Small commands and detachments like Navy Information Operations Detachment (NIOD) Groton are becoming increasingly rare in the cryptologic community.It’s not easy being a large command nowadays. The cryptologic community thrusts Captains and Commanders into leadership positions over hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of Sailors. Each of these Sailors has their own strengths and weaknesses, and somehow Commanding Officers are expected to build the right team to take care of every Sailor. It’s an incredibly difficult job for even the most talented officer.

The Navy used to prepare officers for this role by having small commands, where junior officers could execute their command responsibilities over small groups of Sailors, learning how to command over their career, so that at larger commands they were already familiar with these responsibilities. This limited the impact to the Navy should a junior officer fail, and also helped weed out those that might not be a good fit for the job. Even previous CNOs held command at the LT level, such as Admiral Michael Mullins aboard the USS NOXUBEE.

For some reason we went away from this model, thinking that somehow our junior officers would magically learn the nuances of command and simply walk in as an O-5 ready to go. Instead, we’ve actually under-resourced our future Commanding Officers, right at a time when the Navy continues to ask more of them. Local Personnel Support Departments are closing across the Navy, placing higher administrative burdens on commands, but no new billets are arriving to make these jobs easier. Training, especially at “A” schools, is being pared down, with the end result of placing more training burden on commands. Even the command schools offered at the Navy’s Leadership and Ethics Center have been shortened, such that CO’s get a whole 3 days of legal training before arriving at positions where they execute Title 10 UCMJ authority over their subordinates. Considering that this authority allows Commanding Officers to reduce enlisted personnel in rank, and even separate them from Naval Service, 3 days seems a bit short for that power.

We’re doing these officers, who volunteer for and work hard to screen for command, a complete disservice. It’s a testament to their ability to quickly learn the job that our community continues to succeed when faced with these challenges.

The Cryptologic Community used to be chock full of small commands, but when the National Security Agency (NSA) moved to larger, regional focused centers, the Navy followed suit. We thought that aligning with the NSA’s Human Resources model would help us integrate better. We couldn’t have been more wrong.

Our Sailors suffer in commands that are too large. The NSA has a giant Human Resources department dedicated to taking care of their people, while we increasingly consolidate more responsibility onto fewer shoulders. Whereas the NSA can keep their personnel in a few locations, the most successful Sailors will execute PCS moves throughout their career, while fighting to keep their record updated for board review. Couple this with the challenge of integrating and Sailorizing new accession Sailors that have increasingly less “A” school time, and it’s no surprise that climate surveys often complain of Sailors falling between the cracks.

Cryptology doesn’t have to sign on to this mega-command construct. We can build smaller commands, where Commanding Officers get a chance to know their people. This benefits the Sailors and helps us build a cadre of officers ready for the challenges of larger commands. Surface Warfare already does this, and now offers O-3 commands on Mark V boats and O-4 commands on mine hunters. Even our joint partners do this. For example, the Army pushes UCMJ authority down to Company Commanders at the O-3 level. In some ways, we’ve started this at Cryptologic Warfare Group Six, where multiple smaller O-5 commands were carved out and now report to a commodore. This looks similar to a submarine squadron, where multiple submarines align to a squadron commander. Considering the success of our submarine force, this is a move in the right direction.

Job satisfaction is even more important when we consider Sailor retention. We have to compete for Sailors that have hard to acquire skills. Outside employers, including the NSA, will gladly pay them high salaries and move them less. The Navy will likely never be able to compete in terms of salary, but we can offer a sense of commitment to mission, teamwork and patriotism that is hard to match in the outside world. These advantages are severely degraded at oversized commands, and even worse, our top-performing Sailors often sit next to NSA employees that have much higher pay and more HR resources supporting them. It’s no wonder we struggle to get them to stay Navy.

Small commands build our officer’s skill sets, take better care of Sailors and enhance the Navy in the long term. The lack of desire to “raise more flag poles” is bureaucratic speak for choosing to not invest in our people. Our best future lies in smaller, agile commands.

Featured picture is an aerial photo of Building 106, the current home of NIOD Groton.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, Fleet Cyber Command or any other government agency.