Holding the Government Accountable

Roger Thompson's "Lessons Not Learned: The U.S. Navy's Status Quo Culture"

Photograph of the U.S. Navy Submarine USS Florida (SSGN 728) surfacing on the water. U.S. Navy photo by Paul Farley/Released

I recently finished reading Roger Thompson's "Lessons Not Learned" (Naval Institute Press, 2007). I urge those who think we enjoy now and will enjoy in the future some sort of superiority on the seas to read this book. You will find tidbits that you contest, but you will also find overwhelming evidence that the biggest, most expensive navy in the world has hollowed itself out thanks to its own rampant hubris and careerism. This has been the case for a long time, and there is nothing on the horizon to indicate any real improvement.

Bookcover artwork of Lessons Not Leaned; The U.S. Navy's Status Quo Culture by Roger Thompson

I encountered exactly the kind of behavior Thompson describes when I worked at GAO. I was assigned to look at the Navy's operational testing of its vaunted Aegis air defense system on CG-47-class cruisers. I found that in cooperative, even fudged testing (as described by inaccurate and incomplete test reports) Aegis performed at a mediocre level against the easier targets and extremely poorly against the most stressful targets--such as the extremely low, extremely fast anti-ship cruise missiles that today populate the inventories of Iran, North Korea, China, Syria and others. The Navy was incensed, convened a kangaroo-court hearing at the Seapower Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee and declared the problem solved because it won a superficial public relations battle over GAO with the porkers and Navy boosters who densely populated the subcommittee. The Navy proved itself much more adept at PR struggles than it has in anti-mine warfare in real combat since World War II and in anti-submarine exercises over the same period, as Thompson explains in painful detail

I also wrote a three part series at Time's Battleland blog; one of those pieces touched on several of the issues that Roger Thompson more thoroughly and articulately raises; that piece is here.

Lessons Not Learned: An Appreciation

by Pierre Sprey

For a comprehensive, thoughtful and independent-minded critique of today’s U.S. Navy, I know of no work better than Professor Roger Thompson’s Lessons Not Learned: The U.S. Navy’s Status Quo Culture. I recommend the book as essential reading for anyone interested in or professionally involved in naval matters, whether officer, civilian analyst, contemporary historian, defense journalist or navy buff. It is of particular value and importance to those who are courageous enough and patriotic enough to be committed to military reform. The military reform literature is well endowed with strong critiques of American air and ground forces, but is relatively weak in insightful writings on the Navy’s ineffectiveness and waste of men and money. Thompson’s book fills that gap.

Lessons Not Learned is particularly hard-hitting in documenting the evidence for the U.S. Navy’s ongoing and shocking vulnerability to diesel subs and mines. As he makes clear, both weapons systems are nearly ubiquitous in the maritime Third World and the presence of either turns U.S. control of the seas into a delusion. Equally valuable are Prof. Thompson’s blunt comparisons of the strengths and weaknesses of American naval forces vis a vis the strengths of smaller allied forces. Unsurprisingly, these disparities in combat readiness, tactical skills and exercise outcomes prove to be greatest in anti-mine warfare and anti-submarine warfare—though sadly declining American aerial tactical skills are certainly not glossed over.

But Thompson’s most valuable contribution of all is the thread that runs throughout the book: the most crucial weakness of the U.S. Navy is not materiel or money. It is, plain and simply, the closed-mindedness, hubris and rampant careerism of the Navy’s leadership, greatly magnified by a mindless up-or-out personnel system. That leads to an enlisted force with inadequate skills, morale and training plus an officer corps more focused on promotion and plush retirement jobs than on building a navy competent to win wars.