Warfighting Culture Starts with the CO

Flotilla Notes Series

By Jamie McGrath

Warfighting is as much a culture as it is an activity. To foster warfighting culture, commanders must include it in every aspect of their command – from training to administration to damage control to routine ship operations. Every aspect of shipboard life is connected to warfighting and therefore should be treated as such. This ethos begins with the commanding officer, but must also be embraced by the wardroom and the chief’s mess.

There are strategic documents that can help in this process – the CNO’s sailing directions or the SWO Boss’s “Competitive Edge” document for example. But these guides must be translated into the local activities of the command. This begins with a command philosophy that emphasizes warfighting – not as a footnote, but as a central theme throughout. Warfighting, however, goes beyond a well-crafted command philosophy. Warfighting must be stressed in everything the commander does – training, drills, zone inspections, Captain’s Calls, and even NJP. The command should always address the question – how does what we are doing right here and right now prepare this command for prompt and sustained combat at sea? If a command cannot effectively answer that question, then it may need to reexamine its priorities, or its leadership.

An oft-repeated but worthy example is CDR Ernest Evans’ preparation of USS Johnston (DD 557) for her deployment to the Pacific Theater of operations. CDR Evans’ commissioning remarks, almost a year before the ship’s heroic action at the Battle off Samar Island, were prophetic – “[T]his is going to be a fighting ship. I intend to go in harm’s way, and anyone who doesn’t want to go along had better get off right now.” These were not just hollow words or bravado. Evans meticulously prepared his ship and his crew so that when the call came, he and the crew of the Johnston, without hesitation, turned toward the enemy and attacked with all weapons despite insurmountable odds.

USS Johnston (DD-557) commissioning ceremony on the ship’s fantail at Seattle, Washington, 27 October 1943. Cmdr. Ernest E. Evans, commanding officer, was speaking in the left center. (U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photograph)

Some would argue that it was easier to foster a warfighter mentality during a war, as Evans and his crew were in 1943-1944. But while the imperative for warfighting was more apparent then, it is no less real today. Combat systems drills, damage control drills, engineering casualty control drills, deck evolutions, watch team training, and preventative and corrective maintenance are the areas emphasized by wartime commanders, and they are areas of ship operation still in use today. Commands that go through the motions just to complete the minimum “required” training are missing the opportunity to inculcate a warfighting spirit. These events can and should be rigorous and warfighter-focused. And they should be ruthlessly critiqued so that lessons can be learned and applied.

Yes, there are a lot of distractions in today’s Navy that CDR Evans was not burdened with, but the imperative remains. Warfighting must be at the forefront of everything a command does, and that starts with the CO.

Capt. Jamie McGrath, USN (ret.), retired from the U.S. Navy after 29 years as a nuclear-trained surface warfare officer. He now serves as Director of the Major General W. Thomas Rice Center for Leader Development at Virginia Tech and an adjunct professor in the U.S. Naval War College’s College of Distance Education. He served in a variety of ship types and operational staff positions and commanded Maritime Expeditionary Security Squadron Seven in Agana, Guam.

Featured Image: PEARL HARBOR (May. 22, 2015) Cmdr. Thomas Ogden, prospective commanding officer of the guided-missile destroyer USS Chung-Hoon (DDG 93), passes through the sideboys during a change of command ceremony at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Diana Quinlan)

2 thoughts on “Warfighting Culture Starts with the CO”

  1. Excellent article.

    Warships are just that; warships. And if a warship’s crew is not oriented towards every aspect of fighting a war, then their CO isn’t doing his or her job. And by extension, if that CO’s superior isn’t ensuring that his or her subordinates aren’t actively preparing for war, then he or she isn’t doing their job.

  2. Jamie, I’m with you 100%.

    As the CO, I did my best to keep my focus on combat readiness. Every morning, my 1MC update included “the nearest enemy weapon system is….” and “nearest friendly land bears XXX degrees for YY miles.”

    My command philosophy borrowed heavily from Arleigh Burke. Two of his fighting instructions, modified slightly, read: “If it helps kill the enemy, it’s important. If it doesn’t help kill the enemy, it’s not important.” I used those.

    After major command, a flag officer boss and I disagreed on this topic. The admiral made a case that the full range of naval activities had some bearing on combat readiness and thus all were important. I disagreed, and to this day I would prioritize manning, training, and equipping for, say, air defense over humanitarian assistance.

    You, sir, are a warrior.


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