Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Culture is Upstream of Everything

Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) along with Congressmen Jim Banks (R-IN), Dan Crenshaw (R-TX), and Mike Gallagher (R-WI) commissioned a study by Lieutenant General Robert E. Schmidle, USMC, Ret. and Rear Admiral Mark Montgomery, USN, Ret. on a series of issues familiar to regulars here and on Midrats

It was released on Monday and at only 22 pages is an easy read. The aptly titled, "A Report on the Culture of the United States Navy Surface Fleet" is a compact summary you should take time to read in full.

What does it use as the basis for its review?

77 unique and formal interviews were conducted with Navy personnel via an extensive hour-long process to establish a common controlled approach to the questions at hand. ... 

Instead of chasing the laser dot across the floor, they are focused on, 

...underlying systemic problems... larger institutional issues...

They are taking a non-traditional approach and, thankfully, their own authority; 

...by conducting the interviews from outside the chain of command via the exercise of the Congress’s Title I oversight authority, and by pledging anonymity to participants, interviewers enjoyed a significant level of candor in these conversations. Ultimately the process was able to identify trends that, by the admission of those interviewed, would not normally be shared with their own chain of command. 

 What did they find?

The results of this project are unambiguous. There was a broad consensus across interviewees on numerous cultural and structural issues that impact the morale and readiness of the Navy’s surface force. These include: an insufficient focus on warfighting skills, the perception of a zero defect mentality accompanied by a culture of micromanagement, and over-sensitivity and responsiveness to modern media culture. Structural issues identified include lack of resources and consistency in surface warfare training programs, and the Navy’s underwhelming commitment to surface ship maintenance—a problem that spans decades. 

Though all the Representatives and the Senator here are Republicans, they correctly identify this as a multi-decade, bi-partisan problem. Not (R), not (D).  No, this is all (N); this is a Navy problem.

They found six major issues:

1. Insufficient leadership focus on warfighting.

2. A dominant and paralyzing zero-defect mentality.

3. Corrosive over-responsiveness to media culture. 

4. Under-investment in surface warfare officer training. 

5. Poorly resourced and executed surface ship maintenance programs.

6. Expanding culture of micromanagement.

Let's dive in to the sections above and see what we find.

Insufficient leadership focus on warfighting:

... many sailors found their leadership distracted, captive to bureaucratic excess, and rewarded for the successful execution of administrative functions rather than their skills as a warfighter. 

This is a recurring theme through all the sections; distraction. All humans only have 24-hrs in a day. You can only do so much, and less well. When the important is crowded out by the unimportant, you become inefficient, ineffective, and live in the moment just to survive to the next Outlook refresh.

... “the very difficult problem for an O-5 CO (Commanding Officer) is that he’s got 1,000 requirements pushed on him, many of which are administrative or operational…and so his real job is figuring out which requirements he’s just going to blow off…whether it be fixing a material issue or training or warfighting readiness.

The rewards and incentives that an organization signals will drive what is on top and what is on the bottom of a rack-and-stack prioritization.

There was considerable apprehension that the surface warfare community in particular lost a component of its fighting edge...

How much time in the last quarter century ... and how many funded programs ... were spent on the ability of our navy to do what is the foundational purpose of navies throughout time - sink opponents ships and deny them access to the seas ... at range?

One recent destroyer captain lamented that, “where someone puts their time shows what their priorities are. And we've got so many messages about X, Y, Z appreciation month, or sexual assault prevention, or you name it. We don't even have close to that same level of emphasis on actual warfighting.”

From the US Navy's official YouTube page, look at the topics of the videos the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Gilday, USN, has put out in the last year.

He sets the tone. He sets the priorities. Check them out yourself. I don't need to say more.

Frustration with nonessential training was found to be overwhelming and not limited to the surface warfare community. Navy leaders have contributed to morass of requirements, but so have senior civilian defense leadership and Congress. While programs to encourage diversity, human sex trafficking prevention, suicide prevention, sexual assault prevention, and others are appropriate, they come with a cost. The non-combat curricula consume Navy resources, clog inboxes, create administrative quagmires, and monopolize precious training time. By weighing down sailors with non-combat related training and administrative burdens, both Congress and Navy leaders risk sending them into battle less prepared and less focused than their opponents.

This is part of the administrative burden. You only have finite training time. Priorities derived from incentives and disincentives will drive decisions throughout the chain of command. 

“Sometimes I think we care more about whether we have enough diversity officers than if we’ll survive a fight with the Chinese navy,” lamented one lieutenant currently on active duty. “It’s criminal. They think my only value is as a black woman. But you cut our ship open with a missile and we’ll all bleed the same color.”

We need more of that LT, and less of others.

One interesting note, and credit to him and the authors, is the one person named - and insisted on being named - is our friend Bryan McGrath;

“[The ships] are very busy,” he said. “I think there are too few of them for what is being asked…The operational requirements squeeze out maintenance, they squeeze out some training.”

This brings back to a call here for years; where is "Admiral No?" The problem Bryan outlines is a manifestation of our priorities driven by the "now." In what few hours you have in the day, what do you need to do to not get in trouble, not to get a phone call, not to get a message that will create trouble? You get in survival mode. The job of leaders is to create an environment for your subordinate leaders to get their heads up and out of survival mode.

A recently retired senior enlisted leader suggested that this dynamic was more a lack of proper prioritization. “I guarantee you every unit in the Navy is up to speed on their diversity training. I’m sorry that I can’t say the same of their ship handling training.”

What metrics are being tracked by who and why?

A dominant and paralyzing zero-defect mentality:

Former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman has framed this in an historical context, suggesting that none of the four key Admirals who led victorious fleets in World War II would have made it to the rank of Captain in today’s Navy. “Nimitz put his first command on the rocks,” Lehman said. “And Halsey was constantly getting into trouble for bending the rules or drinking too much…Ernie King was a womanizer and a heavy drinker. And Admiral Leahy may be the only one that might have made it through, but he had quite a few blots on his record as well.”

A few questions come to mind:
  1. Why were previous generations more flexible?
  2. What did they do to make a 2nd chance institutionally worth forgiveness?
  3. Is there an assumption of expendability when it comes to our people? If so, to whose benefit? Why?
I think in the next pull quote, we may have a partial answer:
“But in each case, there was a critical mass of leadership in the Navy that recognized that these were very, very promising junior officers. And so, while they were punished for mistakes, they were kept in a career path. That’s not the case today. It’s just not done because it’s too dangerous for anybody that tries to help someone who has made a mistake.”
That last part is underappreciated. "The system" doesn't just go after the individual in the barrel, but anyone who associates with or shows sympathy to that individual. It is absolutely heartbreaking to talk to people who all of a sudden find themselves at a meeting where on one will sit within two seats of them. Calls and emails are not returned. Social events are cancelled. Wives and children are ostracized. Just heartbreaking what we can do to each other out of fear.


That is a common thread in our culture; fear. We will face death and will calmly give orders that results in the deaths of hundreds, but we are terrified of a mention in an article, an angry phone call, or worst ... being called a nasty name. Great warriors become quivering piles of goo.

However, isolated infractions such as an alcohol-related indiscretion, a poor choice of words with no malice or offense intended, a ship-board accident with no damage or injuries and no demonstrated neglect, and similar offenses are supposed career-ending faults that could instead be weighed in the context of an overall service record and provided with an opportunity for redemption. One officer noted the example of Captain Robert J. Kelly, a combat-tested aviator who ran the USS Enterprise aground in San Francisco Bay several decades ago but went on to earn 4 stars and command of the Pacific Fleet. It was a rare mercy in the early 1980s and unheard of today.

The "how and why" of the change over four decades would be an interesting study in the mentality and motivations of the chain of command and selection boards. The media have always been with us, they are not new. Is it generational? A byproduct of training, accessions, competition? There's a PhD to be earned out there on this topic ... if an academic institution would allow an open investigation of such.

“Goldman Sachs, Amazon, Apple, Google, whatever. All of these institutions of high performance and high excellence do circus flips trying to figure out how to cultivate and retain talent,” said one former naval officer who is now a senior leader at a major hedge fund’s philanthropic arm. “The Navy all but chases it out the door.”

Career path rigidity is a disincentive to innovative and restless intellects. That is a large part why so many quality people leave at first chance. We are not good here.

... interviewers found no credible defense of the one-mistake Navy and its influence on officer careers in particular. The practice creates fear and apprehension in the fleet. It degrades lethality, atrophies talent, inhibits reenlistments, encourages careerism, and advances those that avoid risks and challenges up the ranks.

Fear. There it is again. A military shaped by fear.

Corrosive over-responsiveness to media culture:

The “one-mistake” culture appears to be somewhat recent phenomena in Navy history and some suggested that today’s unyielding news environment could bear some of the blame for its rise. 

Much of this comes from senior leadership lacking sufficient training or ability to have confidence in themselves to respond appropriately.

Back to point; 

There is an undercurrent of fear in the surface fleet.

We need to keep pulling that string on "fear."

The first is a loss of faith in the chain of command. In the wake of a damaging story, the senior ranks are perceived as quick to sacrifice junior personnel to preserve the credibility of the unit or the career of the senior leader in charge.

A byproduct of concern that the chain of command is driven by fear. It isn't bad news that people are worried about, it is how their boss will react to bad news. Junior personnel lack confidence in the intestinal fortitude of their superiors. That peacetime suspicion bleeds over to the operational side as well. That simply is not healthy.

“COs would be quite risk-adverse,” one officer recalled, “they would have their senior department heads manning a lot of watches, especially on the bridge and things like that to make sure that nothing went wrong, because nobody wanted to end up in the media, and nobody wanted to end up on the cover of Navy Times.” He finished his statement with a telling observation that, in this day and age, this reaction was “totally understandable.”

The press isn't the problem; it is the fear of the press that is the problem. It is also an archaic, ham-fisted understanding of the news cycle exasperated by the culture of the now;

Commanders do not appear to understand that stories come in a flash and disappear just as quickly

Like a summer squall on a lake, you don't abandon ship, you just secure things and wait it out. It passes faster than you think and then the press is on to other click-bait.

The Navy has forgotten how to differentiate between stories that are ignorable and stories that demand corrective measures.

We could help commanders by having better Public Affairs (PA) and Human Resources (HR) professionals. I have seen a lot of solid leaders needlessly spooked by excitable PA and HR "professionals." Then again, it is a commander's responsibility to ensure he has a good staff, and knows who on his staff he is free to ignore.

...a 30-year veteran of the Navy, who would have been an invaluable asset in a conflict at sea, resigned. In what would have normally been discipline via stern conversation from a higher officer, three decades of honorable service were instead ignobly ended. 

What a great example of how corporate Navy values service. People remember this and other similar acts of callousness. Memories of such events are long lasting. Just ask anyone who was a JO during the post-Tailhook '91 era.

The trend has not gone unnoticed. It creates the impression in the lower ranks that Navy leaders are easily cowed by the press and will throw sailors to the wolves should their name appear in print.

Ground truth ... and when done by senior leadership, this trickles down to lower echelons. 

Under-investment in surface warfare officer training:

The surface warfare officer community has frequently been under pressure to look for efficiencies, both in resource allocation and time spent before entry to the Fleet. The aviation and submarine communities had no such pressures.  

That lies firmly at the feet of the surface warfare community. Why? They will have to answer that.

In 2003, the Navy surface warfare community, in its effort to become more efficient, eliminated the initial SWOSDOC training at Newport as well as many of the unit specific combat and engineering systems schools. 

This cohort are commanding our ships today. We've corrected this error and a lot of good work has been done in recent years to improve SWO training ... but this horrible child of the Age of Transformationalism - that same group that begat LCS and DDG-1000 - will continue to impact our Navy for another decade at least.

Read page 13-14 for the second and third order effects for that cohort that only ended in the last decade. This was all predicted. 

There is one area we did continue to do right, and I was glad to see the authors mention it. This is another thread I would like pulled ... the why and how we did, and continued to, get this right.

Nearly every respondent, both in the pre-2003 and post-2003 eras attested to the fact that initial basic firefighting and damage control training as well as frequent refresher training in these essential skills was both prioritized and accomplished as required. Many respondents offered sentiments similar to one officer who stated that the Navy was “very intent on damage control and fire-fighting training [that was] crucial to day-to-day operations.” One important insight was that fire-fighting and damage control simulators had continuously evolved over the past generation to “become very advanced. We developed the use of ones that you could set off fires and contain the smoke and clean the air.” The degree to which the crews of both the USS McCain and the USS Fitzgerald were able to stabilize and counter the serious flooding that occurred following their separate collisions suggest that this is true. While Congress still waits for the full account of the origins of the USS Bonhomme Richard fire, the Navy’s focus on damage control can largely be praised as an example of how proper prioritization of essential training can yield effective results.

Poorly resourced and executed surface ship maintenance programs:

The opening is heartbreaking because if we had only followed a report we've had over a decade ago, so much of what we are trying to fix would be better;

The 2010 VADM Philip Balisle Report on Surface Force Readiness highlighted a number of manpower, maintenance, training, and readiness issues plaguing the surface warfare enterprise. 

You get what you inspect. You get what you reward. Organizations follow leadership priorities. This is basic stuff.
Surface ship maintenance packages are perceived as “bare bones” and unable to absorb growth. The cumulative effect of this underfunding and poor execution has left the surface warships less modernized and less ready for combat operations.
Also basic is an understanding of where the path of deferred maintenance leads to. This was a choice, not an accident.
“If you have budget X and you only do whatever maintenance that is required that you can do under budget X, then you have all the rest of the stuff that you had to descope because you're limited by the budget. And then that just creates a bow wave because what's the second and third order effects to deferring that maintenance? You end up with, for instance, on a cruiser where…we knew that the fuel tank tops in one of the machinery spaces, that if we did the ultrasonic testing (UT) on that space, that then the safety requirements would require us to replace the tank tops. We didn't have the budgets to do the tank tops, so we didn't do the UT. And then it wasn't until we went into the shipyard and we were doing the required cleaning of the tanks, which that was a requirement under the package, then all of a sudden, one of the shipyard workers goes up and goes, ‘Oh, I see sunlight through this tank top.’ Well, now you're forced to do the UT. So now you're forced to re-scope the work. So now you're forced to cram more work into a yard package that you should have had planned in the first place.”

Expanding culture of micromanagement:

As you read the report, are you seeing another common theme?

We are “holding back more of that autonomy and probably accelerating those cultural tendencies that are creating officers that are less confident and less competent and less comfortable exercising command,” he said.

Again, you get what you reward. You promote what answers the bell. That is why who you select for senior leadership is so important; they establish rewards and promotion standards.
“Ducks pick ducks,” said another, recently retired, career surface warfare officer. “So now those admirals that we have and that were in charge were successful being micromanaged. And so now they view [micromanagement] as success.” ... “And so, this level of micromanagement just flows up. And, again, it's evolved for a reason. You want to have metrics. You want to track things. And so, the command autonomy that people aspire to is no longer one that is what it might have been in the past.” ... “there’s always this underlying administrative concern that’s looming over the fleet, and I don’t think it’s because people don’t think tactics are important. I just think that’s not the thing that we spend our days being told is important.”

 Back to time being finite; words and the dedication of time by senior leadership signals priorities. Priorities get action.

Recommendations and Conclusions:

As some of these are repetitive to comments above and others discussed here for years, I'll let you read them for yourself. There are a few things that are clear - and here are my points to them;

  • Congress will need to force any change if we desire change this decade. At some point, we will need civilian leadership who will defund the billets driving fear, especially in the expanding political and sociological games being played by our Navy (see recommendation #6). 
  • Admirative burdens must be cut dramatically. The lowest hanging fruit here would be something as simple as awards and repetitive "required training" on issues that are only there from fear of the media; "We conducted training...not my fault." (see recommendation #8).
  • Find out what is creating "fear" and go after it with a blow torch and a pair of plyers.

They end the report with a solid quote:

Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis said in testimony that “the United States does not have a preordained right to victory on the battlefield.” Unless changes are made, the Navy risks losing the next major conflict.

I'll just end to repeat my previous comment for emphasis: the present Navy's uniformed senior leadership under the expected civilian leadership for the near future is not structured, inclined, or positioned to make these changes. We are well past the luxury of waiting for better luck, we are out of time. 

Congress must act. Now.

You can read the full report here, or view the embed below.

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