SECNAV Ray Mabus Needs “Bad Cops” and Bulldogs

by admin on August 27, 2013

090602-N-5549O-038Want to know why Tesla is trading at over 160 dollars a share?  It’s because Tesla’s boss, Elon Musk, fought for it. He took on critics. In public. Back in February 2013, when the New York Times came out with a negative “company-killing hit-piece” on Tesla’s new car, Musk went on a very, very high-profile offensive, forcing the New York Times to back down, citing problems with the original critic’s “precision and judgement

After that, the stock never looked back, racing from the mid-30s into the stratosphere.

Compare that success with the Navy’s bogged-down energy-efficiency and renewable-fuel push.  Like Tesla, it mixed an audacious goal and cutting-edge technology with great showmanship–the Green Hornet, the Green Combat Boat and the Green Fleet were all unsurpassed examples of how a Defense organization can help inject issues into the national consciousness. It should have been a success, right?

Nope. Outside the whiz-bang demonstrations, an army of critics–and bad ones at that–emerged to roll back the Navy’s push for development of energy-conserving technology.  And nobody in the Navy Department–well, nobody of note besides SECNAV Mabus–fought it.  Nobody in the middle-tiers of DoN management really confronted the critics in a tough public fashion, following Elon Musk’s “take no prisoners” template.

The Navy’s concession to decorum was a huge mistake.  The SECNAV cannot do it alone.

Take this notorious 2011 RAND Report–an opening salvo in the wider push-back of the Administration’s Green Goals.  As a policy hit-piece, it was tremendously effective, pushing all mention of the Navy’s Green Fleet out of the President’s 2011 State of the Union.  What was the Navy’s response?  Nothing more than a mild-mannered blogger roundtable, where Tom Hicks, a junior DoN bureaucrat, had to be cajoled into saying “we don’t really feel it is up to RAND’s standards.”  Such ineffective push-back just emboldened critics.  At a minimum, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Energy, Installations and Environment) should have been out there, hoisting the “researchers” by their own petard.  At best, the relevant people in the Navy should have been aware the report was coming, and worked to quash it internally.

Again and again, the Navy chose to leave the field rather than fight.  I supposed the ultimate example of the Navy’s failure to engage comes from Jackalyne Pfannenstiel, Mabus’ strangely AWOL Assistant Secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and environment. Finally, in an ultimate concession to good manners, she committed bureaucratic seppuku, leaving office days before this devastating Wired critique of the Green Fleet hit the presses.

In the article, Wired’s Noah Shactman beat the Navy up about their failure to engage:

“…Making matters worse has been the Navy’s reluctance to give specifics about the biofuels program. Although Mabus has given speech after speech in favor of his renewable energy goals, he and his staff have been reluctant to have anything more than a surface-level discussion of the plan’s merits, according to more than a half-dozen sources in the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill, and throughout the broader military community…”

and he closed with this:

“…The mission to revolutionize the military’s fuel consumption — to, in effect, propose a replacement for one of the planet’s most entrenched industries — would have been a longshot under any circumstances. The plan needed to be designed and executed to near-perfection. Because it was anything but, the first voyage of the Great Green Fleet may well be the last.”

So. Where are we with the Green Fleet?  We’re back starting from square one. Again.

The mountain needs to be climbed all. Over. Again.  We’re starting off right–the diplomatic-minded SECNAV has, in-effect, relaunched his 2009 environmental “call to arms”, publishing a 2013 mission statement for green tech.  The Senate kept the renewable-fuel money available. And, after going a year without a green leader, SECNAV Mabus now has a new green-minded Assistant Secretary, Dennis McGinn.  The pieces are in place for another try.

But the post-2009 momentum is gone, and rebuilding it will be tough.  And what happens when the critics start coming out to attack this program?  Will the Navy cave, again?  Or will it, you know, fight?

Hopefully the DoN will fight.  It frustrates me that the service which fostered such grand phrases as “Damn the torpedoes” has been so consistent in running away from harmless rough-tumble policy debate.  If it is a priority for the boss, then fight for it–or enable him to be more effective in fighting.  Active measures in defense of the audacious–that’s how one inspires folks–and recruits the next-generation Billy Mitchell.  That’s how to win supporters within the Pentagon–and within the services.

Look. Elon Musk didn’t get to where he is by being scared of his own shadow and over-calibrating his public message into irrelevance.  He went and fought PR battles out–sure, he wasn’t perfect, but he won more times than he lost. (And yes, I recognize that SECNAV’s job is a bit different and that his actions are somewhat more constrained–but that is why God invented deputies and surrogates…)

I just fear that Washington has simply lost the stomach for argument and honest debate. (I can hear good DC counselors now, urging “don’t rock the boat…it won’t play well with this other issue/priority/etc”) If the Green Fleet and energy-efficiency is a strategic priority, then fight for it. At all levels.  SECNAV cannot do it alone.

This is why guys like Navy Under Secretary Robert Work will be missed.  Mr. Work was the SECNAV’s public “bad cop”, an articulate bulldog who certainly didn’t shy away from debates.  Every time I saw him in public, he fought–or at least pressed ahead–for his priorities.  When not on stage, he fought on the margins, in blogs and in email-based discussions on naval affairs.  He was delightfully refreshing; and yes, his speeches were, on occasion, peppered with expletives, yet he was always robust and clear in defending his DoN priorities.  And–guess what?  By and large, he succeeded.

Yeah, I know the verdict is still out, but I’ll say this: Some platforms would have likely died without his trenchant support.

At the end of the day, dynamic leadership is infectious.  That is why SECNAV Mabus desperately needs a a few extra bad cops and bulldogs in his staff.  In fact, SECNAV can help set the tone for his new staffers, and be a bulldog himself, fighting to completely staff his leadership team.  It will be neat to see what the SECNAV can do if he is permitted to form a staff with some rough-and-tumble types!

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