Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The soapbox is getting too high to get off of

Recently there has been some discussion about replacing Navy crews with civilian mariners in the engineering plants of the amphibious ships in our Navy. This has been implemented already in our fleet auxiliaries and replenishment ships, seemingly with great success. The shift would only seem natural, then, that we might continue this trend into additional areas of the Navy. But I believe it represents a distinct nose-dive in the operational readiness and training of our active duty Sailors - and it is applicable to NHS because one of our primary purposes is to preserve our Naval heritage of excellence at sea, even if it is only in the use of small boats used to train youth groups and volunteers.

We're taking a detour here from my normal realm of discussion and diving into my professional pool as a career Naval Officer, but much of my philosophy in that regard carries over into NHS, so I believe it worthy of discussion here.

Being a licensed Merchant Marine officer as well as a Surface Warfare Officer (SWO), I feel qualified to make the following observations about the differences between the Navy and Merchant Mariners:

Merchant Mariners have higher professional training and licensing standards than the Navy. Hands down. My lowly third mate's license and 1-2 years of concentrated study at sea gave me a significant leg up, not only in ship handling and management but also in seagoing culture, that my USNA and NROTC colleagues didn't have. I subsequently qualified OOD and SWO much MUCH faster than people I truly believe to be my intellectual equals or betters. The Navy's belief in on-the-job training can only go so far.

The Merchant Marine doesn't seem to overburden its people with collateral duties that significantly detract from the time they spend doing their actual jobs in the shipboard environment. That's not to say damage control (DC) and force protection (FP), but mess cranking and visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) are two severe detractors.

And perhaps most importantly, Merchant Marine officers generally have no shortage of highly experienced professional mentors ready at hand. I have served under some great officers in the Navy, but very few that I didn't feel were somehow scrambling to get by. There was a certain cool professionalism in many of my Merchant Marine mentors, as if their years of experience had really given them great preparation to do their jobs well. I've seen that a few times in the Navy, but I don't feel that it is by any means prevalent.

A well regulated and governed Navy - any professional military organization for that matter -should embody three things:
  1. well prepared, flexible combat units that are equally capable of performance in routine and irregular conditions,
  2. efficient and self-sufficient sustainability and survivability in regular and combat operation, and
  3. a disciplined corps of professional personnel dedicated to preservation and exemplification of the previous two principles.

It seems to me that the Navy is giving up on all three principles when it considers proposals like this one. There was a time when our officers were well rounded seagoing professionals - at sea because they chose to be and not because it was the only career progression open to them in a bad economy. There was a time when our crews were composed of proud Sailors, each a technical expert in some realm of the operation of their command, and king of some small patch of deckplate because it had their name beside "POIC" (Petty Officer In Charge) on the bulkhead. We had great schools, bred fantastically efficient personnel who cared - deeply - about what they did. What happened?


I can't propose a solution to this that anyone might take seriously. But what I can say is that it is my sincere hope to take the best of what the Navy is and has been - including the legacy of pride in efficiency and readiness - and put it into NHS. Someday, we will build a world-class organization, even if it is very small. Our boats can and will be a hallmark of these traits, and show off in some small measure the pride we have in being Sailors.


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