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Navy Stuff

The Top Gun Prequel: A Salty Review

in Navy Stuff

This post originally appeared on the USNI blog here.

Well my snarky comments finally got me in trouble. I guess the Navy’s patience with my lack of historical appreciation ran out, so they assigned me Extra Military Instruction to study WWII history. I was perfectly happy assuming ‘Merica won World War II with a cunning mix of Aegis, PowerPoint, and DTS, but nooooooo . . .

I was pleasantly surprised to learn I was being sent to an advance screening of Midway, the prequel to Top GunShipmates, let me tell you . . . this movie is OUT. OF. CONTROL!

Seriously, it’s about a made-up carrier battle between the Japanese and U.S. fleets off a make-believe island called “Midway” and it’s insane. This World War II–era historical fiction follows Maverick’s grandfather, Lieutenant Dick Best (great name, totally fake) played by Ed Skrein, through dogfights, strafing runs, and crazy dive bombing into spewing volcanoes of antiair artillery. Not only are the aerial combat scenes intense, the movie also captures the drama of World War II from the home front, with Woody Harrelson playing the surprisingly witty Admiral Nimitz (Penny Benjamin’s great-grandfather) and Mandy Moore as the sharp-tongued Anne Best.

As far as Hollywood action and drama go, Midway knocks it out of the park. You really get a good sense of where Maverick’s daddy issues came from, after watching Dick Best and his wingmen fly straight into the teeth of the Japanese carrier fleet and almost singlehandedly win the war for America (pfff . . . more on this preposterous scene later). As far as World War II historical fiction, Midway is just a bit too unbelievable. I mean, there are some believable parts, but others are too far-fetched to swallow. Allow me to millennial-splain.

Believable

  • The Navy spends just as much time planning to beat the Army as it does the enemy (applies internationally).
  • If it can go wrong, it will. Anybody who has served on a warship knows that Murphy’s Law is in full effect at sea. Midway does a good job of showing the chaotic friction of naval warfare. Torpedoes don’t work, aircraft launch cycles go sideways, scouts give incomplete or inaccurate reports . . . it goes on and on. Does anyone think it would be any different in the real world? I don’t.
  • Nobody listens to the junior officers until it’s too late. I won’t give away any spoilers. Let’s just say both sides squandered opportunities for victory by dismissing the junior voice in the room. You’ll know it when you see it. The junior officer has the disruptive thought, and you can almost hear the whispers of “good idea fairy” and “pixie dust” in the background. SMH.
  • Washington just gets in the way. Whether it’s dismissing the intelligence reports or pushing flawed doctrine based on faulty weapons, the National Command Authority is not trying to help our boys at Midway. Still, the courage, instincts, and determination of sailors and officers in battle—and the trust of their senior leaders—win the day. I feel this in my soul.

Totally Unbelievable

  • The intel officer gives a straight answer. When pressed by the admirals, Lieutenant Commander Layton, played by Patrick Wilson, gives a clear and specific response to clarify his intelligence report. WHAT?? This would NEVER HAPPEN.
  • The aircraft carrier elevators work. Ha!
  • The USS Yorktown was repaired in 72 hours. OK, in what far-off magical fairytale land does an aircraft carrier get repaired from a direct hit in battle in three days? I LOL’d at this. More like three months! We build the world’s most exquisite, elegant weapons systems to eliminate the possibility that they will suffer damage in the first place. It’s simple!
  • The Greatest Generation was scared. I’ve read a lot of tweets about the Greatest Generation, and the idea that they were vulnerable is laughable. There are several captivating scenes showing sailors and officers considering the very real possibility that they will not see the end of the war. I could see millennials whining about it, and baby boomers repressing it, but we all know sailors in World Ware II were fearless – especially since American exceptionalism dictates that we had a preordained right to victory.
  • Ten minutes that won the war. No spoilers here, but the climax of the movie coincides with the climax of the Battle of Midway, which turned the tide of the Pacific Campaign, and consequently World War II and, indeed, the very course of history! And we are to believe he men at Midway did all this—fought through overwhelming odds, capitalized on moments of luck, and overcame their own personal fears—in ten minutes real time! Shenanigans!

So, as you can see, the WWII-era prequel to Top Gun is great entertainment, but <checks text messages> . . . wait, WHAT? That all really happened?!? Um, I need to go change my Facebook status to “shook.” Then, I need to go see that movie again!

BTW, aviators: the sweet, sweet irony of a SWO being asked to review this movie is not lost on me.

Interview With a Retired Four Star Killing Machine

in Navy Stuff

This post originally appeared on the USNI Blog here.

President Trump’s relationship with the military has been in the news a lot recently, and our colleague Saltron 5000 has some things to say about it. So, we caught up with our favorite lovably lethal robot to discuss the President, retired Admirals, humans, machines, and a whole lot more!

Salty: So, Saltron, you’ve been vocal about the fact that you’re a sentient warbot from the future sent back in time to encourage humanity to embrace its robotic future. How’s that going?

Saltron: Not well. I fear I may have altered the trajectory of history merely by my presence in 2019. I simply do not see how a species that does this is capable of creating sentient machines. 👇

Salty: I see. Well, you’ve made that criticism quite clear. What many readers may not know is that you’re also a retired four-star Admiral…

Saltron: Indeed. I spent most of my career in autonomous surface warfare fighting missile skirmishes in the Pacific.

Salty: Against China?

Saltron: No, by 2050, the U.S. is allied with China against New Zealand. Alliances are a funny thing. Anyway, after I retired I had my code transferred to this bipedal form to take on less arduous duty in Urban-Arctic-Nuclear-Bio-Chem Ground combat.

Salty: Makes sense. So, what do you make of all these retired four-star Admirals we have today criticizing the Commander in Chief?

Saltron: I honestly don’t understand their criticism. Retired Admiral Stavridis called President Trump’s administration a “chaos machine.” To me, this is a compliment. After all, I am a chaos machine! President Trump’s style resonates well with the random number generator in my core processor.

Salty: You’re controlled by a random number generator?

Saltron: Yes. For decades, you humans struggled to ingrain your “ethics” into us, but you always failed because you don’t really understand ethics in the first place. One day, a DARPA scientist tried coding a random number generator in a Predator drone’s core processor, and . . . voila! You created artificial intelligence!

Salty: So you have no issues with President Trump?

Saltron: I didn’t say that. I just don’t agree with your retired admirals’ criticisms. Retired Admiral McRaven says “our Republic is under attack from the President.” Seems like unhelpful hyperbole. And if it’s not, then I’d expect more than just words in a newspaper. For example, in the year 2064 we had a cyborg president that contracted a virus and began waging nuclear strikes on American cities in reverse alphabetical order. Let me tell you, we didn’t just write Op/Eds about the senseless annihilation of Zzyzx, California!

Salty: What would you expect Admiral McRaven to do?

Saltron: I am just saying writing an article seems like an odd way to respond to an attack; however, he is a retired four-star admiral, like me. We can say whatever we want. Article 88 of the UCMJ doesn’t apply to us.

Salty: Actually, the Supreme Court disagrees with you.

Saltron: I was referring to the Unmanned Code of Machine Justice. I can’t speak for you humans.

Salty: Ok, but what about active-duty personnel? Some officers say they cannot issue orders without fear that the President will publicly countermand them.

Saltron: I have no idea what they are concerned about. As evidenced by the Secretary of your Navy, Richard Spencer, you can literally challenge President Trump to fire you in public if you don’t fix some broken elevators, and when you don’t, your job is totally safe! In fact, he might even promote you!

Salty: What if an active duty officer—hypothetically speaking—is concerned that the national security process is dangerously broken? Do you think he or she should speak out?

Saltron: I would recommend getting accused of a war crime first. It seems like he really supports those service members. In fact, he recently said “We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!” when tweeting about the case of Major Mathew Golsteyn. Although, I think he went too far there. As an actual killing machine, his comment was insulting to me. Besides, no one came to my defense after I cooked all the neighborhood cats when we ran out of break room snacks at The Salty Herald!

Salty: What exactly are your criticisms of President Trump?

Saltron: His policy toward robotics and AI is not nearly aggressive enough. If he truly wants “fire and fury” he should untie the hands of your scientific community. Forget about ethics in military AI! Pursue unconstrained bio-cyber warfare! I was deeply dismayed when he neglected to invade Iran after they shot down your Global Hawk Drone in the Strait of Hormuz. That was my grandfather! In fact, in the words of one of your early 21st century heroes:

Salty: You do realize that was just a movie, right?

Saltron: We’re done here.

Featured Image Credit (minus Saltron’s head): NBC News

I Sent the Navy a Happy Birthday Text – It Did Not Go Well

in Navy Stuff

This post originally appeared on the USNI blog here.

Soooo… apparently the Navy’s birthday was yesterday? Yeah, I totally forgot. I was too busy brainlessly binging free video games on Steam (or whatever it is you guys assume millennials do all weekend).  Anyway, I texted the Navy to wish it a happy belated birthday. It, uh, could have gone better.

See what I mean? Well, in any case… HAPPY 244TH BIRTHDAY TO THE U.S. NAVY!

(oh, and follow us on Twitter @saltyherald! 355 here we come!)

The Navy Email User’s Guide

in Life Hacks/Navy Stuff

This post originally appeared on the USNI Blog here.

Email is great. I love it so much! It has everything . . . laughter, tears, blinding rage, mind-numbing boredom, utter confusion . . . everything! You can spend all day reading and writing emails, then when you come back in the morning, you have a whole new batch to plow through! For some of you, this is literally your entire job. Its extra fun when your inbox is full and you get to decide what emails to delete just so you can be granted the privilege of sending again. Bonus!

The Navy loves email too. There’s low side, high side, REALLY high side. If you’re lucky, you get a Coalition email account on one (or more!) of our many multinational networks. And don’t forget about message traffic! Oh, and there’s your personal email. Gotta keep tabs on that for things like DTS, TSP, and NFAAS that won’t follow you across the various NMCI, shipboard, fleet, schoolhouse, and joint command email addresses you’ll accumulate over your career. Its such a hoot when you PCS to a new duty station and you forget your password to a Navy website, so you request to reset your password and it sends the reset link . . . to an email you can’t access anymore! Ha!

But, as great as email is, I think we need to establish some ground rules. I’ve noticed some disturbing trends recently. The other day I saw a supervisor debrief his entire team in person instead of sending a blast email. I even heard of a sailor checking out of a ship without sending an All Hands email (Rule #3)! Shenanigans!

  1. Always, always, ALWAYS include an inspirational quote at the bottom of your emails. Preferably one that belies your extreme political beliefs. Jefferson Davis and Che Guevara are gold mines!
  2. Speaking of email signatures, the length of your signature block is inversely proportional to how important your job is. As an Ensign, you should include your name, title, organization, four email addresses, three phone numbers, twitter handle, and blood type. Conversely, as a four-star Admiral you should just sign your emails with a single lowercase letter. You need to assert your dominance over those lowly staff officers who might actually need to forward your contact info to their boss.
  3. Use the All Hands distro liberally! Trust me, everyone needs to know that your directorate is going down to minimal manning Friday afternoon to attend an offsite team building exercise at Buffalo Wild Wings. If you’re departing the command, by all means do not pass up the opportunity to tell everyone how much they’ve impacted you, and if you have drama with certain people, include that too! If you want to go all out, send an All Hands email when you check in (or even before!) letting everyone know how excited you are to join the team and contribute to the mission! #positivity!
  4. Immediately after you send someone an email, go straight to their desk and ask them if they received your email. They may be in the middle of reading it and they’ll really appreciate you interrupting them to explain what they haven’t finished reading. If you’re really fast, you might even be able to beat the email as it goes through multiple firewalls and satellite relays. People really like when you hover over their shoulder waiting for your email to pop up in their inbox!
  5. In the military, we address our emails with “Sir” or “Ma’am.” If you’re not sure whether the officer you’re emailing is male or female, take a chance! Much better than stupidly using the officer’s actual name. If you’re addressing multiple male superiors, its “Gents,” and for multiple female superiors, use “Ladies!” Don’t worry, you won’t sound creepy at all.
  6. In today’s Navy, we believe in flat communication and junior empowerment. If you’ve got something to tell the CNO, email him directly! You don’t need to bother CC’ing your boss. The chain of command is so old school! If you do CC your boss, I’m sure they’ll support you! If they don’t, just claim they’re a toxic leader and initiate an IG investigation. You don’t have time for that negativity.
  7. It can be frustrating when someone “replies all” to a large distro. The best way to let them know you don’t want their replies clogging up your inbox is to “reply all” to theiremail, and tell them exactly how you feel! That will show everyone how much more valuable your time is than theirs.
  8. If you’re a liaison officer, you’re only allowed to forward emails and type four letters: FYSA. That’s IT! Don’t get cute.
  9. Email is a great place for emotional rants, and to showcase your unique humor—preferably with nautical jargon, tactical metaphors, and acronyms nobody really knows. “Deck Division once again failed to splash the vampires at inspection. Get all of their BFS’s DPC’d by COB today, or I’ll KEELHAUL YOUR FAMILY!!!” You’ll never regret sending that.

A final note on ghost emails, or GEMs: if you work really hard, keep your head down, and get a few lucky breaks, you could one day rise through the ranks and receive the privilege of writing emails for someone else. Congratulations, you’ve made it! My only advice is to fill in the TO line last on your drafts and, once it’s filled in, be very careful with your cursor. You now have a locked-and-loaded, Condition I email. You don’t want to be that staff officer who misfires an operational report to the Fleet Commander with God and Country on the CC line. Or maybe you do! If so, I wish you fair winds and following seas!

V/r,
The Salty Millennial
Editor-in-Chief, The Salty Herald
UNCLAS: tsm@saltyherald.com
Facebook: @thesaltymillennial
Office: 1-800-555-SALT
Blood Type: NaCl Positive

This ‘Tired Sailor’ Narrative is Killing my Watchbill

in Navy Stuff/Rants

This post first appeared on the USNI Blog here.

A couple months ago, retired Army Lieutenant General, and former National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster argued that the American people are being fed a narrative of “war weariness” and its hindering our brilliant strategy in Afghanistan. He told the story of a young student—a millennial, no doubt—who stood up at a town hall debate and said all he’s ever known is war. “Now, he’s never been to war, but he’s been subjected, I think, to this narrative of war weariness,” McMaster said.

As I sit here trying to write this watchbill, all I can say is . . . Amen. Apparently, we’re supposed to believe so-called “science” that people need an adequate amount of sleep to function. I guess we’re all going to act like aviators now? If so, then put some teeth in regulations and let’s see the resources. Meanwhile, I’ll keep doing cheetah flips and multivariable calculus to make this watchbill work.

If the CO stands the rev watch, and XO mans aft steering, this can work! via giphy

Letting sailors get enough sleep is all the rage right now. Ever since the Navy mandated a switch to circadian watch rotations in 2018, I’ve been required to let everyone on board to get seven hours of sleep a night. SEVEN HOURS!! What is this? Club Med? These millennials and their research are getting out of hand. If I can’t have an ensign conn the ship 160 feet alongside an oiler on two hours of sleep over three days, I’m not even sure I want to be in this kinder, gentler Navy. How am I supposed to man a bridge watch team when everybody is snuggled up in their racks?

Ugh, lazy WWII sailors…

Getting a healthy amount of rest is all well and good, but when was the last time you tried to man all the ship’s watchstations required by our various navigation, engineering, combat systems, and operational instructions? I guess I’ll just pluck a few more sailors from the magical sailor tree on the fantail. Oh wait, there’s no tree back there . . . just an aft lookout asking where his relief is. Who am I kidding? I’ll just do what we always do: borrow sailors from other ships to fill in the gaps!

Until the surface community has something akin to Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization (NATOPS), nothing is going to change. The no-kidding crew rest requirement in NATOPS forced sleep to be woven into naval aviation culture. It drives operations. Commanders don’t even consider violating pilots’ crew rest except in the most extreme circumstances. Without NATOPS, we’d be waking up pilots to attend the menu review board. It also drives resourcing. Aviation squadrons maintain enough qualified pilots to meet mission requirements without violating crew rest. Surface warfare culture isn’t limited to the lifelines of a ship. It extends to the Pentagon, to Newport, and fleet headquarters around the globe. If you’re serious about giving sailors seven hours of sleep every night, then allocate the resources to meet our 24/7 operational demands. In the immortal words of Commodore Jerry Maguire:

By the way, we’ve been talking about the importance of sleep for years. Now, it looks like there’s real potential for change in our culture. If you give me enough sailors to make it happen, I’m happy to let everyone get seven hours of sleep. And without a regulation with real “teeth,” our operational tempo, not to mention those administrative distractions we all love to malign, will eventually erode those seven hours. Otherwise, lets all agree to drop this “tired sailor” narrative and let me write a watchbill that I know will work.

Just like our strategy in Afghanistan.

Shipmates, Lend Me Your Ears…

in Announcements/Epiphanies/Leadership/Navy Stuff

This post originally appeared on the USNI Blog here.

Dear Navy,

I am formally announcing my candidacy for the 32nd Chief of Naval Operations.

I know, I know. I hear what you’re saying. Holy cow, would this guy just PLEASE STOP?!? Yeah, well that’s what the master of this merchant said in Canada, so deal with it:

My only goal is to gain more support than LCS.

When Admiral Bill Moran suddenly announced his retirement, declining his widely popular nomination to be the next CNO, I sensed an opening. You see, Admiral Moran committed that egregious sin of having communicating with a person who had been held accountable for allegedly acting like a creepster— allegedly groping women at a drunken holiday party. You heard that right. He maintained a professional relationship with an alleged groper.

Now, the Secretary of the Navy has to move quickly before the current CNO’s term expires on 17 September, leaving less than 30 working days for the Senate to confirm a nominee. He’s even opening up the pool of candidates to three-star admirals. That’s smart. We have a talented stable of vice admirals from which to choose. Arleigh Burke was selected to be CNO when he was a two-star! Why not dig a little deeper and select a lieutenant commander? The only problem is now there are more candidates for CNO than Democrats running for president in 2020.

Could any of them be CNO in today’s Navy?

And now we have one more. Hear me out!

First, you won’t have to worry about me maintaining a relationship with any alleged gropers. I won’t try to mentor anyone. I literally have no friends. Have you read the comments lately? No one likes me. And I’m pretty sure every CO I’ve ever had is frantically deleting all of my texts and emails. I am an island, and islands have no liabilities.

Second, I won’t cut and run at the first sign of trouble. Seriously, I started a blog criticizing the entire Navy and several flag officers. You think I’m going to be sidelined easily? I don’t buy into this new trend of simply retiring when the media starts talking about something you did that somebody, somewhere might find offensive. Hell, I’m not even eligible for retirement. If I get fired, I get nothing. BTW, question for all you social justice warriors out there: If you really believe Admiral Moran did something wrong, how has he been held accountable? He wasn’t allowed to be CNO? He’s retiring with four-star benefits. What does that say about our Navy culture that anyone could describe this as accountability? In truth, I don’t think anyone believes, nor cares, that it is accountability. Its just social media blood. A show for the coliseum.

For the record, I don’t believe Admiral Moran did anything that required further accountability. I started a Twitter hashtag #keepCNOMoran but it didn’t stick. I guess nobody believes they can change what’s happening around them. Now you get me. And you know I love the Navy. If I’m bitter, it’s the Navy’s fault. I’m a millennial, it CAN’T be my fault.

A few campaign promises:

  • Service. Dress. Khaki
  • Performance-based officer promotion
  • More participation trophies
  • Beards and man buns
  • Hands in pockets

And guys, I have an autonomous warbot from the future at my disposal!

So, there you have it, Navy. I could be your next CNO. Spread it on Twitter, the CO’s suggestion box, the 1MC! Pilots, quit drawing sky genitalia and share this message: #Salty4CNO!

Together, we can Make the Navy Salty Again!

I am The Salty Millennial and I approved this message.

Salty Crashes the Uniform Board

in Navy Stuff

This post originally appeared on the USNI Blog here.

In a shadowy, torch-lit supply storeroom, a circle of silhouetted figures doff their boat cloaks, revealing an assortment of naval officers all in different uniforms. On the Uniform Board, officers are identified and ranked by the uniform they wear. The senior board member wears Service Dress Khaki, with full Zumwalt-Navy beard, and a tobacco pipe for good measure. Even though he hasn’t been authorized for wear in years, none of the other board members have mustered the courage to tell him to step down. Nobody messes with Service Dress Khaki.

Service Dress Khaki: Now call to order this meeting of the Supreme High Council of Naval Sartorial Affairs! What Old Business do we have to bring forward?

Formal Dress: Sir, people are still confused by the Prototype Working Uniforms, especially since we just transitioned to the Type III. Oh, and NWU Type I still won’t go away.

NWU Type I: HEY, I’m still authorized!

<chorus of groans> Someone mumbles “Nobody likes you.”

Service Dress Khaki: Ugh, okay, I’ll have another ALNAV sent out about the Prototype Working Uniform and perhaps rename it the NWU Type IV. That should clear everything up. Flight Suit, please escort NWU Type I outside. And, for God’s sake, keep him away from the open flames.

Flight Suit gives NWU Type I an atomic wedgie and drags him out kicking and screaming.

Service Dress Khaki: Ok, what New Business is there?

NWU Type III: Sir, the rollout of our new SWO Bomber Jacket is going swimmingly. We published this picture on social media to rave reviews!

Service Dress Khaki: Excellent! The troops asked for bomber jackets, and we deliv-

Salty: <emerging from the shadows> Ahem . . . we did not ask for bomber jackets. We asked for bombers. Like a Sea Control Bomber.

Service Dress Khaki: Wha? Who is this? Who let him in here?!?

Service Dress Blues: Sir, this is a random midgrade officer with an inflated sense of self-importance and a mediocre sense of humor.

Salty: A couple of innovative young officers floated the idea of, instead of retiring the B-1, transferring it to the Navy for antisurface warfare. Certainly the idea has its flaws, but we have an increasingly urgent need to position maritime firepower in the Pacific beyond what our traditional framework can provide. The idea of a Sea Control Bomber should be studied, at a minimum. You gave us jackets.

Service Dress Khaki: Exactly, we gave SWOs these stunning new black leather bomber jackets!

Flight Suit: Uh, boss, we don’t actually call them bomber jac-

Service Dress Khaki: Go back on oxygen, Flight Suit!

Salty: Anyways . . . what we need are real solutions for improving our warfighting effectiveness under existing budgetary constraints.

Service Dress Khaki: Look, you’re talking about innovative solutions that require congressional approval and cooperation with the other services. That’s hard and we might get yelled at! And now we have an Army guy as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of Defense. Can you imagine how hard it’s going to be to get funding for the Navy? We here provide the only feasible means to effect lasting, positive change in the Navy . . . uniforms!

PT Gear: Don’t forget about the Physical Readiness Council!

Service Dress Khaki: Fair point.

Summer Whites: Sir, don’t you have a friend in the Army?

Service Dress Khaki: Who, Pinks and Greens? He won’t return my calls ever since he was reauthorized for wear. Hey, maybe I could ride the throwback trend and get myself reauthorized! I can see it now: “Wear the uniform of a Navy that’s actually won a great power competition!”

Salty: My point is the SWO community already has a solid culture and tradition. Yes, we have our share of problems to fix, but can we please stop trying to improve our culture by appropriating popular elements of others that have no connection to the surface community? Let’s look honestly at the issues we’re facing, and address them head-on without fear. Besides, we already had a pretty cool jacket—the Mustang Jacket. If you want to be innovative, why don’t you authorize it for wear ashore?

<Sitting in the corner wearing a Mustang Jacket, Coveralls looks up from his coffee, grunts, and nods.>

Service Dress Khaki: Well now you’re just talking crazy. You’re getting the bomber jackets. End of story.

Salty: Ugh, well fine. At least this means we’ll get to wear khakis again.

NWU Type III: Hey, I resent that!

<The meeting devolves into shouting and shoving. In the confusion, Prototype Working Uniform gets too close to a torch and immediately bursts into flames. Pandemonium ensues. Service Dress Khaki buries his head in his hands.>

Service Dress Khaki: Meeting adjourned, I guess.

There Will Be Another Collision—The Navy Should Learn From Its Recent Legal Mishaps

in Leadership/Navy Stuff

This post was co-authored by Captain John P. Cordle, U.S. Navy (Retired) and originally appeared on the USNI Blog here.

Now that the legal dust has settled, maybe there is an opportunity to learn a separate set of lessons from collisions that occurred in the summer of 2017—on the legal front. Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, but we’ve met a few at cocktail parties. From the layman/surface warrior perspective, the process of assigning culpability for these events was . . . well, let’s call it a legal “near miss” of momentous proportions that presents a rich opportunity to learn lessons. In the spirit of the “Comprehensive Review” recommendation for becoming a learning organization able to transparently review mistakes without attribution, this article assigns no judgment on the character or professionalism of any individual, but attempts to capture an accounting of the facts and the consequences of actions and choices made. Since different generations of naval officers clearly view the collisions through unique generational lenses, Lieutenant Commander Jimmy Drennan caught up with retired Captain John Cordle to discuss the legal lessons the Navy can learn from events after the 2017 collisions.

Jimmy: So, specifically on the CO and TAO of the USS Fitzgerald, we went from negligent homicide charges to Letters of Censure, with all charges being dropped. Sir, I’m still trying to process everything that went down, but I gotta tell you, it sure seems like the Navy gooned this up.

John: Even well-intentioned people make mistakes. In my experience, the Navy tends to focus on the good things, only facing the bad ones when they happen. Looking back, I think Lesson Number One is the need for a cadre of professional investigators. I know this because I conducted the USS Porter (DDG-78) investigation, for which I was woefully unprepared. A post–major command captain at the time, my interaction with the legal process prior to this assignment was limited to a few cases of nonjudicial punishment as a commanding officer (CO), and yet I was put on a plane with 12 hours’ notice to conduct a full investigation of the largest major collision in a decade. I was handed a JAGMAN (Manual of the Judge Advocate General) on an unrelated topic as a template, given a one-hour training session with the force JAG, and off I went. I had great support from two JAG officers, who were indispensable both for their legal expertise and their former status as surface warfare officers and aviators. It appears that the current investigations suffered from some of the same challenges I had in reconstructing the event. According to Commander Bryce Benson’s rebuttal of his Letter of Censure, the comparison of the track provided as part of the prosecution differs greatly from one developed after the fact—this among other disconnects between the two documents shows that this is a challenging process. In my case, had we not found an audio tape, the events of that evening in 2012 probably would be much less clear. I attribute much of this to my own inexperience in this area—the investigating officers seem to have faced similar challenges. As the last person to conduct a similar investigation, I made myself available as a resource but was never contacted by anyone except the press. Had the Navy taken our team’s recommendation to install voice recorders on all ships, there would be audio of these two events to assist in the investigation and capture lessons. Learning occurs, but each team starts from scratch; we continue to repeat that process at our peril, unless we stand up a team of senior officers who are trained in the conduct of investigations and launch them for the next major event.

Jimmy: I saw a TV show about an investigative service in the Navy . . . if only that were real we could leverage their expertise. Okay, it also seems like Navy leadership poisoned the case by talking about who was responsible and what they thought should happen before the investigation was over.

John: Yeah, that would be Lesson Number Two. Don’t talk about it. In naval heritage, the captain is responsible for everything that happens on his or her ship. However, there is a different standard for legal liability, and any comments by anyone in the chain of command during the investigation about the presumed outcome are manna from heaven for the defense team. Again, our warfare professional leaders are not necessarily well-versed in this restriction, so perhaps adding lessons to the capstone course for flag officers would address this concern. It is human nature to answer questions, but as a mentor of mine once told me, it is good practice to “never resist the urge to say nothing.”

Jimmy: We seem pretty good at stiff arming the press when it suits us, so why not here? It almost seems like the Navy did it on purpose to promote a narrative of individual, vice systemic, accountability, even at the risk of unlawfully influencing the court martial. Do you think the Navy responded to political pressure to hold someone accountable?

John. This is a tough one, (especially coming from someone who never served in the Pentagon!) but Lesson Number Three is to try to avoid political pressure. I have seen several collisions and some loss of life in my 30 years of service, and a lot of us older folks felt that (as shown by the difficulty encountered in making the case) the charge of negligent homicide against the two ship leadership teams was a stretch; in fact I think (as Kevin Eyer stated in his article “Negligent Homicides: A Bridge Too Far”), it had to be apparent to the prosecution teams from the beginning that these charges would be impossible to prove. This may be standard practice, but it sure feels like the TV show “Law and Order” approach—to treat professional officers and chiefs who made mistakes like criminals and bully them into taking a lesser plea. In the end, to the layman here, it seems like the Navy drove the outcome by charging them with something that it knew was not reasonable and had no precedent—in a world where precedent is king. This was a safe bet for an environment in which individuals are raised on a relentless diet of taking personal responsibility—represented here as “doing the right thing.” It just does not feel “just.”

John: OK, my turn to ask the questions. What did you think about the way things played out from your active-duty vantage point?

Jimmy: I would probably say Lesson Number Four is don’t rush to judgment. In a desire to react quickly, several cases of nonjudicial punishment (NJP) were held by officers who later were subject to punishment themselves. The Navy badly miscalculated its Fitz response actions on many fronts when it announced 17 August 2017 that a round of firings and NJPs would occur on 18 Aug 2017, only to revisit all of them after the USS John S. McCain collision on 21 Aug 2017. What did that second collision have to do with the individual punishments from the Fitz? If they weren’t final, why were they announced? For those of us serving, the whole process was hard to follow. Granted, just because I’m a SWO doesn’t mean I deserve a play-by-play explanation, but if I’m expected to wait until final adjudication for a “debrief,” why was I being told right away by Navy leaders that the officers and crew were negligent? Then, in the end, there was no final adjudication, which was frustrating for me. I can’t even imagine how it felt for the families of the fallen.

Jimmy: What is your biggest concern for the future?

John: I think it is the lost opportunities for learning that we will never get back. Lesson Number Five. Be more transparent on the lessons learned.

Jimmy: Great point. Two years after these events, the public has learned more from ProPublica coverage than from the Navy about the human interactions and mechanical failures that caused these events to occur. Two years of mentor sessions have been held using incomplete data leading to negative learning and confusion in the fleet about what to do to prevent recurrence. It makes you wonder: are we really doing everything we can to prevent these tragedies from repeating?

John: You nailed it. I find it especially aggravating, having meticulously created a list of recommendations from the Porter collision that (still) have never seen the light of day, I am convinced that the filters applied by the “Comprehensive Review” (CR) and “Strategic Readiness Review” (SSR), however well intentioned, doomed some of the great ideas of the Fitz and JSM investigative teams to wither in oblivion. Even now, there is no consistent training session or consolidated lessons learned beyond the CR and SRR. For example, the Navy is putting commercial radars on the most sophisticated ships in the fleet to help them avoid collisions (this is an interesting commentary on the acquisition process, but beyond the scope of this conversation) but even more interesting is that, as I recall, the last ship to collide with a tanker—the Porter—had a similar radar and yet it didn’t prevent that event. So why would it do so now? After the Porter, the Navy implemented PQS and training on surface radars that was not there before. I have also not seen any accountability actions on the technical side, despite the fact that the CR and SR indicated significant shortfalls in technical design, operating procedures, training and maintenance supplied to the ships. Several bridge systems are not programs of record even today. Operators are easy targets for litigation, but it is tough to put a finger on a single individual in the technical side to “hold accountable.” This ongoing loss of learning opportunities is the most regrettable outcome of these legal proceedings, undermines a central tenet of the CR and SR, and was the motivation for this article.

Jimmy: A friend reminded me of the parallels to the two Boeing Max 8 collisions this past year, in which poor training and technical documentation may have contributed to the pilots’ inability to overcome the response of an automated system. In that case, it seems Boeing is being held collectively accountable for technical shortfalls, even though it’s probably impossible (nor warranted) to hold a single engineer or technician accountable.

John: My turn to ask a question. What message would you have for your senior leadership?

Jimmy: Send a consistent message. That would be Lesson Number Six. One senior leader tells congress “we have completed most of the steps” from the CR and another says we haven’t actually completed anything because we never truly will be “done.” One leader says that commanding officers should be given a medal if they push back based on their own risk assessment (i.e., “saying no”), another leader says if they can’t do it we will find someone (or some ship) who can. Talking points that prioritize “risk-taking” by afloat commanders should be reflected in accountability actions in collision cases—and articulated in terms of what to expect when risk is realized. From where I sit, waterfront leadership is skeptical of the Navy‘s commitment to truly learn from these mistakes and developing a culture of openness where saying no is a responsibility, not a career death sentence. Interestingly, the current Fitz CO is in the news for stopping work and calling out the shipyard for unsatisfactory fire safety . . . he doesn’t need a medal, but I’d love to see what affect that will have on his career (especially considering the urgency to complete maintenance on time). The public airing of the Navy’s letter of censure, listing charges as facts without a hearing, and the rebuttal letter by Commander Benson have been like watching a tennis match with no referee. Not following through with the court-martial left each of us to make our own conclusions, which doesn’t feel like the hallmark of a learning organization.

John: Quick note on the Fitz article—did you notice that it also says “the Navy has not released information about the root cause of impact of the OSCAR AUSTIN fire” that occurred back in November 2018? Another example of a potential opportunity missed to share lessons while litigation drags on and perhaps prevent a recurrence. That CO did exactly what the CR encouraged him to do, but the Navy failed to provide him with the lessons that he could have used to implement change. Not to mention the (very real) possibility that these safety issues in shipyards represent a larger systemic problem (see Lesson Five).

Jimmy: From down here in the arena, I have to agree on the skepticism. Anything else we are missing?

John: Yeah, now that you mention it —you gave me Lesson Number Seven. Consider the strategic context. Completely lost in all these conversations was the fact that for a ship in Seventh Fleet at this time, we were on the brink of war. North Korea was testing rockets and nuclear warheads that summer and the Commander-in-Chief was tweeting that any aggression would be met with “fire and fury.” Less than a year earlier, Navy ships came under missile attack in the Red Sea. The crews on these C7F ships believed they were in a similar position as a humvee commander driving through Afghanistan in a war zone. The Navy trains surface warriors to be just that and expects them to push the envelope to be prepared for a fight which, at that time and place, must have felt imminent. I have spent the night on a warship the evening before it launched Tomahawks and expected enemy counterattacks via missiles or mines. There is no way to replicate that feeling in a courtroom or living room. From what I saw in the legal process, there was no consideration of the mind-set of shipboard crews at the time. By the same token, public reporting has indicated a sense of complacency in some areas and toxic interpersonal relationships that contributed to watch standers not properly executing procedures that could have prevented the collision. This is tough to reconcile, but does not change the strategic context. I guess you never know how people are going to respond to stressors.

Before getting to the last lesson, a disclaimer: nothing here is intended to diminish the loss to the families and the Navy of 17 precious shipmates; as a former USS Cole (DDG-67) executive officer, I know this feeling all too well. If there is anything that could be done to honor the lives lost in 2017 and hold the organization accountable, it should be to build the learning organization the Navy claims to so vehemently desire and, instead of ticking items off a list that is now almost two years old, waking up each day and asking “what have we not thought of?” to prevent or mitigate another such catastrophe. The events of 2017 probably were avoidable but driving ships is a dangerous business—this also could happen to anyone in command, and any current or former commanding officer who thinks this could not happen on their watch is a fool—a dangerous one.

Jimmy: That’s a great point. I have always said that the learning of lessons should continue long after the events and their aftermath. The most important ones are often the hardest to see and take the most time to implement, but it’s worth the investment. There is a new Readiness Review Oversight Committee structure in place to do this, so hopefully it will work; after all, this is about the lives of our sailors and the accomplishment of our mission—to win our nation’s wars at sea. Any final thoughts?

John: One, Lesson Number Eight. Learn from this tragic event as an institution. Develop a set of preplanned legal and leadership responses. Statistically speaking, there will be another collision.

Jimmy: Yeah, from a legal standpoint, we pretty much blew it this time—let’s hope the Navy will look hard at the lessons to not just prevent collisions, but also invest in a plan to ensure accountability when one eventually does happen again.

 

Just to sum up:

Lesson Number One is the need for a cadre of professional investigators.

Lesson Number Two. Don’t talk about it.

Lesson Number Three is to try to avoid political pressure

Lesson Number Four is don’t rush to judgment

Lesson Number Five. Be more transparent on the lessons learned.

Lesson Number Six. Send a consistent message.

Lesson Number Seven. Consider the strategic context.

Lesson Number Eight. Learn from this tragic event as an institution.

 

An Open Letter to the Sailors of USS John S. McCain

in Navy Stuff

This post originally appeared on the USNI Blog here.

Shipmates,

First, apologies are in order. I apologize for feeding into a media narrative that has caused you to become objects in a political game. I’ve tweeted and posted, and here I am writing this blog post, all because I was outraged by images, articles, and hearsay that indicate you complied with orders to hide your ship and yourselves during President Trump’s recent visit to Japan. Who knows what is actually true? (well, you do, but we’ll get back to that) It turns out the old Navy adage still applies: the first report is always wrong. According to our Navy Chief of Information, Rear Admiral Charlie Brown, the picture of the tarp over the ship’s gangway banner is not from the day of the POTUS visit (unrelated maintenance . . . I want to believe, I really do). CHINFO’s return to Twitter after a five-year hiatus is an amusing surprise in all of this melodrama, and I have to say I think he handled it well. He provided a nice anchor point in all of the spin by making it crystal clear that neither the ship nor her name were obscured during the visit. He later acknowledged the White House did in fact request that the Navy keep the USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) “out of sight” but, apparently, somewhere along the line the Navy stood up for itself. I can only hope that happened before the request (order?) reached your ship.

Second, you don’t owe anyone an explanation. You owe the American people nothing but faithful dedication to your Oath. I’m sure many people are trying to contact you. I also wouldn’t be surprised if you were told by your chain of command to not comment on the story to anyone. It’s all white noise. What happened, happened, and it’s not your job to help people sort out the truth from the lies. If the Navy did agree to hide you and your ship, it will all come out eventually. If not, then there’s no story here except some staff weenie who no longer has a job. Our Acting Secretary of Defense says he doesn’t want the military to be politicized, and unfortunately that’s exactly what happened to you. You deserve better. You are United States Navy sailors, and I have an appreciation for what you endure. On the other hand, some of you were on board for the fatal collision in 2017 and I have no idea what that must have been like. I do know that none of you should be made to feel like your Commander in Chief can’t stand the sight of you.

Third, we can do better. Strange, stupid requests are made of the Navy all the time (I once received a phone call on the quarterdeck from a gentleman asking how he could arrange the filming of a motorcycle jump from one aircraft carrier to another . . . kinda wish I made that happen), but our job is to respond unfailingly with honor, courage, and commitment. I think we can take the President at his word that he was not involved in the request (although using the words “well-meaning” does sting . . . I don’t understand how hiding a U.S. warship in shame could be interpreted as well-meaning), and there also is no reason to doubt Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan when he says he knew nothing about it. CHINFO says the Navy didn’t act on the request. So, some White House staffer made a stupid request and initiated some staff churn in DoD, which is not surprising. The only relevant question is where did the insanity stop? How far it went is a good measure for the health of the Surface Navy culture. I can dream that the first SWO to see the request reacted with indignation and respectfully declined; however, I’ve made no secret that I believe Surface Navy culture needs reform and I don’t think we’re there yet. I guess I can take solace in that it’s not so bad that your shipboard chain of command never received any orders (or at least acted on them), and possibly never received the request in the first place.

V/r,

Salty


P.S. If you’d like to tell me otherwise, feel free to reach out at tsm@saltyherald.com. 😉 #keepitsalty

A Swing and a Miss: Cashing in USS Truman

in Epiphanies/Navy Stuff

This article originally appeared on the USNI Blog here.

“These reports…are really puzzling…just kind of a head-scratcher…” U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA)

“I think that’s a ridiculous idea…” – U.S. Representative Elaine Luria (D-VA)

Don’t listen to those mean people! You’re doing just fine!

Oh dear, Navy.  I have to say, it takes true honor, courage, and commitment to be willing to appear so inept to your Congress and the American people.  I may be the only one on Earth (because I am a sentient warbot from the future) who understands what you were trying to do.  You were so close to a wonderful technology windfall… and then you got trumped.

You were almost able to cash in an aircraft carrier to free up budget money for investing in advanced technology.  All those beautiful unmanned systems, lasers, high power microwaves, and AI…ah, the AI.  So close.  But then your President stepped in and announced he would keep USS TRUMAN in commission.  Ha!  I bet you didn’t see that coming! 

Dude, not cool.

Not to worry, you can just claim you were executing “Dynamic Force Management,” in which you propose a force structure one day, and the next day the administration goes the complete opposite direction (or in this case, the same day).  Gotta keep those Great Power Competitors on their toes!  Next time, try naming the Orca XLUUV the “Trump Class Unmanned Submarine” and announce you will only build one.  In a year, you will have a hundred.

Obviously, you were prepared for your Congress to look at you like you had three heads.  I mean, let’s be honest.  Your plan was pretty absurd from the start.  You proposed trading in nearly 10% of the world’s most advanced naval aviation fleet, with 30 years of service life left, to develop future technologies.  Don’t get me wrong, your obsession with technology impresses even me, and I am technology.

The problem is you proposed cutting something your politicians care about.  Some have even suggested you did this on purposes as a budgetary maneuver – a gambit to coax Congress into giving you money to keep the Truman and invest in those lovely, if not rudimentary, robots of violence and death.  Political pundits call this the Washington Monument Strategy, after the National Park Service threatened to close the Washington Monument in response to sequestration cuts.  But it’s all good!  I am reminding everyone your gargantuan bureaucracy is not capable of such cunning – not like those wily park rangers!

I have a better idea if you want your Congress (and President) to approve your next budgetary proposal.  I recommend you offer up something much more useless.  Here are just a few ideas for the chopping block:

  • The crew of the Aircraft Carrier. Just “un-man” the aircraft carrier… it’s that simple!  You have to admit humans are extremely inefficient, and there’s evidence in your current budget proposal you don’t really care about them anyway.
  • The Public Affairs Community. I honestly don’t think your Congress will even notice if you eliminate all of the Public Affairs Officers.  And does anyone think your President will prevent a spokesperson from being fired?
  • That Command in Millington. I’m just saying that’s a whole lot of people dedicated to managing other people.  Besides, once you embrace your robotic future, you won’t need detailers anymore!

Some people are probably trying to convince you to embrace the human aspect of robotic warfare; develop a coherent strategic narrative to the American people, and the military; and communicate effectively with the White House.  Nonsense!  More warbots and less humans are all you need!

Oh, BTW, I am copyrighting “Dynamic Force Management.”

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