The Drift

Navigation Brief

ALEXANDRIA – Good Evening, Drifters

Big news out of the Navy today, but those of you who remember The Drift Vol. IX will not have been terribly surprised.

Just as predicted here, Adm. Bill Moran, vice chief of naval operations, was selected as the nominee for the Navy’s top job. I’m technically off today because I’m in the middle of a move and spread between two homes. But as I was putzing around my new yard today I realized that there is no flag officer in the Navy with whom I’ve had more interaction over the past half-decade than Moran.

The Chief of Naval Personnel is the Navy Times job and as a Navy Times reporter I had semi-frequent conversations with then-Vice Adm. Moran about new policies and changes to existing policies that would affect sailors on the deck plates where Navy Times lives in terms of its coverage. Then as Vice Chief I’ve worked with him on a number of stories, most notably the Navy’s continuing actions to address issues that came to light in the wake of 2017’s deadly collisions.

So, I dug through my reporting on Moran from over the years to try and lend a little perspective on the man who will take the helm of the Navy over the next four years.

Let’s Drift.

DBL 

The Next CNO

Adm. Bill Moran is a native New Yorker who graduated from a High School up in the Hudson River Valley about an hour and a half north of New York City. He attended the Naval Academy and graduated in 1981. He was then trained as a P-3 Orion pilot.

He served in patrol squadron sin Maine and in Florida, then commanded Patrol Squadron 46, out of Whidbey Island, Washington, then commanded Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing 2 out of Hawaii. Ashore he served as a flag detailer out of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, as a senior aide to the Pacific Command commander, served on the Navy Staff, then worked as an aide to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Mullen.

When he was selected for flag, he took command of Patrol and Reconnaissance Group, then was named the head of N98, director of air warfare. As a three-star he took the reins of the Chief of Naval Personnel and that’s where we interacted for the first time.

Since I began covering him, two things stick out for me about Moran, and I hope that by going through them individually I can add a little context to his selection. One was his focus on rebuilding sailors’ trust as CNP, and the other is his efforts to keep communicating with the public, even during an era of greatly reduced engagement between the Pentagon and the media.

Rebuilding Trust

At Chief of Naval Personnel, he made rebuilding trust between senior leadership and sailors a top priority.

When Moran took over as CNP, the situation between the deck plates and senior leadership was grim. In late 2011, the Navy announced that about 3,000 sailors with between seven and 15 years of service had been involuntarily separated as part of an Enlisted Retention Board. The Navy broke the contracts of the sailors it separated and, whether Big Navy intended it or not, the message to sailors’ who saw their shipmates booted was that Navy leadership couldn’t be trusted to hold up their end of deal in good faith.

When Moran took the helm at CNP, he made clear: No more ERBs.

“I think we, leadership, lost their confidence,” Moran told Faram in 2014. “The second- and third-order effects were this loss of trust, if you will, by sailors out there — not only those who were selected as part of ERB for separation [but also] those remaining who felt threatened by it.”

When an independently conducted survey reported that trust was still low on the deck plates, Moran took the time to talk with me about it. And while it was clear he didn’t think a whole lot of the methodology of the survey, he didn’t shy away from acknowledging the lingering affects of ERB.

"The [enlisted retention board], for example, was impersonal, though it touched people in a very personal way," Moran said. "So, I can see how sailors would connect some of those feelings with senior leadership."

He also pushed for and received permission to pay sailors extra for deployments that ran longer than 220 days, which was becoming the norm in the wake of a huge increase in presence demands prior to across-the-board spending cuts. And when the Navy put forward a plan to cut more than 6,000 sailors in 2017 from the payrolls, he called me and Faram in to tell us that the cuts were going to come from cutting accessions and normal attrition, not through force-outs.

As a reporter, I never know for sure if what I’m being told or what I’m being presented is the genuine article, but I make my best judgments. And my judgement of Moran at CNP was that he was the real deal.

He seemed to genuinely care about restoring sailors’ confidence in their leadership, and he wasn’t afraid to tell them that the Navy got it wrong with ERB. That’s not an easy thing to do as a flag officer, especially since it means publicly criticizing decisions made by your predecessors, something that flags are loathed to do. But in this case, it was what needed to be done to restore trust.

Communication

Of all the things Moran has said and I’ve reported on, one statement really surprised me. During testimony shortly after the second collision, Vice Chief Moran told lawmakers that the Navy had been operating under a flawed set of assumptions about the readiness of its Japan-based ships.

“I personally made the assumption and have made the assumption for many, many years that our forward deployed naval forces in Japan were the most efficient, well-trained and most experienced forces we had because they are operating all the time. I made the assumption, it was a wrong assumption in hindsight.”

It was one of the few times in my career I’ve ever heard a senior Navy leader admit so openly to having been out of touch. And not out of touch in the sense of distancing one’s self from an ugly situation (which is plenty common), but out of touch in a way that could have reflected poorly. But he didn’t stay out of touch.

Since that testimony, Moran, along with Undersecretary of the Navy Thomas Modly, have led the Navy’s efforts to implement the recommendations from the Comprehensive Review and the Secretary of the Navy’s Strategic Readiness Review. In that capacity, he has invited USNI’s Sam Lagrone and me to his office once a quarter to discuss the implementation of the findings. That’s important to note because since the beginning of the Mattis era at DOD and since his departure, most senior leaders have found it easy to avoid communicating with the media. Moran has been a notable exception. As a reporter, if I’ve needed something from his office, they are more responsive than most.

Beyond his media engagement, he has also leaned into tough issues in his public comments. During his presentation at Surface Navy Association, a week before Trump was sworn into office, Moran told the audience that before the Navy began trying to grow the fleet, the fleet needed money to fix the ships it had.

“Deferred maintenance is insidious, it takes a toll on the long-term readiness of the fleet,” Moran said. “When the transition team came around to all of us in the building and asked us what we could do with more money right now, the answer was not to buy more ships. The answer was to make sure the 274 that we had were maintained and modernized to make 275 ships worth of combat power, then we will start buying more ships.”

Takeaways

So, what does this mean in terms of what kind of CNO Moran will be? Who knows. But if past is prologue there are a couple things I would look for:

  • Moran will likely keep an eye on deck plates. His background in personnel will likely come into play and I expect he will probably be interested in seeing through initiatives such as the push to revamp sailor training. Given his experience at CNP post-ERB, I suspect he will be cognizant of how sailors perceive policy initiatives when making big personnel moves.
  • I’ll be interested to see if Moran will try and reverse a perception of reduced transparency from the Navy. Whether fairly or unfairly (a matter for debate) the Adm. John Richardson era has drawn a lot of criticism for a perceived reduction in transparency. In my experience, Moran has been pro-engagement and I suspect he’ll carry that into his role as CNO if he is confirmed.

The Hotwash

Collisions Update

The other big news today was that the Navy was dropping charges against officers involved in the 2017 Fitzgerald collision.

From NPR:

The U.S. Navy is set to drop all criminal charges against two officers following the fatal collision that killed seven sailors aboard the USS Fitzgerald as the destroyer was on a secret mission.

The decision ends a years-long legal battle in which the Navy blamed Cmdr. Bryce Benson and Lt. Natalie Combs, among others, for what it determined was an "avoidable" accident caused, in part, by numerous leadership failures. But the move is also likely to end their naval careers.

A statement issued Wednesday explained that Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson recommended the negligence charges against the officers be withdrawn and dismissed.

"This decision is in the best interest of the Navy, the families of the Fitzgerald Sailors, and the procedural rights of the accused officers," the statement reads. "Both officers were previously dismissed from their jobs and received non-judicial punishment."

Continued: Navy Drops Criminal Charges Against Officers In USS Fitzgerald Collision Case

Read more: Some families of the Fitzgerald seven frustrated by decision to drop criminal charges

ProPublica’s take: How the Navy’s Top Commander Botched the Highest-Profile Investigation in Years

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