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…we heard a lot of speakers at the Surface Navy Association’s three-day symposium earlier in January. Now we give you the chance to hear some of what we heard, with press briefing excerpts from the US Navy’s top speakers, including Navy Secretary Del Toro and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday.
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This Week’s Naval Round Up:
South Africa announced January 19 that it will host warships from the Chinese and Russian navies for maritime exercises running from February 17 through the 27th. The MOSI Exercises will take place in and around Durban and Richards Bay. The South African ministry of defence noted it’s the second such exercise after similar maneuvers in November 2019 between the three countries in Cape Town. South Africa said the exercises were, quote, a “means to strengthen the already flourishing relations between South Africa, Russia and China.”
Media attention was raised January 18 with the release of a US Coast Guard video showing a Russian intelligence ship operating near Hawaiian waters. Although the Project 864 Vishnaya-class intelligence ship KARELIYA is a well-known Russian spy ship that has previously operated near Hawaii, the Coast Guard caption was inexplicably enigmatic, saying the ship was, quote, “believed to be an intelligence gathering ship.” But the video showed the KARELIYA wearing her pennant number, SSV 335, and included a closeup of the name of the Russian naval oiler refueling the ship, the PECHENGA. Intelligence ships and aircraft from Russia, China, the US and other countries routinely monitor each other’s military activities, usually from international waters and airspace.
US Navy and Coast Guard forces of the US Fifth Fleet and the Bahrain Defence Force are engaged in Exercise Neon Defender, an annual interoperability exercise carried out in the Persian Gulf. This year’s bilateral exercises began January 15 jointly directed by Bahrain and US Naval Forces Central Command headquartered in Bahrain. Later this year, the littoral combat ship USS INDIANAPOLIS is expected to make the second LCS deployment to the US Fifth Fleet. Navy leaders said the ship also will operate with the US Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean.
The commanding officers of two US Navy ships were relieved this week, with the announcements made back-to-back on January 19. Captain Michael Nordeen of the amphibious ship USS MESA VERDE and Commander Alexa Jenkins of destroyer CARNEY were each cited by reviewing officers for lack of confidence in their ability to command. While both ships are based on the US East Coast, it is unusual for two officers to have been relieved at virtually the same time. The Navy rarely provides details as to what specifically leads to the relief of a commanding officer.
In new ship news, the oiler EARL WARREN, T-AO 207, was christened January 21 at GD NASSCO’s San Diego shipyard. The ship was launched into the water last October 28 but without the full ceremony. Named for the former Supreme Court chief justice and sponsored by current justice Elena Kagan, the EARL WARREN is the third ship of the JOHN L LEWIS-class of fleet oilers.
As we mentioned at the top of the show, the Navy fired two commanding officers this week, announcing them in dual press releases put out on the same day. In both cases Navy officials said the decisions were a result of poor performance and not due to personal misconduct.
I’ll say upfront that I know Alexa Jenkins very well. My heart breaks for her, her family and her crew. I first met Alexa when she was a LTJG onboard USS Fort McHenry.
Command was something she aspired to even at that early rank. I was extremely happy for her when she was selected for early command and was again overjoyed when she became the commanding officer of Carney just last year.
I have no doubt that with the right mentorship and support she could have overcome whatever issues she encountered during the ship’s basic training phase and would have been an excellent deployment CO. Sadly, the Navy will never get to see her true command potential.
I do not know CAPT Michael Nordeen, the recently relieved CO of USS Mesa Verde, but my heart breaks for him, his family and his Sailors as well. A prior enlisted soldier, West Point graduate and career naval aviator with six Air Medals, including one for combat heroism and a separate Navy Commendation Medal for battlefield valor.
Nordeen was selected for the nuke power program, was a former XO of USS George Washington and by all accounts was a super star destined for more success.…but apparently he had communication issues with his crew and needed to go according to press reports.
Whether you know these leaders or not, whether there is more to the story than was publicly released…a reasonable person has to conclude that our Navy is less prepared and less ready for a fight without people like them leading Sailors and deterring conflict.
Every time the Navy fires an O5 or O6 I can’t help but wonder if the system did everything it could to help those commanding officers succeed. The service prides itself on holding COs accountable, but can it be equally proud of providing the support a leader needs when they struggle or make mistakes?
In the case of Jenkins and Nordeen did their chains of command send along extra support, make personal attempts to mentor, bring in help from the leadership school or the Afloat Training Group … or was relief the easiest lever to pull when they received heat for the screwups of their subordinates?
My concern in uniform, as it is now, is that when good people struggle with situations that are new to them, their leadership is unable to help them overcome those challenges and decides simply to toss their careers overboard rather than put in the needed time and effort to bring them up to speed.
I recognize there will be many listeners that disagree and say “so goes the life of a commanding officer.”
I’m not so sure that approach works with today’s leaders or the people that look up to them…and I’m even less confident that the Navy’s command bench is deep enough to toss aside COs at the first or second sign of professional trouble.
Whenever a ship or aircraft has a major accident hours go into investigating what went wrong, who’s to blame and how the organization should get better. I would argue the career of a commanding officer is at least as valuable as an expensive warship and the same care and diligence should be taken to understand why our leaders fall short.
The men and women that take command of our ships, squadrons and installations are the best the Navy and nation has to offer. They work and sacrifice for decades to take on these important roles and deserve the best the organization can provide them. I believe the chain of command exists to support these leaders–not the other way around, as is so often the case.
To that point, If the Navy’s leaders in Mayport, Norfolk and Washington aren’t racking their brains and beating themselves up over why their commanding officers failed, then they are not only negligent in their duties, but are missing a chance to make the organization better.