In Forbes: A Depressing Piece

by Craig Hooper on November 9, 2021

It’s really frustrating to go back and read mishap reports from the last two decades. They’re all the same. They all indicate the same general problems–folks that take too many risks, don’t know their equipment, and fail to institute normal procedures. In essence, they’re basically picking and choosing what rules to follow. The Officer Corps knows this and, for far too many years, they’ve not cared. A close read on some of these things, and you’ll see folks getting rewarded for overlooking things and NOT causing the boss problems. The fact that those things that get overlooked may just end up sinking the boat, but, you know, right now it lets the Department Head and the Skipper keep their career trajectory. It’s just frustrating as all heck to see. It is clear to me that Navy leadership isn’t going to change things unless they are pushed–and their careers put at risk–to do so.

It’s also becoming clear that the various communities in the Navy are not listening to each other–there’s a lot of “stay in my lane” baloney. “Oh, well gosh,” says the submariners, “those 7th Fleet skimmers have real problems,” as they go and make what appear to be pretty similar operational mistakes.

Add in the wider, general lack of accountability in the Navy, and it just adds up. We had a huge cheating scandal at the Academy, and only a handful got axed. Why? Because the Navy, as an institution, didn’t want to make problems in the personnel pipeline. But what lesson are we teaching the folks who broke the honor code and got a slap on the wrist? It’s personal to me…a childhood friend got expelled in the last big Navy Academy cheating scandal, and he’s the man he is today because he was held accountable. Had he been offered some limp “redemption” opportunity, he’d be a different guy. And poorer for it. We have another big “Fat Leonard” bribery scandal brewing, despite, well, Fat Leonard being “a thing.” There’s a slow decline in standards at nuke school. Admirals can glibly claim that, say, the USS Ford’s elevators are going to be delivered in a matter of a few weeks without any sanction. It’s ridiculous.

Somebody has to get the Navy in hand. Hopefully it’s going to be Carlos Del Toro. But I think the Navy’s made the SECNAV office staff so small, that the only way he’s going to be able to do anything is to get out and see stuff for himself. When Big Navy isn’t telling the SECNAV the real deal, it’s a problem. And I bet it happens more often than not these days.

And, to be frank, the Navy hates pursuing accountability. Mabus tried. The whining about how “Fat Leonard” killed the Pacific Fleet was mendacious and wrong–I’ve written about it here. Yes the disciplinary process was long and complicated. Yes, it hamstrung careers by casting a very wide net. But it had to be done. If there was anything I could offer, I’d say that the discipline should have been done far faster with less legal plodding. But I digress. Pursing accountability is as hard as it is unpopular, and, if you’re unpopular in today’s Navy, you’re not going anywhere. And with more folks than ever ready to politicize good naval discipline–bashing folks for cancel culture or zero defects or for culture war baloney–it’s hard.

But it’s going to get worse. If COVID has taught us anything, there’s a strain of “I’m not going to let authority tell me what to do” in American society. And that’s going to get increasingly prevalent–making the maintenance of good order a real challenge. When you have officers and sailors “doing their own thing” because nobody can tell “them” what to do, it’s…a recipe for a lot more avoidable mishaps.

To fix things, the Navy’s going to need skilled pressure from the top on all levels. Modly tried–with the USS Ford–but he ended up self-immolating and anything he touched was either mocked into irrelevance or canceled.

It’s unfortunate. The Navy has so much potential, and there are so many good people out there doing good things, it’s a shame that their contributions are overshadowed by avoidable screw ups. The Navy has got to do better. Go read the piece, here.

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James O'Keefe November 10, 2021 at 2:44 pm

A good article. Thanks for it.

Your article prompted me to look about and now I am reading Politico’s “Years of warnings then death and disaster” (https://features.propublica.org/navy-accidents/us-navy-crashes-japan-cause-mccain/). When upper leadership (civilian and military) isn’t willing to listen when even admirals say the navy is overextended and standards have fallen, then that will create burnout and risk taking among lower officers. Perhaps the rabid emphasis on individualism has made its way into the navy, but I suspect that having to cut corners due to lack of people is more of an issue.

In terms of accountability, the problem is DoD wide. Just read The Afghanistan Papers to see how the marines and army repeatedly covered up how bad things were going there and weren’t willing to push back when they saw money being wasted (or were ignored when they did push back). Certainly that was a civilian leadership issue, but the military had a huge part to play in sustaining that fiasco.

There is no accountability for the DoD’s many procurement failures. The military (especially the Navy) has burned through well over a hundred billion dollars on one overpriced (and often failed) project after another while equipment is inadequately maintained and sustained. It isn’t just Ford, LCS and Zumwalt, but the F-35, KC-46 and the Army’s Future Combat Systems ($32 billion wasted). Now we are spending billions more on hypersonic and anti-ballistic missiles and robot ships hoping something sticks.

Then there is the $25 billion/year the DoD found it loses, but tried to hide, or the contortions the DoD goes through to make its books balance if they even try to balance them. I find it particularly galling when people keep saying we need to throw money at the military to get ready to fight China (and/or Russia) when the Navy and DoD cannot manage our money well in the first place. The DoD’s accountability issues run deep and are long in the making.

Yet, Congress would rather fight fully funding replacing all of the lead water mains we have or fighting global warming which is far more of a long-term existential threat than China or Russia, than challenging the DoD’s accountability issues. It is so much easier to give the DoD another $25 billion/year and take checks from defense contractors.

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