By James Stavridis (Bloomberg View) — In 1952, on a stormy night in the North Atlantic, the aircraft carrier USS Wasp cut the highly decorated World War II destroyer USS Hobson in two, with the loss of 176 sailors. Afterward, the accountability was swift and sure — such is the tradition of the Navy. The Wall Street Journal responded with an editorial that is still routinely quoted in the service: “Now comes the cruel business of accountability. It was no wish to destruction that killed this ship and its 176 men; the accountability lies with good men who erred in judgment under stress so great that it is almost its own excuse.”
Today’s Navy is facing some hard business of accountability itself, following the shocking loss of two guided missile destroyers and the deaths of 17 sailors — part of a string of seamanship failures in the legendary 7th Fleet. In particular, the twin collisions of USS Fitzgerald and USS McCain sent shock waves through the entire Navy, prompting the abrupt retirement of the four-star admiral who commanded the entire Pacific Fleet, as well as the firings of the three-star commander of the 7th Fleet, the two-star admiral commanding the Japanese-based strike group, and the commanding officers, executive officers (second in command) and senior enlisted sailors aboard both destroyers. This is breathtaking accountability, from top to bottom.
Even more striking was the release this month of a searing and recommendation-laced report prepared by the Navy’s senior surface-warfare admiral, Phil Davidson. While there are additional reports that will follow (including one prepared at the behest of the service’s civilian leader, Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer), it is Davidson’s report that will drive the corrective action.
The Navy’s failures in the forward-deployed ships are centered in a culture of “shut up and do the job” in the surface fleet. Growing up as a junior officer in that world, I saw again and again the refusal to balance sufficient rest with on-deck watch standing in order to accomplish the mission: admirable in concept, foolish in execution.
I failed personally in command of my first ship — the USS Barry, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer like the Fitzgerald and McCain — to find the right balance between operational demands, training and rest levels of my crew. We were lucky on several occasions to avoid a grounding or collision. That such situations are still so prevalent is, of course, is a leadership failure at heart, and will take the longest to correct.
Unfortunately, these challenges emerge against the backdrop of a long, embarrassing investigation into more than 60 current and retired admirals surrounding allegations of corruption, likewise in the 7th Fleet. The so-called “Fat Leonard” scandal — named after Leonard Glenn Francis, the convicted Malaysian defense contractor at its center — is part of the leadership clean-up ahead at the senior levels of the Navy.
The report also highlights and mandates corrections in equipment and maintenance, training and qualification pipelines, and organizational oversight. While complex, these steps can largely be accomplished swiftly if they get the senior-level attention and resources they need. For decades, unfortunately, the surface forces have been the “poor cousin” of better-resourced nuclear powered fleet (submarines and nuclear aircraft carriers) and the aviation arm of the Navy.
Also critical is the longstanding insufficiency of the Navy’s size. The fleet count hovers around 275, far lower than at any point since early in the 20th century. While all of the ships today are certainly of high quality, the old saying “quantity has a quality of its own” has great merit, and the vast majority of analysts believe the fleet needs to grow to around 350 front-line warships. This will allow lower operational tempo, better rest cycles, and more training and ship-handling opportunities for officers coming up through the ranks.
Three clear lessons — applicable not just to the U.S. Navy but to any large, complex organization undertaking demanding work around the world — emerge.
Basic blocking and tackling are the heart of real-world operations. Even in this increasingly high-tech, artificial-intelligence and cyber driven world, humans will continue to make difficult operational decisions. There is no easy way to substitute for basic experience — it takes five years of ship handling to have five years of ship handling experience. We can use simulators more creatively and aggressively, but the heart of such skills comes the good old-fashioned way: spending time performing hard tasks under demanding instructors who challenge the apprentice again and again until he or she masters the art.
Institutional reputation can evaporate in an instant, but rebuilding it takes time. The damage to the Navy’s national and international reputation caused by this string of mishaps is profound — but hardly irretrievable. Over the past few months, I have been challenged in dozens of public forums to explain the Navy’s failure streak, and I tend to revert to what I was taught 40 years ago as a plebe at Annapolis: to say simply, “no excuse, sir,” and describe how the Navy has taken all the right steps and will emerge stronger over time. Rebuilding the sea wall of our reputation can only be done brick by brick, but that wall will stand again.
Harsh accountability is painful but critical when facing serious damage. The chief of naval operations, Admiral John Richardson, has been forced to fire good officers and enlisted sailors. He feels that loss personally and profoundly; but he has shown the courage and leadership to do what must be done. Too many American institutions again and again refuse to seize the “hard right course of action,” and default to an easier path. This may be the most important lesson of all in the wake of these failures.
In closing their editorial six decades ago, the Journal editors said:
We are told men should no longer be held accountable for what they do as well as for what they intend. To err is not only human, it absolves responsibility. Everywhere else, that is, except on the sea. On the sea there is a tradition older even than the traditions of the country itself and wiser in its age than this new custom. It is the tradition that with responsibility goes authority and with them both goes accountability.
The Navy will emerge stronger from this ordeal, and better at the basics of operating our ships. Its ruthless sense of operational accountability lies at the heart of recovery — and here lies a profound lesson for any organization.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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