JO's Lament Illustrates Hollow Defense Debate

August 16, 2000

Comment: #378

Discussion Thread:  Retention and Morale Problems Comment #s 126, 129, 136, 137, 138, 142, 155, 186, 206, 207, 233, 242, 261, 281, 282, 303, 321, 336, 337, 344, 345

The Rising Cost of Low Readiness - Comment #s - 45, 98, 100, 101, 105. 110, 114, 117, 120, 121, 123, 129, 134, 159, 165, 167, 169, 182, 183, 184, 185, 191, 202, 227, 231, 259, 298, 347, 359, and 360.


The following email has been circulating around the net. According to my source (a Navy Captain), it was written by a Junior Officer (JO) Naval aviator and then passed into general circulation by a highly experienced VF-type LCDR, Naval Aviator (i.e., a fighter pilot). I do not know the identity of either officer, so I can not vouch personally for them, but the email drips with authenticity, and it was forwarded to me by an officer who I know to be an extremely capable and efficient leader and is highly regarded by his peers.

The unknown LCDR described the Junior Officer as "a frustrated but career oriented JO flying with a prestigious training organization in the desert." The LCDR said he agrees with the JO's points.


The email below is important because it describes the problems infecting our military as viewed through the eyes of a demoralized junior officer at the pointy end of the spear. Many people, including both presidential candidates and most members of Congress, believe that these problems are caused by budget cuts and money shortages, and therefore, the solution is to throw money at the Pentagon, even though there is no major threat on the horizon to justify a return to Cold War spending levels.

The frustrated JO certainly perceives this when he says, the problem is about money. From his perspective, this is a perfectly reasonable conclusion - because he experiences shortages, substandard equipment, training cutbacks, etc. as the source of these problems. Obviously, more money spend on such things should alleviate his frustrations.

What he does not and can not see, however, is that the Navy has not cut its budget if it is viewed on a per unit of combat power basis. In fact, today the Navy is generally spending MORE to support operations per unit of force structure than it did at the height of the Vietnam War in 1968 or even at the height of the Reagan spendup in 1987.

The following tables illustrate this point. They compare the Department of the Navy's (including Marine Corps) spending for Operations and Maintenance (O&M$ expressed on FY 2001 constant or inflation-adjusted dollars) to the number of ships, airplanes and active duty uniformed personnel in 1968, 1987, and 2000. [Note: data limitation preclude me from showing Marine maneuver battalions, but Marine aircraft are included.]

  1968 1987 2000
O&M$ (millions) $27,000 $37,800 $27,300
Ships in Fleet 976 569 316
O&M$ per Ship (Mil) $24.7 $66.4 $84.4


  1968 1987 2000
Airplanes in Fleet 8448 5433 4108
O&M$ per Plane (Mil) $3.2 $7.0 $6.6


  1968 1987 2000
Total Manpower 765,000 587,000 367,769
O&M$ per Person $25,000 $48,000 $50,000


Now, the O&M budget buys more than direct ship or airplane operations (steaming and flying); it includes everything it takes to run the Navy from ship yards to steaming hours to hospitals to golf courses to marine maneuvers. But it is fair to say that these expenditures either directly or indirectly support the Navy's fighting power. So, while the ratio of O&M$ to inventory levels is not a cost per se, it is an index that does represent a relevant input measure of the burden of operations. Changes in that index suggest how these support costs are changing in the aggregate over time.

So what does the table tell us? Today's peacetime Navy is spending MORE than it did during the Vietnam war (after removing the effects of inflation), yet it has 50% less manpower and is supporting the peacetime operations of a ship fleet that is 68% smaller and an air fleet that is 51% smaller than either was during Vietnam. In other words, after removing the effects of inflation, today's peacetime ratios of O&M$ per ship, per aircraft, and per active duty person is 212%, 108%, and 100% more than it was at the height of the Vietnam War.

A similar comparison to 1987 to today reveals the following changes: O&M spending declined by 28%, but the ship fleet declined by 44% and personnel declined by 31%. Airplanes, on the other hand, declined by 24%; so the ratios O&M$ per ship and per person increased by 30% and 5% respectively, while that for airplanes decreased by 4.5%.

Bear in mind, these changes occurred despite 30 years of predictions that new reliability and maintainability technologies would reduce operating costs per unit and thereby offset the higher procurement costs per unit of complex technologies. Similar snake oil promises are being made today about operating costs in the future to justify yet another round of investments in a new generation of even more expensive and complex weapons.

In short, the tables suggest the RISING COST OF LOW READINESS, not budget cuts, is the real cause of the problems described in the following email, UNLESS you are willing to make the absurd assumption that EVERYTHING the Junior Officer is complaining about to the 4.5% reduction in the ratio of O&M$ to the number of airplanes.

With this background in mind, I ask you to read the following email carefully.

Email from a Frustrated JO in the Trenches

"First, it IS about money. Not necessarily money in everybody's pockets (although I don't know anyone who'd complain about that).

It's about having enough money to do the job you've been assigned to do. It's about having leaders with the balls to tell their superiors that the emperor is in fact naked. It's about training in aircraft with second-rate sensors and systems, and no plan from the Navy leadership to do anything about it. It's about never getting to train with the ordnance that will supposedly be your bread & butter in combat. It's about coming back from a 75 trap cruise [1 trap = a carrier landing & 75 is a low number, 100 traps would be considered a good cruise, and in late 1980s, 130 trap cruises were not unheard of] and seeing half of your squadron's aircraft cannibalized and thrown into preservation for 6 months just a day after the fly in. It's about going to the PR shop in the 2nd quarter of the fiscal year to turn in your threadbare flightsuits for new ones and being told that we're already out of money. It's about watching how shabbily the veterans who served before you are treated by the government who promised them, among other things, to provide for their medical care in retirement.

"Second, while it's quaint to say we'll solve the retention problem by looking to the leadership styles practiced by the COs in the "good" and "bad" squadrons, JOs aren't leaving the Navy out of the fleet squadrons (although most of the Department Heads are). JOs are leaving in droves after tours as instructors in the RAGs, Training Command, and Weapons Schools [this is when their initial obligation is up]. JOs are quitting the Navy after tours as project officers in the Test Community. JOs are leaving because they realize the promised fixes to the above-mentioned problems simply aren't going to happen.

"Third, JOs aren't sticking around to put in their time as Ship's Company and/or do stints at the "Puzzle Palace" to fight the budget battles, because they don't feel it's worth it. It's not that they don't want to put the "ball" down and "play hard" when it's their turn to do some of the "blocking." It's that they have never had and probably never will get the opportunity to "play hard" and "carry the ball" like their leaders have. "Taking one for team" in order to get the chance to do another 6 month, 100 hour, 75 trap cruise of 2v2 ladder AIC [simple air intercept training] just doesn't seem worth it."

This probably sounds like a lot of whining, especially to the men who launched off of the Yorktown at Midway, attacked the bridges at Toko Ri, delivered the mail to downtown Hanoi, and took night cat shots in partially mission capable Crusaders and Phantoms to confront the Soviet menace.

The fact of the matter is, however, that in the midst of the strongest economy that the country has seen in years (if not ever), defense budgets continue to fall below what's required to maintain our global presence. The fact of the matter is that the Soviet menace is no more. Instead, US power and prestige is squandered in half-assed political actions in places like OSW, Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo, while the Commerce Department is allowed to pave the way for increased technology transfer to potential adversaries in places like China and Iran.

"While some JOs certainly aspired to careers in the airlines even before their first flights in T-34's at Whiting Field or Corpus Christi, most did not and most still do not. They continue to wait for fixes promised by the Navy's leadership.

Seeing only 10 hour flight time months, however, continued parts shortages, the gross disparity between the support given to the Reserves and the Active forces, and with no end in sight, they feel that they have little choice but to move on.

Call them back from their airline jobs when the Commies end up storming across the Golden Gate Bridge. I assure you that they'll gladly drop what they're doing to put up a fight. In the meantime, perhaps DOD should consider contracting-out its combat functions like it has everything else...

Very Respectfully,
A frustrated JO"

End email

Now, in view of the RISING COST OF LOW READINESS implied by the Table above, ask yourself the following question: Will throwing more money at the Pentagon's budget solve the JO's problems any more than throwing money at Medicare would fix its cost growth problems?

[New readers can learn more about the RISING COST OF LOW READINESS and how it is wrecking our military by perusing Comment #s 45, 98, 100, 101, 105. 110, 114, 117, 120, 121, 123, 129, 134, 159, 165, 167, 169, 182, 183, 184, 185, 191, 202, 227, 231, 259, 298, 347, 359, and 360.]

Bear also in mind, there are two other components to the Defense Death Spiral that must also be resolved, if we are to put the military on a viable evolutionary pathway - (1) a modernization program that can not modernize the force, because new weapons are so expensive, we can not buy enough of them to modernize the force on a timely basis, and consequently weapons will get older over time, even if the modernization program unfolds perfectly; and (2) a corrupt accounting system (see Comment #169) that renders it impossible to assemble the detailed information to needed to make the detailed tradeoff and makes a mockery of the accountability clause of the Constitution, which every member of the Defense Department has taken a sacred oath to uphold

Rather than throwing money at a process that converts budget increases into cost growth, we would do better to recognize that real reform desperately needed to save our military (which is first and foremost people like the JO). The situation is becoming desperate, because there is not much time left before the mushrooming bow wave of demographically driven Medicare and social security expenditures places the rising budget requirements of the Pentagon in a war against the aged and infirm? A war the Pentagon can not -- and should not -- win.

Any bets that Mssrs. Bush or Gore will address these problems as they fall over each other pandering to the voracious appetites of the defense contractors?

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]