Tuesday, July 05, 2022

VADM Brown; Remembering the Johnston's Turn

There are many fine traditions in the naval service, especially in the Anglosphere. One of the best was summarized by Admiral Nelson, RN.

When in doubt, attack. That bias for action in the face of a threat is an admirable trait, especially when contrasted with a more common human reaction – to freeze. 

As we have evolved as a species, other reactions developed past these Upper-Paleolithic instincts of Homo Sapiens. Indeed, in the modern evolution of Homo Bureaucraticus, scapegoating and blame-shifting have sadly become more common through natural selection. In Ottomanesque bureaucracies, game recognizes game, and such responses are rewarded and passed along generation after generation, eventually being a characteristic trait of a sub-species. 

Megan Eckstein kicks the work week off with a broad ranging, complicated, and important development in the story of the burning of the USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6), whose two-year anniversary will arrive at the end of next week.

I see it as two interrelated stories; our Navy’s institutional failure of the fundamentals (Part I), and a gentleman’s response to an attack on his honor (Part II).

We’ll do a “Part-I” and “Part-II” format.

Before we dive in to Part-I, let’s review a few entering arguments which have anchored many conversations here over the last 18-yrs that apply in this case.

1. The Navy’s investigatory and legal system is no longer fit for purpose. It is hopelessly compromised by a culture infected with undue influence, sloth, and self-focus.

2. No one can trust a “Big Navy” investigation. The smart will lawyer-up early with outside counsel, keep meticulous records with secure backups, trust few, and suspect anyone who directly or indirectly will benefit from their downfall. It isn’t always about right and wrong, the longer it goes on it brings out the worst aspects of our adversarial legal system – it is about what can be blamed on whom not in the service of justice, but in service to the career goals of those conducting the investigation and prosecution.

3. We have too many Flag Officers with too few real Flag Officer responsibilities. As such, we have a warped culture where large numbers of ambitious people are underemployed and seek authority yet wish to avoid responsibility as demanded by our present system of incentives and disincentives. 

Part I: C2 Matters

I hope Megan does not mind me pulling so much from her article, but especially for those who have served in staff positions, the core to this story is the C2 diagram (Figure 1) in para 6 of Enclosure (3) of OPNAVINST 3440.18 Dated 13 Nov 2018.

To start out, no, I have no idea what the doctrinally correct definition of a “Bridge Line Command” is. 

I spent 9-yrs of my 21-yr Navy career as a staff officer on USA and NATO staffs with untold hours working on C2 diagrams and relationships. I have never heard of that term, and a little googlefu cannot find it defined anywhere. I only see it referenced directly or indirectly to 3440.18. If you can find anything better, please let us know in comments. 

Additionally, para 6 ends with the phrase “command bridge line.” That is also a term I am not familiar with. I can only find one other Navy use of it in a NAVSEA document referring to communications. I will assume it is related to para. 3 of Encl.(3) but the list there is not fully congruent with the strange dashed box in Figure 1 of Encl.(3) … so, we’ll just put it to bad staff work.

So, yeah … how this ever got approved is beyond me, but it is what we had … and bad staff work usually manifests itself with poor results in the field … and here we are.

So, there is no definition of what the solid lines are in the diagram vs the dot-dash line … there are all sorts of inadequacies with the diagram itself and I’m not going to pick it apart anymore, but the important part is on the previous page in paras 1 and 2:

1. The chain of command is provided graphically in figure 1 of this enclosure. As the in-hull incident commander, the ship’s CO controls all damage control efforts on board the ship. The CO is assisted by a fire department senior fire chief or officer and naval supervising authority project superintendent (if applicable).

2. The area or unified area commander will remain in constant contact with the in-hull incident command. All requests for additional resources, special equipment, or technical expertise will be passed through the area commander. The area commander will man all bridge lines.

This is rather clear, “…the ship’s CO controls all damage control efforts on board the ship.” So is, “All requests for additional resources, special equipment, or technical expertise will be passed through the area commander.” … and the Area Commander reports to the Primary Commander (Fleet Commander).

So, I believe the “Area Commander” here would be CNRSW and the “Primary Commander” would be C3F.  BTW, why does Commander Navy Region Southwest hardly get any mention here? Seriously, I have no idea.

Now that we have this. Behold this mess;

The initial response to the July 2020 fire that destroyed the multibillion-dollar amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard was uncoordinated and hampered by confusion as to which admiral should cobble together Navy and civilian firefighters, according to new information from the then-head of Naval Surface Forces.

The discombobulation in those early hours meant sailors may have missed a small window to contain the fire in a storage area. One admiral who said he lacked authority to issue an order pleaded with the ship’s commanding officer to get back on the ship and fight the fire, when the CO and his crew were waiting on the pier. And when that admiral — now-retired Vice Adm. Rich Brown — found the situation so dire that he called on other another command to intervene, it refused, Brown said in an interview.


Brown, as the type commander for surface ships, said he should have played a supporting role the morning the fire broke out.


So Brown called ship commanding officer, Capt. Gregory Scott Thoroman, who said he and the crew had left the ship and were on the pier. The investigation into the fire noted the crew pulled out of the ship twice during the firefight that morning.

Thoroman should have been coordinating with the base’s Federal Fire Department and the Southwest Regional Maintenance Center, collectively forming the incident command team, according to a 2018 Navy instruction laying out fire prevention and fire response responsibilities for ships in maintenance.


With the Navy’s organization falling apart, he called the Expeditionary Strike Group 3 commander, Rear Adm. Phil Sobeck, around 11 a.m.

“Phil, you can tell me to eff off, because I’m not in your chain of command, but you have to get down to that pier and provide leadership and guidance because they’re all sitting at the end of the pier watching the ship burn,” Brown said he told Sobeck. “And he goes, ‘Admiral, I’m getting in the car, I’m on my way.’”


Brown directed his staff to contact U.S. 3rd Fleet around 12:30 p.m., but 3rd Fleet’s position was, “The ship’s in maintenance, it’s not our problem.”

Who accepts responsibility? Who avoids it and why? As a friend mentioned earlier today to me, “Quite sure Kimmel did not say “not my job.”

After the staff-level call failed, Brown set up a call with 3rd Fleet Commander Vice Adm. Scott Conn, for the two three-stars to hash it out directly.

“I said, hey, Phil’s down there, but we have to formally establish a new command structure. And he told me he wasn’t going to do it because the ship was in maintenance and it’s not his problem. And I said fine.”


He then called the then-Pacific Fleet commander, Adm. John Aquilino.

“I told him what I had done, what I was seeing: the C2 degrading on the pier, there’s no focus of effort, people are off doing their own things. And I told him that I had asked Scott to take command and he said no. And I said ... ‘Phil now works for me, and I’ve got it.’”

“Absolutely, Rich, you got it, put the fire out,” the admiral replied, according to Brown.

At the time we were all wondering what was going on. Chaos, that's what.

A bias for action, again one of our better traditions. In times of crisis, often those who should be responsible do not rise to the occasion, endangering not just themselves and their command, but everyone around them. It is not unheard of for this to be part of a cascading set of failures to act. Below the primary failure no one will do anything absent that direction as they either lack confidence or perspective to see the failure, and those above who should take charge don’t for similar reasons or just plain ignorance.

What did VADM Brown do here as CNSF? No, he was not in the chain of command, but he was a leader who saw a failure to lead and he stepped up to try to get those who are responsible to act, and absent their actions, fill the gap as best he could as a supporting entity outside the chain of command.

Did anything he did make things worse? Did they make them better? Was any other leader showing what we ask our leaders to show – a bias for action? What does our Navy reward? What does it punish?

Part II: Honor Demands

Let’s look a bit at how I framed Part-II at the start of the post, “a gentleman’s response to an attack on his honor.” It should go without saying, but as we live in a tender and reactive age, “gentlemen” can be seen as non-gender specific, but also very specific to men. Interpret that as you wish.

Duty. As an officer in the United States Navy, who do you owe your duty to? There is both a simple and a complicated answer to that. Let’s start with the Oath;

The Oath of Office (for officers): "I, _____ (SSAN), having been appointed an officer in the _____ (Military Branch) of the United States, as indicated above in the grade of _____ do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter; So help me God."

The Constitution first of all, that is pretty much a “Ref. A” answer. We have that document and rafts of judges up to SCOTUS to give us the “Ref. B.” Serious, yet complicated in its simplicity. That is the easy part. Then “the duties of the office.” There is that concept again, “duty.”

In the military context, that definition is rather broad and open to interpretation, but I like the definition the State of Connecticut uses;

…the performance of military service by a member of the armed forces of the state pursuant to competent state military orders, whether paid or unpaid for such military service, including training, performance of emergency response missions and traveling directly to or returning directly from the location of such military service.

In practice, things get complicated from there. Loyalty is talked about a lot, yet abused more often. Are you loyal to people, or institutions? Yourself? Your family? “Ship, Shipmate, Self” is something we throw around a lot, and is a useful entering argument, but it is not a one-way relationship. As in all well-functioning systems, the relationship is interlocked and multi-relational. 

Most will find themselves in situations small and large where they find out that their assumptions about the systems they are a part of are no longer valid. The agreements, spoken and unspoken, that enabled decades of hard work and success, are broken. They are not working. Perhaps they never did.

Then what does one do? Where one may have spent decades taking the burdens of an organization you love on to yourself personally, when does that act of love become more of an acceptance of abuse? When does a man reach a point where the honor of love is replaced by the dishonor of accepted abuse?

Part-II is about a man who found himself in a place many have found themselves in before. An organization he invested his life in, built his reputation on, and most likely loved – turned on him. He sees if not an upcoming assault on his honor, then at least an injustice, a bearing of false witness, and at a minimum an attempt to make flesh an untruth hewn from the body of his reputation.

Some will advise a man to take such things as part of the job, to not make a fuss for … the sake of the institution. Some will counsel to appeal within the system, that regardless of its malperformance to date, one must trust the system regardless and work within it. 

There is another school of thought that forces an answer to a hard question; what do you owe to an institution if that institution breaks its bond with you? What honor is there to give the gift of trust to an untrustworthy organization? If one party breaks spoken and unspoken agreements, what rule under heaven obliges the other party to act as if the break never occurred?

There is a time to accept that you are in a place you never desired to be. That even though you did all you could possibly do in the scope of your authority and responsibility, other entities are shaping your reality. They are stronger, larger, and on paper at least, more powerful. When they have you bracketed you can simply carry on as before in the knowledge that this is the fate you have been dealt, or you can decide that fate is what she is, but there is a way to embrace it with a higher honor based on a higher ethic to embrace that fate on your own terms. 

Call flank-speed, full left rudder, and engage the attacking force head on.

That, in a fashion, is how I read the strange Kafkaesque place Vice Admiral Rich Brown, USN (Ret.) finds himself in. 

Brown said he is sharing his story with Defense News now as he faces a secretarial letter of censure. He was named in the investigation as contributing to the loss of the ship, but was cleared by what’s known as a Consolidated Disposition Authority in December. He said he was not interviewed for the investigation into the fire.

Capt. J.D. Dorsey, a spokesman for Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro, told Defense News “the secretary is still in the process of reviewing the command investigation and has not yet made any final decisions on actions beyond what the CDA has imposed.”


Brown didn’t dispute the Navy’s accounting of the rest of the five days of firefighting as laid out in the investigation, but said the investigation’s accounting of how the command and control fell apart during a crisis is incomplete and the investigation itself was “fatally defective” without interviewing him or including a full picture of what will be a key lesson learned.


The retired three-star said one of the reasons he wanted to share his perspective about the fire is because the same command and control flaw played a role in the 2017 collisions of destroyers Fitzgerald and McCain and the 2020 fire on Bonhomme Richard. Brown led the McCain investigation and participated in the Fitzgerald investigation, and he said one of the recommendations he made at the time was to reinstate a Cold War-era command structure that had two chains of command: one for ships in maintenance and the basic phase, led by a one-star admiral focused on ensuring they built up their readiness, and one for ships in advanced training and deployments, led by a one-star focused on employing their warfighting capability.

Brown said this setup could have prevented the Fitzgerald and McCain tragedies, and that he had urged the Navy to revamp the command and control setup in 2017.

“I was told, ‘It’s not going to happen; there’s one chain of command.’ That’s what they all kept saying to me, there’s one chain of command, and that’s the operational chain of command, which the [type commanders] are not in.”


Had the Navy made Brown’s recommended change in 2017, Bonhomme Richard would have been clearly under Brown’s control in 2020 and he could have taken more aggressive measures when the fire broke out.

Brown said the Navy must learn from this disaster and make the proper reforms to prevent another ship from being destroyed — and the right lessons can’t be learned or the right reforms made if the Navy is working off an incomplete and inaccurate investigation.


Brown said, despite the major role he played while the ship was on fire, he was never interviewed. Conn emailed him about a potential interview and to ask five specific questions related to the roles and functions of the type commander. Brown answered the questions, but said Conn never followed up to arrange a formal interview.

Brown said he had no indication he would be named as contributing to the loss of the ship until the report came out.

“I am convinced that there was undue command influence on that investigation at the end, because when you look at the findings of facts, in the findings of facts behind my name, they just don’t make any sense. And why won’t they talk to me?” he added.


Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Sam Paparo serves as the consolidated disposition authority for this incident and sent Brown a short letter in December stating that “I have determined your case warrants no action.”

Brown said he thought the issue was resolved until his lawyer in early June warned him Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro would be sending a letter of censure.

“I just don’t know what facts changed in the last six months,” he said.


Asked what he hoped would happen by talking to the media, Brown said the Navy has a pattern of punishing three-stars for political expediency without examining root causes and making reforms.

Though he planned to let it go before, “now I don’t think I can, because I think the Navy is destined just to make the same mistakes again and again, especially the surface navy, because we don’t have the [command and control] right.”

The more I think about this story, the more it becomes clear that VADM Brown is taking the only possible path honor, at least as I see it, demands. However, in defending his honor, he is creating a greater good for our Navy and the nation it serves.

The Navy bureaucracy and Admiralty of the last few decades continues to fail its Navy and nation. There are exceptional individuals in both, but as a body the system of incentives and disincentives as they have developed are not just underperforming in selection in aggregate, they are damaging the institution, ill-serving its Sailors, and as a result providing an sub-optimal force to defend the maritime and aerospace requirements of the republic.

The Bonnie Dick burned two years ago. In 53% of the time we took to fight WWII, Where are we? We have arrested a junior Sailor who still has not gone to trial. We still do not know what happened and if the Navy has taken pro-active steps to ensure it does not happen again.

Justice delayed is justice denied. Bad investigations protect the guilty, hide the truth, and poison the future. Accountability thrown on the innocent reeks of the vilest institutional decadence. 

Bravo Zulu Vice Admiral Brown. Bravo Zulu.

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