Leadership: The Baltic Fleet Feels The Chop

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July 22, 2016: In late June Russia announced that fifty of the most senior officers of the Baltic Fleet had been fired and replaced with newly promoted officers or commanders who had proven track records in other parts of the navy. With the growing Russian hostility towards NATO and the four new (since 1991) NATO members that used to be part of Russia (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) or occupied by Russia (Poland) the capabilities of the Baltic Fleet became an issue. In May the Russian government ordered a thorough investigation into the Baltic Fleet and its fifty or so ships. The results of the report were delivered on June 10th and apparently confirmed suspicions that the current fleet leadership had failed to improve the capabilities of the Baltic Fleet. Since the 1990s Russia has (especially in the last decade) replaced most of the older Cold War era warships it had to retire because they were inoperable. In 2008 the Baltic Fleet had 75 ships and at this point retirements (because of age or years of little or no maintenance) had reduced that to fifty ships that are mostly new. Much more money was given to the Baltic Fleet since 2010 for maintenance and training but that seemed to have little impact on the effectiveness of the fleet. The May investigation confirmed that in detail and the government tool action.

For over a century, Russia had four fleets (Northern, Pacific, Baltic and Black Sea). The latter two were virtually destroyed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. But now Russia is having political problems (largely caused by Russia) with Georgia and Ukraine, and could really use some additional (and modern) naval power. To a lesser extent, the same situation applies in the Baltic (where Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania harbored, and often built, many of the Soviet ships of the Baltic fleet.) Poland, while not part of the Soviet Union, was a major naval ally, as was East Germany. Thus the Baltic fleet is a fraction of what it once was, and needs rebuilding. That is expected to take a decade, at which point the new ships will have to be in place, because all the current ones will be dead of old age. For the last decade, most new ships were sent to the Northern or Pacific fleets.

The prompt dismissal of so many senior managers is an ancient practice in Russia. There has been a long tradition of the "vertical chop", where several senior leaders in the same chain of command are dismissed (or even executed, at least in the old days) when there was a screw up in their area of responsibility. This approach has fallen out of favor in the West, where the tendency is to fire as few people as possible when there is a major failure. After September 11, 2001, for example, no one got fired.

But the vertical chop still lives in some areas. The U.S. Navy, for example, will fire the captain of a ship, and often several other officers as well, when there is an accident. This recognizes the fact that accidents with ships can be very expensive, and get a lot of people killed. While the officers fired don't like it, most naval officers accept the vertical chop as a necessary evil. There are always plenty of capable officers available to replace those dismissed, and the replacements have the fear of the vertical chop to encourage them to do better.

 


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