Leadership: In Memory Of Admiral Byng


September 13, 2017: The U.S. Navy recently dismissed a senior admiral, the commander of the 7th fleet, after three serious accidents in his command this year and the two that were fatal occurred within two months (June and August) of each other. These left 17 sailors dead and all were apparently related to lower readiness levels and overwork (and subsequent crew fatigue) in the ships under the admiral’s command. The two destroyers that suffered fatal collisions had some of the worst readiness and training ratings in the entire fleet. These ratings are there to spotlight ships, and their crews, that need the most attention from senior leadership, especially the fleet commander. That was not happening and since the new Secretary of Defense is a retired (in 2013) marine general with firsthand experience with what was going wrong in the navy, the admiral responsible was held accountable in the traditional way. Note that while both the Marine Corps and the Navy are part of the Department of the Navy the two organizations have evolved into separate services. The marines have always been different and that meant marine generals could get away with being more traditional and hard ass than navy admirals.

In 2017 it was no secret that these problems existed throughout the navy but were most acute in the 7th Fleet which has been the busiest for over decade because it has to deal with growing Chinese naval power and more frequent crises with North Korea. One could say the problem was navy-wide but most intense in the 7th Fleet and not enough of the admirals were willing to speak up and admit to the politicians and voters what was going on and why it was not being addressed. One reason was that the politicians in control wanted admirals who would keep quiet and those who spoke out got forced into retirement and replaced by younger officers willing to play by the new rules. This is not unique in American history or military history in general. But this occurrence is another aftereffect of the Cold War ending and attitudes changing with regard to responsibility and military readiness.

The immediate problem, in short, was that the navy has been getting smaller since the Cold War ended in 1991 and that process continued after 2001 because the increased defense spending went to army, SOCOM (Special Operations Command) and marine operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The navy and air force had to get by on a lot less. For example the number of ships in the navy went from 333 in 1998 to 277 now. Yet the navy keeps the same number of ships (about a hundred) deployed overseas despite there being 17 percent fewer ships. Worse the newer ships, and some of the older ones, were experimenting with smaller crews (and more automation). This is still a work in progress but meanwhile lots of 7th Fleet ships were operating at a wartime tempo. This was wearing down the crews as well as the ships.

The ships overseas are also kept busier even though crew sizes have been reduced as well and although the navy knew this was going on not a lot was done to deal with what was obviously a growing problem. For example in the last two years the number of warships in the 7th fleet not certified as ready for combat increased five-fold (to 37 percent). The reasons why were no secret either. Many sailors were working over 100 hours a week when at sea, often double the standard 70-81 hours a week. Ships were more frequently unable to go to sea because of deferred (because of manpower shortages) maintenance. The most serious shortages were in training, which apparently contributed to the three serious accidents and many more events that could have gotten very ugly.

It’s an old naval tradition to punish (it used be by hanging) an admiral if you wanted to get the attention, or just motivate, the others. This refers back to British admiral John Byng, who was executed in 1757 for not trying hard enough to dislodge the French from the island of Minorca. This execution was later described as done to "encourage the others (admirals)." In fact, Byng died because of bad publicity surrounding the earlier execution of a junior officer for the same "offense," while senior officers got less lethal punishment. Byng was the victim of a leadership problem that keeps reoccurring.

Nevertheless navies have always been rather harsher about inadequate leadership. It is an ancient naval tradition that someone must take responsibility and be punished when things go wrong. This attitude developed over the centuries because the seas are an unforgiving environment, and those put in charge of ships have absolute power, and absolute responsibility. So, to this day, in most navies, the senior officers can quickly (or, in this case eventually) lose their jobs if things go wrong.

Admiral Byng’s demise was, historically, not all that unusual. In centuries past, many navy commanders have been executed for not doing all their boss expected of them. But 18th century Britain considered itself to be in a kinder and gentler age, thus the outcry after Byng was executed, instead of simply being dismissed (or exonerated, something his descendants still call for). Now, in 21st century, the trend continues, as do the punishments.

Hanging went out of fashion by the 20th century but getting fired apparently has the same impact. The sailors and junior officers who take a more realistic attitude towards this bad leadership (and suffer the most from it) have been demanding more accountability for over a decade, and not staying in the navy long when senior leadership did not improve. That may change if the complacent and compliant admirals are replaced with competent and accountable ones.