July 1, 2007  

Glass half empty

Navy critique sees only negatives

In “Lessons Not Learned,” Roger Thompson takes aim at the overconfident U.S. Navy. He says the Navy is a victim of its own hubris. “It’s overconfidence plain and simple,” Thompson says. “The Navy lives in its own little world and frequently seems out of touch with reality.”

Having served in the Navy for 24 years, I have to agree that the Navy is hampered by bureaucracy, parochialism, funding shortfalls, and overextended and often ambiguous tasking. So I looked forward to a thoughtful analysis. (I should make full disclosure here. I am employed by a defense contractor, and I support the Navy. I work in the Pentagon. )

But instead of a thorough examination of the service’s shortcomings, along with reasonable suggestions for corrective improvement, Thompson devotes the book to a selective rehash of negative reports from a wide variety of sources.

In one instance, we get the names of two writers, William M. Arkin and Joshua Handler, who are critical of the Navy’s nuclear program. We have to look in the footnotes to see that the source is Greenpeace. I put the question to Thompson: “Wouldn’t it be prudent to mention it, so the reader can weigh the information knowing the source has a specific agenda?”

“If the statement is true it shouldn’t matter who said it,” was his reply.

Thompson quotes author Bob Norris in concluding that even a naval aviator would recommend the Air Force over the Navy. Norris flew F-14s and F/A-18s and had an exchange tour with the Air Force, where he flew F-15s. Norris posted a clever “letter” on his Web site to a young person who has been accepted to both the Air Force Academy and the Naval Academy, and wanted to know which service to join. Thompson picked out the comments by Norris that supported Thompson’s argument, stating that Norris had only one good thing to say about naval aviation. Thompson also took Norris’ comment, “Bottom line, son, if you gotta ask … pack warm & good luck in Colorado,” to support the conclusion.

But that’s not the way I read Norris’ comments. They strike me as somewhat tongue-in-cheek. If there is any doubt, Norris concludes with the postscript: “Air Force pilots wear scarves and iron their flight suits.”

I asked Thompson if it is it possible that his use of Norris’ comments might be taken out of context. “All I know is what he wrote, and I think any reasonable person would interpret his comments just as I have,” he replied. “The man liked the Air Force more than he liked the Navy.”

I asked Norris if those were his real sentiments. “Like you, I support a healthy, vigorous critique and believe the Navy benefits from being scrutinized by those of us who have served,” Norris said. “Ironically, I’m the author of a Topgun Journal article, titled ‘What’s Right with the Air Force.’ In it, I tried to convince my peers that — despite their corporate, button-down reputation and penchant for calling anything with wings a fighter — that there are valuable lessons to be learned from our cousins, particularly when it comes to establishing SOPs [standard operating procedures]. But I would never suggest that Air Force doctrine is a suitable model for Naval aviation. Quite the opposite, in fact. For years, I’ve watched the Air Force’s struggle [to adapt] to an ‘expeditionary’ force with bewilderment. As the archetypal expeditionary force, naval aviation has extraordinarily valuable experience and insights that would benefit its brethren.

“Roger Thompson is very articulate, obviously astute, and it’s reasonable (as a nonaviator) that he interpreted my letter to the wanna-be aviator as a slam. Of course, as you’ve correctly observed, my message was tongue-in-cheek. And, given the chance, I would argue that he deliberately misconstrued the parting line.”

Thompson says he has been criticized for being critical. “Some ad hominem attacks have been made against me for reporting the truth to people who live in a world of denial.”

But if Thompson thinks the Navy is, as he told me, “incapable of honest self-evaluation and sees only the positives,” it would appear he sees only negatives. Maybe he is in denial.

This book would be better if it offered options for improving the service. To Thompson’s credit, his final chapter delivers a 12-step checklist of what the Navy needs to do to get better. I agree with just about all of them, and would welcome a discussion on each one. But this chapter is just two pages long. Not much of a lesson there.

EDWARD LUNDQUIST is a retired Navy captain and a senior science adviser with Alion Science and Technology.