WASHINGTON — In an eyebrow-raising statement, the acting undersecretary of the U.S. Navy complained about congressional oversight of naval programs, suggesting that current leaders shouldn’t be held responsible for previous administrations’ failures.
“You shouldn’t be held guilty for the sins of your parents,” Gregory Slavonic said, “and I think the Navy is being called to task because of [the littoral combat ship] — that this administration had nothing to do with — but we’re having to fix it. [The aircraft carrier] Gerald Ford, all those challenges, we’re being held by our feet to the fire to make those things right. And we didn’t have anything to do with it.”
Slavonic decried resistance on Capitol Hill to the Navy’s plans to rapidly develop unmanned systems, which have been derailed for two years because of congressional concerns over the service’s suspect track record for maturing new technologies on programs such as the Ford-class carrier and the littoral combat ship.
“Some of these people may have been in these jobs too long,” he said.
It is certainly true that lawmakers have been vocal in their dissatisfaction with the Navy over its delays in fielding a fully working carrier Ford and LCS, and that many of the issues with Ford and LCS date to decisions from the Bush administration. But that current leaders shouldn’t take the heat from lawmakers for ongoing failures: That notion doesn’t wash with many experts.
Even if the Navy’s current civilian leadership didn’t create many of the issues its working through, it hasn’t been very open about the ongoing problems either, said Bryan Clark, a retired submarine officer and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
“This administration [was] not clear with the Hill regarding the situation and challenges with Ford and LCS,” Clark said. “We keep getting reports from the waterfront about failed tests and design flaws, but the civilian leadership isn’t standing up and saying what the potential liabilities are and how they are going to address them.
“We may not be able to ‘fix’ LCS, but we can come up with a way to use them that mitigates their shortfalls. On Ford, they could just be more open about the state of its development, and make changes in how the current CVN [nuclear-propelled aircraft carrier] fleet is managed to avoid it being overworked in the meantime.”
The Navy has made fixing Ford and the LCS a priority in recent years, but trust between the Navy and Congress has eroded. In a three-part series run earlier this week, Defense News reported that Congress has been increasingly prescriptive in its dealings with the Navy and wants its leaders to focus first on developing and demonstrating new technology before it starts designing new platforms around said technology.
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, minced no words, saying Slavonic shouldn’t take criticism personally.
“Perhaps he should think more about the taxpayer and the country, and recognize that as a top leader of the Navy, he needs to help earn the nation’s trust for his institution in a way that transcends person, administration, or any given program,” O’Hanlon wrote in an email. “Whether problems with LCS and Ford are his fault or not, he needs to be part of the solution — and recognize that lawmakers acting in good faith but being tough on the Navy may be doing the country a service.”
Slavonic’s statement could be reasonably attributed to his short time remaining in the office, said Mackenzie Eaglen, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. But taking the heat for your predecessors is part of being in leadership, she added.
“While there is an element of fairness to the statement, it’s part of the job,” Eaglen said. “If you can’t defend or speak to lessons learned of your predecessors’ mistakes, then don’t take the gig. When Sen. [John] McCain blasted Air Force (and other) officials for buying the F-22 ‘hangar queen,’ they had to answer for decisions made before their time.”
Part of the reason Congress does this is to make clear to current political appointees that decisions they make will be felt, good or bad, after they leave office, Eaglen said.
When it gets right down to it, however, pointing backward at your predecessors’ failures isn’t an option for commanders in the fleet, and it shouldn’t be for civilian leaders either, said Clark, the Hudson Institute analyst.
“As any commander knows, you inherit the ship and crew as is, and you then own it,” Clark said. “That’s part of the job.”
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.