Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Cruel Sea and Navy Accountability

Many readers are aware that I spent much of my adult life in the Navy, and that I eventually had the great joy and honor to command a destroyer. I left that command nearly twelve years ago, but the sweet taste of it remains to this day. There simply is no other job on the face of this earth like commanding a warship; grab a multi-starred admiral some day and chat him or her up, and if they came up through the surface warfare community, they'll almost certainly tell you that command of their first ship was their favorite tour. 

One prepares for the job over the course of some eighteen years or so, and part of that preparation is watching other officers in command. You pick and choose elements of their approach and style as you form your own idea of how you'll do the job. I kept a little green standard Navy log-book with the words "How I'll Do It Better" on it for several years, a place where I could jot down spurious thoughts that came to me. 

Part of what you learn on the way up is that the commanding officer of a Navy ship is a singular individual, even within the pantheon of leadership positions in the U.S. military. There simply is no other place where responsibility, authority, and accountability are so tightly combined. Additionally, everyone on the ship knows it. Including the Captain. It is deeply woven into the culture of the Navy, and it is something that I have been proud of since I could understand the concept. I remain proud of it today--and consider it the great binding strength upon which all else good about the Navy rests.

We have before us now a tests of that great strength, as last summer's tragic collisions in the Western Pacific have produced criminal charges against the captains of the two destroyers involved, in addition to several other crewmembers. Social media was alive yesterday with reaction to the announcement of these charges (or actually, the seeking of these charges--an Article 32 hearing will determine which charges they will actually be tried for), and it was universally one of shock. Granted, the shock of the collisions themselves last summer was greater--as it should have been--but the shock yesterday was nevertheless interesting to me. There was utter surprise at the possibility that honorable men and women who voluntarily decided to serve their country might wind up in military prison as a result of accidents six months ago,  about which many commenters then asked, "how can this happen?"  

What few people seemed to grasp is that their wonder about how the collisions could happen is in no small measure the product of a system in which otherwise honorable men and women face prison for causing them. Collisions at sea are NOT common both because of the physics involved AND because of the fact that mariners are supposed to know "the law" and follow it. The law of the sea is older than our Constitution or any other law we know in this country, and its perceived cruelty is at the heart of its effectiveness.

I feel horrible for the men and women who may someday face courts martial. None of them woke up that day and decided to be complicit in a collision. Ultimately, the charges they face may not be what have been preferred. And ultimately, they may be found guilty of lesser crimes, or innocent altogether. 

But they must face the military justice system, and that system must assign culpability. The strength of the system depends on it, and it is a system that has served this Navy and this nation well. 

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I can't get over the fact that the Navy's premier warfighter, ADM Swift, is paying for this. Tells me that the Navy is more interested in pointing fingers than solving problems.

Randal Farley said...

Naval Aviation for decades has held individuals accountable for accidents. Every mishap is investigated twice, once for cause and once for responsibility. Findings range from no-fault, to criminal. Careers may be ended, but the greater good is that lessons are learned to hopefully prevent future recurrences, save lives, and valuable equipment. This process for the surface Navy is a bit different but ultimately will result in similar lessons learned. Other officers sharing in the responsibilities for these collisions above these two commanders have already had "judgments" against them that either literally or effectively ended their careers. Accountability will be enacted for all involved. The greater lesson for the surface Navy will come in the months and years ahead. How do they change their training to better prepare officers for command at sea - and to prevent the needless loss of blood and treasure that these two incidents highlighted?

Steeljawscribe said...

Bryan:
As always a cogent, thought provoking post. As one who held aviation command I am in violent agreement with you over accountability, but something that is getting lost in the general discussion here are the immediate and long term ramifications that this particular COA of preferring charges against both COs may have on future COs in general, but more so on SWOs. My observations of CG and DDG PCO/PXO coming through first NAMDC then SMWDC-IAMD yields an overall assessment of a warfare community where Command is something to be relentlessly risk mitigated and survived with the bare minimum time in the seat to get the check in the box before heading back for another DC tour and flag rank. “Thrive” is not an adjective attached to command and neither is imagination in establishing a climate for professional growth - as a maritime warfighter.

My question then is this - just what kind of CO (and just as important, community of post-command leaders) is this action intended to gain? What are the envisioned characteristics of the core leaders for the SWO community to be in the wake of these actions? For as much as there is a bill to be paid in accountability (and to be blunt, the preference of charges against both COs belies the stark differences in command climate and approach to ones duties between MCCAIN and FITZGERALD). The net effect, at least in my opinion, will be to only reinforce the pernicious negative influences noted above giving us COs whose approach to war fighting becomes necessarily formulaic, risk and imagination adverse and prone towards a preference to await direction from above rather than follow a model established by her ship,s captains that has served our Navy successfully for over 200 years. In a nutshell, We move from an independent approach to operations (centrally planned, decentralized execution deferring to the local commander) to the Air Force AOC model of centralized command and control because to show initiative increases risk and the potential cost in career punishment outweighs the potential costs in battle where initiative and boldness is left behind in favor of the safer, less risky solution set.

The implications of this emerging culture are troubling for the example it leads the rising crop of COs to be (the department Heads whose absence, especially in that of one of the ships above, borders on gross negligence) to be willing to accept, and a deferment to unquestioning acceptance of weapon system(s) performance increasingly based on specialized modeling to meet acquisition vice bonafide warfighting requirements. The phrase “...met design specifications but not operator expectations will increasingly become more common. The boldness, innovation, and informed risk taking that is inherent in distributed ops/lethality will not thrive in such a climate and the end result may well beca repeat of what we saw at Savo Island.
W/r, SJS

The Conservative Wahoo said...

I appreciate every word you've written, and I understand the argument. I just don't agree with all of it. If the ticket-punchers are dominating--that is a problem to be solved in selection--not to be addressed by throwing out the very bestest single most awsomenest thing there is in the whole US Navy--the billet of Captain of a Warship. The institution has an interest in protecting that--and by BRINGING THE CHARGES it is protecting its interests. It must do this. It must assign responsibility and seek accountability. The justice system will do its job--but not pursuing charges -- and worse yet, the dilution of responsibility we've seen take out the entire chain of command--damages are damaging to the concept and reality of command.

BigFred said...

Little late to the party on this, but from my cynical cheap seat the only folks left standing are CFFC and the CNO. Everyone else has been fired or cashiered out. That is simply unprecedented in the sheer number of leaders who have been fired over this. And the solutions that I have seen come out of this (circadian sleep, JO's need to do more) fall short. JO's are tired because they are doing missions that the 600 ship Navy could do, but the 300+ Navy cannot. No one is talking about the COCOMs asking for less.

I temper that with the data point that there is a generation of shipdrivers who think that MoBoard paper is best suited to cover your bowl in the microwave than to avoid hitting someone or being hit. I have three independent sensors in contact with this thought and I just don't understand the mindset but I have not been to sea in 15 years.

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