Guest commentator: Joe Mazzafro on “How to ‘dewater’ the Navy’s listing cultural ship”

The heavily listing ship Ivory Tirupati.
Source: Wikipedia

Today’s post is another in our series of short essays by commentators with exceptionally deep expertise in the national security enterprise.  Retired Navy captain Joe Mazzafro (check out his impressive bio below) explores the Navy’s current challenges, and offers some practical ideas for getting the service back on even keel.

(BTW, “dewater” is a naval term used to describe part of the process sailors use to right a ship that is listing .)

How to “dewater” the Navy’s listing cultural ship

by Joe Mazzafro

On July 18th the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial column by Kate Bachelder Odell titledThe Navy’s Cultural Ship is Listing. This opinion piece is significant because of its content, but is even more so because of who wrote it and where it appears.  Allow me to flesh out some of the concerns Odell raises.

The strain the Navy is operating under

The troubles of the Navy have been well documented in outlets such as Naval Proceedings, Military/Navy Times, Defense One, Real Clear Defense, etc. along with various defense-focused think tank analysis.

For the most part, the American public sees the litany of headlines regarding Navy scandals, accidents, misguided acquisitions, and leadership controversies without appreciating the strain the Navy is operating under. 

Consider the mismatch in terms of the requirements placed on the Navy for force presence in the Persian Gulf, South China Sea, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Baltic Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean and the number of ships it has for meeting them.

There is also little appreciation on main street America of the time it takes to train officers and sailors to operate their technically complicated ships and weapon systems in the harsh environment of the open seas.

Ms. Odell presciently observes that the U.S. Navy (USN) is “trying to do too much with too little public support” while its chain of command is fraying from the top.  She might have added that the Navy has not enjoyed strong public advocacy since John Lehman was Secretary of the Navy during the Reagan Administration 40 years ago.

This essay appearing in the Wall Street Journal by someone without deep Navy expertise is a good effort at reaching a broader audience not just about what is going on in the Navy but why.

Deterring the Chinese Navy?

Those who think more deeply about the implications of what Ms. Odell says will realize that the U.S. Navy is America’s frontline force for deterring Chinese military adventurism against US national interests in Asia.

Thoughtful analysts will also understand that the naval forces of the Pacific Fleet are not much of a deterrent against a growing modernized Chinese Navy (PLAN) that can operate within the First Island Chain under the protective cover of land based Chinese “ship killer” ballistic missiles and cruise missiles fired from land based bomber aircraft.

Odell’s message is a simple one: the US Navy is struggling at time when our nation needs it most as it confronts a threatening China, a rearming Russia, an unpredictable North Korea, and a dangerous Iran.

You don’t have to be Navy legend Arleigh Burke to understand the Navy needs a new strategy/operating concept so that current US naval forces can face the PLAN with a better probability of success.

Ultimately in a combat environment increasing characterized ubiquitous surveillance, longer range hypersonic missile, 100 knot torpedoes, and spaced based weapons the US Navy will need to move away from naval formations centered on nuclear powered aircraft carriers, which the USN perfected during the industrial age of the Cold War as the most effective means of sea control and conventional force power projection ever seen. 

But the Cold War and the Industrial Age are over.

So the Navy needs to change, but as Ms Odell implies that is hard for any large tradition-celebrating organization to do under the best of circumstance, but when the hull is listing it is even more difficult.  Therefore, the first order of business is todewaterthe USN’s listing cultural ship to get it back on an even keel.

Need to define how a 300-ship fleet can be effectively used 

To “dewater” the Navy its current leadership would say it needs more resources to grow fleet size to reduce the strain on the force.  I would argue a better approach for immediately relieving the strain on the Navy would be for the Navy to lobby for reducing its requirement load by explaining in detail what it can do effectively with a 300 ship fleet and baulk at doing more than that.

In the meantime the Navy needs define for the nation and itself how naval power can be used effectively to protect the national security interests of the US in the information age, which means a change in force structure from large expensive manpower intensive ships that can be easily tracked and targeted, and that needs weapons reloads every week.

For example, Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) that can protect the force, project power, and be replenished organically are a capability the Navy urgently needs along with shift to more autonomous unmanned/lightly manned undersea, surface, and aircraft platforms.

Reform leadership development

Any organization with as many problems as the USN has right now cannot say there is nothing wrong with its leadership.  Odell talks pejoratively about the “wickets” (I would call it “ticket punching”) approach to personnel career development in the USN.

The Navy has long presumed every officer is a potential Chief of Naval Operations and expected them to perform as such at the various levels of their career.  This leads to script following a reluctance to show either moral or professional courage and most dangerous of all: group think.

The simple answer here is less wickets to pass through for promotion along with dropping the expectation that because you have experienced something that you understand it.

People as the most important resource?

Then there is the biggest lie the Navy tells itself: people are the Navy’s most important resource.  That just isn’t so given the attention that is given to material conditions of ships, airplanes, and weapons systems compared to the people doing the operating and maintaining of these systems.  For the Navy to get as much out of its people as its equipment this has to change.


All sailors know that unless you stop the water at its source you will be pumping continuously to get the ship back to an even keel, and yet this is where the Navy is today.  Continuing to pump rather than change the way it operates, develops its leaders, or treats its people means the Navy can hide but not correct its list.

Bio:  Joe Mazzafro served 27 years on active duty in Naval Intelligence retiring as a Captain.  He then served for ten year as the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory’s Scientific and Technical Liaison Officer to the Intelligence Community before joining the private sector advising EMC, Oracle, CSC, and CSRA on how to shape their products and solutions to meet national security needs.

The views expressed by guest commentators do not necessarily reflect those of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

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