Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Observations on the Navy's Flag Officer selection process

A study from 2002 that is still relevant today.

I happened across an older post (2009) on Information Dissemination about an unofficial look at flag officers in the US Navy:


While I am NOT a flag officer, I was lucky enough to be chosen as a flag aide, and it was one of the more rewarding tours I've gotten to perform. I want to comment on that and the article to try and shed some light on our flag officers.

1. From what I saw (and in the Norfolk area, there were lots of Flag Officers to observe), our Flag Officers are extremely hard working folks. My boss would arrive at 0730 and work until 1800 on most days. Plus, on top of that, he would normally have a weekend function to attend. In some cases, these were "fun" events, like a barbecue or luncheon, although business was always conducted during them. Other events were sailor driven: he personally went to the AMC terminal to greet IA sailors that were departing on or returning from their IAs. I know there is a perception among junior personnel that admirals disappear early and simply party at the four-stars house...and it's a false perception.

2. Our flags are smart. I'm a very cynical person, especially when it comes to degrees and technical expertise (I've been accused of saying there is no science in political science). My boss easily beat me on most Navy warfare areas, and kept me on my toes in technical areas. He could pick up a new area (in his case, Ballistic Missile Defense) quickly, break it apart, and ask the most important questions that I and a room full of officers had missed. I was always proud of my boss, and would have gone to war with him had the chance come up.

3. We likely need better diversity in the flag officer realm, but I'm not worried about gender/racial diversity...more about diversity of experience. Flag officers take a long time to grow...CDR Junge points out that the median age is around 50 years old, meaning most have at least 25 years of service...and unlike in the civilian world, we don't hire from the outside. We don't see a lot of non-white, non-male flags because frankly, our force didn't HAVE a lot of non-white, non-male officers 25-30 years ago. As we now have more diversity in our junior officers, it will trickle up to the flag ranks over time. My bigger concern, as is CDR Junge's, is that we have a lot of flags with the same experience: fixed wing, surface combatant, and SSN. It should come as no surprised that our amphibious forces and rotary wing aircraft take second fiddle to these areas then. We would do better to focus on promoting experts in these forgotten areas, lest we lose expertise in them (after all, why would a JO be motivated to stay in the amphib navy if it negatively affects his promotion chances?). This also contributes to why we don't have many flag officers in new warfare areas like cyber.

4. Mavericks who specialized in naval warfare were less likely to rise than those who settled into a specific warfare area (especially carrier based attack aircraft or surface combatants). I almost want to say "Well, duh!" to this. Flags have to work with a variety of folks, and get a lot of scrutiny placed on them, to include from member of Congress and the Executive Branch. Being perceived as a maverick doesn't bode well under such scrutiny (only in the movies does it work). The only one that comes to mind was Admiral Rickover, and he had the backing of a number of Congressmen, and even then nearly failed to select.

5. CDR Junge points out the lack of Joint training. Some of this will change, as full Joint credit is required now before promoting to O-7. However, the Navy doesn't emphasize joint at it's junior levels, when really that is a good time to incorporate it. When I asked to enroll in JPME as a LT, it was only by my own research that I figured it out...the submarine force had no guidance and didn't care at all.

So, what would I do differently? Not knowing how the whole process works, I have a few ideas:

1. Give away the ESG commander flag positions to the Marine Corp. Why not? The Navy isn't going to value it like the Marines do. We've done it before, why not make it permanent?

2. Shift flag officer billets from URL to RL where appropriate. If we create more cyber flag jobs, we should be using the Information Dominance Corp to fill them. Same thing with Combat Logistics Support.

3. Use masters-level training to screen candidates for academic ability. CDR Junge rightly points out that a masters degree is a check in the box for officer promotion. Is the substance of your degree, or what you wrote your paper on, even looked at in higher levels? Doubtful. A grade for academic ability and rigor of study, much like the Academic Proficiency Code used by Naval Postgraduate School for screening candidates, could help a selection board determine how academically rigorous an officer really is.

4. Realize that any attempts to bring in innovators will not happen without top-down direction. It was obvious with CAPT Rickover and COL H.R. McMaster. Rather than attempt to improve the board precepts, the civilian service secretaries need to be prepared to intervene in the process. We all in the military work for a civilian government. As Mr. Ricks points out in his book, The Generals, the military used to fire officers regularly (which ensured that only the brightest innovators rose to the top), but now hesitates to fire anyone (except in cases of scandal), and thus civilian firings have increased as a result.

5. Bring joint in early. We wait until O-5 to even get concerned about joint training. We're missing the boat. Start introducing it at the O-3 level. Make JPME I something we look for on LCDR boards. We want ensigns and j.g.s to focus on Navy, and they do (we have good warfare training via our warfare pins). But once you hit O-3, you need to frame your expertise into how it fits in a joint concept. The Air Force and Army do this, the Navy doesn't, and we'll eventually lose out on flag officer selection if we can't integrate well with the other services.