June 17, 2017: the damaged USS Fitzgerald is towed by a tugboat in the waters near the U.S. Naval base in Yokosuka, southwest of Tokyo, after the U.S. destroyer collided with the Philippine-registered container ship ACX Crystal.

June 17, 2017: the damaged USS Fitzgerald is towed by a tugboat in the waters near the U.S. Naval base in Yokosuka, southwest of Tokyo, after the U.S. destroyer collided with the Philippine-registered container ship ACX Crystal. AP / Eugene Hoshiko

The Status Quo Killed 17 US Sailors. The Navy Must Change.

The surface warfare community should embrace, not reject, a congressional mandate to divide new line officers into two specialties.

Seventeen sailors are dead. The U.S. Navy’s Surface Warfare Officer community killed them.

Non-combat deaths, while tragic, are part of the profession of arms. Sometimes they are caused by human error or faulty equipment or ineffective procedures, and in these cases, there are lessons gleaned by thorough investigations – written in blood, as we say. Sometimes these deaths are due to the dangerous nature of our work: sad but inevitable costs of doing business. And sometimes they serve as a Las Vegas-caliber neon sign, pointing to colossal ineptitude, neglect, and detachment from reality.

Four years ago, I conducted a study of three naval communities — U.S. naval aviation, U.S. Navy nuclear, and the Royal Navy’s surface officers — talking to members of each in search of the cure to a corroded and hollow Surface Warfare Officer community. The resulting three-part series, The Virtue of Being a Generalist, made the case that the SWO community accepts mediocrity, has an ill-defined identity, and employs watch-standers with dubious professional education and proficiency. The SWO community was a paper tiger, flush with greenbacks, but untested in combat and more often lucky than good.

The study found that the professional and operational experience of contemporary naval organizations argues that SWOs should embrace the Royal Navy’s model of specialization and should declare that ship driving should be the core competency of the service’s ship drivers. Neither change has been enacted. Ship driving still receives the least amount of dedicated time in the schoolhouse of any subject.

The actual state of ship-driving proficiency is far worse than the papers say. Nearly eight months before the Fitzgerald disaster, two cruisers off San Diego came seconds away from a nighttime collision due to watchstander incompetence on both ships. We are identifying, but not learning from, lessons from incidents like this and what has become normalized incompetence across the Force. In the summer of 2017, seventeen sailors died the most horrific deaths and two advanced warships were taken off the line because the officers entrusted with their upkeep were not competent to operate them. This is not an indictment of Fitzgerald or McCain; such mediocrity is on display across the Surface Force and ships are left to make do.  Since Fitzgerald, dozens of quarterly near-miss reports have been reported to the Type Commander’s desk – but talk is cheap, and our sailors’ lives are not.

I was too polite in my original study. To be clear: our Surface Warfare Officer community killed those sailors. It is not that we should change – we must! It took 17 deaths to get the admirals’ attention. Was that the price of changing the status quo?

 In the aftermath, I stayed quiet. Those of us who go to sea know that this is not a Seventh Fleet issue. It is not a forward-deployed issue. It is not a fluke, nor was it unexpected. These tragedies could have happened on any ship in any fleet at any time. The issue is a community built on a foundation of generalism and mediocracy, whose leadership manifests as an anti-body to change, and whose members’ lives depend too much on luck. There are good people in the community. Their success and competency comes from their own dogged determination and in spite of their community’s misplaced priorities. They are the exception, not the rule. Imagine if this was the case in the Naval Aviation or nuclear communities.

Last week, retired Cmdr. Bryan McGrath wrote “Back off, Congress; Don’t Meddle With the US Navy’s Command Philosophy.” He was fired up by a paragraph in Section 502 of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act stipulating that the Surface Warfare Officer community shall, starting in 2021, divide new officers into two new career paths, namely: ship engineering systems and ship operations and combat systems. In essence, the British model.

McGrath’s thesis boils down to the following quote: “…if it (the NDAA provision) is implemented, the U.S. Navy’s concept of command at sea – a philosophy that has served the world’s dominant naval power well – will be forever altered and diluted.” He could not be more wrong.

It is important to note that the U.S. Navy does not have a formal command philosophy, as McGrath suggests. What it does have is the Charge of Command. While this document has numerous points and themes, its primary thrust is the concept of ultimate responsibility and accountability for all commanding officers. It belies McGrath’s argument that “Were the U.S. Navy to adopt the Royal Navy model, a commanding officer could no longer be held responsible for the safe and effective operation of the ship’s engineering systems.”

The Charge of Command affords no caveats for things the commanding officer does not know, does not care about, or has not been thoroughly trained on. Today, when an egregious engineering failure is discovered, the commanding officer is held accountable regardless of their past engineering experience as is, usually, the engineer officer. The same practice applies in the Royal Navy. The responsibility is ultimate and absolute. Plain and simple.

Our Surface Warfare Officer community will not fall apart if we embrace the British model’s career tracks and training. Our concept of command will not sink. Our commanding officers will not be worse off. In practice, we already specialize to a large degree. For example, as an Executive Officer, I have never been, nor will I ever be, an engineer. Even my two shore tours reflected a topsider specialization. My engineering experience stems partially from earning my Engineering Officer of the Watch qualification, but primarily, from 12 years of experience and professional osmosis. No tours in engineering. No extended time in the plant. You would not want me in charge of the upkeep of your engines, but I am a well-informed officer of the deck and know the right engineering questions to ask in order to run a ship.

Under a specialist model, engineers would not be doomed to an existence on the back bench with regards to command. Both career tracks would lay a viable path to provide experienced and well-trained commanding officers to the Fleet. By that point, we expect our officers to be well-rounded through their career experiences and the qualifications earned along the way. As one current Royal Navy executive officer told me, “…(one of our COs) will get single figure weeks-worth of (engineering) training across their entire career before assuming command. Against this, 12 (plus) years at sea brings a fair amount of implicit knowledge gained.” At the precipice of command, the Royal Navy’s professional well-rounding is not terribly different from ours. The difference? Up until that point, the Royal Navy trains the hell out of their respective surface career tracks and lives and breathes the notion that those who drive their ships out ought to know how to drive ships. They are professionals. We — as a community — are not.

Numerous retired and senior active officers point to our superior numbers, systems, ability to project power, and our relatively low accident rate as indications that no changes are necessary. Those who serve at sea know different. They know that near-misses on billion-dollar ships are relatively common place and that the root causes, more often than not, boil down to incompetent personnel.

This community that I love touts how in-demand we are on large staffs or in the Pentagon and that our core competency is administering the maintenance program. It is enough to make one cry. Or scream. Or both. Mr. McGrath is wrong. Congress should not butt out. Our community has forfeited its right to chart its own course after years of accepting sub-par standards and ignoring the painfully obvious. We should welcome Congress’ intervention and work with them to make us the world’s greatest surface force in reality, not just slogan.

The Comprehensive Review was a start – a late start, and one that contained no surprises to those of us on the job, but a start nonetheless. Its lateness is its own tragedy, though, given that 17 died while their ships transited unopposed and that the deficiencies leading to their deaths had long before been called out.

The U.S. Navy’s surface community is outmatched tactically at sea. The “near” part of “near-peer” is falling quickly out of vogue thanks to dire projections of how a modern war at sea would go. To effectively counter the threat, we must first dedicate ourselves to fostering a community of professional mariners and technical experts. The mediocrity-by-generality accepted by the SWO community would never be tolerated in the naval aviation or nuclear communities. The time for blissful ignorance is over. The time for blaming the budget is over. The time for hand-wringing is over. The time for superficially re-labeling pumps as filters is over. We must end our infatuation with mediocracy. We must end our blind dedication to the generalist approach. We must stop being lucky and start being good. We must become specialists and embrace ship handling as our core competency. Congress is getting involved and we must lean into the solution. Our culture of mediocracy killed those sailors. We must change.

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