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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

A Toxic Brew of Careerism and Fear: Why the Navy Could Lose a War To China

US Navy
PHILIPPINE SEA (Sept. 19, 2016) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold (DDG 65) fires a standard missile (SM 2) at a target drone as part of a surface-to-air-missile exercise (SAMEX) during Valiant Shield 2016. Valiant Shield is a biennial, U.S. only, field-training exercise with a focus on integration of joint training among U.S. forces. This is the sixth exercise in the Valiant Shield series that began in 2006. Benfold is on patrol with Carrier Strike Group Five (CSG 5) in the Philippine Sea supporting security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Andrew Schneider/Released)160919-N-XQ474-126 Join the conversation:

How do you change a culture? That question courses through a new congressionally mandated report from retired marine Lt. Gen. Robert Schmidle and retired Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery. Read the whole thing. Titled “A Report on the Fighting Culture of the United States Navy Surface Fleet,” the document makes painful reading for anyone who’s ever served in U.S. Navy ships. The coauthors warn that failing to renovate the surface navy’s culture would court defeat against an increasingly well-equipped, increasingly rowdy Chinese navy.

After all, the finest weapon is no better than its user. American ships and armaments could be superior by every measure to those deployed by the People’s Liberation Army Navy, and yet the U.S. Navy could lose anyway if sailors mishandled their fighting implements on account of cultural malaise and its ripple effects on combat prowess.

One of the more stunning findings out of the report: of 77 active-duty and retired sailors interviewed, 94 percent concurred that such mishaps as the 2017 collisions of the destroyers USS McCain and USS Fitzgerald and the massive fire onboard the amphibious warship USS Bonhomme Richard last year were “part of a broader cultural or leadership problem” within the service. And the maladies revealed in the report may remain partly obscure to top leadership. Gen. Schmidle and Adm. Montgomery contend that keeping the interviews anonymous, as they did, helped them “identify trends that, by the admission of those interviewed, would not normally be shared with their own chain of command.”

Schmidle and Montgomery ascribe the surface navy’s cultural woes to a toxic brew of careerism and fear, as well as indifference to the brave new world of great-power competition that looms before us. Respondents condemned the leadership for pursuing warfighting excellence on a not-to-interfere basis with . . . most everything else. They complained of a “dominant and paralyzing zero-defect mentality” that views a single mistake as cause for ending a career. They depicted senior leaders as hypersensitive to reporting in defense-press outlets such as the Navy Times or posts on social media.

Furthermore, many complained about the service’s “under-investment in surface warfare officer training,” particularly at the outset of a surface warfare officer’s career—the formative phase for any newcomer to the profession. The coauthors note that “aviators take anywhere from 18 to 24 months in pipeline training, submarine officers take 18 to 21 months, while surface warfare officers have often considered 6 months in the pipeline excessive.” (Thankfully the service has terminated the misbegotten practice of simply issuing newly commissioned officers a stack of CDs and sending them to their first ships to learn everything on the job.) Interviewees lamented service chieftains’ inability to say No to demands from regional combatant commanders for naval forces. Running the fleet ragged translates into lackluster ship maintenance that degrades combat power. And lastly, respondents blasted the “culture of micromanagement” that has top leadership second-guessing even routine actions on the tactical level via communications technology.

My amphibian friend, the pseudonymous navy commentator CDR Salamander, observes that the common denominator among these problems is fear. I might take Sal’s observation a step further and say that the presence of unhealthy fear and the absence of healthy fear help account for what ails the surface navy. For example, micromanagement and the zero-defects mentality stem from dread that a subordinate may do something wrong that reflects poorly on his or her superiors and be held against those superiors come promotion time. Senior leaders who fret about press reportage or social media, similarly, are prone to dismiss junior folk from their positions for even trivial offenses. Otherwise the brass fear being tarred themselves in print or online—and suffering the career consequences.

If the report’s authors and the interviewees have it right, unhealthy fear runs rampant in the surface fleet. And healthy fear? The report calls attention to a common theme in these pixels: the baneful legacy of the post-Cold War era. During the 1990s the U.S. sea services reigned supreme on the high seas and in essence stood down from their major function, namely fighting hostile fleets. If there was no one left to fight, the reasoning went, there was little point in preparing for a fight. So the navy reinvented itself as a power-projection force that could rain down missile and air strikes on foreign shores with impunity. Hardware, skills, and, yes, fighting culture atrophied.

The repercussions of cultural drift could be profound. Here’s how Schmidle and Montgomery close their report: “The sailors interviewed for this report do not believe the Navy prioritizes fighting and winning because Navy leaders do not talk about fighting and winning. Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis said in testimony that ‘the United States does not have a preordained right to victory on the battlefield.’ Unless changes are made, the Navy risks losing the next major conflict.”

That prospect should arouse healthy fear—and a sense of urgency—among top leadership.

How to set a cultural renaissance in motion? A few broad recommendations from which specifics should flow. First, instilling a new culture often requires breaking the old. This is hard in peacetime, when no powerful stimulus compels custodians of the culture to modify the institution’s practices and habits of mind in order to survive. Defeat is the most powerful stimulus possible for a military arm. People make up a culture, and people are operations and strategy. For instance, SUBPAC—the U.S. submarine force in the Pacific—remade its officer corps in a hurry starting after the Pearl Harbor attack. Many skippers reared during the interwar years proved unable to adapt to the wartime reality they confronted, namely raiding Japanese mercantile shipping. So SUBPAC gave each captain two patrols to show results; if he didn’t produce, he was replaced with someone possessed of a mindset better suited to operational circumstances.

Importing new blood into the silent service changed the service’s culture with dispatch. But again, it’s easy to take drastic measures when defeat stares you in the face. Absent a shock to the system of Pearl Harbor magnitude, exceptionally determined uniformed and civilian leadership at the Navy Department, amplified by lawmakers, will be necessary to break the old post-Cold War culture and replace it with a culture of great-power strategic competition at sea.

Second, as officialdom summons up the urgency to restore the navy’s fighting edge, it could take its cue from the Anglo-Irish parliamentarian Edmund Burke, who maintained that in a real sense, our enemy is our friend. “He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves and sharpens our skill,” Burke declares. “Our antagonist is our helper. This amicable conflict with difficulty obliges us to an intimate acquaintance with our object and compels us to consider it in all its relations. It will not suffer us to be superficial.” He might note that taking challenges from the likes of China and Russia seriously—and building a culture aimed at outcompeting them—means feeling the possibility of a cataclysm in your gut. Or take it from the newish U.S. Air Force chief of staff, Gen. C. Q. Brown, who titled his first missive to airmen Accelerate Change or Lose. He gets it.

Third, and more specifically, the leadership must accept that the martial principle of concentration and dispersal applies to more than massing forces at the scene of battle to overcome some foe. It applies to everyday life in the fleet. There are only so many hours in the day, meaning every task is in a zero-sum competition with others. If all tasks are all-important to senior leadership, sailors and officers will disperse their effort among assignments trying to accomplish everything. With less time and mental energy to devote to each individual assignment, seafarers are likely to underperform on all of them. Or, more likely, they will tacitly set priorities, taking care of what seems most important to the leadership and deferring matters that appear less important—including battle preparedness—until some vague future time.

As the Schmidle-Montgomery report indicates, administrative tasks—preparing for inspections, conducting training, much of it imposed from above on topics not immediately related to battle, and on and on—are concrete, immediate, and consequential for mariners treading the decks of American warships. Falling short on them could elicit bad press and ruin a mariner’s next promotion or posting. Combat is abstract and hypothetical by contrast. Until it happens. The perverse upshot of loading countless demands on sailors is that the surface navy’s foremost function—dueling hostile fleets—tends to get postponed and diluted because lesser concerns command greater visibility. The leadership must restore and enforce priorities in the ranks, nurturing a fighting culture. Tactical and operational excellence must come first.

US Navy Culture

SOUTH CHINA SEA (July 13, 2021) The Henry J. Kaiser-class underway replenishment oiler USNS Tippecanoe (T-AO-199), not pictured, resupplies the Independence-variant littoral combat ship USS Charleston (LCS 18) while underway in the South China Sea, July 13. Charleston, part of Destroyer Squadron Seven, is on rotational deployment, operating in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations to enhance interoperability with partners and serve as a ready-response force in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific region. (U.S. Navy photo by Martin Hanninen).

And fourth, uniformed and civilian leaders can draw on what historian Henry Steele Commager called a “usable past” as they renovate the surface navy’s culture. A usable past refers to history and traditions that leadership can use to invigorate and shape a culture, much as the American Founders used cultural artifacts such as the Declaration of Independence or patriotic songs or paintings to unite thirteen disparate colonies clustered along the east coast into a single American republic. Naval leaders can invoke such great figures from U.S. Navy history as John Paul Jones or Raymond Spruance, as well as humbler but no less inspiring figures such as Ernest Evans or Doris “Dorie” Miller. These are all exemplars of the fighting culture that needs restoring within the fleet. They should be the face of the navy’s cultural renaissance.

History is the sum of the biographies of the people who once lived. Let’s ransack history for insights as we dispense with the post-Cold War legacy, reorient to today’s challenges, and reset priorities for seafarers. And let’s do it now. The hour is late.

A 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a nonresident fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone.

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”



  1. ADM64

    July 15, 2021 at 7:33 pm

    To this otherwise excellent article, I will note two things mentioned in the report but not included here. One is the service’s focus on diversity writ large (social issues, going coed, and more recently emphasis on racial issues long thought solved). The other was a comment in the report saying officers and sailors were not resilient and poorly able to cope with stress due to a training environment that did not expose them to adversity. In my opinion, both of these things are related to the larger problem.

    No issue has required more institutional dishonesty across the services than that associated with the role and performance of women. People got used to lying and gaming standards, so a culture of dishonesty became entrenched. This has extended to all the other social issues but spills into operational ones. Not stressing people in a healthy way occurs in part because it may adversely affect the representation and retention of protected or preferred groups.

  2. frazier stall

    July 15, 2021 at 10:15 pm

    THERE ARE 2 THINGS GREATLY troubling or conflicting the almighty US Navy:

    1)War hawks demand the navy to kill china via war as soon as possible.

    2)Political correctness has forced the navy to hire transsexuals, gays, lesbs and people of decidedly murky orientations to man the missile knobs and buttons and the gun triggers.

    Thus the navy must decide which conflicting issue it should tackle first. Rushing headlong onto the wrong one could prove disastrous.

  3. frazier stall

    July 16, 2021 at 6:00 am

    The highly esteemed Navy ought to audit the class or type of sailors it brings onboard. In 2017, a scandal broke out where sailors in Bahrain were involved in sex-trafficking and living off the earnings of young women. And then there was the ‘Fat Leonard’ case, where he was able to obtain lists of scheduled port calls by Navy ships in exchange for women and cash, and then there was a very similaar case in Korea, involving ‘David Kim’, again tainted by illicit cash and personal favors.

    The Navy needs to remove all the rot and stink if it ever wants to trump its rivals.

  4. Mario DeLosa

    July 16, 2021 at 9:25 am

    As a retired CPO, I will add some perspective from the deckplates. While the article is largely correct in its intimation that the “zero defect” mentality that is behind much of the Navy’s current malaise, the issues mentioned affect the Surface Navy community in general. The problems discussed in the article come down to three issues in particular; failure to lead, failure to train, failure to discipline.

    In the case of failure to lead, at least at the enlisted level, the Modern Navy no longer selects enlisted leaders based on professional expertise or leadership abilities. The removal of “time in rate and time in service requirements” has made it possible for an enlisted Sailor to make it to Chief Petty Officer in five years. That short time span has invalidated the old “ask the Chief” dictum. At five years, there is no way that E7 has achieved the level of professional expertise that used to be associated with CPOs. Moreover, while leadership is an innate ability, it still requires time to mature and improve; five years is not enough by any measure. The bottom line is that modern CPOs are far too often selected based on their ability to play political games and typically stand out thanks to the number of community relations projects performed, collateral duties, or any number of things that have nothing to do with the Navy’s mission, or their actual professional or leadership abilities.

    In the case of failure to train. The Navy no longer trains its surface enlisted for to the lever that it used to. Back in the mid-80s, when I first joined the Navy, my “A” school was 17 weeks long. All my instructors were fleet Sailors with an average of eight to ten years in the fleet. The Sailors in old rating now only go through five weeks of “A” school. The Training is mostly computer based, and the instructors, to the best of my knowledge, are all contractors who may or may not have a Navy background.

    In the case of failure to discipline. When I first joined the Navy, when colors sounded you stopped what you were doing and you saluted the flag; not happening. Thanks to the silly camouflage uniforms that are in vogue today, the break between ranks has weakened, which has led to a lack of respect for seniors. Additionally, while I never advocated leadership by yelling, or constant “ass chewings,” the fact is that sometimes you need to drag that insubordinate junior sailor into an office to read that young shipmate the riot act, and perhaps assign EMI without needing the approval of the entire chain of command.

    Finally, while I completely understand the need for diversity in the force, sailors should recruited to support the Navy’s mission, not support diversity simply for the sake of diversity. In other words, if the force needs electricians, recruit candidates that will best qualified to be electricians, regardless of what or who they are. In addition, all these recruits should be reminded day and night that the Navy is ultimately a fighting force. Si vis pacem para bellum.

  5. Brian Foley

    July 16, 2021 at 11:30 am

    We are witnessing a “generational” process in the military. The Armed Services has its own “generations”, divisions within each service that has more to do with which wars they fought in or what type of equipment they manned or who was in the White House, etc., etc., etc.. These generations are separate from the “generational” divides in society, but suffers from some “cross-contamination” as new service members enter into their respective services from civilian life. Overlapping these generational blocks of attitude and perception are the career service members. As American society shifts, sometimes wildly, new mandates are handed down from “On-high” regarding what new emphasis are “essential” and “timely”. Of course the hierarchy of the military is duty bound to do its best to implement whatever change de jour comes down the pike. Keep in mind, the Congress has everything to do with selecting who advances to Flag rank and who doesn’t. Until we perfect the American system (and that ain’t happening anytime soon) we’re stuck with a military that reflects American values and is manned (what’s the new gender correct term for manned) by citizens who cme from our society…..Good Luck.

  6. Michael J Dalton

    July 16, 2021 at 11:47 am

    My nephew, after a 5 year drinking mission at U of Hawaii getting a BA in Journalism while accruing a $100K student loan debt, enlisted in the Navy to get his loans payed off. It appeared he was in for a career, he scored well and worked his way to the Nuc School’s highest rated class, deploying on a new fleet carrier working his way up to an E-7 and department chief. Over beers with me and my Dad, (a WW2 South Pacific vet and retired 0-6) he mentioned that the Navy had offered to send him to a well know engineering school utilizing his past education and additional course work to achieve an engineering degree with a immediate commission as a LT. He told us he turned it down because the pressure on these young engineers was so great, the bureaucracy was horrible and if any minor issue arose, these well trained, competent officers were destroyed. After 12 years, doing his recruiting tour in San Francisco, he separated and took a job with a tech startup. It was never about the money, he loved the Navy and being at sea, it was about the politics and incompetent chain of command. This is not how you keep the best and the brightest.

  7. TrustbutVerify

    July 16, 2021 at 12:30 pm

    I would say the direct approach would be for everyone to look at the person next to them and realize, “If I don’t do my job, we could all die. My job is to prepare for war and maintain readiness for war, doing my best every day to ensure this ship is ready to go into harm’s way when called.”

    Every step of the chain should realize this dynamic, work to reinforce it, and realize the obligation to give themselves and their crew the best chance to win and survive in a fight, and to inculcate that attitude throughout the Navy.

  8. Carlton Meyer

    July 16, 2021 at 3:20 pm

    Note our Navy just added its third fleet level command in the past five years. Lots of new spots for Admirals while the fleet size plummets.

    “Many skippers reared during the interwar years proved unable to adapt to the wartime reality they confronted”

    The best examples are:

    1. Get the homeport ships and families out of Sasebo!

    2. Get the families and non-combat aircraft off Okinawa!

  9. David Whitney

    July 16, 2021 at 10:10 pm

    On Oct. 9, 1941, Stalin had 300 Red army field commanders executed. Any questions?

  10. David Whitney

    July 16, 2021 at 10:12 pm

    Edit typo Oct. 16, 1941.

  11. Morris Steen

    July 17, 2021 at 10:17 pm

    In Feb 1986, I went to OP-01 for my first D. C. tour after three successive intense sea tours (squadron D. H., squadron CO/XO, LPH XO/Air Boss) and saw a different Navy than what I was accustomed to. Political Correctness was emerging as a consideration for EVERY personnel decision. HIV-AIDS policy, integration of women in the Navy in large numbers, women aboard ships, and women in flight school, had supplanted minority integration as the main issue, particularly when some women began to fail in their respective areas. Homosexuality in the ranks was on the horizon. Gender issues were 25 years in the future. Flag Officers were scrambling to be “on the right side of history”, many of whom short-toured their sea commands to get the high vis D. C. jobs, essential for promotion. It was not uncommon to see Flag Officers with multiple (4 or 5) Legion of Merit awards for their time spent in D. C., bouncing from one job to another. Many of my D. C. peers (if not most) were scrambling to get back to sea or out of Washington where, at least, some sanity existed. After nearly four years, I finally escaped and vowed never to return. But the insanity tracked on as Tailhook took out the Navy chain of command from SecNav on down to individual pilots who were small cogs in the wheel of history that led to today’s paucity of combat leadership in the upper ranks. Our war-fighters were purged from the ranks and replaced by PC careerist administrators who have neither the leadership skills nor the courage to speak up and speak out when they should. That is my perception of where our beloved Navy is today. May God have mercy on our souls!

    Furthermore, I am not sure these “new guys”, the new Flags, know how to do it. Bring Captain Kevin Eyer back on active duty, promote him to flag, and put him in charge of all Surface Warfare Training. He served in seven cruisers, commanded three cruisers, and has written extensively about the problems and issues in the Surface Warfare community. I have little confidence in the current flock of flag officers who LET THIS DEBACLE HAPPEN TO OUR NAVY! Find out whose stupid idea it was to close SWO school and send newly commissioned officers to ships with twenty-three CD ROMS and court-martial him! And if you can, get the ENTIRE chain who “chopped off” on the most stupid idea that has ever come down the pike!

  12. Brian Baker

    July 28, 2021 at 12:51 pm

    From my 33-year career at SECNAV and CNO at HQs and field activities, my observation of senior staff, particularly those promoted during the Obama years like Austin and Milley, is that many have succumbed to the 5th Stage of Ethical Regression:

    It Is Necessary To Our Careers To Lie, Cheat Or Market On Demand, Everyone Else Does
    We Cover Up All Mistakes
    We Make Everything An Exception To The Rules
    We Are Careerists
    Honor Is For Someone Else
    We Set The Worst Example For Others To Follow
    We Are Above The System
    Loyalties: Me, Mentors, Network, Next Career, Service/Organization, Country

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