, put it, “We ran them hard and put them away wet.” This is clearly no way to run a navy.
Senior Navy leaders have a responsibility to say to civilian overseers, “No can do, sir. We don’t have the resources to be in two places at once.” Yet that is precisely what the Navy brass failed to say for years. Instead, their can-do attitude — while heroic in World War II — failed them in an era of dispersed conflicts and inadequate budgets. The Navy is hamstrung by too many demands for its presence, a too-small fleet to meet them, and its “zero-defect” mentality. As a result, it can’t even conceptualize the nature of future wars: It recently announced it wouldn’t be able to complete its future fleet design plan until 2023.
Not knowing what ships the Navy should build to accomplish current and future missions is a serious weakness. But so is constructing a fleet that is ill-suited to a mission or simply doesn’t work as promised. This is what happened when the Navy introduced two variations of its littoral combat ship (LCS) — small, fast, supposedly flexible vessels that were designed to have “plug-and-play” modules to allow them to be quickly reconfigured for evolving mission needs. Ten years after their introduction into the fleet, the ships are being retired as quickly as possible — less than halfway through their expected service life — to make funds available for an entirely new class of frigate. Admitting a costly error is important; preventing it from being repeated can save both lives and dollars. Disturbingly, there is little evidence that Navy leadership learned from its mistakes with the LCS.
Perhaps the most telling indicator of serious problems within the Navy drew little media attention, most likely because the money involved is small in comparison to the enormous delays and cost overruns that have dominated headlines for years. The nuclear aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford was originally supposed to join the fleet in 2018 but is only now expected to be fully operational in 2024 — at a cost billions of dollars more than initially budgeted. Incredibly, that’s small potatoes compared to the nearly $1 trillion in overall cost increases for its F-35 aircraft.
So where did the Navy decide to save money? Several weeks ago, it announced that it would be closing base libraries, 48 auto hobby shops, and cutting back gym and pool hours — in an effort to save $280 million. Granted, $280 million is a lot of money, but it doesn’t begin to make a dent in billion- and trillion-dollar cost overruns.
Moreover, nothing could be more shortsighted or have a more devastating impact on Naval morale than cutting these services. The Navy’s backbone is its personnel. It’s insultingly bad policy to tell sailors they are not important enough to merit ping-pong tables.
Such penny-wise-pound-foolish decisions send a clear message to the people willing to serve their country: “You and your spouses and your children really don’t matter. Your quality of life is unimportant to us.”
The stupidity of this decision is staggering. Every young officer and NCO learns from day one that their most important job is taking care of their people. Ships, strategies, tactics are all secondary to people. When I mentioned this decision to some enlisted Marines, they were staggered: “Do they not understand what impact this will have on mental health? Are they not aware of the suicide problem plaguing the military? It is the little things, like gym availability and pool hours, that contribute to morale and mental health. Otherwise, it’s just drinking and tattoos.”
Sadly, they are right. The Navy’s leadership — civilian and uniformed — needs a dramatic wake-up call. Accountability must mean something. Every senior officer whose hand touched this policy should resign or be relieved of his or her job. They clearly do not know wherein beats the heart of our Navy. We hear, occasionally, about officers losing their jobs because of “a lack of confidence in their ability to command.” There is no more serious offense than selling out the people for whom one is responsible. The Navy needs a clean deck, and well-thought-out policies that honor its traditions.
Steve Cohen is an attorney at Pollock Cohen LLP and a former member of the board of directors of the United States Naval Institute.
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