Tuesday, July 26, 2022

The Failure of the Institutions

If you believe the threat from China is overblown, our Navy is well led, and that our fleet is big enough, then this is not the post for you. If you are concerned for all of it, grab a fresh drink and dive right in.

We are facing of something our nation has not had to seriously consider in well over three decades; we do not have free and unfettered access to the sea.

Even when Soviet submarines roamed the world’s oceans at will – though closely watched – and the Red Banner Fleet could send battle groups on cruises through the Gulf of Mexico, we had fair confidence in one thing – the Pacific was an American lake.

No more.

Even when the Soviet Union’s navy gave the US Navy and her allies pause to consider how to deal with her, we always had more and better combatants.

No more.

Depending on how you measure things – globally or regionally – we are on the cusp or just past the cusp of being the world’s second largest blue water navy.

As there is a lot of ruin in a nation, there is a long-dwell nature to apparent power – an inertia of power. In certain areas such as naval aviation and submarines, we maintain a substantial qualitative and capabilities edge, but that gap in narrowing. When you take into consideration sheer numbers, the gap is even narrower. When you take into consideration interior vs. exterior lines of operation and the required length and width of the logistics tail for the US Navy to sustain operations west of Wake … it’s OK to get a bit of flop sweat. You aren’t the only one to see it. You have good company.

Or do you?

At this moment in time when, for the first time in over two decades, the security environment and clear requirements to meet the most pressing national security challenge – the People’s Republic of China – are in bold relief, you would think the rising tide would lift the maritime argument and a nice following wind fill the sails of the navalist position … but it isn’t.


The answer is fairly straightforward, hard to correct, and multi-causal; our institutions have failed us.

In a nation as large as ours, individuals must combine their efforts and hopes in institutions to effect change for those things which are important to them. One person can only do so much. Organizations representing tens to hundreds of thousands get attention. 

With government entities, those organizations and institutions provide supporting fires for the uniformed and civilian leadership given a charter by the American people via the Constitution and the laws enacted by their elected representatives to take responsibility for a specific area.

In all times these organizations are expected to advocate – aggressively – for the position and interests they were founded to support and serve. We have an adversarial system where ambition checks ambition; agenda checks agenda; ideas check ideas. Argument, creative friction, and debate are essential for a healthy and effective system.

In rough times when the seas and wind are counter to your desired station, one suffers a holding action against others who are stronger. You struggle, compromise, give some ground, but you don’t stop. Others will take all you are willing to give. That is a feature, not a bug. It is how, when led and executed properly, weak ideas are worked out of the system regardless of the ebb and flow of the POM cycle.

When the environment demands more from your areas of interest and responsibility, and the table is set such that you have the easiest argument, it is expected that you will take advantage of the moment. Not just because it will make it easier for you to advance your argument – which it will – but in the big picture, the nation you support needs you to do this. “The moment” is a manifestation of a real-world problem,

Nothing is granted. You are not entitled to anything. As Papa Salamander told me all the time growing up, “No one owes you a living.”

You have to earn it. If you feel the Navy needs a larger share of the budget to meet the challenge of China, then you need to advocate for it. You need to fight for it…and when I say “you” I mean “we” and the most important and powerful parts of that “we” are our institutions; our maritime power institutions dedicated to seeing the USA remain the premier seapower.

Let’s start with the most obvious. Our uniformed Navy is itself an institution. It reports to its civilian leadership in the Executive Branch with oversight from the Legislative Branch. There are your big pixel maritime governmental institutions; the uniformed and civilian leaders in the Department of the Navy.

As reviewed yesterday, the CNO is engaged in a rather low-energy talking point about 500-ships, but in 2022 that is not even remotely achievable. He knows it, you know it, Congress knows it as well. A number is not an argument, and yet he is investing personal and institutional capital on this line that is almost immediately ignored if it is heard at all. Why?

In the last year one of his highest profile public appearances was when he shoveled heaping piles of personal and institutional capital in a fight defending a red in tooth and claw racial essentialist Ibram X. Kendi  against who would normally be the US Navy’s natural allies in Congress. Ultimately he lost that battle and removed Kendi’s racist book and others from his reading list, but in the face of everything else going on in the maritime world, why?

What about the Vice CNO, Admiral William K. Lescher, USN? Maybe he could throw some sharp elbows for the maritime cause? Sadly, not. Just look at his exchange with Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) back in March. He seems to be the “Vice Chief of Joint Force Operations” more than anything else. He is focused on something, but advocating for sea power is not it.

With the night orders from the CNO and VCNO as they are, if you expect any significant advocacy from the uniformed Navy leadership who report to them for --- checks notes --- the Navy, you are going to have to wait for a long time, time we don’t have. It isn’t going to happen.

What about the civilian leadership of the Navy, the SECNAV and the Under? Will they lead the charge? 

First of all, again I would refer you to yesterday’s post. If you have not read it yet, give it a read and come back. 

SECNAV Del Toro is first of all a political appointee who, though a former naval officer, is mostly known as a political fundraiser for the Democrats and as such you need to understand that is his reference point; he is a party man. A party man can do a lot at a certain moment in time where history calls, but I don’t think that is going to happen here with the SECNAV. He will follow the signal from above. Nothing more.

Take a moment and ponder – when was the last time you heard the SECNAV or Under out front on The Hill or to the greater public about our maritime requirements? Yes, I fully understand what goes on behind closed doors, but that slow roll in an ever-slower bureaucracy infested with scoliotic nomenklatura is well past being of use. The American people must be provided the information and motivation to understand how their entire standard of living – and to a great extent their freedoms – is guaranteed by our mastery of the seas. Is even a rudimentary effort being made in this regard? 

Just look at the USN’s YouTube feed – a primary communication device for the American people. What has the SECNAV talked about there this year?  LGBTQ+ Pride Month, Juneteenth, Army birthday, Asian-Pacific Islander Month, Mental Health Awareness Month, Women’s History Month, carrier air birthday, and Black History Month. 

There you go. There’s your communication. Dig harder if you want … but if you read CDRSalamander and you are not readily aware, then imagine the general population’s situational awareness of the dragon just over the horizon.

To raise the profile of what our nation needs to get the maritime services ready for the fight in WESTPAC,  the civilian leadership will be less help than the uniformed leadership.

They both are both smart people in hard jobs doing their best – but they are not acting like they know what time it is. 

What about the Naval War College? Good question, what about it? Love the place, has some great people there, but it is mostly internally focused … and talking amongst ourselves is not going to impact all that much – especially when in recent years a lot of institutional capital has been going towards things not all that related to sea power.

That leaves concerned navalists to look outside government.

If you are looking for influence operations inside the beltway, then you have to address think tanks. Quick, without going to google, tell me what DC think tanks have been pounding the drum about sea power?  

Not that easy, is it? In 2020 Craig Hooper looked at this challenge and the situation has not improved all that much. There are good places with good people, but outside of a commute of DC, who is hearing and reading? How many people in Congress know them outside a usual-suspects handful?

They are there, but they are not upping their game, have the ability to reach outside their bubble, or influence people already sold.

Outside government, who do navalists rely on or defer to in order to pursue their goals? There are two old stalwarts that at first blush seem to be natural fits.

First the Navy League of the Unites States. Here you see a budding of what may help in the Center for Maritime Strategy … but boy-howdy it is having trouble getting in gear. It isn’t easy to find on NLUS’s website and its Dean, Admiral Foggo, USN (Ret.) recent comment signals that sadly it does not know what time it is. 

The Navy is not broken, and the acknowledged challenges it faces won’t be helped by yet another layer of bureaucracy. What the Navy needs is more support and more focused missions.

There is still an opportunity for a mindset change and to find its footing, but time is short. The CMS is not there to “support” the official Navy position, but to promote sea power. Not to reinforce what the Executive Branch puts out, but to encourage the nation’s leaders and people to support the navy it needs. Those two items, as is in stark relief this year, may not be the same thing.

Then you have the United States Naval Institute. On its homepage it says it is, “The home of influential debate since 1873.” – but is it still? What have they done so far this year outside their publishing house?

They started off the year with the regular “Maritime Security Dialogue” where usually someone on USNI’s staff sits down and chats with a guest. In essence, a closely controlled, inhouse podcast co-produced with the think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies and sponsored by Huntington Ingalls Industries, the USA's largest shipbuilder. 

In January it was with the 4-star commander of USCENTCOM. In April, the 4-star CNO. In May, a 3-star Marine. In July a gaggle of USN 2-stars from the aviation side of the house, and then with a 4-star Marine. In essence, General and Flag Officers talking about themselves and their jobs underwritten by a primary player in the naval side of the military industrial complex our guest on Midrats Sunday is concerned about.

Again, internally focused.

Of course there was the annual “West” events in San Diego which is effectively a trade show for the military industrial complex with nice little side events sponsored this year by L3Harris and USAA. 

There was a discussion about cyber with an Army 4-star at the USCG Academy in New London, CT, sponsored by the William M. Wood Foundation – the same foundation who sponsored the annual meeting at the Jack C. Taylor Conference Center in Annapolis that you read about in almost every mailing you receive from USNI or the USNI Foundation.

DC. Annapolis. New London. San Diego.

Again, internally focused.

Are we really “getting the message out” or are we simply talking to each other about what we put on our FITREP and CV?

We are not selling sea power. We are not telling out story. We are not evangelizing to the heathen masses. We are selling each other to each other. Telling personal stories about each other. Evangelizing ourselves to each other’s institutions.

Does this promote sea power at the national level, or just the people responsible for it?

None of our institutions – outside a few people hidden in corners and speaking out of turn – are acting like they understand where we are in time and place.

Inertia. Entitlement … and in some cases base self-interest.

The institutions are not turning in to the coming storm. They are not even running away. They are just staying on PIM set out years ago and hoping if something does happen, it will blow up on some else’s watch.

Where does a nation turn? Good question. I don’t have a good answer. 

These times do not come up very often, but we are in one. Where is today’s OP-23, Admiral Denfield and Vice Admiral Brogan of Revolt of the Admirals fame? Where is Vice Admiral Tom Connolly of F-111B renown? I don’t know who they are or even if we have such people in the shadows. So far, silence.

We need to tell a story, but all the higher institutions we would rely on are failing their moment. It isn’t that they won’t tell our story, they are actively avoiding it in favor of other priorities while hoping for the best.

Our institutions are failing the nation at a critical juncture. From both the uniformed and civilian side of the house, the established, comfortable, well-funded, and large navalist institutions are letting our nation down.

As a result, it isn’t jobs, income, sponsorship, or friendships that are at stake – but the strategic position of the United States and the international order we underwrote since the end of WWII. 

Those are the stakes of the battle over providing and maintaining a navy to meet the challenge of China’s rise.

Our present leadership and institutions are failing us. They either need to change – and change quickly – or we need to promote and support new leaders and new institutions to do the job that must be done.

The only entity that seems to be rising to the challenge happens to be the one with the lowest national approval rate; Congress.

The Legislative Branch’s House of Representatives and Senate, from both parties and independents, are starting to produce Members who desire to dust off their oversight responsibilities and are growing more comfortable being confrontational with underperforming uniformed and civilian leaders from the Executive Branch.

Unless something changes soon, there is the navalists' best friend; Congress.

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