war on the rocks

Healthy Tradition Sacrificed on the Altar of Innovation in the Naval Service

November 9, 2016

Late last month, a “We The People” petition  to reverse a major U.S. Navy policy decision passed the 100,000 signature mark, which means the White House is committed to respond within 60 days. No, it was not about the size of the fleet, a new class of ships, or how to win a war against an adversary. It was about what seemed to many outside the Navy as a minor thing: dispatching with traditional rating specialty titles, as announced by Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, and Master Chief Petty Officer Mike Stevens.

The ferocious backlash against the decision to upend the traditional rating system has been a sight to behold. As outlets such as The Navy Times have reported, sailors up and down the chain of command have widely panned the measure as confusing, unnecessary, and an affront to a closely held tradition that dates back to the age of sail. To compound matters, the changes were rolled out in a cold-turkey, no-explanation manner that has left the servicemembers staggered. In order to understand the systemic nature of what seems to outsiders as a simple semantic shift, it is necessary to examine just how important tradition, ratings, and the identities associated with them are to the Navy.

In the early years of U.S. naval aviation, in 1912 and 1913, new pilots were faced with a conundrum. Training primarily on the grass and dirt fields of North Island in Southern California, which then was far from the bustling port is it now, the aviators could not keep their uniforms clean. The white of their trousers and caps was continually stained brown by the dust blowing off of wooden propellers and the engine oil seeping from poorly sealed power-plants. Their solution was to adopt the khaki uniforms of their Marine Corps counterparts and high-laced brown boots. This uniform change helped establish traditions that still permeate naval aviation today. Aviators, and enlisted senior non-commissioned officers (chiefs), still proudly wear their brown shoes. However, this is far from the only visual or sentimental element that permeates the sea services.

In fact, tradition is more a part of the Navy than in any other service. When Carl Builder, in his book The Masks of War, he described the Navy’s relationship with its traditions:

[The] reverence for tradition in the U.S. Navy has continued right to the present, not just in pomp or display, in the Navy’s approach to almost every action from eating to fighting….In tradition, the Navy finds a secure anchor for the institution against the dangers it must face.

The Navy’s senior leaders presumably understand the power and value of these traditions better than anyone else, which makes their decision to disband the Navy’s rating structure without even explaining why or what would come next all the more baffling. This change can be justified, in part, as a sign that the Navy is an innovating organization, but tradition and innovation need not be in conflict with each other.

Let’s break down what exactly happened. The Chief of Naval Operations issued NAVADMIN 218/16 as the fiscal year came to a close. Up until this point, sailors had been addressed by their “rating,” or their specialty function in the Navy, some of which date back to the 18th century, followed by a number pertaining to their rank. For instance, a petty officer third class that is a “gunner’s mate,” (abbreviated “GM”_) would be addressed as GM2. This practice began at the dawn of the Navy as colloquial manners of addressing sailors with special skills. It was later codified, for personnel management, during the Civil War. The replacement for this “rate” under the new system is a numerical code, termed a “naval occupational specialty,” or NOC, which leaves the former GM being simply called Petty Officer. While the NOC may seem a simple name change, the shake-up is much deeper than semantics and indicates an entirely new way of personnel management. This new system is meant to portray a more flexible, business-like, and post-military focus:

The intent is to transform our enlisted personnel business processes to maximize talent management and career flexibility, while arming our Sailors with superior training and widely recognized credentials that will convey to the civilian workforce.

The problem is, no one seems to know what any of this actually means. The Chief of Naval Personnel, Vice Admiral Robert Burke, stated in defense of the measure that “opening enlisted career paths will enhance our ability to optimize talent in our enlisted workforce.” He also said that part of the plan is yet to be revealed but will entirely change the previous, more linear, system. Secretary Mabus and former Master Chief Petty Officer Stevens have also emphasized a gender-neutralizing of job-titles suffixed with “man”, in the name of inclusivity. However, while well-intentioned, it seems that doing away with the rating system to do so may be throwing the baby out with the bath water. The actual rating name change, and resultantly the tradition attached to it, is to be implemented immediately, without so much as a preparatory warning, with the structural NOC implementation to follow at an unspecified time in phases. This may seem like small potatoes to people outside the Navy — just a minute change in wording that we shouldn’t be too worried about — but it is far more than that.

Distinction is in everything that the Navy does and in every way that it operates. Sailors wear their (former) ratings on belt-buckles, hats, and their dress uniforms. Ships have a unique belt-buckle that both officers and enlisted sailors are allowed to wear, generally emblazoned with the name and likeness of the ship, as well as its motto. Each ship that is not the first of its name has, somewhere, a plaque or list of its predecessors, ensuring that that distinct lineage is preserved. Members of other services would argue that they too have long traditions and are cognizant of their heritage, and they do, but not in the same way as the Navy. As pointed out by Builder, tradition is the anchor of the service. Names like Essex, Bonhomme Richard, and even Constitution, are still afloat and a direct, tangible link to the very foundations of the Navy. Indeed, in these traditions, the true soul of the Navy resides.

Proponents of the foundational change have used inanities like “tapping into brilliance” to describe it. It has even been coined a “slight” change, rather than the entry into uncharted waters that it truly is. Believers have leveled scathing criticism at the Navy of old as a barrier to positive change. Indeed, in a recent article for the Naval Institute Blog Lt. Alex Smith noted that “…an organization glued to tradition is an organization drifting off course and not innovating.” He encouraged those with a dim view of the change not to take to social media to criticize. Smith’s writing and the exhortations of other advocates of this change comprise an effort to paint those reluctant to dismiss 240 years of culture and deeply held identity as irrational traditionalists guilty of the worst of 21st century sins: not being innovative. If you listen to some in the cult of disruptors, tradition is simply a roadblock to progress. This is not only an attempt to side-step legitimate criticism by portraying all who disagree as curmudgeonly, but it also represents a failure to honestly address the motivations behind the changes as well as possible negative second and third order effects. Distinction and rivalry within the ranks can be positive motivators in a military force.

The tension between innovators and traditionalists is not a new phenomenon for the Navy, but in today’s environment where buzzwords dominate and the utility of historical context is actively being discouraged, the ramifications of sweeping change are not being examined critically. The reflex is instead to defend the new and sacrifice the old. But innovation alone does not sustain the capacity to build and execute sound policy and strategy, in fact, innovation can be a distraction at the expense of good policy and strategy, by sacrificing tradition and historically oriented judgement in favor of newness.  No one learns from bulldozing a monument. They learn from studying it, discussing it, understanding its significance, and putting it into context to help inform our continuing human journey. The rating change bulldozes a 240-year-old monument and adds nothing in return. The overhaul’s significance is not just limited to history, however, but its modification to the structure of the Navy as well.

The largest problem posed by NAVADMIN 218/16 involved its intent to re-focus military training with a civilian sector product in mind, creating a problem that the Navy does not currently have. The new business-centric flexibility plan, with its new NOC label and its aim at smoothing the transition from Navy life to the civilian world, creates a problem instead of fixing one. Framing the action as one of a new weapon system is a useful analog. Imagine the Navy acquiring a brand new helicopter. Like sailors, money is spent on acquisition, training, maintenance, upgrades, and service-life, but if the ultimate goal was to give the well-honed helicopter to a civilian logging company, the result would be a colossal waste of money. The purpose of the Navy’s personnel system is to create and manage expert technicians to operate and maintain weapon systems not to train them to better fit into the civilian sector. The new more “flexible” plan would compound this problem by allocating more money per-sailor to flexibly cross-train, with the aim of making them better civilians. This is not to say the Navy should not do right by its people and help them to transition, if desired, but designing the entire personnel structure of the force with that aim is an exercise in folly. The focus should be instead on recruiting new technitions, and retaining those that we have already trained at tax-payer expense. This is not to say that the current personnel system is perfect, and it does indeed deserve examination, but the currently proposed changes are not the solution and may ultimately end up driving down morale by destroying the closely held, centuries-old, identities of our sailors.

The most shocking fall-out of the NAVADMIN changes truly come from the lack of communication as to exactly what the proposed new system will look like and how it will better the service. As of now, there is almost nothing that has been articulated to assuage fears that this is a poorly-thought out, last-minute upending of tradition conducted by a secretary of the navy whose tenure is rapidly coming to a close. All that has been released is that sometime in the future, over an unspecified period of time, things will get better, and different, and more flexible for our enlisted sailors. The “how” is a total mystery. If there is in fact an actual strategy behind the effort, it has not been communicated. What has instead happened is not at all unpredictable:  Sailors without guidance, told that their former identity no longer exists, have perceived the change as just one more measure intended to make the Navy more inclusive instead of more effective. In fact, this is the only hard piece of data that those effected by the changes have:  The original intent was to remove “man” from rating-titles, and the effort spun out of control from there into a total-overhaul of the enlisted navy’s career progression system. If these reports are true, then this is a post-facto justification for an effort the leadership of the Navy had intended to make regardless of a demand signal for better career progression opportunities. At this point, without clear communication, guidance, and a coherent strategy that is disseminated to all hands, it is difficult to imagine that the proposed changes will be looked on with any amount of favor. Indeed, at this point, with almost nothing to go on, the battle of optics may have already been lost.

In a recent podcast with War on the Rocks, Gen. James Mattis had some exceedingly insightful comments where recent military changes are concerned. “Every society, including military society, has a carrying capacity for change along a certain timeline…and if it doesn’t enhance lethality we must be very careful.”  Some innovators believe that institutions and organizations not only have a limitless capacity for change but should be nearly entirely forward looking in their direction. Military experience teaches that innovation can be a double edged sword, and an ignorance of history, and its context, is an intolerable, and often deadly, sin.  There are traditionalists that will oppose every proposed change simply due to the fact that they modify the existing structure, but by the same coin, there are innovators who oppose every tradition simply because it is old. The military cannot continue changing limitlessly, but it cannot also remain rooted to the past.  This denotes a need for balance. Finding a middle ground between change for change’s sake while still respecting the soul of an institution should permeate every discussion about the future of not just the Navy but our military in its entirety.  The blunt nature of the roll-out of the NAVADMIN 218/16 changes, coupled with their seismic nature, should require that they be re-addressed. The decision is obviously an unpopular one with sailors at every level of the service, and they, through the recent petition and articles, have leveled legitimate criticism against making the changes. To continue to ignore their calls and forge ahead, with what seems like no real plan except for removing “man” from job titles, is the worst kind of knee-jerk leadership that unnecessarily up-ends the tradition that gives the Navy its identity and sunders the necessary balance between tradition and innovation in favor of the latter.


Lieutenant Jack McCain, U.S. Navy, is a helicopter pilot with operational experience in Guam, Japan, Brunei, the Persian Gulf, and the Western Pacific and is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He is currently assigned as an instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy. The opinions he expresses in this article are his own and represent no U.S. government or Department of Defense positions.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by MC1 Micah Blechner