Chief Eddie Gallagher Is a Distraction From the Navy’s Real Problems

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Big Navy can rest easy as its biggest worry will soon disappear. It’s not Vladimir Putin’s hypervelocity missiles or those Iranian Revolutionary Guard small boat swarms. No, Chief Petty Officer Eddie Gallagher has requested retirement from active duty.

Aside from that dead jihadi in Iraq (that another Navy SEAL admitted killing), the Gallagher case left a lot of bodies in its wake: the Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) was fired after he approached the White House with an idea for a political fix to the case; the lead prosecutor was removed from the trial for spying on the defense counsel;  the NCIS agents who facilitated the spying on Gallagher’s defense attorneys may be disciplined; the presiding Navy judge sanctioned the prosecution team for violating Gallagher's constitutional rights; the commanding officer of the legal office that prosecuted the case was given a private “accelerated change of command” 14 days before her scheduled transfer date after she awarded medals to the sanctioned attorneys who lost the case; and it’s likely the admiral at the helm of the Navy Special Warfare Command may be fired by the new SECNAV for violating the President Trump’s intent that no further action be taken against Chief Gallagher.

Now that that’s behind us, it’s fair winds and following seas for the U.S. Navy, right? Wrong.

The Gallagher case was a distraction from the Navy’s real problems that are bigger than dubious accusations against an aggressive commando. The real and long-term issues are moral and managerial:

  • The Fat Leonard scandal. So far over 30 Navy personnel, most of them senior officers, including several admirals, have been disciplined and in some cases pled guilty to trading classified information to the notorious Malaysian businessman, Leonard Glenn Francis, in exchange for gifts of prostitutes, gourmet meals, cash, Cuban cigars, hotel stays, and an $11,000 handbag for one officer’s wife. Over the years, 27 investigations of Francis were quashed due to the intervention of his Navy confederates.

As soon as they left port, the officers the Navy relies upon to set the moral and professional tone became the bad examples that will be taught in future leadership classes in the “Don’t do this” module. This hookers-for-contracts scandal would almost be funny if the particulars weren’t so tawdry. I’ll never again hear the phrase “MacArthur memorabilia” without a shudder.

  • Poor seamanship. “Don’t run into the other guy” is a basic rule of seamanship the Navy let slide. Two years after the collisions that killed 17 sailors and sidelined two warships, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports only “modest improvement” in the ability of junior officers to safely direct a vessel. The Navy’s own assessment is that 79 percent of newly-trained officers who drive surface ships have gaps in their knowledge of seamanship and underway procedures, such as signaling other ships and effective radio communications.

The Navy blamed the 2017 collision of the USS John S. McCain and a chemical tanker on the commanding officer and ship’s leadership, but the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) also cited “insufficient training and inadequate bridge operating procedures” as causes of the fatal collision. The recent GAO report is a hint the Navy is failing to respond in a prompt manner to systemic failures identified by the NTSB.

These problems didn’t appear mysteriously. There was a series of changes to Navy organization, training, and maintenance in the 1990s that presaged the recent tragedies. In 2009, Vice Admiral Phillip Balisle, probably the Navy’s most experienced surface warfare officer, reported on the unfolding crisis in surface fleet readiness but was ignored.

  • Weapon systems that don't work. The military buys weapons that will be in service for decades, so is the extraordinarily aggressive technology it adopts to leap ahead of future adversaries. It’s tough to assess the riskiness of new technologies for the battlefield, but the Navy has suffered setbacks on two systems it is betting on to offset a small fleet of 289 warships. (It plans to grow the fleet to 355 warships in 2034, so let’s hope China doesn’t do anything until then.)

The Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford, was delivered two years late - in 2017 at the cost of $13 billion - and won’t deploy until 2022. The ship has suffered from maladies in the propulsion system, the weapons elevators that move munitions from the magazine to the flight deck, and the electromagnetic catapult system for launching aircraft, and required $779 million in additional work after it was accepted by the Navy.

The sea service also bet heavily on the USS Zumwalt, a new design stealthy guided missile destroyer that was built around the 155-millimeter Advanced Gun System designed to fire the Long Range Land Attack Projectile (LRLAP), a $50,000 GPS-guided shell accurate at 80 miles.

Integrating numerous new technologies jacked up the cost, so the Navy cut the purchase from 32 hulls to 3, while the cost of the LRLAP projectile jumped to $566,000 each, forcing the cancelation of the round. With no viable weapon system, one proposal is to equip the hulls with vertical launch tubes for anti-ship and cruise missiles that would create a formidable capability when mated with the ship’s advanced combat system. But with only three hulls, the maintenance cost will be a long term drag on the Navy's operations and maintenance budget. And on top of all this, the Zumwalt cost $7.6 billion (including R&D), more than half the cost of the Gerald R. Ford, but at least the Ford can launch something.

The disappointment is that since 9-11 when the Army, Marines, and Air Force were wearing out their men and machines in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Navy should have paused to think about the emerging Chinese threat, then to train and equip the force for a 21st century naval conflict in the Pacific. Instead, it failed to uphold leadership standards and to ensure the training and acquisition systems were producing competent crews and battle-ready equipment.

The Navy’s success in a future conflict with China may rest more on China’s deficiencies than America’s capabilities, but I don’t want to bet on that.

James Durso (@james_durso) is the Managing Director of Corsair LLC. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Mr. Durso served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years and specialized in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority.

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