Morale: The U.S. Navy Is Fading Away

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September 18, 2014:    The U.S. Navy recently ran an opinion survey which confirmed that morale was low and getting worse, with a growing number of experienced sailors eager to get out of the navy. The most common gripe was the length of time spent at sea and the belief that those long voyages to distant waters were going to get longer. There was also growing disillusionment with navy leadership. Sailors saw senior officers more concerned with political correctness and “zero tolerance” than with legitimate complaints of sailors and junior officers. Some 42 percent of respondents said their last deployment (aboard a ship and away from home) was seven months or longer. Nearly half the sailors expect their next deployment to be even longer. Nor surprisingly only 21 percent of sailors were satisfied with the amount of time they spent at sea. When asked about morale only 42 percent felt it was good or better. A major reason for low morale is the growing talk in Congress for reducing pay and benefits. In particular many sailors feared the long-standing custom of retirement (at half pay) after twenty years’ service was in danger. Most (63 percent) were certain they could get a good job if they left the navy. Worse, nearly half the respondents did not want to get promoted because of the growing amount of paperwork and petty rules that had to be enforced. Over half the respondents had a low of opinion of senior leadership, believing the admirals did not pay attention of the problems of those they commanded and were not themselves held accountable for bad decisions.

None of these problems are new and there have been attempts to address complaints. In 2012 the navy sought to make it easier for sailors who volunteered to spend more time at sea to stay in the navy. The problem was that this was a solution to a problem that was already fading. After the 2008 recession sailors who wished to reenlist (usually for 4-6 years) faced stiff competition from all other the sailors who wished to do so. The number of people in the navy is limited by law and when the unemployment rate is high many sailors found themselves competing for a limited number of reenlistment opportunities. Many things are measured (job performance, skills, staying out of trouble) to determine how eligible for reenlistment a sailor is and how willing they are  to spend more time at sea now counted as well. But by 2012 the navy was finding that many of its most skilled and experienced sailors, the ones that the navy definitely wanted to keep in uniform, were more eager to get out because those same skills were in great demand outside the military and all the time at sea was hell on family life.

So while the navy was making an effort to get more people to sea without hurting morale they found themselves fighting a losing battle keeping the people they wanted and needed the most. With the U.S. Navy facing annual personnel cuts for the rest of the decade, it's become more difficult to give all sailors more time ashore with their families. Shore time is good for morale but the navy needs ships at sea as much as possible to maintain seagoing and combat skills. The most skilled and experienced sailors have to be on those ships to make that happen.

Sailors were also dismayed at the failure of the navy to find a solution to the problem of constant long voyages. At one point the navy thought it had this manning problem solved with a collection of bold new ideas. But by 2010 the navy was forced to admit that its decade-long experiment in "optimal manning" was not working out as planned. This solution was a collection of policies including cross-training sailors to handle different jobs, reorganizing work on a ship, and introducing automation with the ultimate goal of reducing crew size up to 20 percent. Early experiments seemed to work. But optimal manning was less successful when it was tried on more ships. The long term impact was very damaging to morale and ship readiness. What happened was that as many little emergencies showed up, especially on long voyages, sailors were pulled away from their duties, especially ship maintenance. The maintenance deficits were often never made up and ship systems began to fail. In particular, they began to fail the periodic readiness inspections.

Another attempt to get more people to sea occurred before 2010 when the navy notified 60,000 sailors (about 16 percent of navy strength) that they would be spending more time on sea duty (assigned to a ship). When the ship is in port the married sailors, and many of the unmarried ones, live in homes or barracks ashore. But when on sea duty they live on the ship, which is lot less pleasant than in barracks or at home. While some sailors prefer sea duty, most avoid it when it becomes too frequent. Married sailors are usually under some pressure to stay ashore most of the time. Forcing more sailors to spend time at sea did help end the complaints about sailors who never seemed to get assigned to a ship (and thus risk spending up to six months, or more, at sea during a single voyage) while  others seemed to spend most of their time assigned to a ship. So the navy continues to monitor their personnel records to find who had been a landlubber too often and changed their personnel software to avoid sailors spending too much time away from sea duty.

All these efforts helped a little when what sailors were seeking was something that would make a big difference. None of these measures did. This latest opinion survey confirms that the morale problem is not only still there, but that it is worse.

 

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