From the most senior officers to the most junior petty officer, the culture reveals itself in personal attitudes ranging from resignation to frustration to toleration. The downward spiral of the culture is seen throughout the ship, in the long standing acceptance of poor housekeeping, preservation, and corrosion control. Over time, the ignored standard becomes the new norm. Sailors watching their Commanding Officer, Department Head, Division Officer, and Chief Petty Officer step over running rust, peeling non-skid or severe structure damage long enough, associate this activity as the standard…While the severity of current culture climate may be debated, its decline cannot. If left unchecked, a declining culture can only generate a worsening level of surface force readiness. That said, it will take a long, hard pull to turn around attitudes that have developed over an extended period of time. It is the considered opinion of this Panel that we must vigorously reinforce recent efforts to clarify and instill standards aboard our ships.
The Balisle Report: Fleet Review Panel of Surface Force Readiness, Section 3.8: Culture
It is very interesting to me that Admiral John Harvey pushed for an independent Fleet Review Panel to evaluate Surface Force Readiness – after all, he must have known there would be harsh criticism in the report, and he also must have known that all of that criticism would be directed squarely in his direction to be fixed – as he is the Commander of Fleet Forces Command. What does it say about the Leadership culture of the Navy when a 4 star Admiral pushes for an independent review in order to insure change within the Navy? What does it tell us about the character of the Admiral himself?
The culture problem of relaxed standards does not appear to be limited to only the surface fleet. Christopher Brownfield has an article up on The Daily Beast that describes a similar culture of accepted lower standards within the submarine community.
During my on-board training, while I studied more than 70 hours per week, my fellow officers regularly warned me, “Don’t let knowledge stand in the way of your qualifications.” They urged me not to, “learn too much… just check the box and get qualified.” But when my exam arrived, it seemed impossibly difficult. I failed miserably, despite having made a very serious five-month long effort to pass.
My fellow officers were surprised by my failure, and wondered aloud why I hadn’t used the “study guide.” When my second exam arrived, so did the so-called study guide, which happened to be the answer key for the nuclear qualification exam I was taking. I was furious. Defiantly, I handed back the answer key to the proctor and proceeded to take the exam on my own. I failed again. My boss, the ship’s engineer officer, started to document my failures with formal counseling so that he could fire me.
The most competent junior officer on our ship ran to my rescue, confiding that none of the other officers had passed the exam legitimately; the exam was just an administrative check-off. “Swallow your pride,” he told me, and just get it done.
The ship’s engineer and executive officer didn’t believe me when I complained of the cheating, and swept my allegations under the rug. It took me five attempts before I finally passed the “basic” qualification exam. Unbeknownst to me, senior members of my crew even went so far as to falsify my exam scores in order to avoid unwanted attention from the headquarters. But strangely, the exam was anything but basic. The expectations on paper were astronomically high compared to the banal reality of how our ship actually worked.
The USS Hartford had many serious problems. Later that year, the ship ran itself aground off the coast of Italy, resulting in the firing of our captain and several senior officers. But sadly, the nuclear cheating scandal was not isolated to the Hartford. Two years later, when I began to teach at the Naval Submarine School in Connecticut, my colleagues whispered of cheating scandals aboard their own boats. Did it happen on the Scranton? What about the Seawolf? The results were not pretty. From our extensive whispered surveys, several other officers and I concluded that the vast majority of the fleet had some odious practice that resembled the cheating scandal I witnessed firsthand aboard the Hartford.
Thus far, the U.S. Navy has maintained a perfect nuclear safety record. But, having attained the senior supervisory certification of a ship’s nuclear engineer officer, I am deeply disturbed by what I consider to be a threat to the nuclear Navy’s integrity.
There will be several reactions to this story, but I want to highlight two. The first reaction will be from someone with a good understanding of naval power who reads the article in full to discover the author is a strategically ignorant fool. The entire world is having an awakening on the value of submarines to national security in the 21st century, and this guy is having trouble understanding the value of submarines to the worlds only superpower in 2010. When someone who wishes to be taken seriously as a national security analyst says “Unless Osama bin Laden commandeered a rubber raft with WMD, there was nothing of unique value that a submarine could provide.” you just ripped up your credibility card.
But here is the problem. Just because the author appears to be strategically and tactically challenged on the merits of submarines, that strategic ignorance doesn’t disqualify the seriousness of the claims against the Navy made in the rest of the article – particularly when these claims are very similar to cultural problems that have been identified in other areas of the Navy. This article is written in a way that could easily lead to an Admiral dismissing the claims as ludicrous or impossible, but I would be very wary of any Admiral who did that.
It is a noteworthy and interesting irony that Christopher Brownfield is doing in this article what dmiral Harvey wants sailors doing as per his speech last week – demanding higher standards within their profession, and speaking out when those standards fail to meet the expectations of duty requirements. The submarine community doesn’t want to hear what this guy is saying, but if what he is saying is true – then whether you want to hear it or not is irrelevant.
This is my point. I encourage Secretary Gates, Secretary Mabus, and Undersecretary Work to pay attention to this. The reaction of Naval leadership to a story like this will reveal quite a bit about the character of the leaders in the US Navy today. Who is shooting off emails in anger, and who is rolling up their sleeves to get to the bottom of the claims being made? There is already plenty of evidence that a culture problem exists in the US Navy, and because the culture problems are widespread – the culture problems exists in the flag ranks too.
You don’t have to convince me that Christopher Brownfield is strategically shallow on the merits and value of submarines in the 21st century – but his remarkable ignorance in that regard does not disqualify the seriousness of the claims made in his article.