Naval Leadership in the Age of Superdeployments

January 8, 2015

Superdeployment (n) – a forward Navy deployment resulting in at least nine months away from homeport, with the possibility that the duration could be extended at any moment (including after return to homeport).

 

In March 2011, USS BATAAN set sail for a nearly 11-month deployment, four months ahead of schedule –the longest Navy deployment in 40 years. In February 2013, two days before the ships were scheduled to set sail, the USS HARRY S. TRUMAN Strike Group’s deployment was delayed until July – eventually deploying for nine months. This may not seem like a big deal, but historically deployments have averaged around six months. These are just two examples of a major trend in U.S. Naval Operations: deployments are getting longer and more unpredictable. The Navy has extended the length of forward deployments over the past decade to adapt to a dynamic geopolitical environment overseas and tightening defense budgets. Hence, the rise of the superdeployment. Maintenance, training, and logistics are just a few areas that are impacted when sending ships on deployments of nine months or more. However, one aspect of this that Navy leaders have not focused on as much is leadership itself.

How should officers, chiefs, and petty officers lead their sailors differently when deployed for nine months or more? As the operations officer on the USS GETTYSBURG, I was with the HARRY S. TRUMAN Strike Group on its recent nine-month deployment. I can tell you deployments of this length are a different animal. I can also tell you I did not see most of the differences until I returned home. I did not always have the compassion, creativity, and endurance I so clearly needed. While top Navy leadership determines how to stabilize our operational tempo, one thing is for sure: Navy leaders need to adapt to the challenge of superdeployments to show their sailors that their struggle is important, that they matter in the grand scheme of national security, and how to keep pressing forward even when stress turns into exhaustion.

First, two realities of superdeployments:

1) Although deployments are getting longer, the average length is still closer to eight months. In fact, United States Fleet Forces Command developed the Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP) at least in part to cap deployment growth and make eight months the fleet standard. Meanwhile, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Jon Greenert has publicly made a commitment to shorten deployments to seven months. The CNO’s commitment to shorter deployments is certainly well-received, but will take some time to implement. Unfortunately, the superdeployment still exists today. Whether responding to Russia invading a neighboring country, or the need to relieve a Strike Group delayed due to emergent repairs, there will always be the possibility that an eight-month deployment gets extended to nine or ten months. Even after sailors return from an eight-month deployment, they must face the reality that their ship may be called upon to re-deploy as a “surge” asset. This is a tried and true strategy in readiness. Generally there is no ship more ready to respond than the ship that has just returned from deployment. Nevertheless, it is a reality that sailors, and leaders of sailors, must handle.

2) Superdeployments are different from land-based deployments in the Army and Marine Corps. Frankly, troops in contact with the enemy face a kind of stress and trauma that most sailors will never know. Furthermore, many soldiers would probably jump at the chance to deploy for only eight months. In 2007, at the height of the Iraq War, the Army extended its standard deployment to 15 months. So, Navy deployments are “easy” compared to longer and more dangerous land based deployments, right? Well, not exactly. It is true that for the past decade the Army has deployed for longer than the Navy, but sailors have no garrison where they can rest and recharge. Sailors at sea are always on duty, interrupted by periodic port visits, usually only about once a month. The Army also sends its soldiers home for two weeks of R&R during 12-month deployments, a model the Navy could very well learn from. Over nine months, the day-to-day stress of deployment builds inevitably. The stress sailors build during superdeployments could be mitigated by sending them home for a short leave period in the middle. Pending any such major changes to the Navy’s personnel policies, it is clear: creative, compassionate, and enduring leadership is required now more than ever to manage the strain of superdeployments.

Compassion: A Little Goes a Long Way

It may sound trite, but when deployments are extended from six months to nine months, things are 50% more likely to happen during deployment. What do I mean by that? Whether at home or on the ship, sailors are more likely to have to deal with significant events, most of which will not warrant the sailor being sent home. If it is a child’s birthday, the sailor wishes she could be there to share in the joy. If it’s a spouse sick with the flu, the sailor wishes he could be there to help her feel better. No matter what it is, it’s harder to handle on deployment than at home.

Compassion may seem to some as the “kinder, gentler Navy” many so frequently lament. Certainly, generational gaps are reflected in Navy leadership styles. Just look at all the debate raging in the blogosphere on Millennials in the military. Instead of railing on the Millennial generation for being too soft, Navy leaders should embrace compassion as an effective means to lead today’s sailors to accomplish the mission and maintain their mental health, all while holding the standards of the U.S. Navy as high as they’ve ever been. Compassion within the force does not make a sailor a less effective warfighter. Quite the contrary. What should a leader do when a sailor finds out, right before assuming the watch, that his fiancée had second thoughts and won’t be waiting for him on the pier when he comes home? Situations like this will inevitably occur on superdeployments. There is no simple answer, but compassionate leadership helps. After all, it is just as likely the leader herself will be faced with a similar challenge.

Naval leadership is, at its heart, all about people. Therefore, ships preparing to go on superdeployments should take appropriate measures. The Wardroom and Chief’s Mess should meet separately to discuss how they will handle the spectrum of personnel issues that will certainly arise. Also, the Command Triad (Commanding Officer, Executive Officer, and Command Master Chief) should be honest with the crew: these types of issues are more likely to arise on superdeployments…and there is help available should you need it! Compassionate leadership is more than acknowledging the immense stress that our sailors are under and helping them find a healthy way to handle that stress. It is also a leadership investment in making sailors and their families a priority. A sailor that is convinced his leaders have his or her families’ best interest in mind will be more inclined to give his command 100% effort and commitment.

Creativity: Leadership Fuel for the Long Haul

Compassion will only get a leader so far on a superdeployment. After all, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In the long run, it is far better to be proactive in leading sailors through superdeployments than reactive. Being deployed for nine months or more, it takes exceptional creativity to keep sailors motivated, healthy, and focused on the mission – all of which can be accomplished by showing sailors that they matter in the grand scheme of national security.

Since most Navy deployments support U.S. national strategy through forward presence, deployed ships usually operate in a steady-state, relatively peaceful geopolitical environment. In other words, not much is going on. There is, however, almost always a significant amount of regional tension to add to sailors’ daily stress. So, how do Navy leaders combat the stress-tinged doldrums that creep in over a superdeployment? The answer cannot be simply “focus on the mission.” The key is finding creative ways to keep sailors focused on the mission over nine months or more by showing them a connection between their daily work and the ship’s mission. For example, on GETTYSBURG’s recent deployment, we frequently sent sailors to work with their counterparts on the aircraft carrier. For one, it was a nice change of pace. It also allowed them to see how their work impacted the strike group as a whole.

This can be applied at all levels in the command. From the Commanding Officer to the Work Center Supervisor, leaders need to apply creativity in their leadership approach to keep the daily routine from becoming a “bunch of busy work,” which can easily happen on a superdeployment and is a surefire way to kill sailors’ motivation. By connecting daily work to the ship’s mission, leaders reinforce an intrinsically motivating sense of purpose. Leaders can go further in applying creative leadership by showing sailors the value of their work, informally reviewing progress, and ultimately linking their work and the ship’s mission to national strategy.

Whatever the focus may be, from advancement to warfare qualifications to maintenance, there is a creative way to drive it toward excellence. All it takes is time and energy, both of which are abundant on superdeployments. It also focuses that energy away from the negative aspects of superdeployments, further contributing to sailors’ mental health and, therefore, to combat readiness.

Endurance: Taking Care of Oneself Along the Way

So, if compassionate, creative leadership can keep sailors going on long deployments, what keeps leaders engaged and ready to lead their sailors day in and day out even when they are stressed to the point of exhaustion? It does a sailor, and therefore the Navy, no good if a leader burns out six months into a nine-month deployment. Leaders must balance their own personal health along with their sailors and the mission in order to effectively maintain combat readiness. The old adage “ship, shipmate, self” should not be viewed as an order of priority, but rather as a triad that can only accomplish the mission when it is properly balanced.

Leaders can maintain their personal health in many ways on superdeployments. There is an abundance of studies that have examined the link between physical health and work performance, almost all finding positive correlation. Some leaders may argue that there is not enough time in their busy schedule for exercise, but nine months or more is plenty of time to figure out how to work some physical activity into their daily routine. Physical activity is not the only way for leaders to maintain their personal health. Taking time to read a book, write a letter to home, or have a conversation over a cup of coffee all contribute to a leader’s ability to effectively lead through superdeployments.

Maybe the biggest benefit of enduring leadership is that it is a force multiplier. Sailors see leaders taking care of themselves and staying committed to the mission, and they are motivated and empowered to do the same. Of course, it works both ways. Sailors observe everything their leaders do, so if leaders never take time to manage their personal health then sailors may not either. But when leaders make personal health a priority, the impact is multiplied throughout their sailors. Not only do they give themselves the endurance they need to “make it” through superdeployments, they also create a positive feedback loop.

Compassionate, creative, and enduring leadership is absolutely critical in responding to the challenge of superdeployments. Compassion shows our sailors that their (and their families’) struggle is not taken for granted, fostering an environment of trust and commitment. Creativity enables leaders to keep things “fresh” throughout nine or more months of deployment, and to show our sailors how they fit in the grand scheme of national security. Endurance is the key to completing the mission as leaders on superdeployments. Much like championship-winning quarterbacks that play their best in the fourth quarter, Navy leaders need the energy to finish stronger than they started in the ninth or tenth month of deployment.

The problems the Navy faces will only get worse unless we, as leaders, adapt our leadership approach to extended and unpredictable deployments the same way we have adapted maintenance and training. I’m not saying that suicide, sexual assault, divorce, retention, and other issues are all directly related to longer deployments, but these issues don’t get better for sailors when you turn up the voltage on operational stress and strain. I’m also not saying that simply being better leaders will solve all our problems, but it’s a start. I recognize and applaud the efforts of top Navy leadership to balance operational commitments with force structure. Hopefully, we can put the term ‘superdeployment’ in our history books instead of our current lexicon. However, until operational tempo is stabilized, Navy leaders must confront the reality of superdeployments, adapt to the challenges, and lead our sailors as they deserve to be led.

 

Jimmy Drennan is a Surface Warfare Officer, currently assigned as the Operations Officer on USS GETTYSBURG. He has deployed three times to Europe and the Middle East. When not deployed, he spends as much time as he can with his wife, Lindsey, and his two daughters, Sally and Dot.

 

Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery