Small Wars Journal

Making America’s Navy Great Again

Fri, 08/03/2018 - 12:41am

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.