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Last week I toured the USS Constitution, in Boston Harbor. Launched in 1797, “Old Ironsides” is the oldest commissioned warship afloat.
It’s also the only remaining ship in the US Navy to have sunk an enemy vessel. That may explain some news that came out this week.
That was a report on the Navy’s readiness to fight an actual war, prepared by a retired admiral and a retired Marine Corps general. It was not pretty: Inspired by several recent naval disasters — including collisions involving two destroyers, the surrender without resistance of two Navy boats to the Iranians and the dockside total-loss fire of the USS Bonhomme Richard — the report concluded that the surface Navy is deficient in equipment, maintenance and simple competence.
The report surveyed a large number of current and former Navy personnel, 94 percent of whom said those incidents represented larger problems within the Navy. While commanding officers pursue PR and play politics, the business of running the Navy has been allowed to slide.
Among the problems: MBA-style efforts at promoting “efficiency” has led to deficiencies in training and ship maintenance. Unlike their aviation and submarine counterparts, who get extensive training before going to sea, surface officers are placed on shipboard upon commissioning, trained on the job in a sink-or-swim fashion. Instead of classes, they’re given CDs of material to read.
Maintenance schedules are allowed to slip, and maintenance is often done in haphazard fashion. Senior officers, instead of leading, seemed hypersensitive to PR concerns and are quick to throw juniors under the bus.
This isn’t a recipe for an effective Navy, which is probably why we don’t have one.
But don’t worry: The Navy’s leadership is paying close attention to politics. Many respondents said admirals seem more concerned with diversity and sensitivity than war fighting. As one said: “Sometimes I think we care more about whether we have enough diversity officers than if we’ll survive a fight with the Chinese navy. . . . It’s criminal. They think my only value is as a black woman. But you cut our ship open with a missile and we’ll all bleed the same color.”
A recently retired senior enlisted leader agreed: “I guarantee you every unit in the Navy is up to speed on their diversity training. I’m sorry that I can’t say the same of their ship-handling training.”
Others complained that readiness is treated as an HR-like “compliance culture” — check the right boxes on the paperwork and everyone is happy. Officers are also trained to be risk-averse. Great warriors are usually not great bureaucrats, but the Navy is selecting for bureaucrats.
Peacetime militaries tend to stagnate. Without the pressure of a wartime enemy to maintain performance, they focus on making things look good and office politics. Historically, the United States has always grown complacent between wars, done badly in early battles and then improved as its leadership focused and as the nation’s vast resources were brought to bear.
But will that approach work as well in the 21st century? I doubt it. A 21st-century war is likely to happen fast. Worse, the 20-year history of the War on Terror doesn’t demonstrate much of a learning curve.
And really, this goes beyond the Navy. The service’s leaders focus on diversity and politics because those things are easier than maintaining a first-rate Navy. Likewise, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, our supposed bulwark against deadly disease, has focused much of its energy on things like playground safety, dietary salt and gun control. Even its clumsy missteps during the Ebola crisis a few years ago didn’t shake it up enough to change.
Similarly, many corporations pursue facile political causes instead of maximizing profits.
“You had one job!” is an Internet meme focusing on spectacular failures. Too many of our institutions that have one difficult job would prefer to do other, easier things instead. Without mechanisms to hold their feet to the fire and force them to focus on their real reasons for existence, they tend to drift into things that are easier, and bring their leaders acclaim from their peers, even if those things don’t actually matter.
It’s time to demand more focus — in the Navy and elsewhere.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a professor of law at the University of Tennessee and founder of the InstaPundit.com blog.
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