The Navy is trending towards Battleship

…and not in a good way

We’re seeing more news on people leaving the military, even when within one or two years of retirement. First it was Marine Corps Lt Col Stuart Scheller. Next it was Army Lt Col Paul Hague. I’m sure over the next two months we’ll get about one of these every two weeks before it dies down. They’ll make the news, people will comment needlessly on Twitter, and then life will go on.

That’s not the real story. The real story is that for every one of these very public resignations, there are thousands that are quietly leaving. These people aren’t willing to throw away a pension if they are close to it. For the ones that are ending their first five year commitment, they are simply preparing now to walk away. They won’t make a big stink about it. They won’t leave five page resignation letters talking about Marxism, transgender policy and imbedded racism. Nope. These people will simply leave. They won’t make a ruckus or create waves, they’ll simply vote with their feet.

The military will cover this up. Not like X-Files “I want to believe” sort of cover up. It’ll just not make headlines. You’ll hear things like “We’re short on fighter pilots” now and again, but nothing earth shattering will make the news. The media that cover military stories focus almost exclusively on operations, because operations is sexy. It’s sexy and cool to interview the Blue Angels and look at drones landing on an aircraft carrier. It’s boring to look at numbers. That stuff is for nerds.

But nerds rule, and the numbers already look bad on the Navy side. The best indicator of what is called “community health” is how well you’re filling control grade officers, specifically the O-4 (LCDR), O-5 (CDR) and O-6 (CAPT) ranks. These are important for a few reasons.

  • Almost all of your commanding officers and executive officers come from these ranks. These officers control the day-to-day operations and they have by far the biggest impact on Sailor morale. If morale is suffering and things are getting done, this is the first place to check.
  • These people are lifers. They’ve stayed past 10 years, so they are “in it” for the long haul. They either love what they do, or at least don’t hate it enough to quit.
  • These ranks have the not-fun jobs. These ranks run the show from the background. The sexy jobs flying fast planes, driving boats and shooting at bad people are now past. That makes these jobs harder to fill.

So how is the Navy doing in this area? Easiest way to check is selection rates. The Navy’s officer manning is a pyramid. There are lots of O-1, O-2 and O-3 young officers at the bottom. The ideal selection rate to O-4 is 70%, meaning that 30% of otherwise qualified people are not selected. That seems brutal, but it allows you to pick the best. It also takes into account people that leave anyway, since O-3s that are eligible for promotion would also be finishing their first 5-year committment.

As we go up the pyramid, it gets harder. Ideal selection to O-5 is only 60% of eligible people, and selection to O-6 is about 50%. You only want the best people in positions of command and responsibility, and there aren’t as many jobs that high up, so you’re naturally going to shed more people. Also, these ranks allow people to stay until retirement, so you’ll have more non-selected officers that fill slots until they retire.

So how are selection rates now? LCDR selection rate is roughly 90%, CDR is 80% and CAPT is around 65%. This varies a lot by community, with some communities significantly higher.

That’s bad. High selection rates mean not enough people are staying in until they are eligible for promotion. In a business environment, you can simply hire people from outside or promote younger people, but the military is only allowed to pick 10% from what they call “below zone” officers, who are typically 1-2 years younger than officers that are “in zone” for selection. Now, you can pick officers that were previously passed over for promotion, and in many cases, these officers are otherwise great selections. But officers that are passed over once are likely planning their exit already. Once they see opportunity elsewhere, many are going to walk away.

Worse still, look at the communities with the highest selection rates. For CAPT, these are Cryptologic Warfare (85%) and Information Professional (70%). For CDR, these are…the same group, and the same for LCDR. Cryptologic Warfare officers make and break codes, specializing in cyber warfare, signals intelligence and electronic warfare. Information Professionals connect and maintain Navy communications. Both groups require significant engineering backgrounds, and yet both groups are leaving in droves. If the people that conduct the most advanced warfare areas are leaving, it means we aren’t providing enough incentives for them to stay around compared to what they can achieve in industry.

This is the canary in the coal mine. The numbers are trending worse, not better. This has been happening for the past three fiscal years. Now, combine this with a job market that is begging people to work, and one that is rapidly adopting the use of advanced technology to replace low-skilled jobs. The first people to leave the Navy, much like the first people to leave the fictional company in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, are the engineers and people with technical skills. Others in the chain will take notice, and short of significant business setbacks, people with good skills will bail. Once they have “Gone Galt,” the Navy is going to struggle to find competent leaders.

I used to laugh at movies like “Battleship,” where the only tactics the military seems to use are bum-rush the bad guy with big guns, resembling the often suicidal battle charges from the Civil War. Sadly, that’s what we’re going to get when its not worth it for smart people to stay around.

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. All data was publicly available at https://www.mynavyhr.navy.mil/Career-Management/Boards/Active-Duty-Officer/.

Since you read this far, you should buy my book, “To Build A House,” available here on Amazon.

4 thoughts on “The Navy is trending towards Battleship

  1. Reenlistments are down. Initial enlistments are down. Personnel over 20 who would normally serve another tour, maybe two, before retirement- are retiring.

    I’m waiting for the inevitable stop loss order. It’s coming.

  2. The other factor influencing selection rates is affirmative action on behalf of blacks, hispanics and women. They HAVE to promote more of these categories, even tho they have self selected for the most part into the less significant and/or risky MOS. Even with that boost in ratings, they arent getting to the “goals.”

  3. Two things”
    A nit to pick is that non-flying officers have an initial commitment of 5 years (it was 4 when I was commissioned). After that your commission does not expire and and the only commitments you acquire are things like advanced training, such as going to Instructor Pilot school, etc, PCS moves and certain other things.
    2.My son is an Army E-4 Apache crew chief and he is preparing a [packet for warrant officer and helo flight school. I’m a pilot and he is excited to follow in dad’s footsteps and I am excited for him. However, just like you referred to above I have some real doubts about the way the military is going. I hope things will work out for him.

    1. CURLY_BILL, Thank you and your son for serving! In my 8 years in the Army, I found that the best Officers/Warrant Officers tended to be those that were enlisted first (as long as it doesn’t go to their head and they remember where they came from). I’m sure it makes you a proud papa with him following in your steps. I hope everything works out. Take care!

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