This article is part of CIMSEC’s “Forgotten Naval Strategists Week.”
“I never learned how to tune a harp or play upon a lute but I know how to raise a small and obscure city to glory and greatness where to all kindred of the Earth will pilgrim.”
Thus spoke the great warrior politician Themistocles in the 5th Century B.C. Themistocles is famous for a lot of things: his heroic actions at the Battle of Salamis, his secret plot to rebuild Athens’ walls after the Second Persian War, and his six-pack abs in “300: Rise of an Empire” (author’s note: thoroughly underwhelmed by that movie). But his biggest impact on history was his fateful advocacy early in his career for Athens to build a first-rate navy. Themistocles should be recognized as one of the earliest naval theorists because he successfully promulgated a sea-view of the world and brought Athens onto the sea.
Portrait of a naval theorist.
Athens has gone down in history as a naval powerhouse but that was not always the case. The city of Athens is actually a few miles away from the sea, could only offer up fifty ships during the First Persian War, and did not even have a defensible port until Themistocles’ rise to prominence. Athens was a continental city-state and a poor one at that; it had little to offer in terms of natural resources. The striking of silver in the mines of Laurium in 483 B.C. changed this. Athens was faced with a choice of how to divide up the windfall. The prevailing idea was to take the money and divide it equally among the population. Themistocles, apparently alone, proposed to use the funds to finance construction of a 200 ship fleet and managed to win over the population. The rationale behind his advocacy is controversial to this day: he claimed that the navy’s purpose was to challenge Athens’ island rival, Aegina, but others have attributed to him the base motivations of wanting to secure power or the foresight to see the invasion of Xerxes coming three years later.
Regardless of Themistocles’ true motivations, though the high-minded ones seem more plausible, his success is remarkable because it achieved a full reorientation of Athens’ politico-military focus from land to sea. This was all the more surprising because ancient Greek culture gave primacy to the strength and heroism of land combat. Even Plato complained that Themistocles’ actions transformed the army “from steady soldiers… into mariners and seamen tossed about the sea… [Themistocles] took away from the Athenians the spear and the shield, and bound them to the bench and the oar.”
History proved Themistocles right. The 200 Athenian ships, combined with his deft admiralship, were instrumental in defeating the Persians at the Battle of Salamis and, far more than the Battle of Thermopylae, turned the tide of the war in Greece’s favor. Moreover, once the Persians retreated across the Aegean Sea, Athens used its fleet to liberate the occupied islands and Ionian cities in modern Turkey. The new Athenian dependencies evolved into the Athenian Empire whose domination of trade in the Aegean launched Athens’ golden age. Their art and architecture are still the standard by which we judge all others classics. It is difficult to say whether Themistocles foresaw all of these circumstances playing out when he first advocated for the fleet but his strategic argument for the Athenians to take to the sea reflects an appreciation for what dominating the sea could achieve.
The Athenian Empire at its height. If not for Themistocles, they would have had to swim to build it.
1) It is never too late to become a sea power.
History is full of examples of continental powers who failed to embrace the sea to their detriment: the Persians, Ming China, and the Ottomans are but a few. Themistocles’ success demonstrates that states, with proper planning and political determination, can alter policy and project their presence onto the water.
2) States should maintain a military force that augments their commercial interests.
For those following politics in the United States, the parable of the silver mines of Laurium might lead one to assume that Themistocles’ argument supports military spending at the expense of social programs. That is not entirely the case. Blanket military spending does not mean financial stability; the Habsburgs are a great cautionary tale for military spending becoming a money pit. The true reason why the Athenian navy was such a boon to the state was not just its military value but the commercial value in trade that it fostered after the Persian Wars ended. We conclude that the United States should be careful about making budget cuts to military forces that make the global trade system work. In particular, one needs to tread lightly around investments that are meant to counter maritime piracy; it is no accident that shipping insurance rates soar in places where the United States Navy does not patrol.
Matthew Merighi is a Masters Degree candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
In both Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I compared various naval counterparts – laying the groundwork for discussing what the U.S. Navy’s Surface Warfare Officer community is getting right, and what areas could use improvement. It is easy to complain. Surface Warfare Officers are notorious for it. I am infamous for it, as my peers and superiors alike will attest. Combine our penchant for complaining and our ingrained inferiority complex and it is no wonder that so many SWOs think that everyone else is “doing it better.” This time, though, it is not typical-SWO wanking: they are doing it better, and we must pull our heads out of the sand and catch up. Royal Navy Warfare Officers, U.S. Naval Aviators and nuclear trained officers are specialists and are unmatched masters of their trade. They must train endlessly and they feverishly adhere to standards written in blood to remain at the top of their respective callings. They are role-models and could teach us a thing or two about being the best. As for Surface Warfare Officers – we aregood, and that is the problem.
Surface Warfare Officers – and the ships we drive, fight, and lead – guarantee the free flow of commerce across the world. We deliver critical readiness to the Geographic Combatant Commanders and we send a powerful message to both overt and would-be enemies. What we do, works. Our ships deploy and our navy projects unparalleled power around the globe. As an inherently expeditionary force, we ply the world’s oceans, go where we please, and influence international events as a matter of course. We conduct prompt and sustained combat operations like no other nation can. Our ships are leaving port and returning safely, they complete the widest variety of operational tasking of any military community, our personnel are advancing, and finally, as one senior community leader put it to me, “We are pretty damn good… I would take our top 50% Department Heads and put them against the top 10% of PWO (RN, Principle Warfare Officers) or Snipes (engineers) and bet on our people.”
It appears that there is nothing wrong here. As a Surface Warfare Officer myself, I can get onboard with most of the above. There is a seedy underbelly to all of this, though. It thrives on a couple of points: that our greatness has not been tested by an opponent in decades, and that the perspective of greatness is naturally skewed from the top down. If not by desire, doctrine, or intent – then surely through practice – the Surface Warfare Officer community accepts mediocracy.
Tom Skerritt’s Viper stood in front of a room filled with the elite – “the best of the best,” and told them deadpan: “we’ll make you better.” In this fictional portrayal, which is representative of the real-life attitudes found in the previously featured communities, good enough, wasn’t. Surface Warfare Officers are undoubtedly the best in our business. Unfortunately, context matters, as the same can be said when a Major League club steps into a Little League park. We need to be better. We have ill-defined core-competencies, which leads us to becoming Jacks-of-all-Trades. Our habit of recoiling in horror at the thought of specialization causes us to become plug-and-play officers; ultimately figure-heads and placeholders with little value added to a respective sub-unit. Finally, we do not deliver professionals to the Fleet. One Surface Warfare Officer with multiple commands under his belt conceded, “We should be more deliberate. Success and mastery occur by happenstance.” Another community leader said, “We have good tacticians, but that is mostly by personal choice, and a little bit about your ship’s schedule and how interested your Commanding Officer was in tactics.” This series is not about career advancement. It is about a profession. It is about war. It is about winning! Our nation does not deserve victory by happenstance. It deserves an ocean-roiling, awe-inspiring, burned-into-the-history-books slam of Thor’s hammer upon our enemies. I do not think we are there yet.
Getting there is not simple. It is not as easy as adopting all of the policies and culture of the Royal Navy or Naval Aviators or nukes. Surface Warfare Officers should be the best because we train to be the best, not because we happen to be a part of the American Navy. We should be the best because we retain the best, not simply because our kit is better than everyone else’s. Under some fantastic leaders, the community is getting the right idea. The introduction of the Basic Division Officer Course, the Advanced Division Officer Course, the Surface Navigator’s Course, the Command Qualification Exam, and rigor added to the Department Head Course are all aimed at developing professionals. Weapons Tactics Instructors – previously a rice-bowl of the aviation community – will invigorate tactical awareness and proficiency throughout the Fleet. The SWO Clock concept – another idea poached from Naval Aviators – which gets “beached SWOs” back to the waterfront, shows a tilt towards valuing production in the upwardly-mobile. We are making good efforts to improve our community in an environment that naturally builds anti-bodies to culture change. That said, we are not doing enough; our profession, our competencies, our reputation, and our retention suffer due to this slow trod down the middle-of-the-channel. As is evidenced by both the Naval Aviation and nuclear communities, it really comes down to what a community accepts in, and for, itself. Do we continue to accept mediocracy, or do we stand up and say that “good enough” is not good enough?
One admiral opined, “I think it is good we SWOs have this institutional ‘inferiority complex,’ as it keeps us from getting complacent…like naval aviation did in Vietnam and later years.” I am not nearly the first to question the level of professionalism in our force. In a 2009 Proceedings article, LT Mitch McGuffie discussed his shock at how much more professional Royal Navy Warfare Officers were than SWOs. This topic and topics like it pop up on Sailor Bob – the definitive forum for SWO discussion – all the time. We do have a questioning attitude and that does make us better. While I readily acknowledge that we are the best Surface Warriors on the block, I am not satisfied with a 10:1 or 50:1 advantage. Like Viper and his pals, and real-life naval professionals who recognize that “there are no points for second place,” I am not satisfied with us being the best – I want us to be the best of the best.
To be the best of the best, we must deliver professionals to the Fleet at all levels. To measure one’s professionalism, we must establish community-recognized core competencies. We must define what it means to be a SWO and prove that our pin is worth more than the money we pay for it. For the sake of brevity, I propose that our core competency be ship-driving. Imagine, if you will, a room full of mid-grade Hornet pilots: 20% of them openly admit to each other that they have no clue how to fly Hornets, and another 30% who are less open about their weakness demonstrate their ineptitude in the simulator. The remaining 50% range from barely capable to superstars. While quality spreads are a reality in any group, this scenario is un-imaginable. Naval Aviators with more than 8 years of service that do not know how to fly? Rubbish! This is a reality for Surface Warfare Officers, though. Lieutenants that do not know how to drive ships are commonplace. They exist because they were never trained, nor tested, much less held to a standard, in the first place. They were never trained, tested, or held to a standard because ship-driving – again, if not due to desire, doctrine, or intent, then through practice – is not recognized as a core-competency of the U.S. Navy’s ship drivers. As is demonstrated in the excellent film, Speed and Angels, Naval Aviators consider carrier operations to be a core-competency – if a student pilot cannot land on the boat, then he will not become a Naval Aviator. Why can’t Surface Warfare Officers take the same approach to our profession?
We need a flight school for Surface Warfare Officers. The name is not important at this point – rather, the purpose ought to be the focus: building ship drivers. We must stop accepting mediocracy in this venue! While the Basic Division Officer course is a fantastic concept meant to bolster our young ensigns, it lacks focus and does not zero in on core-competencies. The lessons taught in the Basic Division Officer course are important – being an effective small-unit leader is vital, and I do not propose that we scrap the current construct. Rather, I propose – nay, I implore – that we first recognize ship-driving as a core-competency, and second, require our officers to be competent ship drivers.
SEALs do not accept sub-par. Neither do Naval Aviators, nor nuclear-trained officers, or Marines. While I applaud our most recent Commander, Naval Surface Forces for his outstanding efforts to instill meaningful training, we are still accepting sub-par, and are using the re-creation of half-way schooling as a security blanket. Under our current system, young SWO candidates are flooded onto ships in an effort to make future retention goals – an indictment of our culture’s impact on retention. They then fiercely compete for time on the bridge to gain experience – and hopefully competency – as ship drivers. On most ships, this is not a recipe for success. The Professional Qualification Standard books, which drive progression, are signed with unpredictable integrity, imparting sometimes-dubious knowledge on young minds. To cap it off, Officer of the Deck and Surface Warfare Officer qualifications, granted by Commanding Officers, are determined using two-hundred some different standards. Some candidates sit for gut-wrenching, rigorous tests of their skills and knowledge, and others chat with their Commanding Officers at local watering holes after a command event. The evidence of the disparity in knowledge is on display in Newport, Rhode Island – home of Surface Warfare Officers School – where junior officers return for the Advanced Division Officer Course, and later, the Department Head Course. Some officers were obviously put to the test during their professional development, and others were obviously not.
I propose that we start a Deck Watch Officer School – our flight school - in Newport, which all ensigns will attend, and must pass, prior to reporting to BDOC and ultimately, the Fleet. As with aviators, this school would not be a second thought or a 60% solution, but rather would be a proving ground for our nation’s future ship drivers. The length of this notional school can be figured out later; what is important is that SWO candidates shall qualify; ashore. We must have one standard, one organization responsible for enforcing that standard, and must require those desiring entrance into our community to meet it – otherwise, seek life elsewhere. We should not be ashamed of upholding a standard and of telling some people that they are not cut out for this business. At this school, candidates would receive in-depth, hands-on instruction in seamanship and navigation, basic-through-advanced ship handling, meteorology, bridge resource management, and a variety of other skills required for the competent mariner.
Integral to this process would be the move of the Yard Patrol Craft fleet – the U.S. Navy’s only training ships – from Annapolis to Newport for the exclusive use of the Surface Warfare Officers School. During the pipeline, ensigns would log hours and prove their skills in simulators and on the water. They would complete classwork, learn from case studies, and would be continually tested, remediated, and attrited, as required. If they successfully made it to the end of this program, they would sit for a SWOS-run and community-sanctioned Officer-of-the-Deck board, ensuring that all ensigns are held to the same standard. Earning one’s OOD letter – like the pilots and their wings – would be a culminating event, and those unable to meet the mark would not be sent to the Basic Division Officer Course or the Fleet. If we could implement this plan, we would then send Captains competent, qualified ship drivers, immediately useful to their commands. Like in the Royal Navy, newly reported officers would then complete their platform endorsement, signifying both their grasp of their new ship and the trust their Commanding Officers have in them.
To be the best of the best, we must be good at our jobs. If Surface Warfare Officers are going to continue to be both professional watch standers, and small unit leaders, we must stop accepting the notion that plug-and-play is an effective way of doing business. Imagine a Naval Aviator spending his junior officer tours flying F/A-18’s, his department head tour in a P-8 squadron, and finally, growing up to command an MH-60 squadron. This progression would never happen in the aviation community because they are not plug-and-play pilots. Yet, a Surface Warfare Officer may indeed spend a tour in Weapons Department, followed by Operations Department, followed by Engineering Department, followed by eventual command. The issue as I see it is that the community views this as a positive – exposing officers to a variety of shipboard functions – but in reality, it ensures that we never become truly good at our jobs. We become personnel and administrative gurus, irrespective of our assigned department, perched to jump into a different role at a moment’s notice.
Instead of our current system, I propose that U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officers matriculate into the community with a billet specialty: engineering, operations, or combat systems. Anathema! Rather than wandering from department to department as figure-heads, I want us to have a vested interest, and subject matter expertise, in the Sailors we lead and the systems we are responsible for. An Infantry Officer leads infantry units. Armor Officers lead armor units. F/A-18 pilots fly Hornets. Today, a Surface Warfare Officer can become a Weapons Officer, and in theory, an Engineer Officer, without prior experience in those respective departments. Imagine, though, the benefits of the following: a new officer enters the community as a Surface Warfare Officer-Engineering, graduates the OOD School and BDOC, completes basic engineer training, serves two division officer tours in Engineering Department, completes shore duty, graduates Department Head School, and returns to the Fleet as an Engineer Officer. This officer has received specialized training along the way and has walked the walk and talked the talk at sea prior to stepping foot into what is acknowledged as the most challenging tour of a SWO’s career. They are no longer a figure-head, but rather: they are an engineer. Or a Combat Systems Officer. Or an Operations Officer. Their title means something. They are good at their job. To ensure preparation for command and to keep some semblance of well-roundedness, Surface Warfare Officers of all flavors would continue to earn the qualifications and stand the watches that the community currently holds dear: on the bridge, in the Combat-Information-Center, and in the engineering plant. Finally, the XO/CO fleet-up model would ensure that specialists are appropriately rounded-out before taking command.
I want Surface Warfare Officers to push ourselves “right to the edge of the envelope.” I want us to be proud of our community. I want our Surface Warfare Officer pin to mean something – to the military, to the service, and most important of all, to us. I want us to be professional watch standers and experts in our respective jobs. The Surface Warfare Officer community is known for being the dumping ground of Unrestricted Line Officers who could not hack it, and this happens because we do not establish, much less uphold, standards. No more! We should honor our heritage, establish a role in our force that is both respected and admired, and strictly and unabashedly police ourselves as consummate professionals who accept nothing less than the best of the best.
Lieutenant Jon Paris is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. At sea, he has served aboard both a destroyer and cruiser, in both Weapons and Navigation Department. Ashore he has served as a Navigation Instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy and as a Flag Aide. He is a prospective destroyer Operations Officer. His opinions and generalizations are his own and do not reflect official stances or policy of the U.S. Navy.
Men and women volunteering to serve their country during a time of war have a right to be taken seriously. They deserve a leadership capable of serving them as they serve the nation, throughout all phases of their career and current conflicts.
Three articles written in two separate military thought forums have put leadership on notice of late:
In “Millennials Bring a New Mentality: Does it Fit?” by CDR Darcie Cunningham, USCG, published in USNI’s Proceedings Magazine, the author argues that the most recent generation of military warfighters is lacking in adherence to the author’s view of military traditions, customs, and courtesies. She argues that millennials should recognize their place as subordinates and refrain from questioning senior leaders or asking “Why?” Cunningham writes, “We take pride in the missions we perform, serving as humble servants to the public. If millennials are more focused on what’s in it for them, they may not be the right fit.”
In “Fireproof Commanding Officers” by LT Lawrence Heyworth IV, USN, published in USNI’s Proceedings Magazine, the author discusses recent high-profile firings of commanding officers. He argues that “a career built on solid ethics and character development is the best way to safeguard naval leaders from relief due to personal misconduct.” He debunks the myths that ethically weak COs are either “bad apples” or “of weak moral character.” Rather, Heyworth concludes that commanding officers are predisposed to ethical failures due to their access to power, resources, an inflated sense of self-worth, and a loss of focus.
Unlike Cunningham’s analysis, Heyworth does not argue that senior leaders are “more equipped to take on increased levels of responsibility” based solely on their time in service. Rather, he argues that “deep and consistent introspection,” reading philosophy, and applying moral lessons each day can help leaders avoid ethical shortcomings and set the example.
“For every one hundred men you send us, ten should not even be here. Eighty are nothing but targets. Nine of them are real fighters; we are lucky to have them, they the battle make. Ah, but the one. One of them is a warrior. And he will bring the others back.”
In his article, Khan argues that “Frank” is “the one;” “exactly the kind of knuckle dragging gunslinger that you want at your side when everything goes to shit, you’re surrounded and you need someone to help you carve an emergency exit out of lead, broken bones and charred human flesh.” But, as with most true warriors, Frank is “pretty rough on the edges;” he struggles with alcohol to cope with the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that comes from numerous, highly kinetic deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Khan’s analysis is of the Marine Corps, but it is spot-on for the naval service as well:
“We were willing to overlook some cosmetic defects while we were fighting a war on two fronts but now it appears that these violent and coarse warriors are unacceptable in our post-war, garrison focused military. It seems that guys like Frank do not have a place in our modern Marine Corps. We are putting down our scarred and battle weary war dogs and promoting porcelain dolls in their place. Haircuts, close order drill and trouser creases now hold greater appeal to promotion boards than Purple Hearts, valor awards and combat experience.”
Sailors, soldiers, airmen, and Marines swear an oath to “uphold the Constitution of the United States.” These men and women dedicate their lives–regardless of their service or proximity to combat–to that end. (And contrary to what CDR Cunningham writes, they do not need to be “reminded of the current economy and associated unemployment rate.” That sentiment cheapens the service of thousands of young people.) And while I sympathize with the points brought out by LT Heyworth and agree that reflection and a strong moral compass is essential, our focus on the actions of commanding officers is misplaced.
Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert takes as his motto: “Warfighting First. Operate Forward. Be Ready.” If we are to regard his priorities seriously, it reasons that the warriors doing our warfighting should be first and foremost.
But in today’s Navy, they are an afterthought. Washington leadership passes down the law via Navy Knowledge Online (NKO) and mandatory trainings with pre-recorded speeches from the CNO and MCPON. The message of this training insinuates that the Navy has problems, and the leadership is here to fix them. Sexual assault, alcohol abuse, and other issues are lectured ad nauseum to sailors in computer programs and Page 13 forms, often at the expense of a commanding officer, division officer, of Chief Petty Officer addressing these concerns and setting the tone within the unit.
An American president once said, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” So it is with our Navy. When 99% of our sailors are doing the right thing, punishing the group for the misdeeds of a few is leadership that takes the easy way out. It is not worthy of the warriors that it serves.
In his seminal essay “The Institution as Servant,” Robert Greenleaf maintains that “caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built.” The concept of servant leadership, inspired by Greenleaf, has only been around for about four decades, but those grasping its tenets have been some of the most successful military leaders of our time.
Above all, servant leadership is about putting the needs of the ship or sailor above the petty wants or needs of the leader. Servant leaders inspire a vision, develop their people, and maintain trust. They are loyal to each individual as much as possible; they are tenacious advocates for their people.
A return to servant leadership is imperative to the vitality and future of our service. The question leaders should ask is not, as CDR Cunningham suggests, “Will [sailors] truly be able to adapt to the service?” but rather, “How can I set my sailors up for success?”
Deeper still, a sense of servant leadership must permeate down from the top of our service. When we more easily promote people who look good on paper and have the blessing of bureaucracy, we are not serving our sailors as we should. When we perpetuate a “zero defect” mentality that banishes a sailor to the darkest corner of our service for any transgression, we are not serving our sailors as we should. When we look around every corner for “signs of insubordination or disrespect” instead of using our efforts to help our people excel, we are not serving our sailors as we should.
LT Heyworth makes an excellent point: “The failure to lead by personal example and the impact of a CO’s relief can have far-reaching and long-lasting consequences for a crew of more than 250 sailors.” When leaders systematically fail to inspire vision, establish trust, and recognize excellence in their sailors, the effects are even farther-reaching and longer-lasting. This is the current troubling state of retention and advancement throughout both the officer and enlisted corps.
CDR Cunningham’s exhortations–“They should be reminded that there’s a long line of people outside the door waiting for a Coast Guard spot”–are not the leadership answer for the generation she writes about. Khan comes closer to the truth:
“There will come a time in the future when our nation will once again find itself in a time of great darkness and evil. Young men, yet untested in battle, will look to their leaders for guidance and find instead hollow vessels without the steel or stones necessary to lead men into battle. The painted soldiers on the parade fields will shake in terror and search desperately for the rough men like Frank who shepherded them through the last conflict for guidance only to find that they have all been weeded out of service. This is unacceptable.”
By serving those under our care as leaders, by advocating for them–even against a stubborn naval bureaucracy built up over years of legislating and obfuscating–and by delivering vision, honesty, and empathy, we can begin to “course-correct” the troubling leadership issues of this century. The men and women volunteering for selfless service deserve this effort, every day.
Roger Misso is a Naval Flight Officer in the E-2C Hawkeye and former director of the Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference. The views expressed here are his own and in no way represent the views of the US government, US Navy, or his unit.
U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officers have a Napoleon complex. The community is often described as inherently self-conscious and hyper-competitive. Though SWO’s often sell themselves short, in reality, they are in the highest demand at all levels of our service and throughout the joint world. Commanders want Surface Warfare Officers because they can be counted on to get any job done – regardless of past experiences or training. The community can be a meat grinder, and those with upward mobility possess well-earned street credibility. How do they get to that point, though? In Part 1 of this series, we compared the training pipeline, billet structure, and shipboard priorities of the Surface Warfare Officer and Royal Navy Warfare Officer communities. Now let us delve into the mysterious world of the Fleet Nugget. This piece will compare the products that the Naval Aviation, nuclear, and conventional Surface Warfare communities deliver to the Fleet on Day One.
Surface Warfare Officers and Naval Aviators – the Jets and the Sharks. While there is no more fearsome combat team in the world, the communities are notorious for their sibling rivalry. Though we train fiercely to integrate our forces and work extremely well together to the detriment of the enemy, the professional blueprints of each community are oceans apart.
A Nugget is a first-tour Naval Aviator or flight officer, especially applicable during their first deployment. The origin of the term absolutely belongs to aviators, but it does have cross-over appeal, and its connotation paints a faithful picture of a new officer in his first unit, regardless of designator. The general insinuation of the term is that the officer has little to offer their unit and must be taken under someone’s wing – pun intended. Is an F/A-18 Nugget equal to a SWO Nugget, though? What does each community really provide to their Fleet Squadrons and ships when they deliver a new batch of officers?
Student Naval Aviators in the Advanced Strike pipeline spend approximately two years learning everything from aerodynamics and physiology to air combat maneuvering and carrier qualification. During the training pipeline, they spend nearly 250 hours in the air testing their skills on three different airframes and refine those skills over the course of 75 simulator hours. Earning one’s Wings of Gold does not spell the end of training. The new Naval Aviator’s final stop before hitting the Fleet is the Fleet Replacement Squadron, where they perfect their art in their assigned airframe, spending another 175 hours in the air and in the simulator. When a Naval Aviator executes his orders to his first fleet squadron, he has spent at least 500 hours in hands-on training scenarios.
What is expected of a new Naval Aviator? What do wings mean on Day 1? Wings only come after an officer has demonstrated that they are able to meet a well-defined standard. When seasoned pilots accept a Nugget into their ready room, they see a pilot who can safely operate their aircraft, manage their respective mission and flight administration, and serve as a competent and safe wingman.
Aviators are well-trained before reporting to the Fleet and we have established the practical meaning of wings. What is the true nature of the product, though? On Day 1, the Naval Aviator Nugget will already have demonstrated proficiency at landing aboard a carrier during day and night operations. During his initial weeks in the squadron, he could be entrusted to conduct mid-air refueling, air-to-ground strike, strafing, and close-air-support missions, carrier qualifications, or high-value air-asset escort duties. With these baseline skills, the new aviators are immediately useful to their squadrons and are able to jump into the rigorous Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor-lead curriculum.
Like aviators, Nuclear Surface Warfare Officers also use the train-to-qualify method. After they complete a conventional division officer tour, they spend 6 months at Nuclear Power School where they master advanced mathematics, chemistry, physics, and nuclear theory. This school is widely acknowledged as the most demanding academic program in the U.S. military. They continue their pipeline with an intensive 6 months of hands-on watch-standing training and examinations at one of two Nuclear Power Training Units, or Prototype. Their community’s methods are known internally as the “Gold Standard.” This standard is rigid, unquestioned, and unabashedly enforced. When an officer graduates Prototype, they report to their aircraft carrier as a proven, and more importantly, qualified watch-stander. Shortly after reporting, a SWO Nuke Nugget earns their platform endorsement and re-qualifies on their ship as a Plant Watch Officer, immediately contributing to their department’s watch organization while also leading their respective division.
Newly commissioned Surface Warfare Officer candidates notionally attend an 8-week course known as the Basic Division Officer Course, or BDOC, prior to reporting to their respective ships. Keeping with the community’s focus on generalists, BDOC covers a wide-range of topics, including: basic damage control, Navy pistol qualification, basic SWO engineering, Maintenance University, maritime warfare, division officer leadership and fundamentals, basic navigation, seamanship, and ship-handling. Students take numerous exams and are held to the community standard of a 90% passing grade on their Navigation Rules (Rules of the Road) exam. It is a demanding school and was established to rectify the absence of any such schooling that existed for nearly a decade. During their time at BDOC, the ensigns spend 24 cumulative hours in the ship-handling simulators where they get a taste for everything from pier work to harbor transits and man-overboard recoveries.
After graduating BDOC, our SWO Nuggets report to their ships and take over their first divisions. Unlike their aviator brethren, they do not wear a warfare pin when they report to the Fleet, nor do they possess any watch-standing qualifications. What then is the product that we are delivering to our ships? Our new ensigns – our Nuggets – are confident leaders and are capable of taking over the responsibility for people and gear from the get-go. They board their ships with a basic familiarization with shipboard systems, service policies, and standard commands (used to drive a ship). SWO Nuggets are not qualified to stand watch on their own, much less to lead an entire watch team, but they are prepared to step onto the bridge and take over as a Conning Officer – learning the finer details of ship handling from their fellow junior officers, enlisted specialists, and the ship’s leadership. Though they are not flying a Hornet solo over Afghanistan, they are standing tall in front of their divisions, as well as on the bridge, issuing commands to the helm and engines of their billion-dollar warships, increasing their competency and savvy exponentially during every watch.
There is no doubt that the aviation and surface warfare communities have different demands, different priorities, and nearly polar-opposite cultures. An aviator must know what he is doing when he enters the Fleet, lest he crash his aircraft on the flight deck or drop his bomb on the wrong people. The Death-and-Destruction Factor is certainly relevant and is often used as an excuse for why Surface Warfare Officers do not have a similar training mindset. In other words, the argument is that young SWO’s can afford to be inexperienced because their mistakes are far less likely to cause catastrophe and because they operate with a safety-net of sorts made up of other watch standers. While I recognize the inherent danger of Naval Aviation, I disagree with this argument as a way to justify short-changing Surface Warfare Officer training. The culture and doctrine of the aviation community would not tolerate – much less conceive of – squadron skippers in the Fleet being burdened with building an aviator from scratch, yet our service puts that same burden on our ships’ captains, taking away from their crew’s overall combat-effectiveness. We are doing the world’s most fearsome warships an injustice. Surface Warfare Nuggets should report to the Fleet with know-how and qualifications, ready to drive and fight at the pointy-end from the moment they cross the brow.
After comparing the lives, methods, and priorities of Royal Navy Warfare Officers, Naval Aviators, and Surface Warfare Officers, I want to take the opportunity in the final piece of this series to analyze where the SWO community is getting it right, and where we could improve, as well as put forth two proposals that would fundamentally alter how the community trains and operates. In an era where fiscal uncertainty, regional conflict, and increasing operational tempos reign supreme, we must put our very best on the front lines – our country and our crews deserve it, and our enemies must fear it.
Lieutenant Jon Paris is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. At sea, he has served aboard both a destroyer and cruiser, in both Weapons and Navigation Department. Ashore he has served as a Navigation Instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy and as a Flag Aide. He is a prospective destroyer Operations Officer. His opinions and generalizations are his own and do not reflect official stances or policy of the U.S. Navy.
In the most recent edition of Proceedings, CDR Darcie Cunningham, USCG, describes what she sees as the strategic challenge of cultural friction between millennial expectations and the rigors of professional military duties in an article titled, “Millennials Bring a New Mentality: Does It Fit?”
Now, mind you, I can be pretty dismissive of my own Millennial generation at times, but the reality is that our newest generation of Sailors are professional, courteous and – based on the fact we are the most kick-ass navy on the planet – doing a damn fine job. For the USCG, the service of the author, I’m often jealous of the exotic, far-afield deployments of their Mobile Training Teams and the challenging mission they do with our partners. As a Patrol Coastal guy the Gulf, I was glad to have the WP’s there to carry some of the load. Here at home? The response during Hurricane season is always a testament to the Sailors of the Coast Guard. Is there REALLY a strategic “millennial culture” problem or are we using the idea to run away from our REAL problems?
To answer the first part of that question, I will endeavor to respond to 12 major points posed by CDR Darcie Cunningham. I hope this better frames the reality of the “millennial issue.”
1. “This generation has me questioning how they can acclimate to the highly traditional, structured U.S. military.”
To the cognitive bias about “traditional (&) structured” – let’s talk about a generation in “general” terms being able to acclimate to those traditions and structures. The article is right – the millennial generation cannot row for days on end and do not like the sound of leather drums. I also find the horned helmet a bit heavy and the hamlets we burn down a bit boring. I also do not feel it necessary to fire cannon salutes upon the departure of the CO’s dinghy – I would note that getting Non-Combat Expenditure Allocation (NCEA) can be a pain, and I’d like to maximize the ammunition I have for training. I would also likely die if subjected to liberal use of lashings. Barring that, I would then likely chafe at the idea of paying for my commission or being rejected due to my family’s social standing. I also do not have the disdain for my steam plant engineers that other Union Officers have. Finally, I do not, in fact, know how to splice a mainbrace. That said, we do power some of our ships by rending apart the very base material of the universe. The ships that burn boring ol’ dead dinosaurs can shoot a bullet down with another bullet in space. You take what you can get, I guess.
2. “The younger generation postures to work only the bare minimum number of hours required. Additionally, they continuously request more time off in the form of early liberty, shorter workdays, the ability to go home after an office luncheon, and so on.”
With greatly decreased crew sizes and 8-10 month deployments, can we REALLY complain when people try to get some extra leave in? Can we even claim they “work less”? Long-gone are the times of a 300+ DDG crew and a rope-yarn day. Is this “extra” time off, or just normal requests that are now a bigger deal due to the normal workload. Now, that said, if there is time for an “office luncheon”, likely there is nothing critical going on and no reason to stay around the office for tradition.
3. Upon hearing they would not be in-zone for promotion or advancement in a given year, these younger members declare they are fed up with the service and wish to resign. They have an expectation of accelerated advancement through the organization, without regard for the value that experience provides to those in leadership positions.
People complaining about being looked over for promotion would seem completely in-line with reactions since the time some random Athenian strategos was looked over for command during the Peloponnesian War.
4. There are an increased number of negative confrontations between very junior members and senior leadership. Rather than saying “Yes Sir” or “Yes Chief” when tasked with a project or simple task, our newer members frequently question why they have to do it.
First, we now have different mechanisms of enforcement. Before my time, there was the threat of getting roughed up – that no longer exists. Naturally – mechanisms exist in NJP, counseling, discussion where appropriate, etc… but threats & violence were damn scary, and likely without it there will be naturally more friction than before – and a good thing too BECAUSE…
Our systems are increasingly based on technical knowledge that decision makers will not have without prior in-depth training. There will be no more Da Vinci-like experts of all things. Where once it was possible to master the knowledge of a ship in 10 years – it can now be a challenge to truly master the nature of some single systems in 20. While belligerence is not excusable, is all this actually belligerence from the subordinate or sensitivity from the superior? I’ve seen some Petty Officers forced to get pretty bellicose in order to avert a stubborn lurch towards disaster. Once in awhile, I was the one lurching – and thank God for their candidness! These are motivated, intelligent, and dedicated folks. Maybe part of leadership is to know when that “why” or “what” comes from a place of honesty – I find it is not for the purpose of avoidance or excuse, but a desire to understand or improve. It’s an opportunity.
If I may, I would also quote Alex Smith’s lovely post at the USNI Blog, the “Call of the Deep.” In it, he notes, “Mahan’s diary as a junior officer is a fascinating read. Many of his entries lament about his fear of drinking too much and his abhorrence of superior officers. ‘The Captain has annoyed me, and I have felt and spoken angrily and sullenly.'” Oh, that rascal millennial and his complaints – and a diary? Pshaw!
5. Customs and courtesies are eroding. Juniors are no longer smartly saluting seniors or verbally acknowledging higher ranks. On an almost daily basis, I hear, “Hi, how’s it going?”
There is some truth here. Perhaps we can be a bit more informal at times. It’s not a deadly sin, if a sin at all, but I suppose there are places where we could shore things up a bit. I, for one, do find more use in candid superior-subordinate engagements that usually lead to a bit more informality. That said, once I leave my office for lunch, I am pretty much saluting until I get back indoors if there is heavy foot traffic. I don’t see any slack in the saluting department and, personally, I like it. It allows me to salute back- which is the part I like. Call me a romantic.
6. Texting is becoming the primary mode of communication. It has already become a means of jumping the chain of command as a condoned communication tool.
Before we start, let us be clear about the problems here – “Jumping the chain of command” is not a “texting” problem. That is like saying a negligent discharge is a “bullet” problem. We shall touch on both.
To jumping the chain of command: Do we really see that much? I would say no. Let’s not stop there, however. When we do, is it always so bad? Is the problem one of people being sneaky or people trying to get things done in a timely manner. We all read the message-to-Garcia story as MIDN – is an hour of work-stoppage waiting for approval acceptable in an already daunting pile of PMS and repair issues? Of course, we do have an increasingly large number of supervisors and mangers running in parallel… perhaps an up-tick in “jumping the chain of command” is a natural side-effect of the increased number of bosses and not a symptom of generational issues?
To texting: there was a time when Sailors crossed the brow and didn’t come back until the next day – or Monday. There was no command expectation to have a cellphone leash at all times. In fact, many commands now require Sailors to have cellphones so they can be recalled. Texting is a short, to-the-point communication that can be sent to the entire command’s pocket – the ability to “leave a text” so someone comes in after a major casualty or maybe just a quick tool for finding people in one’s work-center. Sounds like a success for readiness.
7. We must educate them on the importance of patience in our systems.. If this doesn’t sit well with a young member, he or she should be subtly reminded of the current economy and associated unemployment rate.
A subtle reminder that if many of our management methods were used in a competitive market, our company would be exterminated within months. Anyone who clung to these systems because they were “what we had”, advocating for them merely because they were what they knew, would be quickly fired. Anyone who could think critically about these issues would be well on their way to success (though, granted, those who just complained about them endlessly would ALSO probably be fired). Must we automatically ascribe selfishness to the folks who think we can do better? If our service members expect our world-class military to function on a world-class level, good on them! If we say we’re the best, we should want to be the best.
8. They need to be “course-corrected” immediately if they show signs of insubordination or disrespect.
This happens every day – I have seen it, done it, and had it done to me. It is correct and appropriate. However, we must be careful to realize that, while the line may be fuzzy, informality is not “disrespect” and disagreement is not “insubordination” – the latter especially.
9. We must get back to basics. Customs and courtesies are the foundation of our military traditions.
(later) While I embrace the fact that we have a new generation that’s better educated, technologically astute, and poised to preserve our nation’s liberties, I also hope we can find a middle ground that will capitalize on their strengths and preserve our proud traditions.
We defend the constitution; we fight and win our nations wars – THAT is our “basic”. THAT is our foundation. THAT is our #1 priority. In Norfolk, there is a stand that claims to hold the lovely wooden helm from the USS MAINE – replaced for metal as our relationship with Spain began to strain. The customs and courtesies that change with time and tide as we pursue the mission are for us to decide and are of secondary importance.
As for where that tradition comes from, from E-1 to O-9, we all take part in creating a service-wide culture that merges tomorrow’s yesterday with ours. This gets at the subtle problem with the turn of phrase used here. Customs and Courtesies are not the foundation of our military tradition. Our military tradition is defined by our customs and courtesies. The article is right – things have changed. They always have. Harness that and use it – many of these things have changed for a reason. Tradition is not something we keep preserved in a jar passed to us in perfect form from the first Sailor. From our youngest SN with his iPad to our flush-faced comrades in the Continental Navy after a night of grog – each of Sailor in their own time is creating tradition for the next generation.
10. They also need positive feedback early and often. Little gestures such as going to their offices and offering accolades for jobs well done gives encouraging reinforcement and the feedback for which they hunger….
I’ll be the first to admit there are many things about my generation I cannot stand, though I reject that this characterization is correct for our warfighters – but, let’s entertain a small kernel of truth here. Why DO millennials sometimes engage in such childish shenanigans?
It’s this very perspective that enables nonsense. No, don’t treat your grown-up, educated subordinates like children; they are not gentle flowers. Do not create the self-fulfilling prophecy by choosing the easy, comfortable route of leadership by coddling and participation trophies. What they’re looking for is constructive input – good and bad- not blind accolades.
11. And finally . . . this needs to be said: We must be prepared for the tough conversation. Will they truly be able to adapt to the service?
Truly realize who we are talking about. These are uniformed service members who joined up in wartime to make a difference – what they’re looking for is knowledge and relevance, not a fight with their boss or some empty accolade. It is a mature desire, one informed by a drive to defend our way of life, in the best way they can, at potentially shattering cost.
12. “If millennials are more focused on what’s in it for them, they may not be the right fit.”
I may have neither risked nor sacrificed as much as many of my friends who served on the front lines of the Global War on Terror, but I did serve on the USS FIREBOLT and refurbished the 3 stars embedded in the floor of the mess decks. From the 2004 terrorist attack on ABOT and KAAOT, one of those stars belongs to DC3 Nathan Bruckenthal, first USCG wartime casualty since Vietnam. He didn’t ask what was in it for him.
Millions have gone out to the front lines of our global war against terror and not asked what was in it for them. Thousands have not come back – they did it for what was in it for us, the ones that live. They are all Americans, but one could throw a superficial label like “millennial” on many. Remember, when we write these kinds of articles, we are talking about leading people who, in the course of war, will have to kill – and some may have to die – in the service of their country. This kind of “millennial this” and “millennial that” talk doesn’t match that reality. This kind of talk is NOT what -we- should have “in it for them.”
I by no means think the purpose of this article was to ignore the great work of our shipmates, the ultimate sacrifice of our comrades, or the potential of so many others to bear that burden as well – but nevertheless, this kind of sentiment ultimately ignores it.
Matthew Hipple is a naval officer by choice and millennial by cruel twist of fate.
This post is a response to an article in the August issue of USNI’s Proceedings by Commander Darcie Cunningham, U.S. Coast Guard, titled “Millennials Bring a New Mentality: Does it Fit?” So if you haven’t read it yet, I recommend you start there.
Where to begin? To her credit, Commander Cunningham asks an important question: “how does our structured military culture adapt to this new generation?” It’s also clear her frustrations are borne of personal experiences in command. Unfortunately it’s a question she fails to answer (more on that later) and in doing so perpetuates myths and patronizing generalizations. [Full disclosure: I’m in the millennial generation, on the older end of the spectrum, and like all such groupings the term “millennial” is a debatable construct but I’ll accept her definition (those born in the 80s and 90s) for argument’s sake.]
“Kids These Days!”
Commander Cunningham begins by noting several behaviors that are supposedly unique to millennials: that they “posture to work only the bare minimum number of hours required,” that their “customs and courtesies are eroding,” and that “there are an increased number of negative confrontations.” It is entirely possible that this is what is happening at Coast Guard Base Los Angeles, it is certainly her perception. But more likely it is just that: perception. Such perceptions have existed about pretty much every generation when they were in their youth. That doesn’t make them accurate.
Let’s return to the important question: “how does our structured military culture adapt to this new generation?” Beyond the advice to use positive feedback to keep the crew motivated, the Commander Cunningham offers nothing. Instead she says they must be “educated,” “course-corrected,” and evaluated for whether they will “truly be able to adapt to the service.” And that’s the thing – this isn’t really an article about adapting the military to millennials, it’s about adapting millennials to the military, as reflected in the title. Which is not all bad. To be sure respect for rank and proper military etiquette are just good manners, and appreciation for a service’s traditions, structure, customs, and courtesies are the marks of a professional.
Yet here is where it gets downright galling. The commander moves to close by questioning whether millennials are just “focused on what’s in it for them.” This is flat-out wrong. As the Washington Post reports, millennials “want jobs that affect social change, and they give what they can. A 2012 study found that three-quarters of young people surveyed gave to a charity in 2011, and 63 percent volunteered for a cause.” It bears remembering that this is an all-volunteer force. While many undoubtedly join the military in part for other reasons – heck I joined partly to pay for college and to travel abroad – I would submit a vast majority, such as myself, also joined in part for the ideals that military service embodies and a belief that such work is work towards a better world.
Instead of playing to these motivations, however, Commander Cunningham advises reminding these servicemembers that there are “long lines” waiting to get into the coast guard and that the economy is not the best. There’s so much wrong in this.
First, it’s unclear if the commander thinks that since “millennials…may not be the right fit,” they can be replaced by one of the other five generations she says she oversees, or if she’s referring to individual millennial members. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt she means the latter and that she’s not saying that taking on the challenge of motivating millennials may just be too hard and that they should be written-off en masse.
Second, there’s a reason these individuals are the ones in service and not in the supposed long lines. It’s because these they were the top qualified candidates. Even those who aren’t top performers in service are not likely to have too much trouble finding work outside the military, or using their benefits for further education, so this threat rings hollow except for those really troubled individuals threatened with a non-honorable discharge. And that’s to say nothing of how trying to scare one’s employees isn’t typically the best management or leadership strategy.
Third, because these were the top qualified candidates this also means that any millennial you give up on is going to be replaced by…another millennial…who by and large won’t be as qualified. Sure you can keep up the numbers, but again, what does this say of the quality of your talent pool?
One complaint the commander makes that does ring true is that “younger members…have an expectation of accelerated advancement through the organization.” In Commander Snodgrass’ 2014 Retention Survey he notes that 60% of respondents “feel they are making a difference in their job, but regardless of what they do – 64% don’t think they will be rewarded in any way by superior performance.” This should not be an indictment of millennials but a recognition of a drawback of military service in comparison with civilian organizations, as well as an opportunity to prove one’s leadership bona fides.
Yes, we millennials want positive feedback and to know whether we’re doing a good job, and yes we wish we could rise through the ranks commensurate with our talents rather than in accordance with organizational and statutory limitations. Leaders would be well served to look for alternatives such as creating opportunities for crewmembers to prove themselves through increased responsibility or challenges. If the military can’t keep up with the rest of the world in reasonably advancing its people, Commander Cunningham should at least be able to explain what is or isn’t in her control and that she will do what she can to position her people for success.
There are going to be bad apples among us, as there are in any generation. But tarring an entire generation with questionable generalizations is counter-productive. While this article may ask the right question, it doesn’t really attempt to answer it. What most millennials want is appreciation, when earned, an opportunity to make a difference, and a voice that is heard if not always heeded. The military, the top employer of millennials, still needs to make a serious attempt at understanding how to best take advantage of what this generation has to offer.
A good place to start exploring the issue is Air Force vet Tim Kane’s Bleeding Talent, NYT review here.
Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founder and president of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), a graduate of Georgetown University and the U.S. Naval War College, and a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council.