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.


  1. I think you've jumped track.
    1. Never ever "give" anything away. Trade it or sell it but never just give.
    2. It could be done but the warfighters don't trust the RL and for good reasons. The warfighter fights the war. The RL sees a threat and engages threat management routines which aint how one wins wars.
    3. If I wanted seagoing academics and eggheads I'd join NOAA and sail on the Ocean Units. As it happens I don't believe this is what we need. Think well rounded but not rotund. :)
    4. Don't want innovators because they don't come with any accountability. Lets have us some evolutionary stuff and leave the innovative stuff in the lab until it has matured. Bleeding edge sucks.
    5. A very large number of officers end their service with EOS and get out at 03 long before first look at 04. Why waste JPME on them? How do they become proficient in their skill area in 2-3 years? Some pilots don't even finish flight training until they're LT. For some it's difficult to qualify. (think of newly assigned officer to ship entering complex overhaul/refueling)
    Just my .02 pence

  2. 1. Sure, I'd love something in return, but what exactly are you going to "take" from the Marine Corp? We need amphibious experts as ESG commanders, and who better to fill that role? As it is, the Navy has more admirals than ships, this is a good way to give the jobs to someone who will value them AND has the right experience to successfully execute.

    2. When RL used to do nothing but supply, SIGINT, and engineering, I would agree. However, with the advent of EW and CNO, RL (at least, the IDC) is becoming a warfighting group, yet we're still putting aviators and submarine officers in jobs that they simply aren't trained to do. Cut those jobs away and let them focus on their warfighting areas, while giving EW/CNO to the IDC.

    3. If you had a pilot walk into a room and say "Well, I don't really understand how XX system on my plane works," you would rightly make a mockery of him. Being an "academic" doesn't mean that you have a 500 lb brain and no common sense. It means you have a professional level of knowledge about the environment you operate in. For a pilot, it means knowing his aircraft, how he fits into the mission, and how his mission is linked to strategic success.

    4. General Petraeus was an innovator, as was Admiral Stavridis. We're thinking two different things. Innovation at the tactical/operational level uses existing equipment in new ways...which is how we win wars (or lose them). As for bleeding edge, you're likely referring to the ridiculous amount of money we spend on new systems that don't always work...although that likely has more to do with a lack of acquisition reform than technology.

    5. Does distance JPME really cost us anything? Sure, the materials have to be printed, and we pay someone to put in the hours to grade papers...but it's mostly a sunk cost (it's not like we fire the professors if we don't get enough distance students). And I don't think we waste knowledge on JOs. What it does do is expose them to a whole new world, and potentially gets them excited. It's not for everyone, and I agree that some people, by the nature of their jobs are simply not going to get it, but the Navy does a poor job of even putting the word out in the first place. Besides, maybe the Navy could cut some of their useless fluff (read: leadership classes and most GMT) and push JPME, which actually gets you something in return.

  3. Thank you for the reply.
    1. I'd be willing to trade fixed wing Marine aviation away. They don't need it and it costs a huge amount of $.

    2. I'm thinking of SPAWAR and those types. Disconnect from the net in the name of security is not a warfighting solution.

    3. I think that is a poor analogy. Look at it closely. Pilots fly. Alone. They spend literally years in the training pipeline before they join a squadron. They fly for awhile and go ashore to school, staff, etc and then they go back to a very long detailed practical school and get up to speed again. A large number don't hack it. Take your average SWO. He qualifies by knowing a thin veneer about a lot of systems but is expert in almost none of them. Nobody messes with fire control when shooting but those appointed to it. Just as nobody fills in as EOOW when OPPE or LOE is aboard except for the 3 designated presentation EOOW. It's the same for all the engineering and weapons billets. Look at the Repair Lockers. That's not expert detailed knowledge that's ad hoc learning. You used the NPS academic score as if it mattered for anything. Perhaps it does but it says nothing at all about leadership and getting the job done with the resources at hand. I care more about the latter than I do about any Masters Degree puffed up as somehow demonstrating a superior intellect is at work.

    4. Petraeus was no innovator and neither is Stavridis. It may look like it to outsiders but all they did was to finally apply the long known rules of war to waging war. They didn't invent anything new. That would be just about impossible in war anyway. There's new tools all the time but the use and method remains pretty much the same over the millenia. I was working at spawar when a Battle Group Commander sent our admiral a P4 telling him that he would never permit our admiral's clowns to do another of his warships what they had just done to a ship about to deploy with bleeding edge crap installed at the last microsecond, no techmans, no schools, no training, no spares, nothing. It was a massive C4I system upgrade. That's what I'm talking about.

    5. Bingo. Distance JPME is the second best deal out there! That said, I had a number of friends who suddenly realized a few years ago that they had two strikes going into the 06 board. 1) Neither held 05 command. 2) Neither had JPME. Both scrambled at the last minute trying the AIR FORCE version of the Air War College since sources told them that was easier than the Navy's.

    I enjoy dropping by your blog. If you take aboard food for thought items, one possible reason that the navy appears in disarray on its officer slating is due to the fact that what used to be a half dozen well established and understood pipelines have wicked down to just one, nobody what designator you hold. That last bit is with a few exceptions. There was a SWO path, Pilot/NFO path, restricted line path, Sub path, etc... You take the point. But what do we see today? All those JO joint tours and Joint staff tours weren't in the pipeline. Post Grad school, yes. IA, no.

    It would take an expert to wade through it and find if there now exist early out points for officers. In SWO it used to be don't go ashore and be ANGLICO. As they say, your position was established. Not going to select for 04, certainly not 05. Nowadays it is screen for Department Head, then somehow shine so brightly that you screen for XO/CO as a LCDR. Make it through CDR command is about the only way to screen for 06. Does the system work this way? If you eschew a hard tough job on the Pentagon staff or COCOM in order to serve as a ROTC instructor and pick up your Masters degree, do you shine brightly enough to screen later?

  4. Completely agree about your last point (we can agree to disagree on the others) that there is NO set path anymore. I also think that guidance is severely lacking for how to proceed with all the options out there. As a submarine officer, I was told that my choice of shore duty didn't matter...which I know now is utter nonsense.

    The question is though, do we want to always select the folks that take the "hard" job at the Pentagon? Going by this logic, we'll always select people that take jobs that we say are hard, and by hard we normally mean work long hours and always be connected to your job. While that is an admirable trait at times, I think it builds the "work harder, not smarter" attitude. How many bosses have we had that cared about hours instead of actual work being done? How many people at the Pentagon or other "hard" places do menial labor, well below their paygrade and an utter waste of their expertise?

    I don't think all shore jobs are the same, just as I don't think all masters degrees are the same. My beef with the Navy is that all masters degrees are viewed the same: a check in the box. We don't reward anyone for working on a harder degree...and thus, we shouldn't be surprised when we don't have officers put a lot of effort into their degrees. This attitude robs us of the opportunity to create critical thinking in officers while they are at school.

    You've given me my next blog post now...thank you!

  5. Anytime,
    We can end there but I just want to agree with your points above. I took the fun jobs and that was on the advice of men I greatly respected. Those were my first 2 COs afloat. Both very senior 06 who said they'd stop when it stopped being fun. I made it where I wanted to go and enjoyed the process. All too many of my peers took the suck jobs at the Pentagon or some of the other suck jobs working for reamers and screamers. There's a nack for handling that kind of thing. Perhaps I'll write about it some day.