Who Watches the Watchers in the U.S. Navy?

The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan steams the Philippine Sea during Annual Exercise 2017, joint military training between the U.S. Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force

What does the latest Navy Strategic Readiness Review say about the state of the U.S. Navy?

So how would the ghosts of strategists past rate the U.S. Navy’s just-released Strategic Readiness Review? The review represents the navy’s quasi-independent inquest into the hardware and human failings—a.k.a. problems with “readiness”—that wracked the sea service during the annus horribilis that was 2017. (I say quasi-independent because one of the coauthors, retired admiral Gary Roughead, oversaw the service during part of the time when the maladies the review documents seeped into naval operations.)

Here is one guy’s guess at the masters’ judgment: the review is useful on the whole, yet disappointingly noncommittal about whom to hold accountable for the navy’s malaise. Authority, it seems, comes down hard on sailors out in the fighting forces while staying its hand vis-à-vis topmost leaders—the leaders responsible for devising the rules and standards whereby sailors out in the fighting forces do business. That’s a mite perverse.

Let’s start with the bad—fittingly for this season of joy. Navy public-relations boilerplate typically justifies firing ship commanders, executive officers or their senior assistants by citing senior leadership’s “loss of confidence” in their “ability to command.” Lose the confidence of higher-ups and out you go.

If that’s the standard for junior folk, though, methinks it ought to apply to their superiors as well. Yet the Strategic Readiness Review—its executive summary in particular—finds fault not with specific senior officers or officials but with “institutional deficiencies” that were decades in the making. Such deficiencies are abstract, impossible to pin down. A multitude of factors, note the coauthors, interact with one another through a “complex system-of-systems governed by regulations, policies, and processes.” These factors shape—or mishape—readiness.

Implication: correcting the navy’s woes is a matter of adjusting regulations, policies and processes rather than affixing responsibility to those who drew up those regulations, policies and processes in yesteryear—or let them slip in more recent times.

George Orwell—a master of literature, not strategy—would cluck his tongue at this exercise in abstraction. Orwell observes that vague language and the passive voice represent a refuge for scoundrels. Mistakes are made in an Orwellian world; things are done. Who makes the mistakes or does the disreputable things remains obscure, and that’s the purpose of roundabout phrasing. Deliberately or not, the Strategic Readiness Review’s framers shroud their findings in language that excuses senior leaders for their part in this year’s mishaps.

The coauthors also vouchsafe, rightly, that cultures decay. A kind of cultural drift has swept the surface navy away from high standards. They label this phenomenon “normalization of deviation,” riffing on Columbia University sociologist Diane Vaughan’s sharp commentary on “normalization of deviance.” In a nutshell, Professor Vaughan maintains that the people comprising an organization become “so much accustomed to a deviation” from established standards that they no longer consider it deviant. Departing from the rulebook becomes the new normal—and in effect the rules cease to exist.

No one does anything wrong per se in an institution inured to deviance, and yet the institution has set itself up for failure. According to the Strategic Readiness Review, a “must-do” culture has taken hold within the American surface fleet since the Cold War. When the call comes from higher authority, in other words, the fleet answers—even if answering means putting to sea half-trained in critical skills, or while suffering from significant equipment deficiencies. Deviance prevails. Few take note until disaster strikes—jarring everyone back to reality.

However valuable such critiques, they tell only part of the story. The Strategic Readiness reviewers find fault not with specific officers or officeholders but with the U.S. Navy as an institution, and with its must-do syndrome. In other words, they assign blame to vast impersonal forces beyond individuals’ ken, or control. Shadowy abstractions deform rules and practices, giving rise to conditions under which ships collide, planes crash and sailors die. No individual is culpable.