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In the news last week was the removal of a submarine CO whose surfaced boat struck a channel buoy and then run aground. While I don’t want to talk about this specific event, I want to ask what many who have served as an officer-of-the-deck wonder: are our ships hitting things (ships, buoys, seafloor, etc.) more or less frequently? What direction are we trending and why? With the wide array of sensors, computers, and operator aids available to OODs these days, are we any better at not hitting things? The answer may surprise you (or may not!).

I have been struggling to answer it, but how would you try to figure this out?

We could go back and search backissues of the NavyTimes for keywords such as “collision” or “grounding” and see how many such events have occurred per year. I don’t find this very satisfying though because it doesn’t account for the size of the Fleet or the robustness of its activities. For instance, maybe there were more collisions during the 80’s, but our Fleet was much larger then. Having more ships probably leads to a greater number of overall collisions. Maybe there were less collisions during the early 90’s, but maybe our ships were out to sea less. Less time at sea gives a ship less opportunity to hit something.

I think the metric I would most want to get my hands on would be “number of collisions per day at sea.” Take a given year, count all the collisions and groundings, and then divided by the sum of the days at sea of all our ships. What do you think we would see over the past 30 years?

Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten my hands on this data, but I have found 3 things which are of interest :

1) Loss rates in the commercial maritime community continue to fallIHS Fairplay’s World Casualty Statistics showed that from 1997-2011 vessel loss rates have gone down. This doesn’t really say they’re hitting things less frequently–it just means they’re being lost at sea less often. I think it’s as good a proxy as we can get to say the world is probably sailing the seas more safely [1].

Yearly Number of Vessel Losses from 1997-2011GrowthinWorldFleet














2) Loss rates have not always been falling. Lloyd’s List and the International Union of Marine Insurers have been tracking an improvement in the rate of accidents and casualties since the 1980s. Before then there was no real movement in these numbers.

3) Technology is probably of limited (or no?) impact. You might think that radar, GPS, and AIS have driven down accident rates. After all, if you know where your ship is and another vessel’s bearing, course, and speed, there’s no way the two of you should hit, right? Researcher Charles Perrow in his book Normal Accidents studied maritime casualties from post-WWII to the 1980s and found that having radar and other collision avoidance tools had no impact on the probability of collisions or groundings. For a time, having radar increased a ship’s likelihood of hitting something. Perrow surmised that crews were overconfident in their radar’s ability and were less likely to take strong risk mitigations during periods of reduced visbilities. He and others documented the birth of “radar-assisted collisions” where two ships, both of which had radar and weren’t on collision courses, made erratic course/speed changes at the last moment and hit each other. [2]

Perrow hypothesized that ship captains had tremendous pressure on them to meet schedules and would take extreme risks to stick to the plan. As a result, they were just using these tools to be more aggressive without changing their margin to hazard. I’m not convinced this is the full story since loss rates have come down; I doubt captains are under significantly less pressures today.

For the larger maritime community, why have loss rates fallen? Is it better use of technology? Better governance structures? Better trained mariners? Do you think the US Navy has followed these trends?

If anyone has any data or thoughts on these questions, I’d love to hear it.

[1] Charts from “15 Years of Shipping Accidents: A Review for the WWF,” Nickie Butt, David Johnson, Katie Pike, Nicola Pryce-Roberts, Natalie Vigar, Southampton Solent University

[2] Perrow, Charles. 1999. Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies (updated). Princeton University Press.

Honor training has become a pillar of officer education with all commissioning sources incorporating honor lessons into their curricula. While the Navy focuses its efforts to discourage dishonesty at the individual level, it largely neglects addressing organizational incentives which promote such behaviors. Recent incidents in the Navy show further honor and character education will have limited returns unless leaders fix the structures, promoted by a growth in requirements, which promote dishonesty.

CMC Kingsbury’s candid discussion of the Nuclear Power Prototype Training Command (NNPTC) cheating scandal illuminates the tension between honesty and demands from superiors.[i] He attributes “normalized deviance” as the process by which “lapses” in honesty occur as Sailors cheat in order to overcome “excessive competing events, perceived pressure, and fear of punishment” for failure.[ii] As requirements became detached from purpose in the Charleston command, Sailors were willing to behave dishonestly. They knew what they were doing was cheating and wrong, but still engaged in the behavior. Character education would not have prevented such a choice.

In a recent article, ADM Greenert implores naval officers to develop a moral compass, “It means listening to the small voice in your head, your intuition…It means focusing on our duty…It means being a good team player…It means being truthful about what is going on.”[iii] Yet, from the NNPTC example it becomes apparent that this is inadequate to prevent against dishonesty in an organization. Sailors may weigh the pressures of intuition, duty, the team, and truthfulness and not side with truthfulness. In the “Independent Review of the Nuclear Enterprise,” ADM Harvey validates this finding as the “troops’ resolute determination to get the job done” prevented senior leaders of our nuclear forces from knowing the “true cost of mission accomplishment.”[iv] Naval leaders need to get serious about excising unnecessary requirements whose deleterious effects were illustrated by a study of the US Army.

The Navy is not the only service grappling with dishonesty. A recent study by the Strategic Studies Institute at the Army War College details its pervasiveness in the Army. Overwhelmed by the deluge of requirements, many Army officers have become “ethically numb” as their “signature and word have become tools to maneuver through the Army bureaucracy rather than being symbols of integrity and honesty.”[v] In one instance an officer justifies his actions explaining, “If I’m 70% accurate—that’s good enough to 1) keep my guys out of trouble and 2) keep my boss out of trouble so we can keep doing good things for the country.”[vi] The authors conclude the military sanctions such behavior “as subordinates are forced to prioritize which requirements will actually be done to standard and which will only be reported as done to standard.”[vii] Efforts by the Navy to identify and eliminate unnecessary requirements which can encourage such behavior have not been aggressive enough.

Beginning in 2013, senior naval leaders began soliciting feedback from Sailors and Navy civilians on where to cut administrative requirements. The Reducing Administrative Distractions campaign launched a website for participants to create, discuss, and evaluate ideas to cut requirements. From these proposals, senior leaders would then implement those which passed the muster or return with an update for why the idea was not feasible. However, a review of these ideas show that the three most popular proposals, centralize Navy instructions, merge training documentation in a single database, and create one, all-encompassing personnel website, have stagnated on the site for the past two years. Moreover, it’s failing to reach the group it set out to target: the warfighters. New warfare community-specific ideas have not been posted for five months in most communities. To their credit, the organizers of the site seem to recognize this problem as their most recent solicitation for ideas focuses on growing and improving engagement.[viii]

Senior leaders ought to take a more proactive approach to solving the problem of growth in requirements, rather than waiting on feedback from their subordinates. First, leaders should quantify their expectations for how many man-hours a given requirement should take to accomplish. For instance, the N4 for Surface Fleet, Atlantic would assign man-hours to reviewing a 13-Week PMS report. Then, leaders would provide their subordinates with a list of tasks and ask them, “How long do you plan for each task to take?” Meanwhile, ask a separate group, “How long do you plan for each task to take assuming you will meet every requirement?”

These three sets of data represent very important pieces of information to solving the dishonesty problem. The first set of data taken from parent commands represents what leaders think they are tasking their warfighters with. The second set of data, how long these are taking to accomplish, represent the real world execution of requirements. Finally, the third set of data, where subordinates estimate how long a task takes to accomplish to 100% compliance, represents the ideal world. Differences in these data would be very revealing, with gaps between a task’s current time to accomplishment and its estimated 100% compliance time to accomplishment representing areas of potential concern.

While such an undertaking may seem onerous, it is the most effective way to capture and combat the growth in requirements which is hampering our Navy. A recent survey on retention found that 52.6% of officers do not want their bosses’ jobs and 75% strongly agree or agree that “the Navy has a zero-defect mentality.”[ix] In another recent survey one officer explained why he did not want command writing, “[It did] not look like any of my three COs were having any fun. Angry, plagued by so many regulations and directives… [They felt] the heavy hand of a cautious, risk-averse bureaucracy every day and night.”[x] All of these data express frustrations with the growth in requirements. As a result, cheating and other acts of dishonest are apt to continue as demonstrated by the study of the Army.

Following the 2011 cheating scandal on the USS Memphis, where 10% of her crew cheated on nuclear training exams, Commander, Submarine Force Atlantic dismissed claims of widespread cheating on exams as “unsubstantiated.”[xi] Yet, just less than three years later, 78 senior enlisted staff instructors were found to have cheated on nuclear exams at a Charleston training facility.[xii] The Navy must address the growth in requirements to best prevent future occurrences. While a full audit of its manual and regulations may seem like a tremendous undertaking, such a review is the most effective method to maintain a lean and honest organization. In a service charged with maintaining freedom of the seas, the cost of burdensome requirements, and the dishonesty they beget, is too high to accept.




[i] Paul Kingsbury. “When Cheating Becomes Normal.” Proceedings, September 2015: 58-62.

[ii] Ibid., 58-59.

[iii] Jonathan Greenert. “The Moral Component of Leadership.” Proceedings, September 2015: 19.

[iv] John Harvey, “The Independent Review of the Nuclear Enterprise,” USNI Blog, November 11, 2014,

[v] Leonard Wong and Stephen Gerras, Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Military Profession. (Carlisle Barracks, PA: United States Army War College Press, 2015): ix.

[vi] Ibid., 22.

[vii] Ibid., ix.


[ix] Guy Snodgrass and Ben Kohlmann, 2014 Navy Retention Study, p.18, 22


[xi] Michael Melia, “Navy exam-cheating may fall into ‘grey area,'” The Christian Science Monitor, July 5, 2012,

[xii] Sam LaGrone, “Navy expels 34 Sailors in Nuclear Cheating Scandal,” USNI News, August 20, 2014,

One of the many great joys of a billet at USNA is the ability to reconnect with former professors and professional mentors. As someone who graduated 5 years ago, I am fortunate enough to see many of them still on the Yard.

I want to share with you a conversation I had with someone whom I really didn’t know during my time here. If you attended USNA anytime from 1991 onwards you may have seen him around. He’s likely barked “Strike!” at you during Plebe Summer’s introduction to martial arts or has evaluated your ability to perform a wrist lock during a PE course. He may have even coached some of you in gymnastics.

If you didn’t go to USNA, you’ll still find his story fascinating and revealing about two nations’ abilities to heal following history’s most destructive, fearsome war.

Sho Fukushima was born in Hiroshima, Japan in September 10, 1946, a little over a year after the bomb was dropped on the city. His family ended up in Hiroshima after the war during which his father was an officer in the Imperial Japanese Army in Pusan, Korea. With the war’s end, the Japanese were expelled from Korea, and his parents hopped on a freighter bound for Japan. Sho’s parents had heard “a new type of bomb had wiped out everything” in Hiroshima and it was rumored that nothing could grow there for the next 70 years.

“I asked them why did they really come back to Hiroshima, where there was nothing. It was because our relatives were there.”

He, his four siblings, mother and father lived in a “wooden structure, with a metal roof.” There were no real buildings yet.

His kindergarten teacher passed away from a bomb-related illness. His 1st grade teacher, who had facial scars from glass shards from the blast, died from leukemia. He lost an aunt, uncle and 5-6 cousins to the bomb. On that day his grandmother was 20-30 miles outside the city and saw a “bright, white flash” followed by the mushroom cloud. A search of the city the next day by the surviving family members revealed those in downtown had simply “evaporated.”

Hunger was a central feature of childhood. “We just didn’t have enough food to eat,” Sho explained, “so all four kids had to learn to share.” The staple dish was rice mixed with wheat or sweet potatoes, and was considered an adulteration–“not white rice.”

Growing up in Hiroshima, he remembers playing with one of his “best friends,” the “shadow man” of the city’s bank. “Mom had a couple of bottles,” artifacts crystallized by the blast. “She told me if I could break that thing she would give me a 100 yen. Even with hammers and throwing it against the rocks, I couldn’t break that thing. It became a family joke.”

During our talk I tried to imagine growing up with such stark, ever-present reminders of war and death. I asked Sho if all of this seemed normal. “It was totally normal. I didn’t know any other life,” he responded. There were parts of Sho’s childhood that seemed normal. “The ocean was my playground. I had a little fishing pole and starting fishing. I loved to fish. Besides that, I remember playing with my brothers and sisters. My older sister was an avid reader so at least once a month we would get a new book.” Yet, Sho was quick to point out that fishing also served to supplement their food.

Meanwhile, his father, despaired with losing the war and escaping death. A graduate of a professional military academy, all of his classmates had died in the South Pacific while he served in the national guard in Korea. “How would you feel about cheating death?” Sho asked me. “He was the strongest military guy before the war, but after he lost the war and he lost his classmates…he lost a kind of spirit,” as he struggled with the thought of suicide.

Sho’s gymnastics talents led the University of Washington to recruit him. Hearing about the promises of America from his grandfather, who had lived in Seattle and San Francisco, Sho jumped at the opportunity.

The son of a IJA officer, Sho found himself staying in the home of a Pearl Harbor survivor, Jack, who offered to sponsor him. “My father asked him to take care of me, and my American father promised he would. He did everything like a father was supposed to. The families stayed in touch, hosting one another in Japan and the US.

I was most struck by Sho telling his father of his job offer at the Naval Academy. Sho had maintained a green card, but with the job offer his father suggested something more. “Such an honor,” his father told him, “that you can get a job like this at the Academy. You have to show them your commitment.” His father meant applying for American citizenship. “That’s him–Japanese military guy,” Sho explained.

In October, Sho will retire after nearly 25 years at the Academy. As a child, his mom would take him once a year to see US Army doctors, who would give him a cookie and check him for radiation related illnesses. He plans to search for his medical records at the University of Maryland, which archived many records of Japanese patients affected by the bombs.

“I always dreamed of being a bridge between the US and Japan,” Sho mused towards the end of our talk. I think he has done just that.

Sho Fukushima

Sho Fukushima

Much was made this week of the North Dakota employing a submarine launched drone (here, herehere , etc). Yes, “underwater DRONES[!!!]” as the Daily Mail exclaimed.

OK, great, what does that mean though? What value are we adding to a boat? Well, the North Dakota employed a REMUS 600, which is an autonomous underwater vehicle capable of achieving depths of over 4,900ft, speeds up to 4kts, and a battery life of up to 24 hours. It’s a little over 10ft long with an inertial navigation system and a lithium battery powering it all.

REMUS UUVSo what could you possibly do with this thing? How about finding the resting place for a WWII TBF Avenger and her crew? Here, a team from the Bent Prop Project and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography used a REMUS with an add-on side-scan sonar to localize a crash site and find the plane and her crew. Around 6:00 you can catch the REMUS in action.

I know we’re still rolling out Virginia class boats, but it’s not hard to envision the future SSNs acting as a mothership for drones.

Naval warfare, at the lowest level, revolves around destroying something before it can destroy you (an observation more akin to an utterance of John Madden than Sun Tzu, I know). So as result, we talk about warfare a lot in terms of ranges. How close can I get before something detects me? How far away can I detect it? At what range can I shoot it? When can it shoot me? The race to shoot the furthest led to the development of weapons systems (Phoenix air-to-air missile and Trident missile) before we built the platform to shoot it.

And while we often describe the range of a nuclear-powered submarine as unlimited, that doesn’t mean we can go just anywhere in the ocean. We’re constrained by water depths, and the minimum operating depth of a small, submarine-launched unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV/drones) would likely be shallower than the launching platform.

We’re expanding the area of where a submarine can make life miserable for the enemy. Check out that video again. Do you think we could put a submarine there to accomplish that task? We’ve now demonstrated that a submarine launched drone might able to access that territory. That’s why we should be excited about “DRONES.”

Recent articles such as this one by James Holmes (also covered by Sal) and this Proceedings article by ENS Daniel Stefanus have leveled some very specific criticisms against the industrial architecture which supports our Navy. Holmes writes of the past generations of Sailors:

[They] were expected to make themselves as self-sufficient as possible... Big ships outfitted with machine shops, welding facilities, and the like could help out in a pinch, fashioning spares not stocked on board.

Meanwhile, Stefanus points out other erosion in self-sufficiency in his criticism in the use of contractors to fix things:

If a cruiser’s SPQ-9B radar suddenly goes down in the middle of an engagement, there is no time to fly out a contractor. Only the ship’s crew can salvage the situation… An overreliance on contractors only diminishes this capability.

How did we arrive here? It has its roots in what we do want our Sailors to look like and be capable of–and we have wanted them to act more as operators and less as technicians. This is apparent when we look at trends in submarine enlisted rates. For us, interior communications electricians, radiomen, and quartermasters have all been folded into the same rating: electronics technician. We no longer sub-specialize Sailors in radio division into operating/maintaining either our radio equipment or our electronic warfare stuff–they do both now. We haven’t generalized these ratings because we have less complicated gear onboard or because they had skills we didn’t want anymore. As Stefanus and Holmes pointed out, we’ve simply ceded these skills to shore support. Once we transform a workforce into operators vice technicians, it makes sense to drop the onboard machine and welding shops. Who would use them? When manning decisions no longer focus around staffing a maintenance/repair crew, it becomes about filling out the watchbill. That’s how you get to the 40-person crew Holmes points out.

While Stefanus discussed the business side of the decision to outsource repair and maintenance, I think there’s a deeper logic to it that’s linked to our understanding of naval warfare: we can find technical solutions to human problems. If we can make it more technical, we should make it more technical.

The classic example is the implementation of radar onboard ships post-WWII. As more and more ships got radar, we expected to drive down collision rates. But what actually happened? Overall, collision rates did not fall and collision rates involving ships with at least one radar may have actually grown over time until recently! Largely what happened was that ships didn’t reduce speed as they used to–they had radar and could “see” things they never could “see” before. People found new ways to hit things with “radar-assisted collisions.”

I’m not saying radar is worthless or success in naval warfare doesn’t rely on using new technologies more effectively than your opponent. I am saying that innovations don’t neatly employ themselves and people may interact with a new toolset in ways we could never predict. As we add layers of complexity onto our systems, how much more capable are we really? Do submarines with the latest and greatest tracking systems using widescreen HD computer screens provide a demonstratively greater return than earlier generations which entailed hand plotting? Our assumption is yes, and we have committed ourselves in ways described by Stefanus and Holmes.

I wonder what the data would prove though? Sonar_US_Navy_Technician_Submarines_2nd_Class_Harlie_Williams_III_Los_Angeles_class_attack_submarine_USS

While we’re focused on Russia and Ukraine, recent events in Asia may have slipped under the radar. Taiwan is considering signing a major free trade agreement with China. Nationalized Chinese companies may soon be able to make major investments in sectors such as banking and transit.

That may seem underwhelming, but in naval literature, when we think of Chinese expansionism, the various Taiwan scenarios dominate the conversation. In the eight articles of the most recent China’s Near Seas Combat Capabilities journal published by the Naval War College, “Taiwan,” is used 109 times. Are we spending too much time thinking about and planning for a cross-strait conflict?

Taiwan isn’t the prime mover for PLAN development. Bryan McGrath and Timothy Walton neatly unpack this in “China’s Surface Fleet Trajectory: Implications for the U.S. Navy,” predicting the PLAN will continue towards “regionally dominant and globally capable navy in the next decade.” They’ve moved beyond Taiwan. Moreover, “the versatility (and thus utility) of the People’s Liberation Army’s A2/AD capabilities” is well above what’s required to impede US intervention in a cross-strait conflict. If not Taiwan, what then is China’s objective?

Trying to predict world events is extremely difficult as noted in a recent post by CDR Salamander. However, some thought experiments can be useful to help us consider the range of possibilities and their likelihoods. Let say at some point, the Communist Party and China, destabilized by internal problems, turn to an outward show of force. Is anyone going to stop them from beating on Vietnam over water rights or access to oil reserves? Doubtful. Would someone intervene in a conflict with Taiwan? Maybe. Probably? Either way, I’d bet that US intervention is much more likely in a China/Taiwan conflict than a China/Vietnam conflict. I think that China would make the same bet.

I’m just using Vietnam to illustrate that Taiwan is not the natural starting point when we broadly consider the use of China’s naval power. It’s hard to build a fleet to counter all the possibilities of conflict in Asia; perhaps the key, as noted by McGrath and Walton, is “to maximize cooperation with allied and partner states…’penning in’ the Chinese fleet.”


Two years ago, I had the tremendous pleasure of interviewing Mr. Elliot Billings, a pioneer in Marine Corps Aviation flying early biplane dive bombers. I just learned yesterday he recently passed away, a painful reminder that with the passing of each veteran we lose rich memories and invaluable experience. I have included Mr. Billings’s obituary to illustrate the full, wonderful life he lived (emphasis my own):
Read the rest of this entry »

I’m working some odd hours this week and I guess I haven’t been following the news carefully enough: RADM Rindskopf, the youngest commander (26 years old) of an American fleet submarine during WWII, passed away on July 27.

Admiral Rindskopf would receive the Navy Cross, the Silver Star and the Bronze Star for his wartime service. He later served as commander of two submarine flotillas and of the Navy’s submarine school in New London, Conn. After being promoted to admiral in 1967, he was assistant chief of staff for intelligence to Adm. John S. McCain Jr., commander of the United States Pacific Command during the Vietnam War and father of Senator John McCain of Arizona.

I remember him attending the Submarine Birthday Balls held at the Naval Academy, where he loved engaging the midshipmen with his stories and reflections. I always enjoy hearing from our veterans, and we all are missing out on their experiences and wisdom when one passes away…most especially when it is someone such as RADM Rindskopf.

I came across an article that isn’t about the Navy, but provided for some interesting reflection on the role individual discretion should play in everyday work. A lot of good stuff there. I apologize for a large block of quotations, but I can’t say it any better than they do:

“Using case studies from a wide range of fields, [Schwartz and Sharpe] argue that our institutions, structured as they are around incentive and punishment, prevent us from good practice, from doing our work with purpose, empathy, creativity, flexibility, engagement, and temperance. In a word: wisdom…

Professional life, at its best, combines a sense of mission with wise practice. Professionals who have the “will” and the “skill” to do both good and well—and are given the discretion to deploy effectively their expertise and sense of calling—are those who are most fulfilled in their work, who are happy with what they do and whom they serve. Schwartz and Sharpe write, “We are happiest when our work is meaningful and gives us the discretion to use our judgment. The discretion allows us to develop the wisdom to exercise the judgment we need to do that work well. We’re motivated to develop the judgment to do that work well because it enables us to serve others and it makes us happy to do so.”

What cripples this judgment, and makes us unhappy in our work, is a culture of rules, one based on audits, incentives, and punishments. Schwartz and Sharpe show how this rules culture demands universal principles and scripts no matter the context, and marginalizes imagination, empathy, and courage.”

I then began to wonder what this would look like in the Navy and in particular the nuclear Navy. We’re always told to utilize the watchteam, drawing on their experiences and judgement to decide the best course of action. The reactor operators and electrical operators are experts in their panels, who take pride in being able to shift the electric plant quickly or safely and efficiently startup the reactor. As EOOW (engineering officer of the watch), we’re tasked with leading the watch in maximizing propulsion and maintaining reactor safety.

How can we best lead professionals who have the will and skill to accomplish this mission? Allow them to contribute their hard-earned expertise and discretion (in accordance with written procedure of course). What exactly does this look like in the nuclear Navy, though?

Very curious what this would look like:

“Canny outlaws” offer hope for our institutions. “Canny outlaws” are creative, flexible, improvisational individuals who find ways around the rules that constrain their professional practice. Yet they alone are not enough; we need “system changers,” people who find new ways of doing things and are able to implement them on a broad scale. Practical Wisdom gives us a rather inspiring framework and set of strategies for finding those new ways, and it might persuade more than just canny outlaws that doing so is pretty necessary if we are going to continue to find value in our work.”

Just woke up and am getting ready to head in. I’m currently working the midnight shift and will be standing my first watch in the simulators today. Hopefully the scram switch will go untouched!

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