For far too long, the Surface Navy – the ships that sail on the ocean’s surface, as opposed to Navy submarines and aircraft – have been “asleep at the switch” in terms of the clear linkages between obtaining sufficient rest and on-the-job performance. Over the long course of my career as a ship captain, a commodore, and an admiral in command of a carrier strike group, I watched Sailors report to the bridge to take the watch who were clearly groggy, disoriented, and frankly not ready to take command of the ship – in so many cases, it was simple fatigue. The Navy is a demanding master, and on our ships at sea, a 20 hour day and a 120 hour week is not outside the norm. I wrote about the dangers of this approach in a short piece, “Sleep is a Weapon,” months ago.
Following two tragic and fatal collisions in the Western Pacific, the surface Navy is finally waking up to the need for scheduled periods of crew rest. Just as we demand and expect our airline captains to be rested and refreshed before taking off from LaGuardia, as taxpayers who fund multi-billion dollar destroyers, we should expect the ship captains and the watch standers to have had reasonable and reliable rest periods. The model to use is aviation, both civil and military, where crew hours are closely monitored, recorded, and adhered to religiously. In recent new policy guidelines, the Surface Navy is finally adopting this approach.
Implementing it will be difficult, as it will require adjustments to resources and even more challenging changes to the “shut up and suck it up” culture of the Navy. But doing so will prevent tragic incidents like the ship collisions, ultimately make the Fleet stronger and more capable, and ensure that our crews at sea are safe and ready to conduct their dangerous combat missions.
James Stavridis is dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO.
Two new books out in 2017:
“Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans” — June, Penguin
“The Leader’s Bookshelf,” the fifty books that make you a better leader — March, USNI Press