Last Sunday brought a shocker from the world of American naval affairs: Adm. Bill Moran, a highly respected naval aviator and budgetary and personnel specialist, announced that he would retire from the service rather than take up the post of chief of naval operations (CNO), America’s top naval officer. Details remain scanty, but Admiral Moran had remained in contact with a disgraced public affairs officer via email and USA Today had filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain their correspondence. Moran was probably worried that the press would sensationalize the contents of the email conversation. If so, then the ensuing scandal could have made him an instant lame-duck CNO.
A grave loss—but Moran’s retirement will leach the newsworthiness out of any story that does appear. That should spare the U.S. Navy a public relations ordeal at a time when it needs to stay serious about competing against the likes of China, Russia, and Iran. On Wednesday President Donald Trump went deep into the bench for a replacement, selecting surface warfare officer Vice Adm. Mike Gilday for the post. All full admirals and vice admirals are eligible for the job, but generally speaking the White House opts for seniority. It has been almost fifty years since a vice admiral, another surface warfare officer by the name of Elmo Zumwalt, was named to oversee the U.S. Navy. President Richard Nixon went deep into his bench in 1970, choosing the three-star Zumwalt over four-star candidates.
History rhymes. CNO Zumwalt oversaw naval affairs during an age not unlike this one. American involvement in a nagging ground war was winding down. Today, it’s Afghanistan; then, it was Vietnam. Meanwhile a brawny peer navy had commenced prowling the seven seas. Today, it’s China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy; then, it was the Soviet Navy. All of a sudden, having spent the decades since World War II outclassing all comers, the U.S. Navy confronted a competitor comparable to itself. During the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, for example, both the United States and Soviet Union dispatched fleets to the Eastern Mediterranean to support their allies. Not only did the Soviet Navy contingent outnumber the Italy-based U.S. Sixth Fleet, its ships were more youthful on average.
Admiral Zumwalt helped the service don its game face for strategic competition against this new rival. Admiral Gilday must help the service cope with a Russian Navy that longs to recoup lost glory, a People’s Liberation Army Navy intent on fulfilling China’s “dream” of national revival, and an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy that delights in troublemaking within confined Middle Eastern waters. Remaking the U.S. Navy for this brave new world is a daunting mission; trying to remake it in a short time is even more daunting. But a short time is all the CNO-designate will have. By law CNOs are limited to four years in the post. Will that be enough for Admiral Gilday to fulfill his vision before he’s forced into retirement, as the current CNO, Admiral John Richardson, is about to be?
That’s an open question. The U.S. Navy is a big bureaucracy, and it takes time and constant, firm leadership to compel a bureaucracy to adapt itself to new times and surroundings. A century ago proponents of public administration celebrated large organizations for their machinelike efficiency. They could be counted on to execute the same routine tasks the same way, day in and day out. But the mass-production paradigm that works well in business, or in government during placid times, is ill suited for times of drastic flux. Machines do not readily retool themselves when operating conditions change around them. Retooling takes an engineer—and that engineer needs to stay on the job long enough to finish the project.
CNO Richardson made a solid start. He took up his duties in 2015 and soon started amending the U.S. Navy’s attitude toward prospective antagonists. Before then, for instance, it was plausible for wiseacres to label China America’s and the U.S. Navy’s “Voldemort.” Speak its name, and suggest that future unpleasantness could lie in store in the Western Pacific, and dreadful consequences would follow! Strategic candor would evoke dark magic, and therefore officialdom avoided it. The Voldemort effect wore off thanks in large part to senior folk such as Richardson, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. These were officials increasingly willing to name names. They deemed China a formidable rival and potential foe—and demanded that the U.S. armed forces gird themselves accordingly.
These Pentagon leaders started the bureaucratic reengineering project. Carter and Mattis have returned to academe, though. Richardson will follow them into retirement no later than mid-September, the hard limit to his term. Whether new Pentagon and naval leadership will see their project through to fruition remains to be determined.
Should it even be necessary to wonder? Apart from arbitrary rules imposed by Congress, there’s little evident reason to change leadership now—and risk forfeiting the much-needed renaissance in strategy making, operational art, and weapons innovation. Florentine philosopher-statesman Niccolò Machiavelli would voice dismay at the idea that a republic would trade out leaders who are right for the times for others who might—or might not—be. True, Machiavelli lauded republics for their ability to pick new leaders. It made them nimble and adaptable by contrast with autocracies. They could update themselves, replacing people who had fallen out of tune with the times with people suited to new circumstances.
But he never advised republics to switch out leaders willy-nilly. They should so when they needed to. Rome outlasted Carthage in the Second Punic War, a conflict that threatened the republic’s very existence, because it could tap Fabius “the Delayer”—a commander who never saw a pitched battle he liked—to forestall defeat at Hannibal’s hands while Rome roused itself for decisive battle. Then—when the opportunity to take the offensive beckoned, yet Fabius couldn’t shake his defensive habits—Romans turned to Scipio Africanus. Scipio renounced delaying tactics, carried the fight across the Mediterranean Sea, and vanquished Carthage on its own ground. In other words, Rome changed out personnel mindfully, not arbitrarily. It did so for sound military reasons.
How about a quick foray into alt-history. Suppose the Roman Senate had substituted another commander for Fabius before the time was ripe, simply because lawmakers had imposed an arbitrary limit on a supreme commander’s tenure. Perhaps they would have found another Delayer, and the war would have continued along its Fabian course and culminated in victory. Maybe. In all likelihood the biographer Plutarch would find that scenario doubtful. He portrays Fabius as one of a kind. The Delayer opposed Hannibal “not with intention to fight him, but with the purpose of wearing out and wasting the vigor of his arms by lapse of time.”
That kind of self-restraint is unusual among warriors. Few laurels come from declining close action. The Roman host shadowed the Carthaginians, never engaging but always posing a threat. “When they marched,” Plutarch reports, Fabius trailed them; “when they encamped he did the same, but at such a distance as not to be compelled to an engagement.” He refused to fight a pitched battle but also refused to give the Carthaginians any rest. His strategy kept the enemy “in a continual alarm.” Yet it frustrated Romans as well. Fabius’ “dilatory way” of field command fueled “suspicion of want of courage” even within his army. Few captains can live with having soldiers, statesmen, or citizens question their physical or moral courage. But Fabius could. Roman magnates were wise to leave him in command.
Another possibility: maybe the Senate would have appointed Scipio prematurely, on grounds that it was his turn. Disaster likely would have followed. True to his instincts, the offensively minded Scipio might have ventured a decisive battle before the army was strong enough. If so, then Rome might have suffered a calamity reminiscent of Cannae, where Hannibal’s host exterminated a Roman army. Offering battle too soon had created the need for Fabius’ delaying strategy in the first place, and by his nature Scipio would have inclined to repeat the mistake.
Judging from his interpretation of Roman history, Machiavelli would counsel American political leaders to stay the course once they find military leadership fitted for the times and circumstances. Only if the leadership proves unfit should they turn elsewhere. The U.S. Navy once knew the value of steady, long-lasting leadership. For instance, Adm. Hyman Rickover presided over the development and administration of U.S. naval nuclear propulsion for some three decades. The father of “the nuclear navy” was a strange character in some respects, but he imprinted his mania for education and safety on the submarine and surface nuclear communities. Talk to any nuclear-trained officer and you will see Rickover’s legacy in action. Such is the merit of constancy in leadership.