Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Unsolicited Advice for the SECNAV Designate

Guest post by Bryan McGrath

Nine months ago, in the bandwidth of this very same forum, I took the opportunity to render some unsolicited advice to the new Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). Shortly thereafter, I had occasion to run into the CNO and he graciously thanked me for taking the time to do so. Just think—nine short months ago—the world was a different place. Arguments in naval circles centered around what kind of a fleet we would have, rather than its size. That argument appeared settled, and the Navy would grow.

Nine months later the Navy is in trouble. Two Secretaries of the Navy (one acting) have been asked to leave, and there is no Under Secretary. The secretariat has been tarred by examples of (depending on how one views them) incompetence, disloyalty, political influence, and dirty dealing. The tawdry case of a SEAL Chief Petty Officer receiving a Presidential pardon—and efforts behind the scenes to rig a “win-win” outcome--coupled with the more recent self-immolation of an Acting Secretary after making the justifiable decision to remove a Navy Captain from his command, have many asking “what is wrong with the Navy?” When one works back even further to the “Fat Leonard” scandal and the tragic collisions of 2017, the Navy appears at times to be on a public image losing streak.

Onto the scene steps a man who was until recently, the U.S. Ambassador to Norway, Kenneth Braithwaite. I have written previously about his nomination for the Navy Secretary position, urging that he be thoroughly vetted by the Senate Armed Services Committee before confirmation. If the recent confirmation hearing is any indication (he was one of three witnesses), Ambassador Braithwaite’s confirmation seems likely, given that he gave strong and intelligent answers to the questions he was asked. That none of the questions had much to do with American Seapower and conventional deterrence seems beside the point. Braithwaite handled himself well, and I expect he will be confirmed soon. And so, in order to be a full-service unsolicited advice provider, I offer the following to Ambassador Braithwaite.

Know, and Stick To, Your Area of Responsibility (AOR). As the Secretary, you have two armed services to lead, a beautiful jet at your disposal, and military sites under your purview around the globe. Wherever you go, Sailors and Marines will stand at attention for you, will spit-shine their spaces for you, and will stand quietly in ranks to listen to whatever it is you want to tell them. But the dirty little secret I urge you to internalize is this: they do not give a hoot about you. You are far too removed from their existence to be worth the trouble involved in preparing for your visit. That is not to say that you have no impact on their lives, quite the opposite. That impact, however, comes as a result of you deftly performing your duties in the geographic area of responsibility (AOR) circumscribed by the irregular polygon linking your office with the CNO and Commandant of the Marine Corps (CMC) offices, the Office of the Secretary of Defense on the third deck of the Pentagon, Capitol Hill, and the White House. You have operational control of no one, but your authority is immense. It all flows from how you play the game in this AOR. Trips to the fleet at holidays are nice and getting out on the scene where there are important political problems to be understood and solved is also worthwhile. But most of the time, tend to your AOR.

Swallow Naval Integration Whole. Get up to speed on what the Commandant and the CNO are doing as quickly as possible and become an evangelist for it. Naval Integration is the most important conceptual thinking in the Department of the Navy since the mid-80’s, and it is going to need your weight behind it to move forward. Your background should provide insight into effective communicating, and this is something the Navy needs desperately. Never miss an opportunity to explain how important Integrated American Naval Power is. In order to do so, master the arguments.

Lead Like You Are at the End of a Second Term. You have one vitally important job between now and the next Presidential Inauguration. It is called “Program Objective Memorandum 2022 (POM 22)” and influencing it (through the lens of Naval Integration) should take up virtually all your bandwidth between now and then. What is left over should be devoted to overall leadership of the Department of the Navy COVID-19 response. If the voters return the President to office and you are retained in the second term, that will be the time to go after larger objectives. You spoke in your confirmation hearings of both leadership and cultural problems in the Navy that you will presumably tackle, and to the extent that a civilian secretary is capable of impacting these areas, considerable long-term commitment from you would be necessary. Pertaining to these two problems, I offer one final point:

Embrace Humility. Two men in the past year who underwent the same vetting process that produced you as an Ambassador and Secretary of the Navy designate, flamed out in disgrace in office. Both were intelligent, both had great plans, and both were patriotic Americans who wished to do good and well. The Department is a gigantic, unbelievably complex bureaucracy, and the two Armed Services within it are imbued with rich, historical traditions. You are to be the appointed caretaker (for the American people) of all of it, and the job demands humble prudence, unshakeable integrity, and relentless execution. When people say that there is a “leadership problem” in the Navy, ask them to explain what they mean, and more importantly, what would they do to “solve” these leadership problems. The deeper you drive this conversation, the more it turns to resource and requirements problems. You will hear from ardent advocates for reform in how we pick and how we educate leaders, but when you ask them to walk you through the logic that ties the problems they seek to solve with the means they identify to do so, the linkage begins to fray. In other words, there are no silver bullets here.

The immediate challenges facing the Department of the Navy—especially when pressurized by the impact of COVID related federal spending—are immense, and a Secretary who expertly navigates the next seven months could wind up being extraordinarily influential to the future of the Navy. I believe I speak for the community of navalists when I wish you the best in this undertaking.

Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of the FerryBridge Group where he provides consulting service to the Navy. The opinions he wields publicly are his own.

No comments: