The U.S. Navy Has an Image Problem

A sailor secures the welcome lei on the bow of the littoral combat ship USS Independence. Flickr/U.S. Navy

"Constant bad news could prompt key audiences to deprecate littoral combat ships, Ford­-class flattops, or Zumwalt-class destroyers."

Battle is the arbiter of tactical and operational acumen. By definition, though, armed forces don’t duel one another in peacetime. So how does one force prevail over another in peacetime strategic competition?

This represents a question of utmost moment for the U.S. Navy, which is clinging to its maritime supremacy in the face of challengers on the make.

The victor in strategic competition triumphs by impressing important audiences—by making them believers in its combat prowess relative to its rivals. Prospective foes blanch from a trial of arms against a palpably stronger force. Allies and friends take heart when backed by such a force. Third parties flock to likely winners and shun likely losers in times of trouble. Constituents back home accept risk when their armed forces are the odds-on favorite in martial enterprises.

Impressions count—in naval warfare as in our mamas’ folk wisdom. Fighting ships, warplanes, armaments, and crews are political implements. If battle tests the combatants’ fighting power in wartime, important audiences’ estimate of who’s who decides the outcome of a peacetime showdown. Whichever contender observers think would have won in combat wins in peacetime.

And, perversely, it matters little whether laymen’s impressions are accurate or inaccurate, just or unjust. A weaker but imposing-looking force could emerge triumphant from an encounter in an embattled expanse such as, say, the South China Sea. Make believers of elites and ordinary folk and you shall go far. Leave them doubting and your political efficacy suffers. Lose the war of perceptions and you risk losing out altogether.

Which brings us back to the U.S. Navy—an armed force bedeviled by an image problem. Engineering woes have sidelined newfangled warships in recent months, casting doubt on shipbuilders’ manufacturing practices, maintenance and training in the fleet, and the basic design philosophies underlying frontline combatants. The navy’s prospects for deterring or coercing foes while reassuring friends will suffer should the impression take hold that American sailors and warships are unequal to workaday functions—let alone to the rigors of high-seas combat.

Think about the travails the fleet has endured. Trouble has struck the navy’s littoral combat ships (LCS) especially hard. Last month, mere days after being commissioned, the LCS USS Montgomery suffered a seawater leak and a casualty to one of her gas-turbine engines on the same day while transiting the Caribbean Sea. The vessel put into Mayport, Florida for repairs. For good measure, Montgomery collided with a tugboat while exiting Mayport ahead of Hurricane Matthew—opening up a seam in her hull above the waterline.

Montgomery’s misfortunes represent only the latest in a series of equipment and human failures on board the littoral combatants. So bad have things gotten that Vice Admiral Tom Rowden, galactic overlord of Naval Surface Forces, ordained a “standdown” to review standards, procedures, and training in all LCS engineering departments. As the term implies, that means standing down from daily chores, dropping everything to search out the failings that prompted such an operational pause.

A rash of incidents suggests there may be a chronic problem in the material or human dimensions within a community. Chronic troubles warrant introspection and corrective action.

Nor does the hunt for systemic failings stop with LCS crews. This is a surface-navy-wide endeavor. Admiral Rowden directed my old department, the Engineering Training Directorate at the Surface Warfare Officers School in Newport, to execute a thirty-day review of “the wholeness of our LCS engineering education and training to include the testing and retraining of all LCS engineers.” Navy leaders, moreover, are restructuring the LCS program, for instance by modifying crewing and deployment patterns and designating four hulls as full-time training platforms.

Officialdom oftentimes retorts to criticism of new ship types by claiming that “first-in-class” vessels always suffer through growing pains. And there’s no gainsaying that. Ships are intricate mechanisms. Seldom does an intricate mechanism work perfectly from day one. But the latest bad news is of a different order altogether. The first LCS joined the fleet in 2008, fully eight years ago. All ship types have quirks, but few ship types are still encountering mission-threatening hull, mechanical, and engineering troubles eight years after their inception. Most are working warships that give their operators a few headaches.