In the fall of 2017, U.S. Navy aviation faced a daunting challenge. The preceding five years had seen a surge in aviation mishaps, and aircraft readiness levels across the Fleet had reached unacceptable levels. Incidents involving F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets, for example, had more than doubled over this time, and the Navy testified to Congress that only 31 percent - 170 aircraft - of the Navy’s 542 Super Hornets were ready to “fight tonight.”
When Vice Adm. DeWolfe “Chip” Miller III took the helm in January 2018 as the nation’s 8th “Air Boss”- Commander, Naval Air Forces (CNAF) - he was tasked in no uncertain terms by then-Secretary of Defense retired Gen. James Mattis to turn this around. That was no small order: the Navy was feeling the effects of five years of Congressional sequestration even as the battle against the Islamic State raged on, and the service was increasingly being called upon to meet the renascent threats of great power competition.
It was a daunting challenge, indeed, but not unlike the pressing challenges many senior military leaders face when stepping into a large command. CNAF is a broad organization, split between the West and East Coasts - U.S. Pacific and Atlantic Fleets, respectively - as well as a host of other supporting commands throughout the country, including Naval Air Training, the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center and the Naval Air Forces Reserve.
“We needed to make sure that those staffs were aligned not just with the way we communicated between ourselves, but aligned with respect to mission functions, tasks and sense of purpose,” Miller recalled. “We knew that the readiness rates of our aircraft were not exactly where they needed to be and that those readiness deficits were affecting retention.”
“When I took command, I knew up front how challenging it is to walk into a large command that you’ve not been part of, so I knew that I needed to learn an awful lot,” he added. “That’s when I reached out to the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS).”
Miller and his command team have since worked closely with NPS’ Center for Executive Education (CEE) to successfully take on these leadership challenges.
Through a series of customized workshops tailored to CNAF’s needs, the CEE team helped Miller and his staff refine their capabilities across a range of critical skills: strategically aligned thinking, enhanced innovation and decision making, effective communication, risk management, and many others.
“We aim to foster enterprise-level change in the organizations’ effectiveness,” noted CEE director Winli McAnally. “What we do is pretty significant and speaks very highly of the faculty at NPS who have the breadth of knowledge and experience to make such an impact.”
“If leaders are too busy working on the details and the execution pieces and trying to understand the inner workings of the organization, they don’t have time to think strategically, but that’s where the [Chief of Naval Operations] needs them to be,” she continued. “They need to be able to let their leadership team do what they do well, but it takes that speed of trust to accelerate that alignment and allow the commander to really be inspirational for the organization.”
Miller realized this ahead of officially assuming his new role as CNAF and began working with CEE in the fall of 2017.
The center had an established program to work one-on-one with flag officers like Miller to ensure a seamless transition as they stepped into their new command. Created in 2010, the Tailored Support Course (TSC) advises strategies and techniques designed to provide a smooth onboarding process over the first 90 days.
“CEE conducted more than 200 of these programs over the years and the feedback we received was phenomenal, but we also heard commanders say that where they struggled when they arrived at their new command was that it took time for their teams to synchronize with them and for them to learn the organizational culture,” McAnally said.
With so much on the line, Miller and McAnally explored new ways to accelerate CNAF’s strategic alignment pieces and foster unit cohesion. In doing so, they broke new ground for the U.S. Navy.
They pioneered a new CEE workshop, the Commander + Strategically Aligned Leadership Team (C+SALT) program, which would be tailored to the CNAF leadership team so they could hit the ground running from day one.
At the beginning of January 2018, nine key CNAF leaders from across the country converged at the NPS campus in Monterey and for two days worked intensely with CEE to hone the team’s onboarding process and develop a common vision of their mission. They established strategic priorities, conducted internal and external strategic assessments as well as identified a strategic communication plan.
When Miller assumed command less than one week later on January 11, 2018, the CNAF team was ready.
“The commander plus a strategically aligned leadership team: that’s exactly what C+SALT was; CEE absolutely provided that for us,” Miller recalled. “Typically, anytime a commander takes over a new command, there’s a timeframe when the staff feels out how he or she thinks, and where the commander is just trying to get their feet on the ground.”
“However, this time here at NPS and being able to have the discussions that we had at the depth that we were able to have them really accelerated that learning process,” Miller continued. “On day one, the staff already knew who I was, what my beliefs were, and the vision we had set up for the command,” he said.
That this was possible to achieve over only two short days was the result of the intangible, qualitative glue CEE sought to imbue in the team: relationship and trust building with each other.
“The CNAF team had some pretty candid, very pointed conversations, but the point was to really understand how the new boss thinks,” McAnally said. “Vice Adm. Miller was able to hear about what’s going on at the command, and the team was really able to assess their sentiments about each other, putting it all on the table and just being very open and honest.”
“We have found that to be a very effective way to establish this trust,” she added. “They were able to all feel committed to what they created because they did it together.”
CNAF set out to work with this solid foundation. Under the banner of what would be termed the Navy Sustainment System (NSS), CNAF implemented an aggressive program to reform the provision of spare parts and aviation engineering, as well as increase maintenance and logistics support and performance.
“What really matters is our ability to sustain aircraft such that they’re there when we need them,” Miller emphasized. “I would characterize NSS as a total reform in everything from the way our supply chain management is occurring to the way we're doing maintenance on our aircraft and how we’re doing engineering support to our squadrons.”
Most notably, the command tried a different tack: CNAF consulted civilian airline maintenance leaders to leverage commercial industry best practices across the Fleet.
“As a pilot program, these activities have moved us to review our processes in all areas of maintenance within the Naval enterprise,” Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer recently reflected before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The results have been stunning. In September 2018, Mattis broadcast a memo calling on the service to “focus on meeting our critical priorities first,” including “achieving a minimum of 80 percent mission capability rates for our FY 2019 Navy and Air Force F-35, F-22, F-16 and F-18 inventories — assets that form the backbone of our tactical air power — and reducing these platforms operating and maintenance costs every year, starting in FY 2019.”
Soon thereafter, CNAF announced that NSS was well underway; by this point, the Navy’s Super Hornet fleet was at a 50 percent mission-capable rate, with approximately 260 aircraft ready to scramble at a moment’s notice. The goal, Miller told a naval aviation panel at the Center for Strategic & International Studies last October, was to increase that number to at least 341 Super Hornets by October 1, 2019, reflecting Mattis’ mandate.
And CNAF is on track to do so: on April 4th, 2019, Rear Adm. Scott Conn, Commander of the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center, told the House Armed Services tactical air and land forces subcommittee that between 63 and 76 percent of Super Hornets are currently mission capable.
Driving this starkly positive trend was the insight gained at the C+SALT workshop to break down traditional stovepipes, Miller explained.
“The way we’re doing maintenance reform is realizing it’s all interrelated,” he said. “Each of the leaders understands not only what their roles are, but how their roles affect each other and how we as the senior leaders then govern the whole thing.”
“That’s what we’re able to work through and talk about, even down to the things like how often we are going to meet and who we are going to have in these meetings,” Miller continued. “What are our drumbeats? How do we assess ourselves and take our pulse and say ‘hey, are we achieving what we said we were going to achieve, yes or no?’”
Looking back since he officially took the reins of CNAF, Miller is proud of what his team has accomplished, but he aims to continue this trajectory.
“I look at 2018 as a year of discovery, and it really was for us to truly understand the challenges that we had throughout naval aviation,” he said. “2019 is going to be a year of results.”
Miller intends to not only move over the yard line but far beyond, and one of his first actions was to return to NPS. From 19-21 March, the Air Boss brought an expanded CNAF team back to Monterey to attend CEE’s Strategic Planning for Execution: Assessment and Risk (SPEAR) workshop. A long-standing program at NPS, SPEAR assists commanders and their executive teams with shaping specific planning initiatives.
“SPEAR is a three-day workshop for commands to work on a specific strategic challenge that they have,” explained Dr. Paul Stames, program manager for the SPEAR and C+SALT programs. “We walk them through a strategy framework and they learn how to develop an effective strategy.”
“The goal is really to help commands not just put together a set of actions that will achieve their outcome but to really design a strategy that’s based on results [...] so they can achieve measurable performance,” he added.
For CNAF, this meant bringing in a larger team stretching across the entirety of the Naval Aviation enterprise, including leadership from repair facilities, Naval Air Systems Command and strategic communications.
“What reinvigorated my sense to renew and come back out here again was the great success we had as a result of [C+SALT], so this is adding onto that success” Miller stated. “We’re taking what we started last year, building on it and incorporating a larger aspect of naval aviation.”
“Our challenges remain, and so [SPEAR] is an opportunity to renew that focus amongst a larger crowd,” he added.
In doing so, the SPEAR workshop enabled the CNAF team to take NSS to the next level. In synchronizing to the same sheet of music, the entirety of the naval aviation enterprise is now poised to succeed in its challenge of aircraft readiness recovery, noted Capt. James “J.J.” Johnston, special assistant to CNAF.
“We brought the team of experts in our enterprise together to make sure that we all understood exactly the issues we’re facing,” he said. “[SPEAR] basically raised up the collective knowledge of everyone to come up with plans to measure success, and then challenge ourselves to get after it and hold each other accountable.”
“We’re a lot more confident as a team, and we’re excited about going back now to our own independent areas and sharing what we learned and what we accomplished,” Johnston added.
Reflecting on the last year and a half, Miller credits NPS for enabling him and the CNAF team to successfully take on the monumental challenge of turning naval aviation readiness around.
“NPS is the United States Navy’s institution of higher learning ... We are warrior scholars and the scholar piece is honed here; there’s just not a finer institution in the world,” he said. “I appreciate the opportunity to be at NPS and I hope that this inspires others to take advantage of the great resource that’s here.”