This past summer, my colleagues and I at the Center for Security Policy honored Dr. John Lehman, former Secretary of the US Navy under President Reagan and the individual most identified with the maritime aspect of that president’s “peace through strength” philosophy, the 600-ship Navy. (Watch Dr. Lehman accept the 2011 Freedom Flame Award here.)
This week, Dr. Lehman is again making waves. In his provocative new article in the US Naval Institute’s Proceedings, the former Navy Secretary asks, “Is Naval Aviation Culture Dead?” In a piece that could be subtitled, “in praise of swagger,” the ex-Navy flier takes aim at institutional political correctness that stifles innovation and chance-taking, tracing the downward spiral to the aftermath of the 1991 Tailhook scandal.
There are, of course, the armchair strategists and think-tankers who herald the arrival of unmanned aerial vehicles as eliminating the need for naval aviators and their culture, since future naval flying will be done from unified bases in Nevada, with operators requiring a culture rather closer computer geeks. This is unlikely.
As the aviator culture fades from the Navy, what is being lost? Great naval leaders have and will come from each of the communities, and have absorbed virtues from all of them. But each of the three communities has its unique cultural attributes. Submariners are imbued with the precision of engineering mastery and the chess players’ adherence to the disciplines of the long game; surface sailors retain the legacy of John Paul Jones, David G. Farragut and Arleigh “31 Knot” Burke, and have been the principal repository of strategic thinking and planning. Aviators have been the principal source of offensive thinking, best described by Napoleon as “L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace!” (Audacity, audacity, always audacity!)
Those attributes of naval aviators–willingness to take intelligent calculated risk, self-confidence, even a certain swagger–that are invaluable in wartime are the very ones that make them particularly vulnerable in today’s zero-tolerance Navy. The political correctness thought police, like Inspector Javert in Les Misérables, are out to get them and are relentless.
The history of naval aviation is one of constant change and challenge. While the current era of bureaucracy and political correctness, with its new requirements of integrating women and openly gay individuals, is indeed challenging, it can be dealt with without compromising naval excellence. But what does truly challenge the future of the naval services is the mindless pursuit of zero-tolerance. A Navy led by men and women who have never made a serious mistake will be a Navy that will fail.