Silence Is Not the Order of the Day

Silence Is Not the Order of the Day

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So, it is troubling that in the past year the Navy has seemed to pivot from transparency. While a new policy has been advertised to be born of necessity in a period of “great-power competition,” the current hush should be of concern to those in the service and to the citizens who pay for it. 

Unintended Consequences

On 1 March 2017, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral John M. Richardson issued a memorandum in which he enjoined naval personnel to refrain from “giving away our competitive edge by sharing too much information publicly.” The specific kernel of guidance of the memorandum was this: “When it comes to specific operational capabilities however, very often less is more. Now more than ever, it is important that public communications about our forces, their operations, and their abilities is conducted in a thoughtful, coordinated manner. Sharing information about future operations and capabilities, even at the unclassified level, makes it easier for potential adversaries to gain an advantage.” The CNO also suggested, “If you have questions on whether or not you’re steering a safe course, seek out guidance or advice ahead of time and bias on the side of caution.” 

There were questions concerning this directive, which many in the Navy read as direction to cease dialog with the outside world. This led to varied, discrete clarifications issued by subordinates of the CNO. Largely, these efforts sought to clarify things by erring on the side of caution and advising an even more rigorous approach. 

When a senior directive is produced, any subsequent directive produced by a subordinate may clarify, tailor, or expand the original directive, but it may not in any way dilute the original. What it can do, within the limits of military law, is make the directive more rigorous. In this case, as the CNO’s direction was communicated down the chain of command, it was interpreted in very strict terms. 

And the Navy has been quiet. Recently, the CNO was asked about “this issue of nontransparency,” particularly as it had resulted in a “dense, thick chill in terms of talking about anything of substance.” The CNO seemed perplexed that anyone in the service could have misinterpreted his intent, particularly as he had, earlier that day, specified that service members could speak out on almost any topic. He offered what he considered to be his one, basic qualification: “We do need to be mindful that there are certain things, and I was pretty specific in my memo [not] to talk about warfighting capabilities and systems, future operations of naval forces that . . . have never been appropriate to talk about in a public forum . . . [Otherwise] people have the green light to talk about [anything else].” 

This is Admiral Richardson’s position. There is a real belief among naval personnel, however, that they would be courting disaster to speak or write publicly on almost any subject that pertains to the Navy. For whatever reason, they believe the CNO wants them to be quiet and that ignoring his wishes—and those of his subordinates—is, at best, imprudent.

A Tradition Metastasized 

In November 2015, in a Proceedings article entitled “Admirals (and Generals) for Life,” Vice Admiral Doug Crowder, former Commander, Seventh Fleet, expressed the view that after retirement: “We [flag officers] are not merely private citizens.” While the purpose of the piece was to suggest that retired flag officers should refrain from political endorsement, it is not much of a leap to also interpret it (as is the Navy tradition) as saying that after you hand the watch over to someone else, it is bad form to critique his or her performance. You let them do the job. If you are not in the job, you should avoid expressing opinions about someone who is.

This reflects a view that, despite some notable exceptions, has held sway in the Navy throughout history: The more senior you are, the less appropriate it is for you to criticize the service from outside the Navy lifelines. Accept that your seniors (or for those retired, the people currently in service) know and understand more than you do, and that their decisions are inevitably correct. In other words, shut up and get with the program.

This always has been the standard. Think about the many captains, executive officers, and command master chiefs who have been fired in recent years. Almost all of them took their medicine without comment. The number of those who have publicly struggled against punishment approaches the null set. In the first decade of this century, the surface warfare community began a downward slide in readiness and capability despite the many who recognized the danger. Those who had the courage to ask tough questions and point out the problems ahead often were suppressed or cast out for “not getting it.” 

But where has this taken the Navy? “Going along” may have been acceptable during a period of profound peace, but at a time when the Navy must be ready to fight, people in the profession must be able to have an open and honest debate about those issues most impactful to combat readiness and capability. And they need to be held accountable to the public. 

The tradition of discretion has metastasized into a Navy-wide inclination to avoid discussion, explanation, and, in some cases, responsibility—inside or outside the ranks. There is evidence that silence on many topics has become standard practice:

 • In April, USNI News reported: “The Navy may not deploy any of its Littoral Combat Ships this year despite previous plans to deploy one to the Middle East and two to Singapore in 2018, due to a confluence of maintenance availabilities that has most of the LCS fleet sidelined this year.” An entire class of ships sits pier-side, yet the Navy has little to say about it.

 • The much-discussed strategy of “Distributed Lethality” has been renamed “Distributed Maritime Operations” (DMO). Yet, no one beyond the service (and few within) seems to know what DMO is. Is it connected to the doctrine former Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott Swift outlined in his MayProceedings article, “ A Fleet Must Be Able to Fight?” Swift led significant changes in terms of preparing the fleet for a high-end fight. Yet DMO was not mentioned in his article. If DMO is the coin of the realm, how is it different from Swift’s approach? We do not know because nothing has been published about it (at least not in the unclassified realm), and the Navy is not talking about it. 

 • There is a growing suspicion that, despite vows to fix the problems in the surface force after the deadly 2017 collisions, the Navy’s efforts may be amounting to little more than administrative changes. The Commander, Naval Surface Forces, Vice Admiral Richard Brown, appears optimistic, but is all well? A recent skills test for junior surface warfare officers found a majority had “some problems” or “significant problems” in stressful bridge simulations and on a maritime rules-of-the-road test. And, so far, there is little evidence that ship tasking in the western Pacific has in any way diminished.  

These topics—and many others—should be open to discussion. Yet significant parts of the Navy are now carrying their perception of the CNO’s guidance to the point at which debate has been significantly quieted and in some cases silenced. 

There Is Much to Talk About

Fortunately, some members of the profession are following CNO Richardson’s earlier guidance in his June 2016 Proceedings  Read, Write, Fight ”:

I want to revitalize the intellectual debate in our Navy. We all—officers, enlisted, and civilians—need to develop sound and long-term habits for reading and writing during the entire course of our careers. We must challenge our own assumptions, be informed by the facts, and be aware of the current context. We must commit to self-improvement, through formal schools and courses, and especially through self-education. I strongly encourage you to read, think, and write about our naval profession. 

Spurred by the collisions of the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and USS John S. McCain (DDG-56), some are writing to help avoid future mistakes and problems. In the April 2018 Proceedings, Admirals Mike Mullen (former CNO and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) and Robert Natter (a former Fleet Forces Commander) wrote this about the XO/CO fleet-up program: “This concept is a bad idea! This idea was first discussed/reviewed when we were on active duty. We should have killed it.” 

During the same time-frame, Admiral Scott Swift wrote a series of frank Proceedings articles (February, March, and May 2018) that spoke to operational-level warfighting and the need for the Navy to rethink the entire problem. 

Captain Dale Rielage’s award-winning General Prize Essay Contest submission, “ How We Lost the Great Pacific War ” (May 2018 Proceedings ), is one of the hardest-hitting professional essays I have ever read. It took courage to write it, and the entire Navy should be talking about it and thinking of ways to ensure it does not become prophetic.  

Finally, Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, the former Commander, Seventh Fleet, indicated in a JuneProceedings contribution, “ It’s Not Just the Forward Deployed ,” that other senior officers, who had avoided blame, were complicit in current problems being suffered in the surface force. He also countered the portrayal that the root causes of the 2017 collisions could be found only in the Japan-based forward-deployed naval forces and not in the wider surface Navy.

It is commendable that those retired or soon-to-be retired senior officers chose to speak out, but they had little to fear. Unfortunately, speaking out is still viewed as a risky proposition for those in uniform—especially for junior or mid-grade officers. 

If the nation is in an era of great-power competition, if it is entering a pre-war phase, then more than ever the military should be held closely accountable. If the Navy is getting ready, it must be able to openly, honestly, and self-critically debate how to make itself the most potent force possible. Classified matters aside, transparency should be a Navy strength, not a weakness, and there is a difference between discretion and squelching the discussion the Navy needs today. 

Navy senior leaders need to be aware how recent directives have been perceived and counteract that perception with a persistent message that, as Admiral Richardson wrote in 2016, “warfare is a violent, intellectual contest between thinking and adapting adversaries” and that “our Navy benefits from a vigorous, intellectual debate.” 

Captain Eyer served in seven cruisers and commanded three: the USS Thomas S. Gates (CG-51), Shiloh(CG-67), and Chancellorsville (CG-62).

This article appeared originally at the U.S. Naval Institute's Proceedings Magazine.

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