Small Wars Journal

Making America’s Navy Great Again

Share this Post

Making America’s Navy Great Again

Gary Anderson

America’s Navy is badly in need of reform. After eight years under Obama’s abysmal Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, the Navy is under disciplined, and largely lacking the basic skills needed to conduct seamanship - much less win a war at sea. Both China and Iran are building impressive strategies to control two of the most the world’s most important sea lanes - the south China Sea and Straits of Hormuz respectively - in the event of war. Both nations have created sophisticated anti-navy capabilities to keep US forces out of those critical sea lanes, and China is also building up her blue water fleet. In peacetime, both nations are working aggressively to seduce or intimidate neighbors in the region with a long-term goal of denying ports and airfields to the US in a future conflict.

In the meantime, the reputation and respect that the US Navy has enjoyed since World War II ended has steadily eroded. Recent mishaps at sea have revealed a startling lack of both seamanship and discipline aboard some of our surface combatants. Investigations have shown a lack of proper training and discipline among bridge watch teams. Incompetence at sea cannot be tolerated. Congress has shown a reluctance to address these issues and is in the process of exploring ways to further undermine the Navy’s striking power. The Senate Armed Services Committee is conducting a study to support eliminating the Navy’s amphibious fleet and turning the Marine Corps into a low intensity conflict force. This is happening at a time when forcible entry ashore may be critical to degrading enemy shore-based anti-navy capabilities. If we are going to reform the Navy, there will need to be radical changes in both training and discipline.

In training, more use of simulations is needed to ensure that bridge crews are well prepared to operate in the heavily traveled waters of the world’s sea lanes. On the job training is becoming dangerous in these areas. Before any ship deploys from its home port, bridge watch crews should be certified as a team in realistic simulations to operate in strenuous conditions where lives are constantly on the line. Incompetent personnel would be weeded out and replaced before they hurt themselves or anyone else. The investigation of one recent accident showed that two key female officers on the bridge watch were not on speaking terms. That should have been sorted out before the ship was allowed to leave port. Exercises on a simulator would likely have uncovered this lack of teamwork.

All the services’ air arms and civilian airlines have made use of computer simulations for decades to train and evaluate air crews, and the Marine Corps trains small unit leaders on variations of computer games. The Navy should use similar techniques not only to train its bridge crews but to certify them for duty at sea as well. This should be done both with the captain is present and when he or she is not. A Navy captain is responsible for everything that happens whether that commander is on the bridge or not, but he must be provided with competent personnel to navigate safely when he is asleep or checking on the rest of the ship.

One topic that comes up when career naval officers or senior enlisted is the declining competence of ships’ damage control parties. There are simulators to train for this, but Mabus-era regulations require female sailors to be included in all military specialties whether they are capable of doing the heavy lifting and hauling required of damage control personnel. There are also some males who can’t do the work as well. What is needed is a physical fitness test that simulates the physical requirements of damage control. The Marine Corps has such a test for its combat arms personnel that simulates the physical demands of combat that includes carrying a wounded comrade to an evacuation site. If sailors - male or female - cannot pass such a test, they should not be included in damage control parties regardless of sex. Damage control aboard the USS McCain and USS Fitzgerald during recent accidents at sea appears to have been adequate, but damage control in the wake of a catastrophic wartime missile hit would be much more severe than a collision at sea.

Finally, there is the issue of shipboard discipline. The days when the Royal Navy was run by “rum, sodomy, and the lash” are long over. However, the Mabus Navy led to a serious degradation of naval discipline in our fleet. One does not meet a senior navy career officer or enlisted professional without hearing horror stories of indiscipline aboard ships. Many navy commanders find themselves afraid to discipline errant minorities, women, or LGBT personnel for fear of a #me too complaint or a story in the Navy Times submitted by e-mail. Senior admirals have been reluctant to back up captains who enforce discipline for fear of damaging their own careers. There are very few admirals such as Bull Halsey or Ernest King among today’s Navy officers, and those who show warrior traits are often passed over by promotion boards. Too many millennial sailors and even young officers raised in an age of participation trophies and helicopter parents are shocked when they are given high standards and told to abide by them. Putting a sailor in the brig on bread and water is not a death sentence, and it is far better than forty lashes. The Navy needs a clear set of dos and do-nots for shipboard discipline and behavior. For example, sailors of any sex holding hands and smooching on the boat deck should not be tolerated - and captains who enforce those standards rigidly should not have their careers endangered for enforcing discipline.

Finally, the Navy Department lacks a strong civilian leader such as John Lehman or Jim Webb. The housecleaning of Mabus-era admirals that should have happened at the beginning of the current administration has not yet occurred. When leadership is weak at the top, the rot trickles down.

About the Author(s)

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps Colonel who has been a civilian advisor in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is an adjunct professor at the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.

Comments

There are significant problems in all branches of today's military, as evidenced by the fact that after 16 years of promised results in Afghanistan by both Marine and Army Generals, they have simply failed -- and our potential and actual opponents recognize that failure. In addition, there are the problems with the Surface Navy. This write up by a Marine Officer reflects the opinions of one never having been a Surface Officer whose commentary is text book, but generally incorrect,

For instance, the comment that "all the services’ air arms and civilian airlines have made use of computer simulations for decades to train and evaluate air crews, and the Marine Corps trains small unit leaders on variations of computer games. [and] the Navy should use similar techniques not only to train its bridge crews but to certify them for duty at sea as well" is ill informed advice from someone who has never been an OOD.

Having spent many years as an OOD on a DD, DE, and on a Carrier -- one cannot learn how to be a competent OOD using simulators. They are simply cannot replace real experience -- too many variables and not enough time can be spent in that environment. One of the major criticisms of multi-engine (particularly commercial) pilots is that there is so much automation in the cockpit when things go wrong they can't properly react. To little time real flying that can not be compensated for by simulated crisis training. Simulators do not provide the experience and consistent feel needed to handle unusual situations. The same holds true for line officers standing bridge watch. The Navy teaches pilots to learn how to fly using aircraft-based training, not simulators.

The same holds true for Bridge Watch standers. First, stop using automation and return to an all manual operation, e.g. require use of plot boards, limit radar in the bridge to surface search with manual computations of oncoming ships speed, navigate using sextons -- not GPS, etc. The Officers on the Bridge teams will learn to think for themselves -- not rely on some computer. Return to the situation where the officers (O-1s) have to stand JOOW watches under the training of an experienced JOOD for the better part of 3 to 6 months while they learned use of the plot board, commands, Rules of the Road, use of the surface search radar to compute seed and position of approaching vessels, how to read running lights, how to instinctively determine what another ship is going to do, etc. Then, when appropriately trained at that level they move up to JOOD for another 6+ months learning how to be an OOD. They will learn commands to the helmsmen / EOT operators or whatever has replaced them, how to maneuver ships in formation steaming, how to handle ships during unreps, be permitted to take the Deck and the Conn under the watchful eye of the OOD, etc. When at the level of skill needed to be an OOD, restore the need for them go before a Board of Officers over an 18 hour period and demonstrate detailed knowledge of engineering, steering, rules of the road, pri-tac commands, formation steaming requirements and maneuvering, communications, navigation, weaponry, etc. 

That operating environment will solve the problem -- not simulators and schools. One can only learn ship handling at Sea. 

From a retired Navy Surface Officer

As a former and retired Navy Officer, I agree. The Colonel is incorrectly imposing his infantry training and  operations standards on the Navy's Damage Control Activities. He doesn't understand ship board operations because he wasn't a Navy Surface Officer.

If someone is injured or wounded on a ship during Battle Station's GQ, they are not evacuated. We maintain water tight integrity until GQ is secured. Casualties stay where they are until that time -- essentially untreated. The GQ team gives 100 percent priority to saving the ship. That is the way it goes. I have been an Officer in charge of fire fighting teams on a carrier -- and we made that operating procedure clear to the team members. We'll find enough personnel to remove the injured after we secure from GQ, but not until we secure from GQ. 

This is quite a rant about the Navy from a retired Marine Corps Col.  I assume that Col (ret.) Anderson got in a lot of time at sea during his stints in Afghanistan and Iraq...

 

Anderson: “Both China and Iran are building impressive strategies to control two of the most the world’s most important sea lanes - the south China Sea and Straits of Hormuz respectively - in the event of war.”

 

  • The South China Sea is not a sea lane; Chinese shipping (and most of its oil imports) depends upon access to the Straits of Malacca and Lombok
  • Neither is capable of controlling any of these sea lanes, and temporary denial is very different
  • Both countries’ economies depend upon these sea lanes being open, and the same is not true for the United States
  • The United States could deny China and Iran access to these sea lanes, crippling their economies
  • Neither China nor Iran could deny access to these lanes without damaging the economy of the other

 

Anderson: "One topic that comes up when career naval officers or senior enlisted is the declining competence of ships’ damage control parties. There are simulators to train for this, but Mabus-era regulations require female sailors to be included in all military specialties whether they are capable of doing the heavy lifting and hauling required of damage control personnel. There are also some males who can’t do the work as well. What is needed is a physical fitness test that simulates the physical requirements of damage control. The Marine Corps has such a test for its combat arms personnel that simulates the physical demands of combat that includes carrying a wounded comrade to an evacuation site. If sailors - male or female - cannot pass such a test, they should not be included in damage control parties regardless of sex."

 

This seems rather rant-ish, but I agree that there should be basic sex-neutral physical requirements. 

 

Anderson: "Too many millennial sailors and even young officers raised in an age of participation trophies and helicopter parents are shocked when they are given high standards and told to abide by them. Putting a sailor in the brig on bread and water is not a death sentence, and it is far better than forty lashes."

 

Another rant - first women, now millennials.  A diet of bread and water would reduce sailors’ physical capabilities and impede damage control ;)

Spot on comments, sir.

 

The fact that these problems and solutions are so obvious to a military officer of another service speaks volumes about how out of touch the top navy officer community really is.

 

My grandson is a serving officer in naval aviation.  I am well aware of the hazards of his chosen profession; however, I believe that he will not be placed in danger solely due to the incompetence and lack of training of other members of that community.

 

Old reserve OOD/NAV/XO

Pick an armed service, any armed service and you'll find similar (if not identical) maladies - especially the politically correct diseases.

These are actually very serious ailments that need to be addressed. Even our service academies suffer from problems that cast long shadows on their historical abilities to produce fine officers.

One wonders if we could even begin to fight the wars we had in the past if we had to today?