The Command Debate: A Viewer’s Guide

in Life Hacks

This post originally appeared on the U.S. Naval Institute Blog here.

“Trust in commanding officers is eroding!”

No it isn’t!”

“Well, maybe?”


Ladies and gentlemen, PLEASE . . . wait for me to get my popcorn. OK, continue!

Wait, wait, alright maybe we should set some guidelines for this debate, lest anyone get offended, and you all know how I would hate that! The above linked articles depict a fascinating conversation on the state and nature of naval command. Here’s a recap to get everyone caught up:

“Charting a Course: Stop the Erosion of Command” – Captain Kevin Eyer (retired) argues accountability in commanding officers is increasing, while the Navy’s trust in them is in “near freefall.” He paints a dire picture, likening today’s commanding officers (COs) to sacrificial lambs. He particularly laments the decision by VADM Richard Brown, Commander, Naval Surface Forces, to standardize COs’ Standing Orders across the fleet.

Trust in Commanding Officers Is Not in Freefall” – Captain James Storm counters from the perspective of a currently serving Cruiser CO. His perspective is powerful, given his position, and his experience indicates that today’s CO’s in fact are being given as much as trust and power as in the days of Admirals Nimitz and Spruance. He notes his Standing Orders already were sufficient to meet Vice Admiral Richard Brown’s guidance, so it was just an issue of formatting.

“Mission Command and Zero Error Tolerance Cannot Coexist” – Dr. Milan Vego’s article predates the others, but it is a relevant piece arguing that mission command, an effective wartime command and control system, is incompatible with the Navy’s zero-defect cultural mindset. I won’t offer any commentary here. Dr. Vego has written books on operational art that could be used as blunt force weapons. His opinion stands on its own.

Command Has Not Been Eroded” – Lieutenant Commander Catherine Reppert, currently serving as a minesweeper CO, offers another rebuttal to Captain Eyer (retired). Contrary to a lack of trust, her superiors have given her wide latitude to execute her mission without interference. I will only note here that both currently serving COs offer a positive view of trust and accountability in command. That could be a good sign, but can you really imagine a public expression of the contrary point of view? “I actually agree that the Navy treats COs like sacrificial lambs!” CO, USS Neversail (UPDATE: Former CO, USS Neversail).

Tips to Enhance Your Viewing Experience

Now that everyone is caught up, on to my sage advice. I tried to limit the sarcasm (which is really hard for me, you guys) so you can take these at face value.

  1. Embrace It. This seems like an important moment for the surface force. Whether or not we truly have a systemic problem with command, we are airing out our concerns with this vital function and getting to the root of the issue. That is the kind of gut-wrenching, frustrating, exhausting, blood-boiling, soul-searching, heartbreaking, tear-jerking, full “open kimono” accounting that is the hallmark of learning, high-performing organizations. We could be getting somewhere!
  2. Don’t Be Just a Viewer. If you have ANY stake in the future of naval command, get off the sidelines! Currently in command with an unpopular opinion? Lets see some of that risk-taking behavior we all love to romanticize. Never had command? So what!? Step up and say what you’ve got to say!
  3. Good Ideas Have No Rank. The fact that you are a junior officer, or you’ve never had command, doesn’t invalidate your perspective. State your criticisms and assessments, offer supporting evidence, and give recommendations if you’ve got them. Stop bi***ing behind closed doors and on Sailor Bob message boards, and take a professional stand!
  4. Bad Ideas Have No Rank, Either. You have to give due credit to those who have experience, and are currently experiencing, the burden of command. Be willing to accept that they probably have insight that you do not. That being said, just because you’ve had command doesn’t mean you’ve got this vitally important issue all figured out. The whole merit of this debate is to achieve greater “wartime efficacy” (as Captain Eyer [retired] puts it). That will come from collective wisdom, not a single point of view.
  5. Don’t Take it Personally. Admiral Phil Davidson, Vice Admiral Richard Brown, Dr. Milan Vego, Captain James Storm, Captain Kevin Eyer (retired), Lieutenant Commander Catherine Reppert. These names don’t matter. These names do: Electronics Technician 3rd Class Kenneth Aaron Smith, Interior Communications Electrician 3rd Class Logan Stephen Palmer, Electronics Technician 3rd Class John Henry Hoagland III, Electronics Technician 3rd Class Dustin Louis Doyon, Electronics Technician 2nd Class Jacob Daniel Drake, Information Systems Technician 2nd Class Corey George Ingram, Electronics Technician 1st Class Charles Nathan Findley, Interior Communications Electrician 1st Class Abraham Lopez, Electronics Technician 2nd Class Kevin Sayer Bushell, Information Systems Technician 2nd Class Timothy Thomas Eckels Jr., Gunner’s Mate Seaman Dakota Kyle Rigsby, Yeoman 3rd Class Shingo Alexander Douglass, Sonar Technician 3rd Class Ngoc T Truong Huynh, Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Noe Hernandez, Fire Controlman 2nd Class Carlos Victor Ganzon Sibayan, Personnel Specialist 1st Class Xavier Alec Martin, Fire Controlman 1st Class Gary Leo Rehm Jr. Don’t forget why this debate matters.
  6. Question Everything. I was taught on my first ship that a questioning attitude is a principle of operational excellence. There are others of course, but this one always stuck with me because I did not expect that message in a military environment. Now, I have been known to take it a shade too far (just ask my XO when I was OPS…we had fun), but in general my questioning attitude has served me well, like most of my generation. Millennials . . . ugh, amiright? The key is knowing when it’s time to just shut up and follow orders, especially in tactical situations when time is of the essence and your superior may not be able to explain his or her line of thinking. In an open forum for professional discourse, however, there’s absolutely no reason not to question everything you read, write, and think. If a perspective can’t be defended against questioning, maybe it’s best to consider a new perspective.

My $0.02

I would be awfully hypocritical if I didn’t offer my own opinion, after all. I believe command, particularly command at sea, is transforming; however, I do not view this change as entirely negative. The autonomy that used to be so inherent in command at sea has gradually diminished over the last few decades, due partly to a greater portion of the kill chain being shifted outside the ship. One could look to the first time a CO launched a TLAM on a target for which he had no knowledge or responsibility, as a key milestone. Today, ship’s weapons can be employed in a variety of ways in which the CO does not have total control. In a networked force, that can be extremely powerful, but, yes, it does reduce the autonomy of the CO. We need to be capable of adapting to communications-denied environments, but operational concepts need to adapt to the evolution of technology, not disregard it. Ultimately, instead of having an emotional debate how much we trust our CO’s, I believe we will need to have an analytical debate about how best to employ technology in new operational concepts to maximize “wartime efficacy.”

As a parting thought, I’m reminded of a quote from the film Ronin, “Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt.” If you have even the slightest inkling that something needs improving in our system of command, consider trusting your instincts and pursue it. Then, consider the consequences if you don’t.

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