Friday, June 22, 2012

Peacetime Commanders - Prepared for War?

Once in a while I come across a book that warrants some additional attention.  Such a book is Destroyer Captain, Lessons of a First Command by Adm. James Stavridis.  Stavridis is currently Supreme Allied Commander, Europe and Commander, United States European Command.  The book is a summary of a journal he kept when he commanded the Burke class destroyer USS Barry during 1993-1995 and is intended to convey the author’s thoughts on the human aspects of command and leadership.

Ready for War?

This is not going to be a book review but, rather, an examination of one aspect of the Navy as it is revealed through the book and that aspect is the stark difference between peacetime leaders and wartime leaders.  The author reveals far more than he intended and I strongly suspect he has no idea that he has done so.  What the book reveals is a crystal clear description of the development and selection of a peacetime naval leader. 

A recurring theme is the author's complaints about long periods of time spent awake and on the bridge during what he considers high risk operations.  However, the operations aren't particularly risky (my opinion from a perspective of never having done them!) and consist of things like plane guard, UNREP, escort, formation sailing, etc.  What this is telling me is that he's a Captain who has either not trained his crew sufficiently well, does not trust them, or is overwhelmed by the Navy’s zero-defects mentality.

Repeated mention is made of weapon systems and sensors that fail at the start of exercise periods and how the crew has to scramble to get them working in time to complete the exercise.  Shouldn't a warship be verifying the operability of those things on a daily, if not hourly basis?  Sadly, the peacetime Captain has other, higher priority activities.

The lack of tactical training is also noteworthy.  Basically, the author is exposed to tactics during his pre-command workup and then participates in rare exercises thereafter.  This is confirmation that peacetime Captains just don't have the time to become tactical experts.

He describes some of the weapons training exercises and I'm struck by the extremely simplistic, set-piece nature of them.  For instance, he describes the CIWS training which consists of a Lear Jet with a tow target banner flying in straight lines back and forth alongside the ship while the CIWS shoots at the banner.  How's that for realism?  All that does is verify that the CIWS is mechanically functional.

In short, the book describes a perfect peacetime Captain functioning in a peacetime Navy and demonstrates that the Navy is not serious about being prepared for war.  The author didn't intend to convey this point but he very clearly does.  In fact, he confirms this himself without realizing it, with the following statement,

"To some degree we have become a navy that specializes in safety, communicating, inspecting, engineering, administering, retaining, and counseling.  There is too little emphasis on shiphandling, warfighting, battle repairing, and leading. ... we all need to know that the essence of why navies exist is to fight and win at sea.

As an example of how we are a bit out of whack is that if I charted my personal time, I suspect I spend virtually my entire day working the first list and precious little devoted to the latter."

He recognizes the problem but, firmly committed to the path of advancement, does nothing to change it.  I’m not criticizing this individual.  He’s merely a symptom and an example of the overall problem.

Presumably, all of the Navy’s leadership has followed this same model which suggests that the current crop of leaders are totally unprepared for war.  This is hardly a surprise.  Remember that many Captains and Admirals had to be replaced early in WWII until the peacetime leaders were weeded out and fighting men were found.  The disappointing aspect of this is that, given the graphic lesson of WWII, the Navy has forgotten the lesson already.  Navy leadership should be selected on the basis of combat skills not energy efficiency, diversity, retention goals met, public relations skill, paperwork filed, and boxes checked.  The zero-defect philosophy, both personally and professionally, is neutering the Navy’s fighting spirit.  A better set of promotion criteria would be to have a major ship handling accident on one’s record and at least one altercation with a superior thereby at least demonstrating an aggressive attitude!


  1. The problem, of course, is that while the Navy had *time* in WWII to create a fleet and man it with fighting officers... I think that's unlikely to happen in the future.

    This has happened before. I remember reading a book on the History of the Navy by Beach; and he describes how some BB's and Cruisers flooding one side of their ships and inducing a list during gunnery exercises so they didn't have to waste time lowering the guns to reload. It won them awards but did nothing for battle readiness.

    1. Jim, as you know, war is a "come as you are" affair. We will pay the price, initially. The hope, and reasonable expectation, is that the enemy will be every bit as unprepared.

      Regarding the length of a future war and whether we'll have time to build new ships and find fighting leaders, either we'll be engaged in mismatches and the quality of our leaders won't really matter or we'll be engaged with a peer (China) and that will be a long, dragged out affair since neither side will be able to achieve a quick victory. In other words, it will become a war of attrition. We will have time to find fighting leaders. Whether we'll be able to replace our equipment losses is a highly debatable question.

  2. You know, with the way things are today, a young Chester Nimitz would probably be tossed out of the Navy. Nimitz ran his ship aground early in his career. He was court-martialed (and convicted) but thankfully the Navy realized that he had talent and potential and allowed him to stay in. Think that would happen now days?

    Doug in VA

  3. Does the USN have an equivalent of the RN's Thursday War?

    1. I'm unfamiliar with the degree of realism, free play, and scope of the RN training so I don't know if the USN has an equivalent program. I'll say that the USN exercises are very simplistic, unrealistic, and highly scripted.

    2. The statement from the president of INSURV seems to sum up the problems you at having. "The inspection is designed to be taken "in stride," and it is an open-book test in that the standards are well-known beforehand." How can any military organisation prepare for war like this? Does anyone honestly think that an enemy is going to act or react in the way that you want or expect? Is it possibly a reason why the USS Forrest Sherman found the truncated version of FOST somewhat challenging?


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