Welcome to the CavasShips Podcast with Christopher P. Cavas and Chris Servello…a weekly podcast looking at naval and maritime events and issues of the day – in the US, across the seas and around the world. This week…the long-running Fat Leonard scandal took an unexpected turn when Leonard Glenn Francis – also known as Fat Leonard – fled federal house custody in San Diego on September 4, disappearing and presumably on the run. Ironically the escape came just a couple weeks before he was finally going to be sentenced in court. We’ll talk about what is probably the longest-running scandal ever to hit the US Navy with Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post, one of the key reporters doggedly pursuing the case.
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This Week’s Naval Round Up:
The British carrier HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH left Portsmouth, England September 7 for the United States, where she will fill in for sistership HMS PRINCE OF WALES as the center of a task group conducting F-35B Joint Strike Fighter and unmanned aircraft operations, as well as hosting an international conference in New York. The PRINCE OF WALES, who suffered a serious failure of a propeller shaft coupling on August 27 just after leaving for the mission, is now alongside in Portsmouth and will soon head north to Rosyth for repairs in a drydock. There is no timetable for the PRINCE’s return to service. Meanwhile, the Royal Navy’s new Littoral Response Group is preparing to leave for a NATO deployment to the Mediterranean Sea. The Littoral Response Group is led by the assault ship HMS ALBION.
Staying in Britain, Baroness Goldie of the Ministry of Defence reiterated in the House of Lords on September 8 the Royal Navy’s intention to purchase a total of 74 US-built F-35B Joint Strike Fighters. Twenty-six are now in service, with orders in hand for another 22 to be delivered by 2025.
The US Navy announced on Sept. 9 that the expeditionary fast transport APALACHICOLA, T-EPF 13, had completed acceptance trials and unmanned logistics prototype trials. The ship is the 13th Spearhead-class EPF built by Austal USA in Mobile, Alabama, but is the first fitted with an autonomous system developed by Austal, L3Harris and General Dynamics Mission Systems. The ship has carried out at least four trials where the autonomous system was engaged, ranging as far as high-traffic areas off the southern tip of Florida. Congress provided more than $70 million for the unmanned systems installation, which is for this ship only. While the system will remain in place upon delivery, neither the Navy nor Military Sealift Command have announced any intention to operate the ship in an unmanned mode; rather, MSC intends to base the ship in the western Pacific to service the US Seventh Fleet. The APALACHICOLA, however, is the largest vessel with unmanned capability in the western hemisphere and is similar in concept to the US Navy’s planned Large Unmanned Surface Vessel program.
The German frigate HESSEN left Wilhelmshaven in Germany September 6 bound for Norfolk, Virginia, where the Germans will join the GERALD R FORD Carrier Strike Group for the Ford’s upcoming initial deployment to begin this fall. For its part, the US Navy has so far not made public any details about the deployment, including what ships and aircraft will take part.
In war news, the Romanian coastal minesweeper LIEUTENANT DIMITRIE NICOLESCU struck a floating mine September 8 about 25 nautical miles off the port of Constanta in the Black Sea. According to a statement from the Romanian Navy, the ship was trying to neutralize the mine when the wind picked up as the ship approached and the mine struck the ship near the stern. The explosion caused only minor damage and the NICOLESCU remained afloat, the Romanian Navy said, and none of the ship’s crew were hurt. It is not clear who planted the mine, as both Ukraine and Russia have laid mines in the Black Sea since the beginning of their conflict in February. Romania said it was the third time a sea mine has entered Romanian waters during the war, adding that overall 28 mines have been destroyed in the western part of the Black Sea – three by Turkey, two by Romania, one by Bulgaria and 22 by Ukraine.
And in new ship news, fabrication began on September 7 for the future amphibious transport dock ship PITTSBURGH LPD 31. Under construction at Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi, the ship is the second San Antonio-class LPD built to the Flight II configuration.
As you just heard in our discussion with Craig Whitlock, there are multiple issues at hand with the Fat Leonard scandal – and not everyone agrees about where some of the emphasis should go in terms of finding those responsible and holding them accountable.
There is no question there was serious wrong doing on the part of many US Navy officers and civilian officials over many years. Great effort has been expended by both Navy and federal investigators to root out offenders and punish them, in ways ranging from career-ending punitive letters all the way up to extensive jail time and hefty monetary fines. There are indications now that the federal investigation is winding down – even as there is no doubt that while many were punished, many others will essentially have gotten away with it.
Most of the reporting on the scandal has focused on the crimes and ethics violations that clearly were endemic for many years in the western Pacific region. That was part of the problem – many officers and officials, while questioning the practices of Glenn Defense Marine Asia, were often told not to worry about it, it’s just the way business is done out here. Shaking their heads, a lot of individuals just went along with it or simply shrugged off their concerns.
It is difficult to change deeply ingrained behavior, no matter what we’re talking about. Racism, sexism, discrimination of all kinds. Social behaviors such as smoking, drinking, the use of language. Often it takes a key event to represent the culmination of grievances to the point where such behaviors – once tolerated, once accepted, once overlooked – are now no longer accepted. In the Tailhook Scandal of 1991, long-tolerated sexual harassment and sexual assaults by Navy aviators at the annual Tailhook convention finally exploded onto the national stage as examples of horrendous behavior – to say the least – that would no longer be tolerated. An extensive investigation followed, dozens of uniformed personnel were disciplined, the Tailhook organization was de-certified, congressional hearings dove deeply into the situation. Ultimately the scandal brought down the chief of naval operations. But after a couple years, the investigations tailed off. Sexual harassment remains a problem in the Navy, the military and in our society, but that particular investigation came to an end.
The Fat Leonard investigation has gone on far longer. It began in 2006. Francis was arrested in 2013 and that’s when the scandal finally became public. Further investigations have continued to this day. While only 34 individuals went to trial, dozens more have been punished. But the investigation itself negatively affected hundreds of individuals – and the vast majority of them were not found culpable of anything. Many weren’t even under investigation at all but were caught up in the blast effect of the probes. The damage to careers is incalculable, the damage to Navy leadership up and down the line is wide and deep and will not soon go away.
This is an incredibly complex topic. But it is by no means a clear, right or wrong, up or down, black or white issue. There are of course those cases of clear malfeasance. But there are far more where it simply was never that simple.