July 13, 2021

FROM SENATOR TOM COTTON, ET AL.: A Report on the Fighting Culture of the United States Navy Surface Fleet. “The results of this project are unambiguous. There was a broad consensus across interviewees on numerous cultural and structural issues that impact the morale and readiness of the Navy’s surface force. These include: an insufficient focus on warfighting skills, the perception of a zero- defect mentality accompanied by a culture of micromanagement, and over-sensitivity and responsiveness to modern media culture. Structural issues identified include lack of resources and consistency in surface warfare training programs, and the Navy’s underwhelming commitment to surface ship maintenance—a problem that spans decades. Concern within the Navy runs so high that, when asked whether incidents such as the two destroyer collisions in the Pacific, the surrender of a small craft to the IRGC in the Arabian Gulf, the burning of the Bonhomme Richard and other incidents were part of a broader cultural or leadership problem in the Navy, 94% of interviewees responded ‘yes,’ 3% said ‘no,’ and 3% said ‘unsure.’ And when asked if the incidents were directly connected, 55% said ‘yes,’ 16% said ‘no,’ and 29% said ‘unsure.’ This sentiment, that the Navy is dangerously off course, was overwhelming.”


Sailors increasingly see administrative and non-combat related training as the mission, rather than the mission itself. “Sometimes I think we care more about whether we have enough diversity officers than if we’ll survive a fight with the Chinese navy,” lamented one lieutenant currently on active duty. “It’s criminal. They think my only value is as a black woman. But you cut our ship open with a missile and we’ll all bleed the same color.”

Just as concerning is the assertion by interviewees that, when combat lethality and ship fighting are emphasized, they are treated in a box-checking manner that can seem indistinguishable from non-combat related exercises. “The Navy treats warfighting readiness as a compliance issue,” said one career commander. “You might even use the term compliance-centered warfare as opposed to adversary-centered warfare or warfighter-centered warfare.”

One junior surface warfare officer, still on active duty, confessed “I don’t think that the [surface community] see themselves as people who are engaged in a fight.”

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The impetus for the report was a series of recent catastrophes—a ship burning in San Diego last year; two destroyer collisions in the Pacific in 2017. Were these isolated events? Or did they indicate “larger institutional issues that are degrading the performance of the entire naval surface force”? The report surveyed active and recently retired service members of various ranks, conducting 77 candid hourlong interviews. A key finding: “Many sailors found their leadership distracted, captive to bureaucratic excess, and rewarded for the successful execution of administrative functions” rather than core competencies of war.

“I guarantee you every unit in the Navy is up to speed on their diversity training,” said one recently retired senior enlisted leader. “I’m sorry that I can’t say the same of their ship-handling training.”

Plus: “After negative news stories, the report found, ‘the senior ranks are perceived as quick to sacrifice junior personnel’ to save their own tails. Discipline is ‘bent to the unsteady whims of public perception, not the Navy’s own standards and regulations.'”

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