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Saving The U.S. Navy From Itself
by James Dunnigan
May 4, 2014

The U.S. Navy is having a harder and harder time holding onto its officers, especially the ones it wants to keep. Too many promising young officers are getting out rather than making a career (20-30 years) of the navy. The problem is not unique to the navy, as the army, marines and air force have similar problems. The navy problem is more acute because more of the navy losses are technical specialists that are very difficult to replace as well as promising ship and unit commanders.

The navy knew it was losing these people but only discovered that it was for the same reasons as the other services they were having the same problems as the other services by surveying its officers and getting the same answers the other services were getting. But for the navy some aspects of the situation are worse. For example, all the services heard complaints about all the time spent away from families in the last decade. There was a war on and troops were constantly being sent overseas. While the withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan have greatly reduced the times soldiers and marines spend overseas. This is not the case with the navy, which is still having ships spend a lot of time at sea. But while the navy still spends a lot of time at sea, and carrier operations are as dangerous as ever, many young officers feel the navy as a whole has become more obsessed with political correctness and “zero tolerance” thinking than actually getting ready for combat. Senior leadership was dismayed to discover that this has been destroying morale and team spirit in the lower officer and enlisted ranks. The senior commanders impose these morale-busting measures because of political pressure from above and the politicians have no sympathy for commanders who can’t order their unhappy subordinates to just carry on. All that just feeds into another problem. The military, especially the navy, is very picky about who its lets join and the average sailor and naval officer is smarter, healthier and a better worker than their civilian counterparts. Thus these navy personnel always have an easier time getting jobs, especially when the economy is picking up. Sensing that the navy is all about “efficient administration” rather than preparing for combat, getting out and taking a civilian job seems more and more appealing. All this has created an atmosphere of distrust of senior navy leadership.

The retention problem has been brewing for some time but its impact was delayed first by September 11, 2001, which kept a lot of people in for a while because of patriotism. Then along came the Great Recession of 2008 and that kept a lot of people in, especially in conjunction with the large bonuses being paid to keep people in. But since 2011 the bonuses have been cut and the job market has improved. Actually the job market for guys in their 30s and 40s with technical and command experience are much in demand because a large number of Baby Boom generation managers are retiring and following generations did not contain as many people, or replacements for the departing boomers. Seemingly all-of-a-sudden lots of people were leaving for a much better life outside the navy.

The military sought to find solutions in large civilian organizations. One useful thing they discovered was that a lot of large corporations had identified a generation gap problem and were coming up with techniques to deal with it. In short, the current generation of young officers is quite different than previous ones. Being raised with PCs, video games and the Internet has created a new kind of officer (and corporate manager). Called the “Millennials” as opposed to the Baby Boomer generation (born 1945-64) and the boomer children, the 21st century Millennial officer wants more information, more autonomy and more responsibility. They are more adaptive because they grew up in a time of more technical and social innovation and coping with all that meant you either adapted or fell behind. After September 11, 2001 these 21st century officers have proved that they can succeed with this new approach. Now the military wants to hang on to as many of these young combat experienced officers as they can. This won’t be easy, as the current atmosphere is basically hostile to Millennials.

So opinion surveys were ordered, and these indicated that junior officers felt a lot of dissatisfaction with the quality of senior leadership. This disconnect between junior officers, and their commanders, has been around for more than a decade. It's gotten worse with a war on, because, unlike past wars, there has not been widespread removal of senior commanders who did not perform well. Zipper control problems or doing anything the media picked up on and considered not Politically Correct was more likely to ruin your career. Alas, that is not new either. Even in Vietnam, there was a similar situation. In World War II and Korea, it was much more common for commanders who did not deliver, to get replaced. With a war going on now, and junior officers facing life and death situations because their commanders were not being sufficiently aggressive, or innovative, have been leaving the service. The big problem is that, with "zero tolerance", one mistake can destroy a career. This was not the case in the past. Many of the outstanding admirals of World War II would have never survived in today's navy. For example, Bill "Bull" Halsey ran his destroyer aground during World War I, but his career survived the incident. That is no longer the case. It's also well to remember that, once World War II began, there was a massive removal of peacetime commanders from ships. The peacetime evaluation system selected officers who were well qualified to command ships in peacetime but not in wartime. There was a similar pattern with admirals.

Fixing all these problems is no easy task and is a growing headache for senior leadership because the people best qualified to effectively run the navy in the next few decades are losing faith in the navy and its leaders and simply leaving. This is made worse by the growing attractiveness of non-military jobs, the generational differences and the shrinking military budget. Inability to retain the good people means the navy will gradually be run by the second-best and that will drive out even more promising subordinates. Even now, shortages of talented and experienced officers is putting a heavier work load on those left and that encourages more to get out.

Suggestions include actually listening to complaints and addressing them, even if it means tinkering with the navy budget. That’s going to be hard to do because of all the corporate and political special interests outside the navy feeling very protective of their portion of the budget. But bringing back retention bonuses is a cheap way to attack the problem. Long term it costs you a lot more if you run the navy with less qualified people. There are also a lot of little things that can be changed, many of them administrative hassles still in force after decades because of general resistance to change in the navy bureaucracy. It isn’t easy pushing a lot of these changes through, but you either make the effort now or pay for it over several decades.

 

 


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