In recent weeks, the press has been full of stories and analyses of the various accidents involving Navy ships over the past year. What’s becoming apparent is a complete lack of leadership from the Navy’s top ranks.
The two most recent incidents were the most jarring. On June 17, the USS Fitzgerald collided with a merchant ship leaving seven sailors dead. On August 20, the USS John S. McCain collided with a Liberian-flagged oil tanker, leaving ten sailors dead. These two most recent accidents caused the top brass at the Navy to make the following predictable statement; “we will immediately launch a 60-day investigation into fundamental practices.” This sounds trite and political in the face of 17 deaths.
The fact is, for the past few years, congressional investigators and military officials have been warning the Navy repeatedly about over-worked sailors, shortened training schedules, and budget cuts. Probably the most damning were the three studies over the past two years by the Government Accounting Office, an independent watchdog agency, and they clearly spelled out the Navy’s endemic problems. They uncovered the fact that U.S. sailors often arrive to their assigned ships without adequate skills and experience. The report found that they end up on duty for an average of 108 hours a week, instead of the Navy standard of 80 hours. That is more than 15 hours a day, which is an obscene work schedule.
The core problem here is that as Congress has regularly cut the Navy’s staffing and budgets, and the Navy top management was stupid enough to agree to constantly maintain the same operational demands. This has led to maintenance being either deferred or eliminated, severe cuts in training, atrophy of the equipment, and massively overworked sailors.
For the Navy leaders to accept those ridiculous demands of the congressional and executive branches of the government shows a total lack of leadership. There is no way they didn’t know the tragic state of their organization.
A leader’s job is not to simply take orders from the boss, click their heels and attempt to do what is being asked. When the demand is simply not realistic, strong pushback is required and if the issue can’t be resolved after a couple of aggressive efforts, the leader should demand to either be moved into a more reasonable assignment or he/she will resign (and mean it). Let’s face it, the macho, “can-do” attitude, which is often prevalent in the armed forces, is absurd in the face of totally unrealistic demands.
It’s time for the Navy management to start acting like leaders.