National Security & Defense

On the Eve of Destruction

Ships of the U.S. Navy’s Destroyer Squadron 23 — led by the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Russell (front) — transit the Pacific Ocean, January 22, 2020. (Mass Communication Specialist Third Class Erick A. Parsons/US Navy)
Why a troubling new report on the Navy’s surface-warfare capabilities and culture matters.

With their report on “The Fighting Culture of the United States Surface Fleet,” Senator Tom Cotton and Representatives Jim Banks, Dan Crenshaw, and Mike Gallagher have provided an excellent example of congressional oversight in action and a surprisingly nonpartisan, objective analytical product. This report — and the analytical methodology behind it — was triggered by the collisions and near sinking of two destroyers in the Pacific, the outright surrender without resistance of two Navy riverine boats in the Arabian Gulf to elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, and the total loss of the billion-dollar light amphibious carrier Bonhomme Richard to a fire while she lay tied to a pier in San Diego.

The investigation was based upon standardized oral-history interviews across a broad base of current and former Navy officers and enlisted sailors stretching from the present day back to the late 1960s. In their research, Cotton, Banks, Crenshaw, and Gallagher — all four veterans of the recent campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan; Cotton with the Army, Banks and Crenshaw as naval officers ashore, and Gallagher as a Marine — discovered a range of consequences that have emerged since the end of the Cold War that have combined to degrade the combat effectiveness and overall fighting culture of the Navy’s surface-warfare community.

This community — the surface-warfare officers (“SWOs”) or “ship-drivers” — lay at the very heart of the United States Navy. While the submarine- and naval-aviation communities of the Navy have emerged over the past century to claim their fair share of the service’s historic glory, the U.S. Navy itself finds its cultural roots in John Paul Jones’s Revolutionary War statement, “I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm’s way” and Oliver Hazard Perry’s hoisting of the famous, “Don’t Give Up The Ship” flag at the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812. This ship-handling, fighting ethos extended through World War II where Arleigh Burke famously led the “Little Beavers” of Destroyer Squadron-23 at 31-knots in the Battle of Cape St. George and Jesse Oldendorf and his task force of battleships and cruisers “crossed the T” of a heavy Japanese surface fleet at the Battle of Surigao Strait, defeating it with superior ship-handling and fighting zeal.

Even in the long peaceful lee following the last great global conflagration, leaders within the surface-warfare community such as Vice Admiral David Robinson, who led “brown water” and later destroyer surface operations in Vietnam, and Admiral James Stavridis, who led surface actions ranging across Operations Ernest Will, Desert Storm, and the modern counter-terrorism campaigns, were recognized throughout the fleet during their careers for both their ship-handling skills and demonstrated warrior leadership. Disturbingly, the report concludes that such skills and ethos have been seriously degraded over recent decades.

Broadly, the investigators associated with this oversight process asked a large number of former and current Navy personnel whether the ship collisions, the surrender of the small boats, and the burning of the Bonhomme Richard were part of a broader problem within the Navy. An overwhelming 94 percent of respondents said “yes.” When asked more specifically if the four incidents themselves were directly connected, 55 percent responded affirmatively, but only 16 percent said “no.” The remaining 29 percent simply were not sure. In the end, the vast preponderance of the respondents simply knew that something was wrong with their Navy and their reasons behind this dangerous change fell along several broad categories. First and foremost, they believed that the Navy has placed an insufficient focus on warfighting even as it has increased administrative burdens throughout the Navy over the past 30 years. Second, the report highlights the trend toward finding “efficiencies” within the surface community specifically. This in turn contributed to the report’s next finding: a decline in investments in training across the surface force in particular, as well as an overall decline in attention to ship maintenance, both in terms of schedule discipline and overall investment. The report also raises the specter of micro-management of individual Navy ships, an issue that is at odds with the Navy’s long historical tradition of independence of command, which eroded the confidence of individual ship commanding officers and sapped their individual freedom of action. Lastly, the report cites concerns with the Navy’s rising oversensitivity to media reporting of Navy incidents.

Both as a historian and as an officer who served actively across the three decades of surface-warfare decline highlighted in the report, I must say that none of the conclusions come as a surprise. Following the end of the Cold War, the Navy experienced a massive downsizing both in terms of ships and manpower, shrinking from 592 ships and 605,802 men in the fall of 1989 to 336 ships and 373,044 men just ten years later. These declines transformed the force, evolving the surface fleet’s focus from operating older, simpler destroyer and frigate in massed formations at sea toward fewer, yet more complex Aegis air-defense designs used largely to protect the aircraft carrier or project power ashore via Tomahawk land-attack missiles. Leadership of sailors at the deck-plate level was de-emphasized in order to make room for management of more-advanced technological systems. Among both officers and enlisted ranks, decisions about how to cull the force were difficult to make, but they were made. Both officer and enlisted fitness reports and evaluations were changed so as to discern any shortcomings or weaknesses. Anyone who did not reach the highest marks failed to select for promotion or was not allowed to re-enlist. A zero-defect mentality crept into the daily life of ships and aviation squadrons.

Moreover, the service force sought out areas for savings and efficiencies as budgets got tighter. Leaders became managers as the teachings of Dr. Edward Deming made the leap from the business community to the military — despite the fact that the military’s “bottom line” was best expressed in wins and losses in battle rather than spreadsheets. Lastly, the Navy experienced a series of public embarrassments and scandals during the 1990s; the botched investigation of the explosion of a turret on the battleship Iowa that killed 47 officers and sailors, the 1991 Tailhook Convention debacle that ultimately forced the resignation of a chief of naval operations and created a media environment that unjustly caused the retirement one of naval aviation’s greatest leaders, ADM Stan Arthur, rather than his announced assignment as commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, and the suicide death of another CNO, Admiral Jeremy Boorda, when his previous valor was questioned. This string of incidents began the trend toward a fear of scandal and a wariness of the media within the Navy.

As the Navy entered the 21st century, the core of one of its supporting pillars in the surface-warfare community had already begun to crumble. Cuts in military spending began that process, but even after the spending cuts were reversed after 9/11, the surface Navy did not benefit, and it continued to lose both ships and men in the following years. Unlike naval aviation and the nuclear-powered submarine community, the surface-warfare community lacked a “requirements written in blood” rule book that it could fall back on to defend its men and platforms. Aviators had data that showed that if money was not spent on training and maintenance, planes fell out of the sky and aircrew died. The submarine community had Hyman Rickover’s bible on nuclear safety that showed that if money wasn’t spent and procedures were not followed, reactor incidents would prevent acceptance of submarines and aircraft carriers in homeports or submarines would sink to the bottom of the ocean with their crews and weapons (as happened twice during the 1960s). The surface-warfare community had nothing but their can-do spirit and their willingness to do more with less, and so they were often tasked to do just that.

The report from Cotton et al. reveals that in 2003, in a slavish move toward Deming “efficiency”, the six-month surface-warfare-officer’s school in Newport, R.I., was cut. Officers were then ordered directly from their commissioning sources to their ships with nothing more than 23 compact discs to learn their trade, while they went about “on-the-job-training” onboard their first ship. Naval aviators take 18–24 months to earn their wings and complete their training before reporting to their first squadrons. Nuclear-trained submarine officers take 15–18 months to complete their prototype-reactor training and additional qualifications prior to reporting to their first boat. Surface-warfare officers simply reported to their first ships, fired up a computer, and started to stand watches on bridges and in machinery spaces that they had never seen before, saddling their commanding officers (and senior enlisted leaders) with un-prepared junior officers even as administrative burdens on those same ship captains were mounting. The ever-shrinking fleet was expected to do the same amount of work, which resulted in compressed training cycles with shortened underway periods wherein training simply became a planned sequence of events. In effect, they became rote and lacking in real learning or experience.

Ship maintenance also suffered. The new report reveals that planned ship-maintenance schedules simply could not hold up under the strain of continuous, lengthening, and often unplanned extending deployment schedules and that once ships did make it into drydocks, the issues revealed were too large to be addressed within the planned schedule or budgets, causing overruns and delays that had downstream effects upon the entire surface force. The surface force began to age, and its material condition began to degrade. It entered a death spiral.

Simultaneously, the surface fleet’s ethos began to suffer under all the added strain. Division officers, department heads, and even ship executive and commanding officers failed to push back against the added burdens, not wishing to collect a black mark in their records and thus fail to promote to their next desired rank or assignment. At sea, the ships found themselves patrolling in the Arabian Gulf or in the Mediterranean — not in preparation for combat against another nation’s navy but rather awaiting orders to launch their Tomahawk missiles against targets ashore in Iraq or some other nest of terrorists. Respondents within this new report highlight the perception that during the past two decades, the surface Navy stopped being a surface-warfare Navy and instead became a land-attack-from-the-sea Navy. As that happened, the force began to lose its sense of professionalism and fighting spirit.

In the end, under loads of new burdens, with a smaller fleet and fewer sailors, the surface fleet was asked to do more with less, until it no longer could. The report makes it readily apparent that, under these circumstances, crews gave up their ships and presently are not prepared to go into harm’s way, and that these conditions persist on the eve of a great-power competition with a rising China that will be largely carried out at sea. It is a sobering realization.

These elected officials have performed a public good by highlighting the shortcomings of the previous generation of naval leaders who have failed to adequately understand the requirements of the surface force and to provide sufficient money, time, and materials to meet them. We can only hope that the current generation of naval leaders — both uniformed and civilian — will leverage this report to gain support for increases in the Navy’s budget and ultimately for the surface fleet. If what naval leaders such as retired Admiral Phil Davidson, who warned that China could initiate a war in less than six years, or the current intel chief of the Indo-Pacific Command, Rear Admiral Mike Studeman, who said that the U.S. may already be “too late” to confront the Chinese threat, are correct, then the United States will need a healthy surface force soon that is backed by professionalism and filled with a confidence that it can carry out the nation’s wartime tasks at sea. The surface fleet is the heart of the United States Navy, and the nation needs that heart to beat regularly and strongly in the years that lie ahead.

This piece has been updated to reflect the conditions under which ADM Stan Arthur departed from the Navy.

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