The U.S. Navy Needs To Repair Its Reputation – Now

How is it possible that a service with such a strong history of strategic vision and analysis is being perceived on Capitol Hill as unable to explain its programs? And how can it be that a service so devoted to business-model management is seen as inefficient and lacking in results?

Yet, according to reports in this paper, that is just how the Navy is viewed on the Hill. In a series of recent pieces, congressional stakeholders conveyed their sense that the Navy is unable “to express a clear vision for what ships they need and why they need them,” and that when it comes to some programs, the service is “curiously passive.” The Navy appears to be suffering from a growing credibility gap on the Hill.

This is as unfortunate as it is curious. The decline in the Navy’s credibility matters because it can create a vacuum into which Congress will be tempted to step and substitute its own judgment. In announcing the passage of his subcommittee’s portion of the 2009 National Defense Authorization Act, Rep. Gene Taylor, chairman of the Seapower and Expeditionary Forces subcommittee, suggested that he and his colleagues had to “provide the Navy with a road map to achieve their goal of a 313-ship fleet.”

Such a scenario CAN lead to acquisition strategies bound by short-term interests rather than long-term needs. CONGRESSIONALLY imposed priorities take control out of the admirals’ hands, abdicating service management to MORE constituency-centric legislators. Once the chief of naval operations loses control over Navy priorities, he loses control over the direction of his service.

Fortunately, the Navy already has in hand the raw material it needs to demonstrate to Congress that it has the intellectual and technical capacity to manage its own affairs. But the service needs to do a better job of connecting the dots. In order to shore up its credibility in the face of lingering questions on the Hill, the Navy should pursue a top-down, bottom-up strategy.

At the top, service leadership needs to link the Navy’s programmatic requirements more clearly to its strategic priorities. A clear explanation of how the 313-ship Navy will support the Maritime Strategy would reinforce both the strategy and the 313 goal. The Navy should then couch the rationale for each individual shipbuilding program in that larger story, creating a streamlined message of the Navy’s strategic priorities to lawmakers.

For example, how will the DDG-1000 Zumwalt destroyer contribute to sea control and power projection, which stand as bellwethers of U.S. national security? The good news is the Navy does not have to start from scratch to create this narrative – it simply has to link its currently decoupled (and thus seemingly unrelated) strategic and acquisitions goals.

Over the past two years, the Navy has produced a wealth of strategic documents, from the triservice Maritime Strategy to the Navy Strategic Plan. It has also articulated a 313-ship plan and a larger 1,000-ship partner Navy.

The missing piece is a compelling explanation of the relationships between its strategic ends and its ship-based means.

From the bottom, the Navy should take some meaningful steps toward improving the management of its shipbuilding initiatives. Demonstrating more results in this area would go a long way toward improving congressional faith in the service’s budgets and priorities.

The Navy could begin by following the lead of John Young, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, by implementing his department wide initiatives to grow and retain more career acquisition personnel and tackle the problems of underestimated costs and changing requirements.

Additionally, the service must continue to absorb and apply sound business models. Business administration and financial management are critical skill sets for an organization working closely with industrial leaders such as Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and General Dynamics.

Here again, the Navy should not have to dig too deeply to reconstitute such core competencies. Navy professionals already embrace the values of best business practices. In fact, the surface Navy sends its most promising officers to elite business schools to complement their war-fighting skills. Service leaders should tap into their own reserves of knowledge to demonstrate to the Congress and the public that the Navy can be a good steward of the taxpayers’ dollars.

In January 2009, no matter who occupies the Oval Office, the country will have new leadership and new priorities. Simultaneously, debts from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be past due. If the Navy more clearly connects its shipbuilding aspirations with its overarching strategy, it will be well-positioned to weather the coming storm.

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