It is commonly understood that, regardless of record, an officer without substantial experience in Washington is unlikely to move beyond a first command. Those officers who stay with the fleet, without also keeping a weather-eye on good Washington tours, and an associated accretion of powerful advocates, end up being viewed by boards as insufficiently broad, which is tantamount to non-selection. Whether they are the sorts of persons that are wanted to fight the nation’s battles at sea or not is hardly of interest. Instead, what is of interest is: Can they can influence a budget? Plan future manning? Are they acquainted with the interests of industry and congress? Are they thoroughly familiar with the employment of power and influence beyond the Navy’s lifelines? Are they polished? Do they fully support Navy policy, regardless? But whether they are skilled in ship maintenance, anti-submarine warfare, or operational-level warfighting and tactics is of little (or at best secondary) interest despite how vital these grassroots-level skills are toward crafting viable policy. Instead what we have built is a bloated generation of leaders who are better at fighting bureaucracies than wars.
Solutions and Ideas
Flag numbers cannot be easily drawn down once established. Nevertheless, a new path forward must be described. That path includes cultural changes, which can only be effected from the top-down.
First, board precepts should be altered to reward at least a few of those officers who are more regarded for their operational/waterfront excellence than their experiences in front offices. More stars need to go to officers who are intimately connected to the fleet and with developing warfighting tactics, rather than with the Washington milieu. Rather than asking simply, “What can he or she do for us in Washington,” perhaps another important question should be, “Who do we want to fight our wars?”
Second, hard questions should be asked with regard to whom, exactly, we are putting in charge of the actual procurement and maintenance of ships. Engineering Duty Officers (EDs) and Acquisition Professionals (APs) are the unquestioned flags of who actually runs the bottom-line acquisition of ships, as well as their maintenance. It seems odd that these are also officers that have had few command-at-sea (EDs) or a major command-at-sea tours (APs).
Third, meaningful command opportunities for captains, beyond major command, should be established. It makes little sense to give our most experienced surface force captains the choice of either making flag, going to an obscure, heavy-lifting staff job, or get out. As it is, most of the few “sequential major commands” are either shore- or training-based, and kept firmly under the thumb of closely connected flags. Our real ship experts leave, almost to a man, if they don’t make flag, and those who do stay are generally only doing so to prepare for their next career. On the other hand, many would stay if they were offered positions commensurate with their background and experience, positions in which they could bring their expertise to bear on cracking hard problems on warfighting tactics or waterfront operations, and not carrying out more simple staff functions for a bureaucracy that has outgrown its administrative usefulness.
Fourth, cut the number of SES positions. Certainly, one may ask what these SES personnel can provide that uniformed personnel cannot. Continuity? Stability? Unfortunately, it seems as if these terms have become euphemisms for the sort of bureaucratic paralysis and risk aversion, in the name of self-interest, which increasingly plagues the services but especially the SES. Consider replacing these persons with long-serving captains, post-major command, and allow them to remain in place for multiple tours (as opposed to indefinitely as is the case with SESs) if necessary.
Finally, the real bureaucracy – the self-licking ice cream cone – needs to be cut. Not just flag officers and senior executives, but their counterparts across the services should be a primary target for a congressionally-mandated mission/task review, with resultant manpower and infrastructure reductions, as well as an across-the-board reduction in flag and SES-level requirements. There are several approaches available. First, former Secretary Gates’ Efficiency Initiatives should be fully implemented. Second, caps on the total number of general and flag officers, instituted by President Bush in 2001, should be reinstated and tied to the size of the force.
While there may be certain institutional and bureaucratic reasons for maintaining the number of senior personnel in the service, the evidence seems to suggest that these leaders are increasingly remote from, and unable to address the issues of, the fleet – and the same is probably true in the other services.
Captain James L. McClane comes from a Navy family. His service afloat since 1964 includes DD, DDGs, CGs, and with Aegis destroyer and cruiser commands. He was the commissioning combat systems officer of USS Ticonderoga (CG 47). His service ashore includes sequential major commands of Afloat Training Group Atlantic.
Captain Kevin Eyer served in seven cruisers, commanding three Aegis cruisers: USS Thomas S. Gates (CG-51), Shiloh (CG-67), and Chancellorsville (CG-62). This originally appeared on CIMSEC in 2019.
This originally appeared on CIMSEC in 2019.