Over the last several years, the U.S. Navy has examined numerous major accidents and the unfortunate failure of command during the USS Theodore Roosevelt COVID-19 incident at Guam. Recently, a study requested by congressional leaders found a disturbing lack of emphasis by the Navy on its warfighting mission. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AK) and Representatives Jim Banks (R-IN), Dan Crenshaw (R-TX), and Mike Gallagher (R-WI) requested the independent assessment, “A Report on the Fighting Culture of the United States Navy’s Surface Fleet.” The sponsors are former active-duty or currently serving military reserve officers, all with combat experience.
Regarding the methodology of the study, Cotton’s press release explained: “Two retired flag officers, Lieutenant General Robert E. Schmidle, United States Marine Corps, and Rear Admiral Mark Montgomery, United States Navy, led an interview team consisting of congressional staff, military veterans, and outside experts to produce this report.” Those interviewed numbered 77 “sailors of all walks of naval life – active duty and reserve, officer and enlisted, retired and separated – producing over 100 hours of transcripts.” To ensure that there was a basic understanding of the military culture generally, “90% of the interview team were veterans of one of the five branches of service.”
Subjects for the interview process were 78% active duty, both retired and currently serving, and 20% reservists. Preference was given to officers with “surface warfare experience and significant time at sea.” Sixty-seven of the interviewees were male, and ten were female. All were guaranteed anonymity, which established an atmosphere for candor.
As the title would lead you to believe, the purpose of the inquiry was to determine if a culture of warfighting and combat mission effectiveness exists in the Navy. The inquiry’s authors were unequivocal. Schmidle and Montgomery said:
“The results of this project are unambiguous. There was a broad consensus across interviewees on numerous cultural and structural issues that impact the morale and readiness of the Navy’s surface force. These include an insufficient focus on warfighting skills, the perception of a zero-defect mentality accompanied by a culture of micromanagement, and over-sensitivity and responsiveness to modern media culture.”
When respondents were asked if incidents like the collisions of the guided-missile destroyers USS John McCain and USS Fitzgerald with commercial cargo vessels, the ignominious surrender of two small U.S. craft to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the recent burning of the USS Bonhomme Richard were attributable to a Navy cultural or leadership problem, their answers were shocking.
Ninety-four percent of the respondents said yes. Only 3% said no, and 3% were unsure. When asked if the interviewees thought there was a direct connection to the unfortunate incidents, “55% said ‘yes,’ 16% said ‘no,’ and 29% said ‘unsure.’” As the authors opined, “This sentiment, that the Navy is dangerously off course, was overwhelming.” As they pointed out, the “finding and sinking of enemy fleets” ought to be the fundamental objective of the Navy. Instead, leadership is otherwise occupied with bureaucratic “excess,” which proves more rewarding for career advancement than skills as a “warfighter.”
Dr. James Holmes, holder of the J.C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College, commented on the study in the online publication 1945, saying:
“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.”
From an operational perspective, one comment by a recent destroyer captain put it, “where some put their time shows what their priorities are. And I’ve got so many messages about X, Y, Z appreciation month or sexual assault prevention, or you name it. We don’t even have close to that level of emphasis on actual warfighting.” Additionally, there is a dearth of investment in training surface-warfare officers, resulting in “commanding officers with inconsistent, often ill-prepared wardrooms.” The concerning observation by those participating in the study was the impact of the Navy’s bowing to “media culture.” A particularly damning declaration from Schmidle and Montgomery was:
“Frustration among interviewees was palpable, with both the national press corps and the manner in which Navy leaders react to the press. ‘[Admirals] are supposed to lead us into battle, but they hide in foxholes at the first sight of Military.com and the Military Times,’ said one intelligence officer with disgust. ‘The reporters are in charge, not us.’”
The ubiquity and dominance of the media covering national security grant reporters — who may or, more likely, may not have any military experience – a credibility that far exceeds their value to the military community. But all too often misplaced zeal for a story results in the media getting it wrong. Liberty Nation reported on this problem a year ago. A less-than-accurate media account combined with a Navy leadership that overreacts to the story leads to a situation that destroys warfighters’ confidence in their leaders.
One participant in the study made a statement that should be taken to heart by the chief of Naval Operations: “I’ve never heard anyone in any [congressional] testimony that I can think of that talks about actually winning. And so that’s not to absolve the Navy of its responsibility, but it’s just stunning to me.” One hopes that Navy leadership will pay attention to this study. China, Iran, Russia, and North Korea certainly are. There is no second-place trophy in war.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.