The US Navy is More Than Just Broken, Careerism is Tearing It Apart

USS Gerald R. Ford ($3 billion). Photo: US Navy.

Last year, Major General John Ferrari, US Army (Ret.), a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute penned an article titled “The Navy is broken. Congress must launch a commission to find the path forward” in which he described the Navy as being beset by very serious problems caused by several factors:

+ “Combatant Commanders and successive administrations overuse of the Navythat led to huge maintenance backlogs;

+ the Navy’s attempts to create mythical efficiencies that failed, thus destroying fleet readiness;

+ the Navy’s acceptance of being goaded into “transformational” or “leap ahead” ship building acquisition programs that led to the LCS, Joint Strike Fighter, and carrier acquisition debacles;

+ several decades of deferred modernization of the nuclear triad whose bills have to be paid at the expense of other Navy priorities; and

+ a constantly shifting resource profile from Congress, specifically the decade long Budget Control Act, which starved the Navy of steady funding it needed to purchase capital assets that take years to build.”

Furthermore, “As a result of all these factors, the Navy has broken people, broken ships, and broken readiness — and now faces an inflation crisis, once again echoing the Army of the late 1970s.”

His report is damning, but there is one crisis that he failed to mention, which is understandable because he is a retired general and probably has no complaints about the promotion system which rewarded him known as “Up or Out” and the obsession with promotions that results, to the detriment of military professionalism and competence. This problem amplifies careerism and affects the entire US military, not just the Navy, and any serious attempt to reform or improve the services and their ability to fight and win wars has to take this into account.

Careerism runs rampant according to military reformer Colonel G I Wilson, USMC (Ret.). In the book The Pentagon Labyrinth: 10 Short Essays to Help You Through it, he argues:

“It is appalling that so many senior officers think that the military is all about getting promoted and accumulating as many signs of rank and status as possible, completed with a host of perks. What is lost on careerists is that they are getting the opportunity to actually do things that most people only dream of, or get to see just in the movies. They are so prevalent because bureaucracies are in effect designed by and for careerists propagated by reams of regulations and layers of superfluous commands. Bureaucracies give careerists a place “to be somebody” rather than an opportunity to do something. They are promoted because of a zero defect record of playing it safe, making no controversial decisions and requiring others to do the same.”

In other words, and to expand on what Colonel Wilson just said, getting promoted is more important than being a competent officer, and one must be promoted regularly to stay in the service. It’s even more important to the service then winning wars! Many fine officers get booted out of the Navy simply for not being promotable, and to be promoted one must play it safe at all times, not rock the boat, know the right people, and kiss up to one’s superiors as much as possible. These tendencies have been noticed by foreign officers serving on exchange in the USN. Lieutenant Commander Aidan Talbott of the Royal Navy did a two year exchange with the USN and was frankly horrified by the careerism of American naval officers and the politicization of the promotion system which even takes into account how good looking an officer is when he or she comes before the promotion boards! As he put it in 2004:

“The USN is hideously political and who you know or worked for is often as important as your professional ability. They have recently begun to spin it and call it ‘mentoring’ but, in reality, it is no more than an insidious and unregulated black market selection method for promotion. Affirmative action by both race and sex is in evidence, even at the expense of ability, and their promotion boards even insist on full length front and side profile photographs; I was told there is clear statistical evidence that those of unprepossessing appearance do not get promoted.”

More recently, Lieutenant General Schmidle, USMC (Ret.) and Rear Admiral Montgomery, USN (Ret.) reported that: “The zero-defect Navy is perceived by sailors as an agent of careerism, a practice that attrits bold, combat-focused leaders in favor of more timid bureaucrats. One former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense who served as a surface warfare officer warned that this creates a harmful incentive structure in the Navy ranks. ‘These are guys that are totally zero-risk,’ he said of the surface warfare community. ‘Because they’re like, ‘Hey, I’m going to be the [commanding officer] for 15 months, why try to get [to] the battle? Why try to do really important boardings in the Middle East? I’m just going to make sure I’m talking to the admiral over the VTC (Video Tele-Conference) and [make] sure that he’s for it?’ And I just found that to be really sad.” The implication is clear; the independence of command has been eroded and commanding officers fear risk due to its adverse impact upon their careers.”

The USN, as General Ferrari mentioned above is “broken”, but I say that unless the Up or Out promotion system, which creates mindless careerism at the expense of EVERYTHING else, is done away with once and for all, the USN will never be a first rate navy no matter how much money is thrown at it.


John Ferrari, “The Navy is broken. Congress must launch a commission to find the path forward”, Breaking Defense, June 8, 2022.

GI Wilson, “Careerism” in Winslow T. Wheeler (ed.), The Pentagon Labyrinth: 10 Short Essays to Help You Through it, (Washington: Center for Defense Information, 2011). p.46.

Aidan Talbott, “The United States Navy – Feet of Clay”, The Naval Review, Vol. 92, No. 4, 2004, p. 321.

Lieutenant General Robert E. Schmidle, USMC (Ret.) and Rear Admiral Mark Montgomery, USN (Ret.) “A Report On The Fighting Culture of the United States Navy Surface Fleet”, 2021.

Roger Thompson is a research fellow at Dalhousie University’s Centre for the Study of Security and Development, the author of Lessons Not Learned: The US Navy’s Status Quo Culture, a former researcher at Canada’s National Defence Headquarters and Korea’s first Star Trek professor.