Wednesday, July 21, 2010


For many years now, the United States Navy has been an organization in search of a mission. Despite the absence of a blue-water threat in the world, the Navy remains structured to fight a Cold War that ended 20 years ago. Even in its reduced size (about 285 ships and submarines) America’s navy still matches or exceeds the combined strength of the Russian and Chinese fleets. Thus, for the foreseeable future we do not need more of the same.

So what do we need?

Well, since Vietnam (37 years ago), nearly all the Navy’s fighting has been done by aviators and SEALs. With rare exceptions they operate well above the high tide mark—frequently hundreds of miles above it. So If we’re going to add anything to the fleet, it should probably be minesweepers, because poorly-funded navies do well with those low-cost “weapons that wait.” In order to meet that threat—and the potential for hostile submarines—we can do with fewer superfluous gadgets like ballistic missile subs and stealth airplanes.

Speaking of which...

Naval aviation has nailed the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to the institutional mast, staking carrier air’s future on an extremely expensive, overly sophisticated machine that refuses to meet design criteria or budget limits.

There’s also problems with ships and manning. Through most of the 1990s, about 3.5 percent of ships failed inspection. From 2005 onward, the figure approached 14 percent. Consequently, fewer of our current vessels are available to deploy, which reduces prospects for building toward the Navy’s goal of 312 or so. The problem has persisted for years, apparently with little prospect of improvement. In other words, the cause is systemic.

Then there’s women in submarines. Die-hard seamen are vehemently opposed to putting females aboard subs, a topic floated (excuse the phrase) during the 1990s tenure of Frank Kelso as CNO. A “bubblehead” himself, he was all in favor of putting women in combat aircraft but was far less enthused about having them in his part of the navy—the noncombatant part. The last time American submariners torpedoed an enemy ship was 1945, so perhaps the women in subs thing is overblown. As long as subs remain passive vessels (deterrence and surveillance) any untoward “gender-related” events presumably will be minimized.

There are also serious problems with the Navy's culture, not least of which is the annual Midway Night. Each June the service commemorates the 1942 battle that ended Japan’s strategic offensive in WW II. And each year the chief of naval operations makes a suitable oration—or not. In 2009 the CNO delivered a speech about the battle without once mentioning Japan. Honest. This year he did marginally better, uttering The J Word once while citing Midway and a dozen other Pacific battles.

Political correctness is alive and well in Uncle Sam’s Navy.

Then there’s the Marine Corps, which sailors call Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children, among less printable endearments. Currently a move is underway in Congress to rename the naval bureaucracy the Department of the Navy and Marine Corps. Even some former Marines (reputedly there are no ex-Marines) are unenthused about the idea. As a retired leatherneck general once said, “Of course the Marines are party of the Navy—the best part!”

Hower, many Marines (read: every single one I know of) were outraged when the politicians decided to name a ship after former/ex marine and pork-producing congressman for life John Murtha, who declared Marines in Iraq guilty of murder before the facts were in. But hey, such is politics. That kind of stink can stick to any surface, including Marine Green. A correspondent wrote, “As a Former Naval Person, naming anything above a self-propelled garbage scow for the late Rep. Murtha is an abomination.”

More consequential is the Marines’ obsolete fixation on making opposed amphibious landings—something neither they nor apparently anyone else has done since the middle of the last century.  Here’s what detectives call a Clue:

Are you old enough to remember Inchon and Wonsan in 1950? Me neither. But when you have a bunch of expensive widgets that you haven’t used in 60 years, you probably don’t need new ones, let alone the old widgets on hand. Yet the Marines and their lobbyists keep pushing for a new generation of amphibious assault craft.

Finally, there’s the ridiculous trend toward admiral inflation.

The May issue of Naval Institute Proceedings contains the annual roster of Navy flag officers, with some 330 listed in more than 16 pages. That represents a 53% increase over the 2006 figure of 215, or a 13 percent Annual Admiral Inflation Index (AAII) pro-rated over a four-year period! Now, Congress approves flag officer billets based on actual, perceived, or manufactured needs from year to year. Friends remaining on active duty note that increased requirements for joint command billets account for much of the AAII, but cannot possibly explain (let alone justify) one appalling fact: With a nominal 285 ships and submarines, we now have approximately 1.15 admirals per vessel. Anybody care to guess the response from the shades of Bull Halsey, Ernie King, or Arleigh Burke? It sounds more like a Gilbert and Sullivan opera than a self-respecting military service.

I have a suggestion: Starting with the next fiscal year, each star wearer will receive a form to be filled out and returned to the Superfluous Admiral Reduction Board (SARB). The form will read: "I should be retained on active duty for one more year because..." (Fill in the blank in 25 words or less. Bonus points for brevity.) The SARB shall be composed of three chief petty officers, three junior officers (one each O-2, 3, and 4), and three civilian taxpayers, all chosen at random. Each admiral's answer will be rated pass-fail, with a two-thirds majority necessary for retention. Cost of the process will be more than offset by immediate retirement of the superfluous star wearers--an astonishing example of a program actually turning a profit.

The Navy might even assign one of those extraneous admirals to check this space for additional solutions. Certainly the price is right.

1 comment:

  1. Barrett, I think it only fair to mention our elected royalty in congress who insist that their exalted committees and investigating bodies deserve flag officer briefers. And the jointness-forever requirements (another congressional pet) that dictate manning levels (if parochial fairness is important) in the ever-spreading CINCs exacerbates what you've correctly labeled "flag bloat." So, be bold! Reduce the number of admirals (all flag officers), but with congressional understanding that they've seen the last of any flag officers before any committees or investigating bodies. And you, my friend, will be a forever hero to all military leaders. Cheers, Jerry Houston