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.

The military personnel crisis in 2023

If you thought Afghanistan was bad, wait for the military personnel cliff in 2023.

Since Afghanistan fell, there have been plenty of discussions in the military ranks of “How did we get here?” Many military members are unhappy with how the withdraw was conducted. While there are only a few that make this public, there are many more that are quietly questioning the decision making that went into this disaster.

Afghanistan though is masking a much bigger, looming threat. I’ll go out on a limb and predict it now: the military is going to face a manpower crisis in 2023 when an “unexpected” number of people leave the service.

Don’t believe me? I’ve got three darn-good reasons its going to happen.

First, it’ll be the first year that members under the blended retirement system are up for re-enlistment. If you’re not familiar with it, the old military retirement system required 20 years of service before you could draw a pension. The pension was pretty good, equal to 50% of your base pay, and it followed you for life. Yes, if you were cagey on playing the stock market or invented the next best widget to sell on Amazon, you could do better, but if that was true, you probably weren’t in the military in the first place.

That system was replaced with the “Blended Retirement System,” which sounds like a drink you order at Tropical Smoothie, except this one blended cash and your tears into a lower grade slushy that was tough to swallow. BRS, as it is called, was a 401K program that the military would provide matching contributions. This sounds awesome, except:

  • The military only had a certain number of funds you could invest in
  • The military doesn’t start matching until 5 years
  • Most military members make well below average salary in their first five years

BRS was a way to save money. It was sold to the military as “more fair,” but it was all about saving money. More importantly, the military lost a big incentive for young service members to make the military a career. Most members sign on for an initial 5 year commitment. During this time, they receive a lot of initial training and typically deploy somewhere. For enlisted personnel walking in with only a high school degree, at five years they have schooling, the equivalent of an associates degree, and work experience. It’s enough to entice many to leave for greener pastures, and many do just that.

One of the big incentives to stay was the promise of a good career with a good retirement. So imagine a service member checking their BRS balance, and seeing a pretty paltry number because they didn’t make much money to contribute. Combined with new skills and a half-way decent job market, why would they stay?

BRS went into effect in 2018. Add five years, you get 2023.

Now, not everyone is in it for the money. Plenty of people join just to leave their crappy circumstances. I remember one of my Sailors telling me he could pick between working at a gas station his whole life or joining the Navy. In terms of non-financial reasons, this ranks as a high second reason. But that reason won’t stop the 2023 dropoff, and its pretty obvious why: once you have some mobility because you have skills, money and experience, you don’t have to return to where you came. Military members that left their small town, ghetto or whatever bad place they lived in previously have choices after 5 years of service, and they’re likely going to choose to live in a better place with more job prospects.

But wait! Don’t people serve out of a sense of honor and duty? They do, my dear reader, and that brings me to my third point. The military has been sold as an honorable profession, a meritocracy where one can serve their country. That image is being shattered. We just had a disastrous loss in Afghanistan and a significant refocus on “domestic extremism” (which was questioned by many service members). We keep repeating that the military is rife with sexual assault, despite the punishment rates being better than the civilian sector (due to non-judicial punishment and lower standards of proof than regular courts). When you keep hearing and seeing these messages, you have to ask, why bother? Why join, or if you are in, why stay?

It’s disheartening to say this, but the military is on track for a sharp decline in people willing to serve in 2023. I’m sure they’ll spin it in some positive way, but for all the reasons above, its going to happen. The members that signed up in 2018 will have less reasons to stay, and when you already have attrition rates near 30% in the first 3 years for some services, you need every reason possible to keep people around. Short of a significant correction in terms of pay, benefits, career satisfaction or popularity of mission, it’s going to be an ugly 2023.

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.

Speaking of the authors views, you should buy his book “To Build A House: My Epic Saga in Custom Home Building,” available here on Amazon.

Make this Memorial Day personal

Newspaper from the Battle for Crete in World War 2

History is best learned in person. While I was temporarily stationed on Crete in support of the ongoing conflict in Libya, I had a chance to visit a local museum that featured Cretan history from ancient times to the present. There was a large room devoted to the Battle of Crete, where the forces of Nazi Germany first fought a naval engagement, and then invaded Crete in one of the largest parachute drops in history. While Germany did successfully invade, it came at a great cost, and the Germans were hesitant to use parachute tactics in the future.

The newspaper above has a few interesting titles. First, its a good reminder that things weren’t all that certain in 1941 in Europe. Losing Crete, and followed by a massive German invasion of Russia soon after, left Europe’s position pretty uncertain. It’s easy to read history now and say “Well, its obvious the US would prevail,” but at the time it wasn’t so certain. I also had to smile at the “Capture of Fallujah” headline, since Fallujah continues to be as important back then as it is in modern times.

Walking in the nearby cemetery I found graves from both Allied and Axis powers. The graves are simple. I don’t recognize any of the names. I know the facts of the battles they fought in, but the actual people, outside of a few significant generals and admirals, are unknown to me.

I suspect that this is the same feeling many Americans get walking through Arlington National Cemetery. Sure, if you have a loved one buried there, its a different feeling. But most people don’t, and during Memorial Day, its hard to know what we’re supposed to feel about the graves we walk by. Sad? Respectful? Mournful?

I think the reason its difficult is because we’re taught history from an events perspective, especially for wars. These groups of people, using these weapons, fought over this place on a map, and this group won. But the truth is that each of those people that fought have a back story. A loved one at home. A family that misses them. They are fighting for many different reasons. Maybe they were drafted, or maybe they enlisted because they really believe in their country. Maybe they joined to climb further in the ranks, or maybe this is a one-and-done enlistment.

When we get the chance to hear these personal stories, they stick with us. You can’t read the book Unbroken (or watch the movie) and not be moved by it. Same goes for stories like Hacksaw Ridge or even Black Hawk Down. It’s easy to gloss over history in a cold, calculating way when its presented as figures, numbers, and geography, but its a lot harder when we hear about the individual people behind the battles. We identify with people.

So this Memorial Day, I encourage people that often struggle with “How am I supposed to react” to take the time to learn one story. Learn about the in-depth story of someone that gave their life for their country. Talk to a veteran about someone they knew that died fighting for their country. Make that individual connection. Don’t get too worried about the big picture stuff, instead, focus on one individual story. That will make it much more personal and meaningful.

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.

Northam Can Order the VA Guard Around

Or he can try to

by baldilocks

On Virginia, the National Guard, gun-grabbing, and Democrats wish-casting for civil war:

With dozens of Virginia counties declaring themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries, some Democratic lawmakers have said the governor should use the National Guard to enforce future gun control legislation — but can he?

Virginia Democrats, who control the legislature and governorship, have proposed several measures, including an “assault weapons” ban, universal background checks, and a red flag law. In response, 75 counties vowed they will not enforce future gun control legislation. Virginia Democratic Rep. Donald McEachin told the Washington Examiner on Thursday that Gov. Ralph Northam “may have to nationalize [sic] the National Guard to enforce the law” if local authorities refuse to do so themselves.

The president, as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, is the only person who can nationalize [sic] the Guard, but state governors have the latitude to use it to enforce state law, legal experts said.

“Until nationalized [sic],  it’s a creature of the state. So that’s what leads me to believe that, yes, the governor can activate the National Guard to enforce even a state law,” Gary Solis, a military law professor at Georgetown University, told the Washington Examiner.

Note to Rep. McEachin and to Russ Read, the author of this article: ‘nationalize’ doesn’t mean what you think it means.

Allow me to expand on who commands the National Guard.

The governor of each state is the Commander-in-Chief of his/her state’s National Guard. When a governor wants his state’s national guard to go somewhere within the state and do a thing, he is giving orders to mobilize, not nationalize. And when a president calls a guard unit to active duty, he is activating that unit, not nationalizing it.

(All this talk about “nationalization” makes me think we have a bunch of socialists in government, media, and academia. Nah, that can’t be true … )

People may remember that Guard units have served in many of our overseas conflicts. When they do so, they are on active duty and the POTUS is their CinC. Here’s how that happens.

When a POTUS wants to activate a Guard unit, he requests to do so in writing to the governor. Almost always, the governor says “yes” and the POTUS then becomes the CinC of the Guard unit(s) for the duration of said Guard unit’s active duty period. That’s why it seems to be automatic.

However, I could see Northam saying “no” under these conditions. That’s federalism.

All that said, it’s so cute how members of the Democrat-dominated VA legislature publicly ponder pitting the military against the state’s LEOs and its gun owners — as if they thought that no one was paying attention and they could just blurt out their fantasies in friendly company.

Simply, it’s beyond ridiculous to think that even a small portion of the VA Guard units would carry out orders to make war against their neighbors, especially considering that many of the LEOs who are defying the tyrants in the VA government are probably guardsmen/guardswomen (and reservists) themselves.

We’re watching you and rooting for you, people of Virginia. Don’t lose heart.

UPDATE: Readers are telling me that the Guard chain of command is more complicated than I’ve laid out. I’m looking it over.

Juliette Akinyi Ochieng has been blogging since 2003 as baldilocks. Her older blog is here.  She published her first novel, Tale of the Tigers: Love is Not a Game in 2012.

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Was Secretary Spencer any good?

At Sea – Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer, right, speaks with Carrier Strike Group 8 Command Master Chief Petty Officer Michael Bates in the in-port cabin during Spencer’s visit aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman, Feb. 25, 2018. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Kaysee Lohmann

Now that Secretary Spencer is officially no longer the Navy Secretary, I’m able to openly ask the question: why is everyone up in arms about him being fired? People (military and non-military) were hot and bothered by it on Facebook. Perhaps I’m a cynic, but I’ll ask what should be the most important question: what, exactly, did Secretary Spencer do as SECNAV for two years?

If we judge his tenure by the shape of the Navy, it isn’t pretty. US Ship Force levels have been relatively flat. This is made worse by the continued deployment of ships to respond to, basically, everything around the world. The Joint Staff uses a process called “Global Force Management,” where each Combatant Commander requests presence of different forces. Aircraft Carriers in particular are the subject of much discussion, and when one breaks (like the Harry S. Truman), you have people arguing over how to surge another carrier out, rather than discussing whether a carrier is even needed in the first place. This causes our carriers and other ships to wear out, and given we can’t build them fast enough, we are left with a Navy full of worn out ships and crews.

Secretary Spencer had to have seen this, and yet in two years, we haven’t had any change. His long range ship building plan put us at 355 ships, maybe, in 2030. We’re building 10 ships a year…maybe. While it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, China is set to overtake the US in ships by 2020. Numbers don’t account for crew readiness and weapon systems, but here again, the US is using relatively expensive weapons while China and Russia crank out increasingly cheaper missiles. Quantity becomes its own quality, and bankrupting the country to win the future fight isn’t a good option.

We could tackle this problem in a lot of ways. Building different ships, for example smaller carriers, would help get more ships to meet global requirements while saving higher-end ships for the big fight. Building a better shipyard infrastructure (getting away from having only a few places we can build Navy ships) could help lower the cost. Sharing ship designs with allies, similar to the F-35 program, could lower cost and make overseas repairs easier. Or perhaps we add in diesel submarines to help bring more submarines to the fight. Or we could build some smaller vessels, like the PCs of old, but with advanced striking power, to get a cheaper vessel that can fight in the littorals (the Littoral Combat Ship is anything but small or cheap).

But we have no innovation. The Long Range Shipbuilding plan sticks to traditional platforms, just calling for more of them. The one different platform, SSGN (converted ballistic submarines that shoot Tomahawk missiles and deploy SEAL teams) are going away, to be replaced by smaller Virginia submarines with specialized modules. Slightly innovative, but not enough to deal with China and Russia, who are designing very different Navies to fight very different wars in the future.

And how is that new carrier catapult working out? Even Bob Work was able to get LCS module price back on track.

We didn’t get much with Secretary Spencer. Our Navy isn’t in great shape, and ground wasn’t laid to make it much better. When the Secretary then decides to openly disagree with his boss, what did he expect would happen? If your boss is telling you to do something, and its not illegal, you get to disagree in private, but if he insists, then you get to resign.

For everyone mad about Secretary Spencer, I have to ask why. Is it because it was Trump that fired him? Did you really think Spencer was doing a good job? Because while I have some issues with Secretary Mattis leaving (I would prefer he stay on), I don’t see how Secretary Spencer was making our Navy great again.

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.

Ask a Vet about their story

I will be forever amazed how well our country treats veterans. Anytime I’ve traveled in uniform, it becomes hard to pay for a meal. This is especially true if I’m driving in the middle of the country where there aren’t a lot of military bases. This Veterans Day will doubtlessly be no different, and I’ll get reminded again that this is a country full of great people that care.

Over this past week I had a chance to interact with some of the older veterans from WW2 and Korea. Those veterans are disappearing at an alarming rate, and it won’t be long until they are gone. After that, we’ll eventually have nobody that lived through the Cold War. That time is coming faster than we think.

These veterans have stories that bring these conflicts to life. One WW2 veteran told me about the large number of plane accidents near his hometown. It reminded me that while we increased production of everything from ships to planes, it doesn’t mean it was the greatest quality. We cranked out Liberty ships in less than a month, but more than a few brittle fractured in half due to cold weather and poor welding. Planes and other weapon systems had similar issues. There are a lot of training aircraft on the bottom of Lake Michigan due to equipment failures.

The Liberty ship S.S. Schenectady, which, in 1943, failed before leaving the shipyard. (Reprinted with permission of Earl R. Parker, Brittle Behavior of Engineering Structures, National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council, John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1957.) From: https://metallurgyandmaterials.wordpress.com/2015/12/25/liberty-ship-failures/

I would encourage every non-veteran reading this to not just thank a veteran this weekend for their service, but ask them if they have 5 minutes to share a story. Our veterans can become increasingly isolated in their own little groups, and after a while your sea stories get old in the same groups of people. Having even a brief chance to hear about something they did will help bring the conflicts alive. You won’t read these stories in a book. History books capture facts and numbers well, but history is made by real people who are far too complex to capture on paper. This Veterans Day gives us a golden opportunity to remember that and carry on these stories in our minds before they are lost.

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.

Breaking the SCIF phones

What all phones should look like after a SCIF visit.

If you’ve never heard of a SCIF before this past week, you probably don’t work in government. SCIFs are Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities. If you want to read or work on a document that is classified Top Secret, you work in a SCIF. As you can see from a released set of specifications, SCIFs are fairly intensively constructed. Floors and ceilings are solid, wires are in buried conduits checked by the NSA’s TEMPEST program, and access is tightly controlled.

It’s not surprising that when Republican lawmakers go into the SCIF with cell phones, it causes alarm. And it should. Photography equipment isn’t allowed, nor is anything that can conduct two-way communication. Already you have people calling for removal of clearances. But is that appropriate?

In short, no. Congressional Representatives and Senators get access to classified information based on their position. While they are required to take an oath of secrecy, they don’t have to go through the SF86 process. By electing them to their office, the people of the United States (whether they realize it or not) have declared their comfort with that individual having access to classified access.

While some very sensitive information is only released to certain individuals, its pretty small. A Congressman visited a site I worked at before and had access to everything. Now, his staff members did not, and I had to keep them out of certain briefings, but the Congressman himself was good.

In short though, you can’t take away access, unless you kick them out of office.

However, there should be consequences for violating rules. All the Armed Services have harsh and effective ways of dealing with this. Cell phones brought into a SCIF are normally sent to NCIS to be scanned. With people having most of their lives on a phone, losing it for a week while NCIS painstakingly goes through every image and file tends to be good persuasion. The Marines in Iraq, in response to people plugging their personal devices into classified computers, simply confiscated the devices and nailed them to a wooden board outside the SCIF. After walking by a board with iPhones and tablets nailed and screwed to the wall, you get the message quickly.

Confiscate and scan some phones, and put a policy in place that repeat offenders lose their devices. After a few of those, you won’t have idiots bringing phones into a SCIF.

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. The author kindly reminds you to keep your damn phone out of the SCIF!