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Navy too focused on bureaucracy and ‘diversity officers, rather than surviving fight with China’ sailors say in new report

USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS 10), right, exercises with the Japanese ships in South China Sea, June 23, 2020. (U.S. Navy photo by Brenton Poyser)
July 13, 2021

The U.S. Navy is overly focused on an “expanding culture of micromanagement,” a “corrosive over-responsiveness” to the news media and an overemphasis on diversity, while lacking the same emphasis on its overall warfighting capabilities, according to a new congressional report released Monday. One officer who was interviewed by the report’s authors went so far as to say she feels the Navy is more concerned about having enough diversity officers than it is about surviving in a potential fight with China.

The report on the “Fighting Culture of the Navy’s Surface Fleet,” was authored by retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Robert E. Schmidle and retired U.S. Navy Rear Adml. Mark Montgomery and was based on 77 long-form interviews with 67 male and 10 female current and former Navy officers and enlisted personnel. The report was authored at the direction of four current and former military officers-turned lawmakers, including Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN), Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX), and Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI).

“Finding and sinking enemy fleets should be the principal purpose of a Navy,” The report states. “But many sailors found their leadership distracted, captive to bureaucratic excess, and rewarded for the successful execution of administrative functions rather than their skills as a warfighter.”

The report included six core findings, including Insufficient Focus on Warfighting, A Dominant and Paralyzing Zero-Defect Mentality, Corrosive Over-Responsiveness to Media Culture, Under-Investment in Surface Warfare Officer Training, Poorly Resourced and Executed Surface Ship Maintenance Program and a Culture of Micromanagement.

“There was considerable apprehension that the surface warfare
community, in particular, lost its fighting edge in the years following the end of the Cold War,” the reports says. “With China building and operating a competitive fleet, the lack of proper attention on warfighting was of deep concern to many interviewees.”

Describing the culture of bureaucratic “micromanagement” in the force, the authors wrote, “Sailors’ concerns were two-fold. The first is that technology has empowered admirals and commodores to exercise greater, arguably unhealthy, levels of control over ship captains. The second was that this control drives a level of toxicity and lack of accountability and initiative in the Navy’s warfighting command hierarchy.”

The authors noted growing concerns about the Navy’s concerns over maintaining good public relations under the scrutiny of the news media. The authors wrote that Navy leaders “are unable to distinguish between
stories that demand a response and stories that do not. A pervasive sentiment is that Navy leaders have subverted the responsibilities of the chain of command to the pages of or the Military Times, and make punitive decisions based on negative news reports rather than the service’s own standards of discipline.”

The military’s emphasis on diversity was also a concern raised by service members interviewed in the report, including an active-duty black lieutenant.

“Sometimes I think we care more about whether we have enough diversity officers than if we’ll survive a fight with the Chinese navy,” the unnamed lieutenant said. “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.”

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

“We’ll spend hours and hours on drill weekends or other areas talking about like, ‘OK, what’s the checklist you have to have in place? Do you have all your right uniforms?’ But there is no training like, ‘what is the current situation in China?’” a former active-duty surface warfare officer and current reservist said. “. . . To me, if we’re focused on the front-line warfighting, we should know the worst we’re going into and what the greater context is. There’s none of that right now.”

Commander Bryan McGrath, a retired surface warfare officer, was one notable officer who dissented from the majority view shared by the other interviewees that “excess requirements were distracting sailors
from their primary mission” and the notion that the Navy doesn’t focus on warfighting.

McGrath said, “When you’re on the ship, the ‘sexual assault and victim stuff, all that stuff just seems like a burden. It just seems like it’s never-ending…[But] the further I get from it, the more I understand why it’s important and why there does have to be very clear signals sent to deck plate sailors that they’re, you know, that issues that are important to them are important to leadership.”

Responding to the report on Monday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the report reiterates some of the things the U.S. Navy knows “they need to continue to work on and that they are working on it, and they welcome all input to help them as they continue to make sure that the surface community in the Navy continues to be the strongest and most viable surface fleet in the entire world.”

The new report comes as several of its Republican backers have questioned the U.S. military’s priorities, particularly with regards to racially charged diversity training. Under questioning from Rep. Banks during a June congressional hearing, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adml. Mike Gilday defended his decision to include the controversial and racially-charged book “How to Be an Antiracist” on the Navy’s official reading list. Gilday said questions about the book’s inclusion on the reading list were really about “trying to paint the United States military, and the United States Navy as weak, as woke.” Gilday added, “We are not weak, we are strong.”