They Shoot Admirals, Don’t They?

USNI Blog
They Shoot Admirals, Don’t They?

Actually, the last admiral shot (in a democratic nation) was the unfortunate Admiral John Byng of the British Royal Navy, executed by a firing squad on 14 March 1757. Admiral Byng’s crime was “failure to do his utmost” in the battle between the British and French for the Mediterranean island of Minorca (now Spanish).

The British garrison on the island was besieged and Byng was ordered to take a hastily assembled fleet to relieve them. After an inconclusive sea battle, Byng determined his fleet was largely unseaworthy and brought the ships to Gibraltar for repair. Meanwhile the Minorca garrison was forced to surrender. The event caused widespread public outrage and Byng was called to London for court-martial. He was found guilty under the standing Articles of War, which prescribed capital punishment for officers who did not do their utmost in battle or in pursuit of the enemy. Byng seemed a scapegoat for a decisions by more senior officials (such as allowing the French the strategic opportunity to attack the island), but was nevertheless shot to quell popular anger at the current political coalition in Parliament.

However, there is an important back-story that partly explains the virulent degree of public outrage. About 20 years before, a young Royal Navy lieutenant, Baker Phillips, had been court-martialed for surrendering his ship to the French. Phillips was not actually the commanding officer; the captain had been killed in an early broadside. There was great evidence that the captain had not prepared his ship for battle; it was subsequently decimated and, as the surviving senior-most officer, Phillips determined that it could not continue to be defended without the slaughter of the remaining crew. Found guilty of failure to do his utmost by a court-martial of senior naval officers, Phillips was shot despite widespread pleas for clemency. Many “back benchers” in Parliament and the public felt that he would have been spared if he had been a more senior officer, and that he had literally “taken the fall” for his superiors. The law subsequently was tightened to include officers of all ranks, which is why Byng became the symbol of the accountability of the senior commanders—not just those lower in rank without political patrons and powerful contacts.

If not for the fact that the political and naval leadership was willing to have a Lieutenant shot for a lamentable and embarrassing, but reasonable action that more senior officers had taken in the past, it is doubtful there would have been a public outcry in favor of shooting Admiral Byng.

Wrecks of Seventh Fleet

Fast forward to today. The tragic collisions of the past years of Japan-based ships of the U.S. Seventh Fleet prompted the four-star commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet to relieve the Commander of Seventh Fleet, a vice admiral, from numbered fleet command. Additionally, the commander of Task Force 70, a rear admiral, was relieved, as well as the captain-rank destroyer squadron commander, and the commanding officers and executive officers—along with some more junior watchstanders—of the warships involved. Subsequently both Commander, Pacific Fleet, and Commander, Naval Surface Forces, announced their requests for retirement.

Some may consider these otherwise fine officers to be scapegoats for the poor decisions of past Navy leadership concerning surface warfare training and maintenance, such as identified in the Secretary of the Navy’s Strategic Readiness Review. Cynics point to the fact that such senior firings rarely occur until there is significant media attention on egregious occurrences. Others may view the firings as in keeping with responsibilities of command—with authority comes accountability, no matter the actions of predecessors. Yet, all must admit that the firings and retirings of the admirals indicate a desire on the part of Navy leadership to demonstrate accountability for decisions made at all levels of the chain of command, not just the commanding officers of the warships involved.

For the good of the public and the nation, this admirable desire now should be reinforced and followed both by simple and complex actions that enhance the perception of accountability, particularly during a period in which leaders in all professions of society appear to be unaccountable for results as well as personal actions. As servants of the nation, the Navy and the other U.S. armed services need to retain the reputation and reality of requiring and rewarding “servant leadership”—the willingness of leaders to demonstrate humility and ensure all members of their team or command recognize the importance and dignity of their own tasks and how they contribution to unit success.

There are some simple administrative steps that the U.S. Navy can take to ensure that sailors, officers, and civilians are assured that it is performance, not position, that is rewarded. There also are some complex changes that should be considered. But first we need to examine why both symbolic and difficult steps are needed.

Lesson of the Last Election

No matter one’s political preference or desired candidate, the presidential election of November 2016 revealed a significant fact: at least one-half of the United States has lost faith in the professional political leadership that has been governing the country for a very long time. Outside candidates have won the presidency before, sometimes individuals with very limited political experience. But it is rare that a candidate initially opposed so vehemently by his party’s leadership and never having served in an elected position (or was a military hero) is elected to the highest office. Political strategists and academics may argue as to the reasons, but the overwhelming impression is that it was not an election about policies, racial relations, or trust for one particular party. It was a rejection of the established political order of Washington, D.C., no matter what side of the aisle they sit on. The perception of many was that the leadership had become unaccountable to the majority of people: promising solutions that they themselves believed unachievable; focusing on advancing their careers or parties; accepting donations from financial interests; being more interested in beating the competition than cooperating to govern the nation.

That’s politics. One is not supposed to talk politics or religion in wardrooms, chief petty officer lounges, or on the mess decks. What does that have to do with the Navy or the other armed forces?

The fact is that there is a potential public trend—very small right now, but disturbing to contemplate—toward questioning the fairness of treatment between senior leaders in the Department of Defense and more junior military leaders, including the commanding officers of naval warships—whose unfortunate firings are publicly announced. There is growing commentary in the media—which now includes influential internet reports and the “blogosphere”—concerning the perception that juniors are held more accountable for professional, as well as personal mistakes. In this view—to use a blunt and controversial, but illustrative example—commanding officers get fired when their ships hit a buoy, junior enlisted get fired when they administratively mishandle classified material, but no one gets fired when an acquisition program has a $400 million overrun or new ship class proves deficient in the missions for which it was designed.

This is augmented by a sense that the senior leadership of the department has been under increasing pressure to make decisions primarily based on non-military political concerns. Such has been suggested in commentary on the on-and-off change in the titles of naval professional rates and the naming of ships. Whether or not the latter perception is correct, it would seem prudent for the Navy and DoD leadership to consider methods to maintain the public trust that the military has earned for the past three decades following an era of almost continuous overseas operations against terrorism. The issue admittedly is one of perception. But wars have been won and lost based on perception. And public trust is something that needs to be actively maintained.

Fortunately, an attitude of distrust does not appear to have crept deeply into the Navy itself. Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Richardson and his predecessor, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, have emphasized ethics in leadership and have operated with considerable personal modesty. But it is still incumbent for all who serve, have served, or directly support military operations to take an honest look at the organizations and identify and discuss practices that seem to smack of senior unaccountability for mistakes that would cause a junior to be metaphorically shot.

Two Small Steps of Faith

Supposing, just supposing, I am correct and there is a need to ensure that the U.S. public (and their service members) need to be assured that the position of flag officer does not automatically lead to personal corruption, what steps should we take immediately?

The first one is small, but symbolic:

No flag or general officer should receive a personal award (medal) except for (successful) command in battle. None; except for campaign medals that an armed-service member of any other rank would receive. The rule of thumb should be war heroes: yes; desk (or peace) jockeys: no. Why? Because, there is a class of medals that effectively go only to flag officers, presumably for facing the burden of exercising higher command. They are medals that almost no one of lower rank can earn, but that practically every flag officer earns: has any enlisted sailor ever be awarded the Distinguished Service Medal? Any lieutenant? A quick, albeit not thorough survey turned up no such awards.

High command is itself a privilege. Do flag officers really need these medals to inspire them to do well? Moreover, does it mean that by simply holding the position, the flag officer automatically does well?

Of particular note is that CNO Richardson lists no personal awards in his official biography, only awards earned by the teams he led. That is a statement and example.

No one below full (four-star) admiral who is on shore duty and does not hold an operational command should have a flag lieutenant or personal aide. Chief of staff or executive assistant: yes. Yeoman or personal secretary: yes. Lieutenant carrying the bag: not needed. The original term “flag lieutenant” was for the officer responsible to the admiral for signaling and communications—literally the lieutenant in charge of the flags. Correct signals were critical for battle. Today, flag lieutenants can be critical support for an admiral at sea, particularly in a battle—ensuring the communications that are necessarily direct or face-to-face. But in the current day of cell phones and Google Maps there is no need for a lieutenant to ride in the car alongside an admiral and hold the bag while he or she gives a speech in Washington,. That lieutenant’s time and effort would be better used as a department head at sea where she or he could exercise leadership of sailors, or, if necessary, as an action officer in the Pentagon trenches.

The use of a flag lieutenant ashore should be reserved for the CNO or the few other four-stars. Three-stars and two-stars at sea or in operational commands need them too. Others on shore duty can take an appropriate subject-matter-expert action officer with them when traveling overseas or attending meetings that require another set of ears.

Two Complex Changes to Be Considered

In recent years, Congress has included requirements for reducing the number of Flag and General officers within the DoD in the defense authorization bills. These changes have been only grudgingly implemented. Critics have pointed out that there are still more admirals than ships in the Navy. Dependent on how one counts ships, that may or may not be true. But there are 270 admirals—most who do not command a sea-going or operational unit. Many are assigned to technical management billets.

The problem is that the rank of flag officer was established for operational leadership. Presumably, officers are chosen for flag because they are exceptional leaders. Flag rank was not established for billets requiring technical expertise or management of technical or policy staffs. That used to be the roles of experience captains, commanders, or senior civilians. If the Navy and DoD were to survey of flag and general officer positions and rank inflation over the years, they would find that most flags and generals serve on staffs and lead very small numbers of usually highly motivated people. That is a waste of leadership talent.

A complex change that the Navy and DoD should consider is:

No Flag officer should serve in a billet that directs less than 5,000 military or civilian personnel. Flag officer rank should be reserved for complex leadership positions, not staff, acquisition or technical management positions in which less than 5,000 people (roughly the size of an aircraft carrier’s crew and airwing) are involved. Leading a large, complex organization requires significant skill, experience, and exceptional leadership. Flag rank is not required for technical expertise. There may be a few exception for deputy CNO positions (OpNav staff); but exceptions should be few.

There is an argument against such a change—that to retain exceptional officers, including those with technical management skills, DoD needs to pay them more, and the only way to do that is promote them to flag or general officer. There may be some truth in that argument, but it can be solved by enacting tailored bonuses and other incentives.

There is a fourth change that only Congress can make, is more than a little controversial, and would be greatly resisted, but is needed in an era of popular distrust of politics and government:

No officer who retires at the rank of two-star or above should be permitted to hold follow-on employment in any company that sell goods or services to DoD, except as an individual consultant. Otherwise, there are just too many conflicts of interests with senior flag or general officers leading companies in potential contractual relationships with former subordinates or new flag and general officers that they served with or themselves selected.

This change deserves many articles of its own, and a lot of debate. The arguments for and against are extensive and hopefully inspire others to examine in detail. However, given popular distrust of the political-government complex, the continuing perception that defense industry (“the military-industrial complex”) holds open a revolving door for senior-most officers is likely to be in greater public scrutiny in the future.

Don’t Shoot, But Make Perceptive Changes

We are now living in an era of popular distrust in senior leadership. As the most popularly well-regarded institution, and the one that holds the monopoly on the sanctioned use of force, the military must avoid such distrust. In the near-term the U.S. Navy can do so with small, relatively cost-free steps that would shore up the positive perceptions that performance, not position is what counts; that senior leadership is attached, not detached from the responsibilities of their subordinates; and that leadership is the skill that is most critical for command and decision-making at all levels. Since Flag officers are expected to be the Navy’s most exceptional leaders, their positions should be all about it.

As in the case of Byng, there is pressure from a growing perception that—except in legal violations such as the “Fat Leonard” case and in the recent tragedies in Seventh Fleet—flag officers have been largely immune from the (justifiable) firing and dismissals of commanding officers of commander (O5) or captain rank (O6) for professional mistakes or poor leadership behavior in warships (and other commands). That is the current reality.

We don’t want to shoot admirals who fail. But we also don’t want the Navy’s senior leadership perceived as so privileged as to be immune from accountability except when persistent media attention requires a scapegoat. (Shades of Byng.) There are at least two small, symbolic changes that can mitigate this perceptions. And there are at least two major changes that need to be considered as we sail toward a dangerous future that requires the epitome of leadership.

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They Shoot Admirals, Don’t They?