Building Tough Sailors

While the Fat Leonard scandal continues to rock the US Navy, and collisions put two US Navy destroyers out of the fight, the CNO asked his leaders to stand down their organizations for a day in what he called an operational pause. His basic message was that we’re taking casualties in “routine” operations that we’re supposed to be good at, and that’s a problem. For my organization, we stood down on Thursday, and my leadership team had some enlightening discussions with our Sailors.

If I had to speculate on what’s happening, I think the high tempo placed on too few platforms, coupled with old-school leadership mentality, is starting to break our toughness.

The CNO demands a tough Navy and tough Sailors. You see it brought up in the videos here. He’s spoken about our Sailors being able to take a hit and keep going. That’s incredibly important in any sort of war, where it’s not a matter of if, but when, the enemy hurts you. You can’t have a glass jaw if you’re going to exercise American Maritime Strategy.

Among many things, toughness means you have reserves that you can kick in when a crisis happens. It means you aren’t always operating at 100%. Normal, day-to-day, “routine” operations can’t require your 100% effort every single time, or you’ll burn out quickly.

A large part of this problem is that our routine is now routinely requiring a near 100% effort. It’s exasperated by too few platforms. The average American doesn’t see this, because the news shows the US Navy simply being there, as if by magic. How can we afford to have so many destroyers near the South China Sea and off North Korea? Simple. We rob them from 4th Fleet (which operates around South America) and 5th Fleet (in the Middle East). We play a shell game with the assets we have in an attempt to cover down.

Our enemies take full advantage of this. Any ship watcher will tell you there are an awful lot of Chinese ships in the Middle East. China is also strengthening ties with South American and African nations, two areas where we often rob of Naval presence to surge elsewhere. Even North Korea is jumping on this bandwagon, offering assistance to Namibia.

So we don’t have enough to go around. The second problem is that we USED TO have enough to go around. During the 80s and early 90s, we regularly had over 500 ships in inventory, so we sent them everywhere. Need to provide presence to South America? Easy. Need to conduct some Freedom of Navigation operations to challenge the Soviets? Yup, plenty of ships for that. We could meet the obligations, and while we had to push our people to meet them, it was never at 100% of their capacity. But we got used to meeting everything, and that mentality is pushing us to do the same with only 275 ships in our battle inventory. Coupled with too many training and other requirements, we now regularly push our Sailors to their limits to meet more demands.

I saw this on Thursday. Many of my Sailors on nights talked about how it’s hard to get enough sleep. When I asked who had driven home tired, plenty of people raised their hands. One Sailor told me that before he joined the Navy and was working three jobs to make ends meet, he had days where he drove home and couldn’t remember anything from his drive over. I asked everyone “how is that any different than driving drunk?”…and the room was pretty quiet. What my leadership team found was our Sailors were willing to push themselves and didn’t think twice about it. They wouldn’t speak up more out of pride than fear. We had to discuss that while getting the job done is important, it is infinitely worse if I lose a Sailor driving tired during our routine operations, and I’d rather provide rides home for tired Sailors (like our Designated Driving to stop DUIs) than put that Sailor at risk.

There isn’t an easy way to fix this. We’re going to need more platforms and more Sailors. We need our partner nations to do more. We need some requirements to go away so that our people have more time. We need leaders to push back when our people need a break. We need leaders of those leaders to not regularly put them in situations where they have to push back. If there was a simple solution, it would have been done already.

As a nation, we have to ask “What do we want from our Navy?” and put the right effort behind it to make that happen. I’m not going to claim to have that answer, but the title of the CNO’s strategy, “Maintaining Maritime Superiority,” indicates he doesn’t intend to back down in the face of our enemies. I certainly don’t intend to either.

America’s Sailors make me proud every day. Every day I get to put on a uniform and lead America’s sons and daughters in protecting our nation. We still have the finest Navy in the world, and we do amazingly difficult tasks every day with 19 year old Sailors from all parts of our country. Our Sailors are pretty tough, and I think we can make them tougher. We’ll learn from this pause and move forward.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency. It should not be interpreted as speculating about the ongoing investigations into the two recent collisions. I haven’t seen those reports, and we should give those investigators the space to figure out what happened so that we can learn from it.

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