The Fundamentals of Surface Warfare: Sailors and Ships

September 14, 2012 10:08 AM - Updated: February 5, 2013 8:39 PM

Adm. John C. Harvey Jr., the outgoing commander of U.S. Fleet Forces, sent the following message to U.S. Navy surface forces commanders Sept. 1, 2012. The email was presented as a parting message before his retirement on Sept. 14, 2012. The message and subsequent attachments were addressed to flag officers in leadership roles in the U.S. Navy’s surface community.


Fellow Surface Warfare Flag Officers,

I’m communicating with you today in my capacity as the senior Surface Warfare Officer on active duty, otherwise known as “the Old Salt,” who is soon to retire and who, upon retirement, will relinquish that status and the honorific that accompanies it to VADM Terry Blake. This e-mail is my first “Old Salt-gram” to you, the leaders of our community, and it will be my only one.

Having had the great privilege of serving as a SWO for many years in a wide array of duties, the last 12 years as a Flag officer, I’ve watched our community grow and develop in both capability and professionalism across the wide array of mission sets for which we are responsible. And while there is certainly a great deal that is very positive for us to focus on, from the quality and performance of our ships to the quality and performance of our Sailors, there is a significant issue I want to discuss with you because of the painful lessons-learned we’ve accumulated over the years and the potential implications for the surface force if we don’t take those lessons-learned to heart.

The past few years have been a serious wake-up call for our surface force. We discovered that the cumulative impact of individual decisions made over long periods of time, driven by unique and widely varying circumstances, had put the future readiness of our surface force at risk. And, most unfortunately, it took “outsiders” (INSURV followed by the Fleet Review Panel) to fully piece together what happened and document the full scope of the problems, which spanned our entire man, train, equip and maintain domain.

So how did we get into such a situation? As I look back over the experiences in my career, which started in 1973 with naval nuclear propulsion training followed by my first tour at sea in the Big E’s [USS Enterprise] Reactor department, I see three significant changes in how we did business as a community that got us off track:

1) We shifted our primary focus away from Sailors and Ships – the fundamentals of surface warfare – to finding efficiencies/reducing costs in order to fund other important efforts such as recapitalization. We took our eyes off the ball of the main thing for which we were responsible – maintaining the wholeness and operational effectiveness of the surface force. Because readiness trends develop and evidence themselves over years and not months, shifting our primary focus to individual cost-cutting measures gave us a very myopic view of our surface force and the way ahead; institutionally, we essentially walked into the future looking at our feet.

So why didn’t we hear from the deckplates that we were going to walk into a wall? Our conceptual shift to investing the Surface Warfare Enterprise (SWE) with command and control functions rather than properly limiting the SWE to informing accountable commanders to enable sound decisions removed our most reliable feedback loop by focusing everyone (our leadership, our organizations, and our commands) on efficiency measures, not OPERATIONAL EFFECTIVENESS. We certainly developed a large number of plans to achieve greater efficiencies, but we did not pay sufficient attention to rigorously evaluating the products of those plans, particularly as their effects on our surface force grew over time. And, in the process, we “trained” our people on the deckplates that improving efficiency trumped all other considerations – certainly an approach and a philosophy that was completely contrary to the institutional culture of ownership – “this is MY ship; this is MY gear” – and the institutional focus on operational readiness – “we are ready NOW” – that have been at the very foundation of our surface force since its beginnings.

At US Fleet Forces, my #1 priority has been to provide our aviation squadrons, submarines, ships, expeditionary units and cyber units with the means to accomplish their assigned missions and to ensure they are ready for tasking – in short, to ensure the WHOLENESS of our Fleet.
Specifically, for our surface force, I define delivering wholeness as providing the appropriate resources (for manning, training, equipping and maintaining) and time required to prepare a crew not just to deploy, but to sail forward with confidence in their ability to accomplish their assigned missions, sustain their ship’s operational readiness, and do their part to help their ship achieve its expected service life.

Stated simply, our job is to grow Sailors like FN Thornes and give them ships that can confidently accomplish the Navy’s mission: conduct prompt and sustained combat incident to operations at sea. All the actions we have pursued over the last three years have been singularly focused to achieve that outcome.

2) When the assumptions behind the man, train, equip and maintain decisions did not prove valid, we didn’t revisit our decisions and adjust course as required. In short, we didn’t routinely, rigorously and thoroughly evaluate the products of the plans we were executing.

For example, we reduced manpower requirements on our ships based on technology initiatives that did not deliver as expected and then manned our ships to 90% of that lower requirement; the initial struggles of LPD-17’s commissioning crew are an example of what occurred as a result of this practice. We shifted maintenance ashore, scaled back our shipboard 3M [Maintenance and Material Management] program and reduced our preventive maintenance requirements to fit a smaller workforce, and then failed to fully fund the shore maintenance capacity we required.

The result was optimally-manned ships that we could not maintain to the performance and reliability standards we previously mandated in order to achieve mission success over service life. This result became apparent with the increase in the failure rate of the INSURV Material Inspection, the “gold standard” inspection which measures the performance of our Sailors and their ships against the established standards required to sustain wholeness and mission effectiveness over the life of the ship.

Sustaining the force requires constant investment – both in money and time – AND an effective feedback loop. There is no easy way out and there are no shortcuts, as we are finding out today.

3) The combination of our shift in focus and failure to routinely evaluate the product of the plans resulted in too many Sailors who no longer understood “what right looks like.” Our day-to-day standards and expectations had become dependent variables based upon available resources; our standards dropped with every cost-cutting measure we implemented. An example of this phenomenon is when we see a very big delta between a ship’s actual day-to-day standards and what is required to perform satisfactorily on INSURV [Board of Inspection and Survey], which should be a “come as you are” inspection that we routinely pass.

Now in discussing these issues with you, I want to acknowledge up front that I realize how much more I could have done to fully evaluate the impact the actions I’ve described to you had on our surface force’s overall mission effectiveness. Looking back on my time as a Flag officer, I can see that I focused too exclusively on the tasks and responsibilities immediately at hand and did not take sufficient time to “step off the pitcher’s mound” and reflect more broadly on the Navy-wide/community-wide impact of what we were doing. And, when we did gather together as community leaders, we did not get to the heart of the matter: our Sailors and our ships and their collective readiness to carry out our assigned Title 10 missions. I could have done better. We could have done better. You MUST do better, because now we know better.

So, having recognized what happened and what we needed to do to get back on track, we’ve been at it – hard. Over the past several years, in very close partnership with the Surface Navy’s greatest friends – VADM Kevin McCoy and his NAVSEA [Naval Sea Systems Command] team – we’ve cleared out a lot of the underbrush. I strongly believe that we must now keep the press on with our efforts, but with a far sharper focus on assigning the correct responsibilities to the accountable officer(s) in the appropriate organizations and ensuring we are getting the full value of every readiness and maintenance dollar we spend.

Notice I did not simply say “save money.” We must certainly be good stewards of taxpayer dollars, that is an absolute given, but our TYCOMs [Type Commanders], ISICs [Immediate Superior-in-Command] and ships must be focused first and foremost on EFFECTIVENESS – if it’s cheap, efficient, but doesn’t work, it does us no good. If our budgets drop, we may certainly have to do less; but whatever it is we decide to do, we must do it well.

The absolute accountability of our COs for the performance of their ships and Sailors is the sure foundation for the performance of our Navy under the most challenging conditions imaginable. We know that the concept works.

So why did we so readily walk away from an approach that had accountability at its foundation with regards to how we deliver combat capabilities to the Fleet?
There are many answers to that question, but, now that we know where that path leads, we can no longer countenance such a fundamentally flawed approach – the misapplication of the otherwise very beneficial construct of Enterprise behavior – to sustain the wholeness of the
surface force. Re-establishing the fundamentals of how we train, how we equip, and how
we operate and then putting those responsible to deliver on those fundamentals back under accountable officers in the chain-of-command is something I’ve been working on during my entire tour here at USFF. It’s a task that must continue and it’s up to you to keep the effort going.

We may not all agree on what I’ve laid out for you above or even on the actions we’ve taken to reverse the negative surface force readiness trends, but I think we can all agree that our surface force’s readiness was trending negative. Every day we could see the direct impact our surface force was having around the globe; it was (and is) an enormously satisfying sight. But for those of us who were responsible for the long-term health of the surface force, this satisfaction was short-lived when we looked ten years into the future and saw the direction in which we were heading. Fortunately, because of the very hard work of so many of you and our people, we’re now turning the corner; but we have a long way to go.

My experience over my career is that if you place one person in charge, give that person the appropriate authority, and hold that person accountable for the results, then that is exactly what you will get – results.

Individuals and organizations succeed because they make the choices that lead to success. Greatness is not primarily a matter of circumstance or happenstance; greatness is first and foremost a matter of conscious choice and discipline. Officers who are accountable for the outcomes must make those choices and have the courage, energy and discipline to drive their organizations to turn those choices into reality.

I’ve had my say and my turn at the wheel; now it is your turn – your time to break the Battle Ensign and lead our community into the future. No matter what organization you’re in, whatever “box” you’re in within that organization and however the boxes are arranged linking you with the other boxes or organizations – straight lines, dotted lines, dashed lines, imaginary lines – for the sake of our surface force and our Sailors, be ruthless in the maintenance of our standards and keep your focus where it MUST be – on our ships and Sailors.

Wherever you may serve, consider yourself accountable for the wholeness of our surface force; find the wherewithal to routinely step back and get the panoramic view of our surface force, not just the part right in front of you. Then, step forward to act on what you believe we need to do to keep our ships and Sailors ready for the conflicts that will inevitably come our way.

Never, never, never give way on the standards of excellence that have made us the greatest Navy in the world, bar none. And never forget that the fundamentals of surface warfare are our ships and Sailors.

Every day we see that the world remains a volatile place, with new threats to our nation’s security emerging rapidly all over the globe. It is crystal clear that our Navy will be at the forefront of our nation’s response to these threats and it will be our Sailors and our ships carrying the might and mission of the United States forward. You must be singularly focused to ensure those Sailors and those ships are ready for the great challenges that surely await them.

It has been both a great honor and the privilege of a lifetime to serve alongside all of you. I thank you for all you have done, and will do, for our community, our Navy and our nation and I wish you fair winds and following seas.

All the best,

The Old Salt

Get USNI News updates delivered to your inbox