Category Archives: Seamanship and Leadership

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How XO/CO Fleet-Up Enhances Operational Competence

By Capt. Henry Adams

Introduction

Among the many debates occurring across the Navy in the wake of the USS FITZGERALD and USS JOHN S. MCCAIN collision mishaps of last summer is whether or not the Surface Community should continue with the unit-level XO/CO Fleet-Up policy. Strong, considered opinions exist on both sides of the issue as thoughtful professionals seek to settle the question regarding the value and future of the policy. Although many factors should be considered, the first question the Surface community should ask is whether the XO/CO Fleet-Up policy contributes to the imperative of operational competence, which I define as the ability to handle and fight a ship at sea safely and effectively. This is the gold standard by which we measure success and should be the first test for whether the Fleet-Up policy should continue. In my view, unit-level XO/CO Fleet-Up comes with great benefits that contribute to operational competence, with the caveat that certain potential risks must be addressed to ensure the best possible outcomes.

Benefits and Advantages

As someone who has participated in both the “traditional” and Fleet-Up models, in addition to leading a squadron of ARLEIGH BURKE Destroyer (DDG) Commanding Officers (CO) and Executive Officers (XO) through the process, my perspective is that the XO/CO Fleet-Up model works. I was XO in USS PORT ROYAL (CG-73) for 22 months from 2004 – 2006 and screened for O-5 Command during that tour under the traditional command screening process. Following a 27 month shore tour, I received orders to USS STETHEM (DDG-63) as the first XO/CO Fleet-Up in Destroyer Squadron FIFTEEN (CDS-15) forward deployed to Yokosuka, Japan. I spent 12 months as XO in STETHEM then fleeted-up to CO for the next 18 months for a total of 30 months in the command leadership team. More recently, I reported to CDS-21 in March 2015 as Deputy Commodore, fleeted-up in August 2016, and am currently in my 19th month as Commodore. During my time as Commodore, I have worked with, led, and observed as many as eight Fleet-Up XO/CO teams at a time.

Like any policy, XO/CO Fleet-Up has its benefits and risks. The three greatest benefits with regard to operational competence are leadership consistency for the crew, CO’s knowledge of the ship, crew, and mission, and the CO’s readiness to command with confidence on day one. Leadership consistency results from the stability and longevity in the XO/CO team that the notional 36 month Fleet-Up tour provides. Because the XO will presumably one day become the CO, and the CO has to live with the outcomes of decisions made while XO, the leadership “diad” is incentivized to be more thoughtful and consistent in executing shipboard management, including key programs such as training and maintenance that have a direct impact on a ship’s operational effectiveness.

A CO’s knowledge of the ship, crew, and mission benefits greatly from XO/CO Fleet-Up. After having served as XO for 18 months, the new fleet-up CO has intimate knowledge of the ship and crew. Individual strengths and weaknesses, troubled systems, and the myriad other challenges that face a ship CO will be well-known as a result of having spent the previous tour as XO dealing with those issues. This effect of carrying the knowledge of ship, crew, and mission from XO to CO within the same lifelines is particularly helpful given the growing complexity in ship systems and mission areas over the years. Ballistic Missile Defense ships in particular benefit from the Fleet-Up policy because of their technical complexity and unique training requirements.

The final major benefit of XO/CO Fleet-Up is that COs report for duty ready to lead with confidence on day one in command with a flatter learning curve as they proceed through their tour. As the previous XO, the new CO comes aboard with knowledge of the ship and crew and, thanks to the quality training provided during the approximately three-month PCO period, is immediately prepared to command.

Risk and Reform

Although there are clear benefits to operational competence inherent in the XO/CO Fleet-Up policy, there are also potential risks that must be addressed to better support operational competence. Those risks include CO fatigue, CO quality control, and time between Department Head (DH) and XO sea tours.

The notional Fleet-Up tour length is 36 months. Candidly, this is a long time to shoulder the workload associated with being the XO followed immediately by assuming the inescapable, 24/7 responsibility and accountability inherent in being the CO. I spent 30 months as an XO/CO Fleet-Up, and I was frankly exhausted by the end. I had no chance to rest and reset prior to assuming command. This is the fatigue risk inherent in the Fleet-Up policy: that COs may burn out while in command and, as a result, will be at greater risk of making bad decisions at sea.

Fortunately, this concern has been addressed with recent policy. In 2016 the Surface community implemented the “18-3-18” policy refinement to Fleet-Up, which requires a three month break between XO and CO tours and affords PCOs the opportunity to take up to 30 days of leave. This policy was enacted in part to allow future COs to recharge prior to assuming command. In addition, that three month period ensures that PCOs complete additional required pre-command training at the Surface Warfare Officers School (SWOS) in Newport, RI.

The shift to XO/CO Fleet-Up resulted in the perceived loss of quality control by removing a long-standing checkpoint on the path to command: the traditional XO ride. Before Fleet-Up, COs had the final say on whether their XOs were fit for command. The XO Fitness Report (FITREP) was a “one or a zero” and had tremendous influence on command screening boards, which typically occurred late in an XO’s tour or during the follow-on shore tour. The “bit check” still exists in the Fleet-Up policy. Now, it is designed to occur during the XO tour when, in order to move on to command, the XO must receive positive endorsement from the CO, ISIC, and Type Commander. Additionally, the Fleet-Up selection board uses the same key inputs (Department Head FITREPs), career timing (the first look occurs two years after O-4 selection), and is actually more selective than the traditional process because it screens fewer officers for command rather than creating a larger XO bank that must then be culled to identify future COs.

To further reduce risk from quality concerns, the Surface community has modified the Fleet-Up policy over time. Quality checkpoints now include the requirement to pass the Command Qualification Assessment (CQA) – a rigorous process that takes place at SWOS – as a prerequisite for command screening board eligibility; mandatory Command Qualification Board (CQB) topics to standardize criteria for command endorsement; and a ship handling go/no-go test during the first two days of the Surface Command Course. The go/no-go test is a recent addition to the Fleet-Up quality control process. Notably, PCOs must demonstrate proficiency in ship handling and the Rules-of-the-Road or risk being sent back to their ISIC for remediation or, more likely, loss of command opportunity and administrative reassignment. I currently have three PCOs in CDS-21 preparing to assume command later this year; they all report the go/no-go test is challenging, fair, and provides excellent feedback.

Excessive time between DH and XO tours remains the greatest potential risk to operational competence inherent in the XO/CO Fleet-Up policy. Shortly after implementation of Fleet-Up, the average time command-screened officers spent between the end of their DH tour and reporting aboard as XO spiked to as high as seven years, the result of screening to opportunity and not the Fleet requirement, resulting in a large bank of command-screened officers waiting for orders. This inordinate delay in returning to sea was never part of the original Fleet-Up policy, which anticipated a 5 – 5.5 year pause.

The unintended extended delay between operational tours set officers up to enter the Fleet-Up program with low proficiency and lack of confidence. In contrast to the traditional approach of command selection, which averaged 3.5 – 4 years between XO and CO tours, the Fleet-Up policy sought to accept risk earlier, namely between DH and XO tours, thereby ensuring a direct transition from XO to CO with the attendant benefit to operational proficiency. Today, the average time between DH and XO is down to 5.3 years and trending back to the 4.5 – 4.7 years as originally envisioned. It is clear from attending waterfront briefs that Surface community leadership recognizes the importance of reducing the time between DH and XO and is actively working to shorten it. If the Surface community can get that gap back to a reasonable length of time so that degradation in operational skills is not a major concern, then the risk will have been mitigated.

Controlling for Quality

Among the three risks identified above – CO fatigue, quality control, and time ashore prior to XO – quality control presents the biggest challenge. Managing the potential impact of fatigue is a simple matter of policy (the three months in the “18-3-18” plan) and one that the Surface community has already implemented. The same goes for reducing the time between the end of a DH tour and the start of XO/CO Fleet-Up. Policy can, and I believe will, fix that. Quality control is another matter because it requires the consistent, combined efforts of selection boards, SWOS, unit COs, and ISICs to hold the line on standards and weed out underperformers before they get to command.

Based on my experience as the ISIC for CDS-21, in working with my COs, and observing my peers, I am convinced that the Surface community is on the right track with regard to quality control on the path to command. My fellow ISICs and their COs are not afraid to prevent underperforming DHs or XOs from moving on to command. During my current tour as Commodore, I failed two candidates at their CQBs and I declined to fleet-up one of my XOs. In the case of the XO, the CO and I had the full support of both operational and administrative chains-of-command. My COs have collectively Detached for Cause four DHs, removing them from their assignments and essentially closing the door on any opportunity to screen for command in the future. In short, I see Surface community leadership at all levels moving out on implementing or executing policies to drive higher standards and quality control in the Fleet-Up model. I also see a general commitment to removing underperformers at every stage of the SWO career path.

Conclusion

The unit-level XO/CO Fleet-Up policy contributes to operational competence for the reasons discussed, namely consistency in shipboard leadership, the CO’s intimate knowledge of the ship, crew, and mission, and CO’s readiness to command on day one. The combination of these three factors set the conditions for a CO who is ready to operate his or her ship competently and confidently and lead the crew to achieve the combat readiness the Surface community expects and the Navy requires. We will not see these positive outcomes, however, unless we address the risks associated with Fleet-Up. To get after those risks, the Surface community must continue to implement and lock in the various quality control points to ensure we select and train the best available candidates for command-at-sea. An attrition model should be applied at every quality checkpoint, and we should be unapologetic about this. Any competitive system that prizes high performance relies on attrition to screen out underperformers and, equally important, demonstrates a commitment to excellence to our high performers. Finally, the Surface community should continue to screen officers for XO/CO Fleet-Up based on Fleet requirements and return the length of time between DH and XO tours back to the originally envisioned limit. If we continue to invest in the benefits of Fleet-Up and fully commit to mitigating the risks, the Surface community and the Navy will gain COs with greater operational competence, who stand ready to lead their crews and employ their ships with skill and confidence.

Capt. Adams is a career Surface Warfare Officer who has served in a cruiser and multiple destroyers. A former commanding officer of USS Thunderbolt (PC 12) and USS Stethem (DDG 63), he is the Commander of Destroyer Squadron 21. He is a 1991 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and holds a Master of Science from the National War College

Featured Image: YOKOSUKA, Japan (May 3, 2016) Cmdr. Ed Sundberg, off-going commanding officer of the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS McCampbell (DDG 85), returns a salute to Cmdr. Ed Angelinas, the ship’s oncoming commanding officer, during the ship’s change of command ceremony. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Patrick Dionne/Released)

The Strategic Readiness Review: Opportunities for Future Success?

The following was submitted in response to CIMSEC’s Call for Articles on restoring warfighting readiness.

 By Tom Bayley, CAPT (Ret.) USN

The Strategic Readiness Review provides a good start for institutional reflection and debate as the U.S. Navy moves forward in addressing warfighting readiness. However, trying to address the complex “system of systems” contributing to readiness in 80 pages is a daunting task. Further examination is required to ensure the institution is doing more than identifying symptoms and contributing factors to a complex situation. Candid discussion and debate is needed in an effort to identify root causes and systemic issues to ensure the Navy learns from this introspective study.

Leadership

The last paragraph of the Executive Summary to this report claims “leadership is the most important element to this journey” to restore readiness. Although not specifically calling out Navy senior leadership as an underlying cause, the issue of “institutional accountability” alludes to the royal “we” of how senior leaders could have (and should have) done better. The 2012 message by ADM John Harvey to the Surface Community just prior to his retirement should have been a red flare, invoking the royal “we” nearly 80 times in his candid reflection. He warned the community was straying from standards in excellence and opined they had lost focus on effectiveness over emphasis on efficiency.

A thorough debate of the SRR’s findings is warranted, asking the “why?” question several times to get to the root causes. As an example, the Executive Summary states “Many of these deficiencies have been observed and authoritatively documented for years, however the naval capacity that had been built up for the Cold War masked their impact” (p. 1).  Why were these deficiencies masked if they were observed and documented?  Why was no action taken on these?  Several times the report references the culture of the Navy, both where it had strayed and recommending where it needed to go. This begins to get to the real underlying causes of how good intentions and senior decisions over time were in adequate in shaping the complex system of systems of  warfighting readiness.

The need to develop and grow the Navy’s leaders for the future is a warfighting imperative. Being able to view all the facets of readiness, including multiple perspectives is essential. Developing the proper temporal perspective where short-term goals can have long-term impacts which run counter to the mission and the ability to resolve these differences is essential. Being able to seek out possible unintended consequences and mitigate (or even avoid) them is critical. Seeking out opportunities for success from challenges being presented is part of the recommended “learning culture.” 

As the Navy Leader Development Framework states, leadership involves competency and character. Clearly there were competency issues involved in understanding this system of systems concept toward readiness. But the issue of character is equally important where leaders must have the character to stand up and be heard, even when the news may not be good. Being able to “lead up” (whether through the operational or administrative chain of command) is required. Also being able to effectively  “lead out” is required for senior leaders, such as educating and conveying to Congress the convincing argument in an environment of competing resources (including money AND time). The Navy’s leaders and their staffs must develop the cognitive capacity to handle these complex problems with the appropriate strength in character to ensure success in warfighting.

Organizational Considerations

In reading this report, one might conclude a hint of victimization by the Navy where the Goldwater-Nichols Act (GNA) and Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA) hindered the Navy’s ability to execute its responsibilities of train, maintain, and equip naval forces. This points to the challenge where the Navy failed to thoroughly grasp the context of this legislation. The Navy’s culture to react (vice being proactive), combined with a degree of over self-confidence in excellence took the Navy down a path it might have otherwise embarked. Although a review of these dated requirements might be warranted, so should an effort of working within these guidelines be considered.

Coming from the Cold War Era, where the Navy enjoyed a great deal of independence with its “Blue Water Navy” focus to offset the Soviet threat, the Navy resisted the move toward “jointness.” It relied heavily on joint waivers for Flag Officer promotions as required by DOPMA and failed to comprehend the implications of GNA upon the Navy’s organization. OPNAV’s Strategic Plans (N5) continued to focus on strategic operational planning to support force structure positions but strategic proactive thinking was lacking at Navy headquarters. It wasn’t until the Maritime Operations Center with Maritime Headquarters (MOC/MHQ) Concept came out in 2005 where the Navy finally recognized its Fleet Commanders were the operational-level naval commanders for the Combatant Commands (vice the CNO). Even today, OPNAV N5 attempts to do theater engagement priorities for countries which sometimes runs counter to the Combatant Commander’s priorities (and responsibilities). Being from a previous Fleet Commander staff, there were numerous times where the priorities of OPNAV didn’t align with the Fleet Commanders. Hence, it’s at the Fleet Commanders where the ADCON and OPCON came together and the creative tension was fostered. Every Deployment Order required two separate routing chains. One up through the associated Combatant Commander while also chopping a separate package up through Navy channels to OPNAV. It was at the Joint Staff where the two chops would converge for review and recommendations to the Secretary of Defense. Navy’s lack of understanding of the joint processes resulted in its being handicapped in this effort as it resisted the effort to make officers joint. Just like it ignored the manning requirements of Fleet Headquarters Staffs (through community management to focus on the “higher priorities” of individual communities), lacking adequate Navy representation on Joint staffs was minimizing the Navy’s perspective.

In September 2005, the National Strategy for Maritime Security (NSMS) was issued. This was a missed opportunity for the Navy to think proactively on its implications. With the typical reactive mode of solving problems, the Navy viewed this as tasking for supporting plans with stove-piped efforts of  the Maritime Operational Threat Response (MOTR) Plan of October 2005 (FUOU) and the  National Plan to Achieve Maritime Domain Awareness (which was updated in 2013). Much time and effort was devoted to effectively implement these supporting plans for the Navy without the benefit of deeper assessment. Being the first time of having a national strategy for maritime security, the Navy missed an opportunity to fully explore the implications of this new document and associated implications.

Having long suffered the issue of maritime force apportionment across geographic boundaries based upon littorally-focused boundaries (i.e. the Unified Command Plan), maritime boundaries in the middle of oceans have created frictions and tensions for decades. These issues are highlighted with the supply/demand issue in the SRR. However, with the NSMS, the nation was recognizing maritime security from a global threat perspective.

Reflecting on how the Department of Defense has evolved with GNA when faced with global threats (i.e. transcends sovereign boundaries), single organizations were assigned responsibilities and authorities for these threats. In the case of nuclear deterrence, U.S. Strategic Command was created. Additionally, it took on cyberspace responsibilities  with U.S. Cyber Command assigned as a Subordinate Unified Combatant Command (and now with plans to transform into a separate Unified Combatant Command). When the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) resulted following 9/11, specific responsibilities for terrorism were assigned to U.S. Special Operations Command as a Unified Combatant Command. The mere fact U.S Transportation Command as a Unified Combatant Command with global transportation responsibilities exists would support consideration of a Unified Combatant Command responsible for maritime security across the globe. This responsibility could be assigned to the U.S. Navy, putting the big “O” back into the Chief of Naval Operations duties. Much of the command and control already exists with the various fleet headquarters and the Maritime Operations Centers. This would then relieve the dual chain of command issue (OPCON/ADCON) that pulls at the Fleet and possibly better align the Service responsibilities of Title X with its operational responsibilities, including a more centralized line of accountability.

Fiscal Disconnect

Demands exceeding supply is nothing new. Managing costs is central to any organization whether it be government or business. It is true the current federal budgetary process does hinder the ability to conduct long-term planning and execution (especially with the consequences of the Budget Control Act). However, building the compelling and convincing argument for required resources from Congress has been a challenge. Mired by a degree of mistrust with stories of the $10,000 toilet seat, cost over-runs, and inability to clearly account for expenditures, the Federal Managers Financial Integrity Act (1982) mandated that agencies implement internal controls and systems to assure fiscal accountability in effective and efficient operations. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report of 1984 highlighted concerns with the Department of Defense’s response in grouping all the Services together. Congress continued to push hard on accountability concerns with the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990 identifying significant losses with fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, requiring increased attention to fiscal accountability. The Department of Defense was singled out in the National Defense Appropriations Act of 2010 which required DoD to improve its financial accountability with the requirement to have validated financial statements no later than 30 September, 2017.

As a result of the 2010 NDAA, the Navy spent considerable time and effort the last six years in improving financial accountability. The SRR highlighted concerns voiced in the above legislation when discussing “Surface Steaming Days” (p. 59) as being an inaccurate accounting for readiness costs. Additionally the SRR calls out “the inaccuracy of the models” (p. 60) to predict maintenance requirements (relating directly to costs). The inability to accurately account for costs has hindered the ability to develop valid models to inform planning and senior level decision making. Critical thinking has been lacking to address the implications of the changes the Navy has experienced. Even the “four or five ships at home to provide one forward” rule of thumb expressed in the SRR (p. 20) has not been adjusted for the reality of delayed maintenance periods, when it may be more on the order of 6:1 required.

Clearly, the ability to accurately tell the Navy story has hindered obtaining the needed resources. However, in taking advantage of the effort to increase fiscal fidelity and accuracy mandated by law, the use of big data, and technology, there should be opportunity to revisit modeling and planning efforts within the Navy. An initiative to capture big data relating to actual operating costs should be a priority with today’s technology to see what insights it would reveal. Clearly, better models for informed decision making are warranted by the SRR’s findings and recommendations. “Big data” analytics is a growing field in the business world and the Navy should revisit its business practices accordingly.

Manning and Training

In addressing the implications of the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA), the SRR implied a degree of victimization of the naval officer due to the unique demands of the Navy and its mission. The SRR hints at a “relaxation of Goldwater-Nichols Act provisions, combined with a reduction in joint headquarters billets” (p. 39) as a possible solution. The SRR does a good job of highlighting the increasing demands on our personnel (especially the officers with increased scope and depth of responsibilities) and limitations in properly preparing them. The concern for “mastery” is a recurring theme in the Manning and Training section of the SRR.

Looking forward, the future continues to grow in scope and breadth of VUCA (vulnerability, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity). The effort to develop the well-rounded “jack of all” (and master of none) naval officer applies. Pulling back on graduate education (as hinted in the SRR) is not the solution. From Churchill’s remarks, “now that we have run out of money we have to think”, cutting back on education would be a short-sighted perspective that has long term implications of secondary effects. Developing critical thinking abilities in senior leaders is essential for future success. The ability to understand the complexity of the systems of systems, ask the hard questions, see multiple perspectives, and have the cognitive capacity to be proactive is a war-fighting imperative.

One possible solution to this was proposed by ADM (ret.) James Stavridis and CAPT (ret.) Mark Hagerott in a joint article they wrote in 2009, “The Heart of an Officer: Joint, Interagency, and International Operations and Navy Career Development.” Perhaps an idea before its time, they recognized the increasing complexity of the world and the resulting increasing demands to best prepare Naval Officers for the future. They addressed many of the concerns highlighted by the SRR. However, they proposed the idea of developing separate career paths for officers based upon their assessment of environment and future trends. Their proposal builds a strong case to allow specialization of the officer corps (Unrestricted Line) along three career paths: Joint/Interagency Operations, Technical, and General Operations. Perhaps revisiting their proposal is well warranted as the time has come out the urgency produced by the SRR.

Conclusion

Just like readiness is described by the SRR as a system of systems, so must the way forward. However, without serious reflection and discussion to reveal all the issues involved, getting to root causes, the Navy risks an incomplete way forward. This risks further unintended consequences which could run counter to the warfighting mission. To be a learning organization requires a call for candor in open dialogue. This is a leadership challenge at all levels.

A hard look in the mirror is needed, starting with Navy culture. A good methodology might be that suggested in the recent edition of the Harvard Business Review  “The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture.”  In this article, the authors provide a possible framework to assess culture (whether at the unit level or institutionally). Through this assessment process, the framework offers a means of understanding culture which can then be linked to outcomes for the organization. “Culture” is equally (if not more) complex than the issue of “Readiness.” Both relate to organizational performance which is a warfighting imperative for the Navy.

The culture of the U.S. Navy has been its greatest asset when faced with adversity and challenges yet it has also handicapped itself as the SRR contends. Living the core values “honor, courage, and commitment” demands this critical assessment and committing to the way forward. Problem-solving is one the Navy’s greatest abilities but a more proactive approach for the future is essential. Standing up the Readiness Reform and Oversight Council is a good start. Hopefully it will be more than a problem-solving effort to stovepipe solutions for managing, but rather take on a comprehensive and integrated approach that goes beyond problem-solving and into seeking opportunities for success. The way forward cannot be solved solely by management of policies, strategies, and programs. This is a leadership challenge for future success.

Tom Bayley is a former Naval Officer who retired as a Captain in 2005, with over two decades as a nuclear submariner and designated a Joint Specialty Officer (JSO). He then joined the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (NWC) to assist in the implementation of the Maritime Operations Center (MOC) Concept across the Navy. He is currently a Professor of Practice in Leadership & Ethics and is NWC’s Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer. The views expressed above are his own and do not reflect the official views and are not endorsed by the United States Navy, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or any other body of the United States Government.

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Featured Image: South China Sea (Feb. 6, 2018) Aviation Structural Mechanic 3rd Class Stephano Troche, from Lajas, Puerto Rico, assigned to the “Sea Knights” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 22, verifies a tools list during routine maintenance on an MH-60S Sea Hawk in the hangar bay of the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Diana Quinlan/Released)

Finding New Ways to Fight, Pt. 2

How the Mad Foxes of Patrol Squadron FIVE are harnessing their most powerful resource – their people – in an effort to cut inefficiencies and improve productivity.

By Kenneth Flannery and Jared Wilhelm

The U.S. Military Academy’s Modern War Institute recently published a thorough primer by ML Cavanaugh on what it means to drive innovation in the military.1  The most important take away was the difference between the buzzword, “innovation,” and the people who actually do the dirty work of driving positive change within the force called, “defense entrepreneurs.” This series focuses on an operational U.S. Navy maritime patrol squadron full of defense entrepreneurs, and how their unit is taking the “innovation imperative” from on high and translating it to the deckplate level. Part 1 focused on the “Why? Who? And How?”; Part 2 reveals observed institutional barriers and challenges.

Deckplate Challenges

It often seems that the tasks most worth doing are the most difficult to achieve. Since beginning our innovation experiment, the squadron has been met with a variety of challenges to the implementation of our vision. Some of these obstacles are specific to the unique nature of the military, while others are more specific to the nature of large bureaucracies. Many challenges come from external sources that are largely outside of our control, while other challenges are self-inflicted.

One of our biggest hurdles has been thawing the “frozen middle.” This concept refers to the middle management contingent within the squadron that may be less eager to adopt new ways of doing things. Perhaps the most frustrating part about the “frozen middle” is that the very people who would benefit from embracing these changes are often the ones standing in the way. It is understandable and expected when organizations are resistant to an innovation developed outside of their ranks. All organizations have budgets to balance and bosses to answer to such that outside entities may be only a blip on their radar. For example, attempting to highlight the importance of one squadron in one community in one service of the Department of Defense can be understandably futile. More vexing are the people inside of one’s organization who seem to actively resist change at every opportunity. Frustrating as it may be, recruiting the members of the “frozen middle” is paramount for success. Buy-in from all organizational levels is required for original ideas to reach critical mass and become self-sustaining. Without support from the most resistant group, a new process will inevitably wither and die, even if it enjoys support from the top and bottom of an organization.

When VP-5 implemented the Innovation Department, the “frozen middle” quickly became apparent. The chief’s mess and the O-4 department heads, always looking out for undue risk to the Commanding Officer, were particularly averse to change. These groups bring a wealth of experience to the squadron and are absolutely crucial to the success or failure of our unit. However, that same hard-fought experience can sometimes saddle people with preconceived notions about “the way things are done” and other such attitudes which can stifle a creative environment.

Stopping new innovations from being implemented is often the path of least resistance for the frozen middle. VP-5 discovered that those who are averse to change will attempt to use their position of power as a roadblock. Often, it seems the frozen middle’s apprehension is rooted in a reluctance to put forth the effort necessary to change. Many of our innovations are designed to reduce the time and energy required to complete a task. However, at the onset, hard work is required to overcome the existing institutional inertia. Many times someone will cite comfortable catch-all words, such as “OPSEC,” or some unnamed instruction in an attempt to avoid putting up the innovation capital required for real change. However, it was the defense entrepreneur’s job to push past that initial roadblock. If a genuine concern exists, we may have to alter tack and reevaluate, but concerns raised about innovation must be the result of concrete analysis as opposed to institutional inertia.

Hitting the Wall

We were not always successful in overcoming these barriers. On more than one occasion the squadron had projects come to a full stop due to an inability to get through to the frozen middle. One project in particular was a fairly lofty goal of adding the maintenance program OOMA (Optimized Organizational Maintenance Activity) on to our PEMA (Portable Electronic Maintenance Aid) laptops.

Under the current system, writing a MAF (Maintenance Action Form) requires access to the OOMA program which is hosted on the Naval Aviation Logistics Command Management Information System (NALCOMIS). In turn, maintainers and aircrew alike are limited to writing MAFs at computers or laptops with hardwired connections to NMCI. This means writing MAFs during preflight or post-flight requires a trip to the hangar, eating up valuable time. This is a burdensome and antiquated system, which results in poorly written MAFs and decreased MAF participation at large.

Requiring NMCI access for writing MAFs also presents a problem when departing on or returning from deployment. There is often a period of several days before NMCI connectivity is established which means MAFs must be handwritten. Once NMCI connection is established these MAFs are retroactively input into OOMA, requiring a significant number of man hours.

Implementing OOMA on our PEMA laptops would be a simple way to streamline the maintenance action documentation process. PEMA laptops would be present on the aircraft, decreasing travel time and putting the feedback solution at the source of the problem. Optimizing this process would increase discrepancy documentation and create more detailed MAFs, facilitating faster resolutions to problems. Ultimately, OOMA on our PEMA laptops could eliminate some of the administrative and physical challenges that lead to wasted man hours and late takeoffs.

This project was led by a 2nd and 3rd Class Petty Officer with assistance from the Innovation Department. These intrepid innovators worked diligently in conjunction with the offices of Program Management Acquisition-290, SPAWAR, and the PEMA Fleet Support Team, but were ultimately told this project was not currently feasible. Part of the reason given had to do with the speed at which NAVAIR moves, which was colorfully described as a “turtle in a sea of peanut butter.” This is a common refrain we have heard time and again, and one that begs the question, “are these extended timelines actually necessary, or have we become so accustomed to them that they are now an accepted norm?”

Another instance where we ran into trouble was with a much smaller project. This time we were seeking permission to insert a Bluetooth USB device into an NMCI computer in order to display a rotating informational PowerPoint on a TV in the maintenance spaces. One of these TVs already existed in the squadron’s duty office, and we wanted to place one downstairs to address a maintenance concern about sometimes being left out of the loop.

We already knew Bluetooth devices were prohibited in NMCI computers so we reached out to the Information Assurance office for guidance about how to request a waiver, or if a waiver process even existed. In return, we received a curt e-mail informing us that USB devices were not allowed in NMCI computers, which was stated in the NMCI USB policy and also on the IA form everyone signs to gain access to NMCI computers. We responded to clarify, that indeed we already knew about the prohibition, but were asking if it possible to change the instruction. Ten months later we have yet to hear a response.

Innovation Breakthroughs

These experiences taught us that we needed a new way of approaching things that relied less on external forces and instead emphasized our own ability to create. One way VP-5 chose to thaw the “frozen middle” has been to outpace their skepticism. That is to say, rather than waiting for approval to pursue a particular initiative, we would simply go ahead and continue to work on a project until directed otherwise. The squadron would always inform the appropriate authorities and members of the chain of command, but we didn’t seek their explicit approval. When asking permission to do something, the answer was often “no,” even though there was rarely any substantiating reason for that “no.” Instead of asking, we started informing the Chain of Command of our projects and ideas. By doing this it seemed that we flipped the easy answer from “no” to “yes.” Employing this “Full Speed Ahead” tactic yielded many successes, including the creation of a new qualification program and incentivizing sailors to become innovators.

One hard won success for VP-5 was the development of the “P-8A Enlisted Engine Turns Program.” This program, long established in the P-3 community, allows a select number of enlisted maintenance personnel the opportunity to earn their “Enlisted Turn Operator” qualification. This qualification allows each operator to perform a variety of low-power engine operations for maintenance evolutions. Prior to the development of this program, these low-power turns required at least one pilot. This placed an unnecessary burden on the pilot cadre, which became particularly apparent when operating on detachment where extra pilots are few and far between.

To establish this program, VP-5 adopted a draft version of an Enlisted Turn Operator instruction from VP-30, the P-8A Fleet Replacement Squadron, and made it an official squadron instruction. The program now boasts an official curriculum consisting of written personnel qualification standards, simulator events, and aircraft events. To date, VP-5 has created four Enlisted Turn Operators, two of which had the distinction of being the first two P-8A Enlisted Turn Operators in the fleet. Throughout the process of establishing this program, the defense entrepreneurs clearly communicated their intentions up through the chain of command, and illustrated how they were mitigating the risk in this endeavor. The innovators gave the VP-5 chain of command the opportunity, but never a reason, to say “no.”

Another success for the VP-5 Innovation Department was incentivizing innovation. The Innovation Department first began to coalesce when the squadron was forward deployed to the 5th and 7th Fleet areas of responsibility. Throughout the six-month deployment the innovation movement seemed to be gaining steady momentum, and it was during this very early time that some of our most successful endeavors were developed. At the close of deployment in the spring of 2017, VP-5 shifted back stateside and continued to build this foundation. The Innovation Department was formally enshrined in a new instruction, detailing organizational roles and responsibilities, and we had regular innovation meetings with respectable showings. Unfortunately, interest and participation in the Innovation Department from the junior enlisted and junior officer ranks began to wane. At one meeting, attendance was limited to the box of doughnuts that had been brought for the no-show participants. This was a low point for the defense entrepreneurs. The lull in participation could have been due to a variety of factors, such as the return of family responsibilities, outside hobbies, and perhaps even an element of boredom. As time went on the new innovation initiative began to lose its luster.

Some of this can be expected in any organization trying to introduce a new culture, but some may be due to the career timing structure of the military. Sailors in VP-5 spend between two and five years in the squadron. Officers find themselves on the left side of that spectrum, while enlisted personnel are normally toward the right. To a newly minted lieutenant junior-grade or petty officer, a three to five year tour may seem daunting, but it can be a relatively short stay when all of the various qualifications and certifications that sailors must achieve during their time in the squadron are considered. Therefore, there may be little incentive for a sailor to invest their time and energy on an innovation that may not come to fruition before their tour is over. The temptation to accept the status quo to appease an immediate superior is too attractive for many. Although there will be those who naturally appear to think outside the box and resist the status quo,  it is the responsibility of leadership to properly incentivize innovation.

VP-5 incentivized innovation by rewarding sailors who have contributed to innovation projects with awards and 96-hour liberty passes. While these may seem like superficial benefits, giving a sailor free time and recognition are the most immediate impact that a commanding officer can have on their subordinate’s life. It is necessary that more significant items, like promotions and advancements, are influenced at least in part by what a sailor has done to push the U.S. Navy into the 21st century.

Continuing the Fight

The concept of innovation is obviously not unique to the military. It is preached in boardrooms throughout the country as a way to cut costs, increase productivity, and generally rise above the competition. The companies that fail to adapt to changing environments often find themselves out of business. This same principle applies to the profession of arms. However, if we ever find ourselves “out of business” the opportunity to start over may not exist. Rarely are we afforded second chances to get it right. The time to find better ways to adapt and overcome is now.

Lieutenant Ken Flannery is a P-8A Poseidon Instructor Tactical Coordinator at Patrol Squadron FIVE (VP-5). He may be contacted at kenneth.flannery@navy.mil.

Lieutenant Commander Jared Wilhelm is the Operations Officer at Unmanned Patrol Squadron One Nine (VUP-19), a P-3C Orion Instructor Pilot, and a 2014 Department of Defense Olmsted Scholar. He may be contacted at jaredwilhelm@gmail.com

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References

[1] https://mwi.usma.edu/wear-pink-underwear-like-churchill-nine-principles-defense-entrepreneurship/

Featured Image: OAK HARBOR, Wash. (Oct. 21, 2016) Lt. Cmdr. Matt Olson, Patrol Squadron 30, right, talks Michael Watkins, a reporter with Whidbey News-Times and retired Navy Chief, through flight procedures in a P-8 simulator during a media availability on Naval Air Station Whidbey Island’s Ault Field. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class John Hetherington/Released)

Finding New Ways to Fight, Pt. 1

How the Mad Foxes of Patrol Squadron FIVE are harnessing their most powerful resource – their people – in an effort to cut inefficiencies and improve productivity.

By Kenneth Flannery with Jared Wilhelm

The U.S. Military Academy’s Modern War Institute recently published a thorough primer by ML Cavanaugh on what it means to drive innovation in the military. The most important takeaway was the large difference between the simple buzzword “innovation,” and the people who actually do the dirty work of driving positive change – oft-cited as “innovation”– within the force: “defense entrepreneurs.” This series focuses on an operational U.S. Navy Maritime Patrol Squadron that is full of defense entrepreneurs, and how their unit is taking the “innovation imperative” from on high and translating it to the deckplate level. Part 1 focuses on the “Why? Who? And How?”; Part 2 reveals observed institutional barriers, challenges, and a how-to that other units could use to adapt the model to their own units. 

The Innovation Imperative

Today, the U.S. Navy remains the most powerful seafaring force the world has ever known, but there is nothing destined about that position. To maintain this superior posture, we must find leverage that allows us to maintain an edge over our adversaries. One of our most powerful levers in the past has been our economy. We were once able to maintain supremacy simply by outspending our rivals on research, development and sheer production. While the United States still has the largest military budget of any nation, that budget is increasingly stretched to counter threats in a dizzying array of locales to include the South China Sea, Arabian Gulf, or even an increasingly vulnerable Arctic. Additionally, the rest of the world is catching up economically. Some assessments indicate that China will have the largest economy in the world by 2030 and they are already producing their own domestically-built aircraft carriers. It isn’t just China on our economic heels; by 2050 the United States could have slid to third place behind India as well. Finally, our adversaries’ continual embrace of technological theft and espionage involving some of our most expensive proprietary platforms has shrunk the technological gap that the U.S. enjoyed for multiple decades. These realities make it clear that the U.S. must find a new way to counter opponents besides technological advantage.

Much like the Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia,” the Department of Defense is experiencing what some might call a “Pivot to Innovation.” Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s “Defense Innovation Initiative” and Third Offset Strategy both signal a reinvigorated focus on maintaining and advancing our military superiority over both unconventional actors and near-peer competitors alike. 

In alignment with Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson’s intent, VP-5 is investing time and manpower in the idea that that new counterweight will be the innovative ideas of our Sailors. Just as nuclear weapons and advancements like stealth and Global Positioning Systems kept the U.S. military on top during the conflicts of the Cold War and Post-Cold War eras, it will be our ability to rapidly assess challenges and implement solutions that will guarantee our security in the future. This will require a reimagining of how we currently operate and how we are organized. Our squadron believes the key to this revolution lies with its junior enlisted and junior officer ranks.

Tapping the Innovative Ideas of the Everyday “Doers”

VP-5 is taking a multi-pronged approach to molding an innovation-friendly climate to best tap the ideas of those accomplishing the mission on a daily basis. Patrol Squadron FIVE (VP-5) is currently experimenting with a dedicated Innovation Department in our command structure, but this isn’t the first time that the squadron has embraced change to maintain the technological and fighting advantage over adversaries. The unit is based at the U.S. Navy’s Master Anti-submarine Warfare facility at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, FL, where we became the second squadron Fleet-wide to transition from the P-3C Orion to the P-8A Poseidon aircraft. This successful transition was based on new training and simulation technologies, but also on a rich history that spans from our founding in 1937 to involvement in World War II, Kennedy’s blockade of Cuba during the Cold War, the Balkan Conflict, and our recent involvement in the Middle East. Throughout this time, we have used no less than five different types of Maritime Patrol Aircraft.

VP-5 Mad Foxes
The VP-5 Mad Foxes. Courtesy Ken Flannery

Just as the transition in 1948 from the PBY-5A to the PV-2 brought new tools to the squadron’s warfighting capabilities, today we are augmenting the new technologies of the P-8A with a change to our organizational structure and business practices. A traditional operational naval aviation command administers a standard set of departments including Operations, Training, Safety/NATOPS (Standardization), and Maintenance. By implementing a new Innovation Department led by a warfare-qualified pilot or Naval Flight Officer lieutenant (O-3), VP-5 seeks to elevate the innovation construct to a position alongside the traditional departments required for squadron mission accomplishment. In addition to the lieutenant department head, the Innovation group is staffed by an additional lieutenant and a Senior Chief. Its mission statement reads:

“Lead Naval Aviation in accomplishing our mission by sustaining a culture based on process improvement and disruptive thinking. The force that knows the desired outcome, measures progress in real time, and adapts processes to overcome barriers has a sustainable advantage over adversaries who tolerate their deficiencies. Similarly, the force that can innovate transforms the battlespace to their advantage.”

The establishment of the Innovation Department sends a strong signal to the department heads and the senior enlisted that innovation is a priority, but it may not necessarily trickle down to the average junior enlisted Sailor that VP-5 is a different type of squadron. To ensure the culture reaches everyone, we have implemented large “Innovation Whiteboards” throughout the squadron and encourage all members to post ideas and suggestions. Sailors can see what others have posted and leave reactions of their own. Similar to the “CO’s Sticky Note Board” on the USS Benfold (DDG 65), the ideas written on the whiteboards are then compiled for further action by the Innovation Department.

Whether an idea has been generated via a whiteboard or suggested by means of a more traditional route, the next step in the process is to create a “Swarm Cell.” Swarm Cells are small groups of people that aim to rapidly implement solutions to the problem being addressed. These groups follow a predetermined set of procedures that begin with specifying the desired output. Starting with a clear description of the end result discourages the Cell from veering off course or diluting their product with superfluous features that do little to help the original problem. The Swarm Cells then move to address the actual problem or process for which they were created, all the while making sure that their efforts lead them toward the desired output. Next, the Cells measure their progress to decide if the desired output has been achieved. From there, the members of the group can choose to share their knowledge or revisit their solutions if they have determined that they have not met their output goals.

These Swarm Cells are not on an innovation island. The squadron strives to provide support and guidance for those working to realize their ideas and provides each Swarm Cell with an Innovation Accelerator. This Accelerator may be an official member of the Innovation Department, but is not necessarily so. If the Swarm Cell is like the train conductor, deciding the destination and exactly how fast to get there, the Innovation Accelerator is the train track, allowing room for minor deviations, but keeping the train on course to its final goal. Accelerators need not be intimately involved with the minutiae of their Swarm Cells, and as such may be facilitating two or three different Cells concurrently. By asking simple questions the Accelerator can refocus the team:

1. Has the Cell outlined a clearly defined output?
2. Is the Cell working to achieve that vision, or have they allowed distractions to creep in?
3. Are they continually measuring their progress along the way?

Again, in VP-5 innovation belongs to everyone. Sailors of all ranks and pedigrees are encouraged and expected to turn a critical eye to established procedures in an effort to push our squadron into the twenty-first century. However, change for the sake of change is not one of our objectives. To guard against this, the product or design is subjected to an internal Shark Tank once each Swarm Cell is sufficiently satisfied with their work. These Shark Tank events are open to all hands and are designed to prod for weak spots in the proposal and introduce the idea to the whole team. The Swarm Cell’s program or improvement is critiqued from every angle to determine its overall benefit and structural integrity. These sessions are designed to be thorough in order to weed out underdeveloped initiatives or those that may not provide a quantifiable benefit. If a program passes muster, it continues in whatever form is appropriate, whether that is a new or revised squadron instruction or perhaps a meeting further up the chain of command.

Meaningful Results

Our modest foray into innovation has already begun to bear fruit. One of the most promising results of the innovation process has been the development of a dedicated command smartphone application called Quarterdeck. What started as a search for a better way to communicate has blossomed into a robust “app” which boasts capability far beyond that which was initially envisioned. Currently available on the Droid and Apple App stores, the application meets or exceeds DoD information assurance requirements and includes features like flight schedule postings and peer-to-peer instant messaging, among many others. Thanks to motivated junior officers who attended the 2016 Aviation Mission Support Tactical Advancements for the Next Generation (TANG) at Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) in Silicon Valley, the Adobe Company is now conducting market research, has shown interest in acquiring the hosting rights for the app, and is currently developing a professional version based on the VP-5 prototype.

The application developed by the Mad Foxes’ Innovation Department. (Courtesy Ken Flannery)

Another of our most promising innovation programs appeared to be headed toward realization before being dismissed due to concerns about running afoul of the Program Management Aviation (PMA) office. The plan was to implement an Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) to replace the existing system of paper flight publications. This innovation would use tablet computers and digital flight publication subscriptions to save each squadron approximately $17,000 annually. PMA is currently developing a parallel program, but the estimated fleet delivery date was still at least a year away at the time our project was initiated. Our program would be able to deliver tablets within months. Every detail of the program had been meticulously researched, and drew heavily upon long established, similar programs used by the airlines.

The EFB program was widely supported among VP-5 junior officers, Fleet Replacement Squadron instructors, our own CO and XO, reserve unit squadrons manned by commercial airline pilots, and even had the interest of Commander, Patrol and Reconnaissance Group (CPRG). Unfortunately, information security concerns rooted in a risk averse culture combined with the lack of official approval from higher authorities halted the project prior to purchase. Even though our organic EFB proposal was not accepted, our efforts to address the issue sparked broader interest and pressured PMA to move up its timeline. It is a testament to the power of this innovation process that it could conceive and develop a product that rivaled a parallel effort of the standard acquisition pipeline and a regular program office. Tablets are now forecast to be delivered to the fleet by the end of this year.

Other achievements include a redesign of the Petty Officer Indoctrination course, a Command Volunteer Service Day suggested, planned, and led by an E-3, and an “Aircrew Olympics” which pitted two combat aircrews against each other in a variety of mission-related tasks. These ideas were all generated and executed from within the junior enlisted ranks.

Conclusion

We do not intend to suggest that a smartphone application or volunteer service holds the key to dismantling Kim Jong-Un’s nuclear program or China’s grip on the South China Sea. What we are trying to do is develop a framework in which creative solutions can be cultivated. Not every idea is going to be a grand slam, but before you can hit a grand slam you have to get people on base. The most important point we’ve learned is that the ideas are out there, we can cultivate them, and we’ve so far proven that we have “defense entrepreneurs” that can see these innovative ideas through from the white boards to implementation.

Formalizing an innovation process within a squadron is a new way of doing things and this new approach has been met with a variety of challenges. From stubborn, bureaucratic restrictions to “innovation stagnation,” the innovation construct at VP-5 has faced hurdles along the way and been forced to adapt. In the next installment of this series, we will explore some of these obstacles and describe the ways in which the Innovation Department has evolved as a result.

Lieutenant Ken Flannery is a P-8A Poseidon Instructor Tactical Coordinator at Patrol Squadron FIVE (VP-5). He may be contacted at kenneth.flannery@navy.mil.

Lieutenant Commander Jared Wilhelm is the Operations Officer at Unmanned Patrol Squadron One Nine (VUP-19), a P-3C Orion Instructor Pilot and a 2014 Department of Defense Olmsted Scholar. Hey may be contacted at jaredwilhelm@gmail.com

Featured Image: A P-8 assigned to VP-5 (U.S. Navy photo)