View Full Version : Why Are Navy COs getting the Ax?

03-08-04, 08:04 AM

Why Are Navy COs getting the Ax?

By Raymond Perry

A recent article in Navy Times, revealed a surge in incidents over the past 13 months in which the commanding officers of warships and shore commands were relieved of command.

Left unsaid in the article was whether these firings represent merely a statistical spike that occurs every so often, or do they reflect hard evidence of something more negative emerging in not only the Navy, but also the U.S. military as a whole.

As a retired Navy officer and longtime student of military leadership, I believe the spate of CO firings is an indicator of the decline of professional warfighting skills of naval officers.

Forty years ago, Bill Russell, a well-known and respected professor in the U.S. Naval Academy’s “Bull Department” (English, History and Government), informed his classes that operational competence was no longer a true priority in the U.S. military. He was then speaking of the vast importance that Pentagon E-Ring tours played in an officer’s aspiration for flag or general officer rank.

Such E-Ring tours enable an officer to become known among those senior officers who may later select him for high rank, allow him to show his people skills in the hallways, and – sometimes – offer the opportunity to quietly foreshorten a competitor’s horizon. These tours were essential for all but those whose leadership skills and professional competence could not be ignored in the “Selection Board Tank”.

Still, even then such assignments took time from an officer’s development of warfighting skills, and many dedicated officers opted to stay in the field rather than succumb to the bureaucratic allure of Pentagon duty.

Then, that all changed in the mid-1980s.

The 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act changed E-Ring duty from an avoidable option to an unavoidable requirement. Just six years after the disastrous end of the 1980 Iranian rescue mission at “Desert One,” supporters of the law aimed at promoting inter-service cooperation – “jointness” – by mandating that all officers rising to high rank would already have hands-on experience working with other services.

By serving in key staff jobs formally earmarked as “joint” positions, the lawmakers assumed that officers would learn the critical skills and weaknesses of the various components of the armed forces while working hand-in-hand with their counterparts from other services. The short-term goal was to promote an officer corps that could think “jointly” and, by knowing how to tailor any force with the precise units needed for the mission planned, avoid repeats of the disaster at “Desert One.”

The reality of “jointness” is that it has created a parallel and dominating set of career skills and has fostered the thinking that everyone must do things the “joint” way. In my observation, since the law requires multiple assignments in “joint” duty, people have come to presuppose the joint way to be the only way of doing business. They do not listen to counter-proposals.

Some thoughtful commanders recognize that there may be a problem in this. For example, then-Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Jones wrote the Senate Armed Services Committee on Sept. 27, 2002, “In our effort to standardize how we treat service members across the Department of Defense our laws increasingly limit the flexibility required to maintain service competencies and cultures.”

Since the skills of joint duty essentially involve bureaucratic infighting and do not contribute to warfighting, they compete directly for the professional time and energy of nearly every officer on active duty. This then means that an officer must acquire basic warfighting skills on a catch-as-catch-can basis. In the case of naval officers, critical skills such as ship-handling take a back seat to learning how to control a briefing theater.

When “E-Ring tours”, identified by Professor Russell during the post-World War II era were replaced by the multiple “joint tours” of the post-Cold War era, a profound shift in military culture began.

Writing in the February 2004 issue of the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Robert Previdi, author of “Civilian Control Versus Military Rule” concluded that “Jointness has become an end in itself.” He added:

“It seems that, no matter what the issue, if we just include the word ‘joint,’ success is ensured. Services now are sending their top officers to the Joint Staff because it is the only way for these officers to get promoted to flag and general officer.”

Which brings us back to the recent upsurge in firings of Navy commanding officers.

Recent examples in the U.S. Submarine Service, illuminate the issue.

On Nov. 13, 2002, the attack submarine USS Oklahoma City collided with a Norwegian tanker in the straits of Gibraltar while ascending to periscope depth. Less than a year after that, a sister ship, the USS Hartford strayed into shallow water while training in the Mediterranean Sea and ran aground on Oct. 25, 2003.

At the moment of the Oklahoma City collision, the commanding officer was in the sub’s wardroom conducting a briefing at the instigation of the embarked squadron commander.

That any CO would so distance himself from the sub’s control room while ascending to periscope depth in the shipping environment near Gibraltar passes neither the common-sense test nor the professional-judgment test.

In both cases, the Submarine Squadron Commander was on board and also was relieved of command. In a parallel event, the USS Greeneville in 2001 collided with and sank the Japanese fisheries training vessel Ehime Maru while demonstrating an emergency surfacing maneuver to embarked civilians. The parallel here is that the Chief of Staff of the Pacific Submarine Force was also embarked. His role remains unclear.

Only in a professional environment that subordinated ship-handling and basic leadership to bureaucratic skills could a man, in the penultimate job of his career, allow himself to be removed from such a critical evolution as the CO of the Oklahoma City did. In the same Proceedings commentary, Previdi noted that jointness, in becoming an end in itself, “has led to the dominance of the Joint Staff over the service staffs.”

Congress should take note of what is going on here. Despite a clear prohibition in Title 10, the basic law of the organization of the Department of Defense, the Joint Staff is progressively assuming the role of a general staff. As a consequence, Previdi added, “Military thought is centralized at a time when just the opposite is needed.”

One aphorism from military staff duty is that all things are possible with the right talker. If an officer has significant staff duty prior to command, I submit that he may not recognize when he is standing into danger. There are absolutes from which no officer can extricate himself through verbal eloquence.

Such absolutes are the way of the naval services, and in reality, all of the armed services. And in peacetime, minor errors can still sink a career. That is why when their “parallel” career paths deviate from such leadership basics such as shiphandling, some officers opt to minimize additional sea duty.

Major changes in service culture do not show their true effects for nearly a generation. What we may be seeing today is the emergence of a cohort of officers, fully prepared under the aegis of jointness as a career path, but less skilled than their predecessors in the necessary elements of seamanship and warfighting.

Gen. Jones was speaking for the Marine Corps when he lamented the increasing rigidity in the military, but I believe his words represent keen insight applicable to all of the services that our solons must take to heart.

Lt. Raymond Perry USN (Ret.) is a DefenseWatch Contributing Editor. He can be reached at cos1stlt@yahoo.com. Please send Feedback responses to dwfeedback@yahoo.com.




03-08-04, 09:32 AM
Once again, General Jones has shown himself to be one of the most forward thinkers our miltary has seen in years.