CNO Adm. Vern Clark took the helm and turned the Navy upside down
Challenge every assumption. That has been Adm. Vern Clark’s central
message since he became chief of naval operations (CNO) in July 2000.
Convinced the Navy was not ready for the volatile security environment
of the 21st century, Clark began early on to reshape its fighting units
and rewrite the default strategies for its support operations. He quickly
restructured OpNav, the office of the chief of naval operations, and
created the Fleet Forces Command to integrate the manning, equipping
and training of U.S. naval fleets.
In June 2002, Clark published “Sea Power 21,” the philosophical
centerpiece of his tenure as CNO, which calls for a new Navy “for
a violent era.” That was followed by a host of naval reforms, including
the Sea Basing concept that would enable U.S. forces to use the world’s
oceans as staging areas and end-run political or physical barriers to
the battle space. In addition, the Navy and Marine Corps integrated their
air forces, saving $30 billion and bolstering naval tactical air capabilities.
The two services also created the Expeditionary Strike Group, a fighting
unit that put more muscle and greater power projection in the hands of
the nation’s combatant commanders.
But Clark’s lasting legacy may spring from his relentless focus
on the fundamentals that make the Navy tick, such as the recruitment
and retention of top performers, getting more value for money and the
rapid deployment of massive military power. His Human Capital Strategy
calls for revolutionary shifts in the service’s recruitment and
staff practices, including a blurring of the roles and responsibilities
of officers and senior enlisted personnel. Sea Enterprise is an array
of initiatives to take costs out of processes ranging from logistics
to day care, and use the funds to buy new hardware. The Sea Swap program
was created to get more sea days out of Navy vessels, which spend one-quarter
of their deployment times in transit. Clark envisions the deployment
of ships for two years, with crews flown to them for six-month periods.
The Fleet Response Plan encompassed a major shake-up of the service’s
maintenance and training schedules, enabling the Navy to “surge” six
carrier strike groups to world hot spots with two more available in 90
days. Previously, the Navy had two carriers deployed with a third in
a high state of readiness.
These and other changes have branded Clark an innovator and reformer,
but not everyone is applauding. Government auditors say Sea Swap is bad
for morale — a conclusion roundly disputed by the Navy hierarchy — and
some in Congress and industry are furious about Clark’s reduction
in the size of the Navy fleet and his 2006 ship construction plan containing
only four ships.
Clark points to the huge increases in productivity of Navy ships — a
carrier strike package can hit 680 targets per day today compared to
162 during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, for example — and often
reminds his audiences that, “We’re on a journey” over
an ever-changing strategic landscape.
The son of a Midwestern minister, Clark graduated from Missouri’s
tiny Evangel College and entered the Navy through the Officer Candidate
School program. His posts ranged from commander of the gunboat USS Grand
Rapids to director of the Joint Staff’s Crises Action Team during
Desert Storm and commander of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet. Along the way,
Clark developed a reputation as a strategic planner and reflective leader
given to understatement, including this line buried in the text of his
Guidance 2005: “Tomorrow’s Navy will, in many ways, be strikingly
dissimilar to our Navy today.” Clark retires in July. He spoke
recently with Seapower Editor in Chief Richard C. Barnard.
You have said the Human Capital Strategy gives the individual the power
of choice. Is it correct that this strategy also puts more choice in
the hands of the Navy?
CLARK: That’s right. It moved the power of choice to commands.
In the future, the commands are going to be directly involved with the
sailors, who will all have their own web pages and submit their resumés
and compete online for jobs. The individual is competing and the Navy
has to compete in the 21st-century human capital marketplace in order
for us to win the battle for people. We are competing against the Fortune
500s of the world, not the Army or the Air Force or the Marine Corps.
We believe in the market, and this is based on market dynamics.
This is the most open and honest system that I know how to put in front
of people and say, “Hey, here it is. Go for it.” And on the
other side of the ledger, who knows better the strengths and weaknesses
inside a command than the command master chief and the executive officer.
They know how to best round out their team.
This is revolutionary. Our Navy is going to be better forever because
When you discuss the Human Capital Strategy, you usually mention the
senior enlisted ranks along with the phrase, “under-used asset.” Why?
CLARK: I have believed all my life that they are our greatest strength,
and I saw commands and places where they didn’t effectively use
the talent that was there. When I went to my first command, as a lieutenant,
I went to PCO (Prospective Commanding Officer) school, and had to write
a command philosophy statement. I still have it. And it says, in part: “In
this command we are going to remove the phrase, ‘This command doesn’t
know how to use chiefs.’” I believed that when I was a Lt.
j.g. main propulsion assistant, and I had a master chief who was helping
me become a good officer. I realized the brilliance of this individual
and how much he had to offer the organization.
As we launched the Human Capital Strategy, I started talking about blurring
the lines [between duties of officers and senior enlisted personnel]
because these people with incredible potential are going to have to be
stretched and challenged. That means more opportunity for them, because
they are better educated, smarter and more capable than they ever were
before. This is one of the ways we are going to win the battle for people
in the future.
Are there too many officers in the Navy?
CLARK: We are over allowance in the officer community. It happened for
some natural reasons — our approach to accessions and things that
we are fixing. An organization that is 229 years old can create some
bad habits. But I also believe that more of the kinds of tasks and duties
that were done by the officer corps are going to naturally migrate to
the senior enlisted structure.
One of the goals behind Sea Enterprise was to change the culture — the
way people think about the business of running the Navy. Has that happened?
CLARK: We’re on a journey. I came into this with a prejudice and
a bias. I had believed for some time that we probably had enough money.
We just didn’t spend it right. I continue to believe that we can
do much better. If you’re going to stand around on the corner with
a tin cup in your hand, you’re not going to have a very promising
future. The taxpayers give us a lot of money. And we have redirected
billions of dollars because we are collectively billions of dollars better
in the six inches between our ears. That’s where transformation
Talk to the Wally Massenburgs of the world and you find people who are
doing incredible things. You don’t redirect $55 million unless
you are doing some powerfully good stuff. [Vice Adm. Massenburg is commander,
Naval Air Systems Command.] We had five CNO executive boards on the flying
hour problem. It was going up at 13.6 percent a year. We were budgeting
for inflation at 3.2 percent. We were in crisis every year.
And, oh, by the way: Why was it going up like that? We didn’t
know the answer. We do now. And it’s not going up at that rate.
Isn’t that amazing?
What was the answer?
CLARK: It was all kinds of things. We had bloated inventories. We were
not investing effectively to change readiness rates. We were using the
wrong kind of metrics. Engine on wing [a measure of engines repaired
and re-installed] is an interesting number, but it’s not the right
number. The right number is the readiness of that system of systems inside
the airplane that makes it a ready unit. Out of all of these things,
the Fleet Response Plan was born. Now we’re delivering twice as
much combat capability on short notice to the nation than we were able
to deliver five years ago. That’s Sea Enterprise. That’s
changing the way people think about the process. And the team did it.
Like many of your other initiatives, Sea Swap will bring big changes
to the Navy. Does its success rely in part on a cultural change — new
people coming into the Navy who will have a different loyalty to their
CLARK: Cultures do change as new people come in. We knew that one of
the biggest challenges to Sea Swap was the name on the ball cap. But
instead of that being an impediment, it really is an indicator to us
of how strong teams are.
The idea behind Sea Swap is to get a better return on the taxpayer’s
investment. We’re burning up a third of the underway time in transit.
Our young people say it better than I do. Here’s a statement by
a young chief petty officer: “It’s not the easiest thing
in the world to do. Everybody’s resistant to change. But we are
willing to make that change. Other Navy units have done this. Like the
coastal patrol boats and the submarines got to do it. This is just another
one of these changes.”
The incredible loyalties sailors have to their ships are part of what
makes us great. In the future, ships will be operated by teams of people
that will be less wed to what’s on the ball cap. Maybe they’ll
even wear a team name
By the way, the Sea Swap test was done by Surface Forces, Pacific Fleet.
We just gave them the task and said, “Go try this.” You can
get away with anything if you call it a pilot. And we had a lot of pilots
going on. It’s the best way to experiment and learn. The Sea Swap
that we did isn’t the way Sea Swap is going to be when it’s
permanent. It’s going to be multi-crew.
What savings will be generated by Sea Swap?
CLARK: We are going to buy at least a 25 percent improvement in the
investment structure in ships. It may be better than that. In the Pacific,
a third of the deployment is chewed up in transit. And the Fleet Response
Plan will help us increase that figure.
Washington is fascinated with defense numbers: numbers of dollars and
numbers of ships. When you go to Capitol Hill, they want to measure your
success in numbers. Yet one of your jobs is to deliver capability to
the combatant commanders. Do you find that frustrating?
CLARK: I find it challenging. When I first started in the job, they
asked me how many ships I needed. I promised them a number and it took
me almost a year to get it because I had not been party to the analyses
that had been done. We had about 308 ships when I got here, and I came
up with 375. It’s important to note that this administration let
me use 375. It was never their number; it was my number. That speaks
volumes. I don’t know of a CNO who got to tout his own number and
who wasn’t blessed by the administration. This year, I told them
that 375 was no longer the right number.
The creation of a capabilities-based Navy requires a whole re-education
process. The national security process is complex. One of the things
that successful organizations do is learn how to turn complexity into
simplicity. We have to do that, and we have to do a better job of communicating
about a product that we’re producing for America.
So frustrating is the wrong word. It’s challenging. We have the
historical norm, but the numbers today don’t equate at all with
the numbers that we used 20 years ago. Our carriers are much more productive,
Is there going to be a change, or will Washington always concentrate
on the numbers.
CLARK: The change is happening. Absolutely. The chairman of the Senate
Sea Power Subcommittee [James M. Talent, R-Mo.] had a hearing and his
testimony states that the capabilities-based approach is a different
way of thinking. He vocalizes it in the hearing. The change is happening.
Another change being discussed is to integrate the air units of all
military services. Is that a good idea?
CLARK: The first order of business is the rationalization of all air
forces. I’m not sure where you go after that, I think that will
be part of the journey. You’ll learn a lot in the process. The
Navy and Marine Corps tactical air units have been integrated. We called
it TacAir integration, but we didn’t try to become one air force.
Some people would hear integration and think you’re going to create
one unit and it’s going to be the naval air force.
Our individuality, when made joint, brings great strength to the joint
fight. And we’re saving $30 billion to $35 billion. That is a lot
of money and, amazingly, we’re going to be more combat capable.
There are six or seven performance categories for evaluation, and we’re
more combat capable in every one except the unique case where you would
deploy all of the airplanes simultaneously. That is not even physically
I believe that there is room for rationalization of forces across all
of DoD (Department of Defense), and the major issue for the QDR [Quadrennial
Defense Review, a forthcoming Pentagon assessment of defense capabilities
and materiel] is to rationalize the resources.
What are you going to miss the most after your retirement?
CLARK: The people. I have loved this experience. I never thought I would
get a chance to do something like this. What a thrill it is to rub elbows
with people who believe in the lifestyle of the service and are willing
to commit themselves to the principles and the values that this nation
holds dear. I’m going to miss that something awful.
I love the tone of it. I love being in a Navy that has the longest waiting
list to get in that we’ve ever had. I love being in the Navy where
you’ve got to compete to be part of this team. I love being part
of an organization where people care about themselves and others. At
one point, the Chief of Naval Personnel came over and said retention
was 82 percent. When I first came in the service, it was 7 percent.
It’s that way today because the Navy is a great place to be. We’ve
studied the Gen-X (those born between 1965 and 1975) and Gen-Y and the
Millennials (birthdates from 1980-2000). Young people today want a chance
to prove what they can do. We promise to give them a chance.