The most important lessons the Navy has learned from two deadly collisions

“Can-do should never mean must-do.”

If there’s one line in the Navy’s exhaustive report on the working conditions in the Seventh Fleet that gets to the heart of what they learned after two deadly collisions, it’s that one.

You can have the best ships, the most dedicated sailors, the finest technology money can buy. But if you run those ships and sailors ragged, don’t understand how best to employ all that technology and, worse, fail to make it plain that you expect people to speak up when they see something wrong — well, you fail.

“Under pressure to perform, and feeling ill-equipped to succeed,” notes the report, “some leaders can stop listening to their team when feedback appears to detract from their immediate goals. Interviews revealed that, particularly among ships based in Japan, crews perceived their commanding officer was unable to say ‘no’ regardless of unit-level consequence.”

In other words, a “can-do” culture, while admirable, can also be dangerous.

To be fair, the Navy’s review also uncovered a long litany of other things they know they need to work on: unit- and individual-level training; the process through which ships are certified as ready to deploy; more responsible ship scheduling; better integration and use of shipboard sensors, and even getting sailors back to more normal and sustainable sleep cycles.

I can attest to the importance of that last one. The second-in-command aboard my first ship told us junior officers that if we were getting more than four hours of sleep at night to come see him. He’d find more work for us to do. I blew him off and slept as long as I could — not because I had some keen sense of circadian rhythm, but because I thought it was a stupid order and I didn’t want to be up there driving the ship any more tired than I already was.

What I should have done is register my concern. I should have said something, right there on the spot. And that’s one of the points the Navy is trying to make. It’s not enough to know what you’re doing wrong — and a lot of things went wrong in the precious moments before those destroyers collided with those merchant ships.

To fix things, you’ve got to create a culture where dissent is not viewed as disloyalty and where it’s considered acceptable not to do something if doing that something demands unacceptable risk. At some point, it has to be OK to say “no.”

And if you read the investigations of both collisions, you’ll see ample moments where a little skepticism might have better colored situational awareness, where judgment might have been improved had standards been better applied.

“The comprehensive review found that over a sustained period of time, rising pressure to meet operational demands led those in command to rationalize declining standards,” said the Navy’s top officer, Adm. John Richardson, at a press conference today.

Risk is part of life at sea. No doubt about that. And no one — certainly not Navy leaders — is suggesting that a can-do spirit and the acceptance of a certain amount of risk should be stripped altogether from the warfighting ethos of forward-deployed naval forces … or any forces, for that matter.

We need sailors and ship commanders courageous enough to sail into harm’s way and do the nation’s bidding. You don’t win wars by timidity.

As Lord Nelson once put it, “The measure may be thought bold, but I am of the opinion the boldest are the safest.”

But sometimes, when you’ve been running in high gear, when much-needed training has fallen prey to other demands, when people are exhausted and you don’t have enough time or resources to get everything done to the standard at which it should be done, the boldest and safest thing you can do is speak up and say so.

Adm. Richardson did that today. He took responsibility for the deficiencies in standards and performance. He minced no words. He laid no blame at anyone other than himself. And he offered fixes.

The review he ordered has already led to changes that promise to ease the load on sailors and ships and correct many of those deficiencies. He estimates a potential price tag of about $400-500 billion, and that’s just for the training, technology and organizational changes he needs to make. It doesn’t account for the fact that the Navy still doesn’t have the number of ships it needs to meet operational requirements around the world.

Hopefully, Congress will read the report with the same sense of urgency with which the Navy wrote it and work harder to provide the fleet with the budget certainty — and ships — they need to defend the nation.

For lawmakers, can-do should absolutely mean must-do.

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