What Would the Athenians Think of Recent U.S. Navy Mishaps?

September 21, 2017 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: U.S. NavyMilitaryHistoryTechnologyLeadershipGreece

What Would the Athenians Think of Recent U.S. Navy Mishaps?

The Greeks took official accountability too far. The U.S. Navy might not take it far enough.

And for good measure, the navy also cut back the Senior Officer Ship Material Readiness Course, which prepared ship captains to oversee their ships’ physical preservation. Training cutbacks thus impoverished the intellectual capital both of junior officers and of senior officers entrusted with grooming them for leadership.

Concludes the Balisle task force, “a situation [had] been created wherein ships [could] no longer sufficiently assess their readiness and training shortfalls.” In other words, crewmen circa 2010 might not know what physical state their vessel was in, or whether their shipmates were proficient at their jobs. Crews might not even know what they didn’t know about such all-important matters.

In effect, then, the turn-of-the-century navy leadership committed vandalism against the surface force. Athenians took great pride in their seafaring culture, knowing the best-maintained ship is no better than the seafarers who sail her into harm’s way. Inquisitors would judge harshly those who made the training-related decisions documented by the Fleet Review Panel.

By 2010, then, a blue-ribbon task force had concluded that the surface fleet was in poor condition and trending downward—imperiling fleet operations while shortening ships’ service lives. The basic cause? The Fleet Review Panel opined that efficiency had come to obsess the naval establishment, and that it did so at the expense of effectiveness. Efficiency connotes providing fighting forces the bare minimum of resources necessary to get the job done under routine conditions. It saves money. Effectiveness means furnishing them enough to get the job done when disaster—or the enemy—strikes.

Lost in the mania for efficiency, it seems, was any sense that bad things sometimes befall warships, and that warships need to be equipped and staffed to cope with bad things. Greeks had a keen sense of fate, and warned constantly that pride goes before a fall. They would shake their heads in wonderment at American presumption.

So the task before Secretary Spencer’s Strategic Review Panel is to revisit the Balisle Report, then chart trendlines from 2010 through today. Circumstances have doubtless brightened since then in some respects. For instance, the surface force has reinstated division-officer training in the form of an eight-week Basic Division Officer Course and a four-week Advanced Division Officer Course. The panel must render judgment on whether supplying officers a fraction of what their predecessors got before 2003—and of what their brethren in subs and aviation get—is enough to replenish the officer corps’s expertise. Finding out where the fleet stands constitutes the first step toward a renaissance.

Affixing responsibility is essential as well. For all their ruthless methods, it may be that classical Athenians exercised too much forbearance when enforcing official accountability. Maybe they should have devised procedures for investigating doubtful performance discovered long after a commander’s tenure was up. People may retire; accountability lives on.

Or it should.

James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific. The views voiced here are his alone.

Image: U.S. Navy