International Seapower Symposium address

20 Sep 2023

Good morning distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. It is a pleasure to join you here today in Newport.

I’d like to thank the USN for the invitation to speak and I would like to acknowledge the professionalism and friendship of the members of the USN which have once again been on display this week. ADM Lisa Franchetti, my personal gratitude to you and your team for taking such great care of us and for your friendship over so many years.

Coming together at forums such as ISS provides an invaluable opportunity to talk freely about our shared challenges, and communicate respectfully our different perspectives and viewpoints I am honoured to stand alongside my peers, in front of such an esteemed audience, and contribute my thoughts to the discussion of Developing, Empowering and Retaining Sailors.

At its core, the Naval enterprise is a human endeavour. Too often we focus on the fleet of ships, submarines, and aircraft as the expression of Navy. In doing so we focus on the forest – not the trees. In other words – our sailors are our Fleet.

So, amidst dazzling technological advances, rising threats, and huge costs of sustaining a Fleet, how can we safeguard our essential elements of strength? How do we develop, empower and retain our sailors to face what may lie ahead?

What is it that defines what our sailors must do? U.S. Navy Rear Admiral James Winnefeld wrote in 1995:

“The airman conquers his environment; the sailor survives it. The soldier shapes and exploits his environment; the sailor must adjust to it. The soldier depends on combined arms; the sailor must rely on themselves and the world defined by their ship. The soldier may advance or retreat; the sailor must stand and fight. In modern times, even the release of surrender is beyond the reach of the sailor; they fight and die with their ship - even if it is a blazing wreck or sinking beneath his feet. These forces imbue the sailor with a unique combination of qualities: self-reliance, a special respect and regard for the person who is in charge of their vessel, and absolute accountability. The captain is out in front…and must confront the enemy… he is just as exposed as the most junior of his sailors…Admirals and seamen alike share the risk of facing the enemy’s fire or an angry sea.”

These are the shared realities for mariners - for all of us. Whether a seaman or an admiral, a chef or officer of the watch – we cast our fates together. Whether the danger is a wild sea, a fight afloat, or a hazard from within our ships, we rely on their deck plate leadership and professionalism for survival; the actions of the sailor on the helm, the guns’ crew, or the fire team. How do we take the kaleidoscope of humans that arrive at our recruit training commands and develop them to thrive in such conditions? And how do we concurrently develop the nuclear safety mindset necessary to bring our nuclear submarine program to life?

To me, it is through cultivating a positive training environment, and being clear about the culture that we want and need to bind our people, and power our Fleets. We have all heard the saying - “we do not rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training”. If we do not adapt our training for the modern sailor, then we may face a reality that our ships will not be able to be crewed effectively to achieve their mission.

In Australia we are seeing half the number of applicants compared to before the pandemic. Unemployment is at a record low. So we have been looking at removing barriers to people passing entry tests. Getting our people in the door and then under our watchful eye, training them to our standards while minimising risks of injury in training is a key focus for our Navy. This means accepting some risk, but it also means we are investing in the right training approach and our culture.

An effective culture is a force multiplier. It is fundamental to the training of our people. Our values, and training to our standards drive the behaviours of our people, and what we choose to reward becomes their motivating influence. We are seeking a culture that encourages mastery, resilience, learning and adaptation. A culture that enables and empowers our people to perform, while supporting our shipmates.

Times have changed from when I joined the Australian Navy – I joined our Navy as a general entry electrical technician – the Australian Navy was a built on an attitude that Rank has its privileges. That behaviour erodes trust amongst sailors and undermines the integrity of our organisation. Today I seek to lead a Navy that is centred on an ideal that Rank has its responsibilities. This is a professional focus of Australia’s Admiralty.

It is a challenge for our Commanders, and leaders at every level, to create an environment for people to grow to their potential. To me this is fundamental to empowerment and a great example comes from 1805.

On the south western Spanish coast. The British Fleet is outnumbered and outgunned by the combined fleets of the French and Spanish navies. Close quarters combat on the high seas ensued. Nelson versus Napoleon. Yet as many of you know, despite the odds, the British won a decisive victory.

Fast forward to a foggy day in May of 1916. The German High Seas Fleet needed to reduce the threat of the British Navy. The Germans attempted an ambush but British got wind of their plans and sailed early from Scapa Flow. Despite the British intelligence advantage, the Germans were still able to sink three British cruisers, while the Grand Fleet only sunk one. This of course is the Battle of Jutland led by Admiral Jellicoe. While the battle was technically assessed as a draw, this was a significant tactical defeat for Jellicoe and for Britain.

While tacticians and academics have long since debated the cause of success and failure in both battles - please forgive what is perhaps an over simplification - but one factor most agree on is that Nelson and Jellicoe’s respective leadership of their sailors and offices contributed to one’s success and the other’s failure.

On the one hand, Nelson empowered his people; he managed risk. Nelson understood his team were well trained, and knew he would confuse them if he sent repeated, complicated instructions in battle. On the eve of battle, Nelson famously told his subordinate commanders, “in case signals can neither be seen or perfectly understood, no Captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.” He communicated broad intent to his people, trusting them to achieve his vision. Further, his final signal to the fleet prior to the engagement at Trafalgar was the well-known line, “England expects that every man will do his duty.” He used his final chance to communicate with his people something to inspire, rather than to direct.

Conversely, tactical opportunities were missed at Jutland due to discipline saturation – Jellicoe’s sailors and officers feared using initiative because it might derail the widely unknown master plan. Jellicoe’s leadership style was heavily centralised and included successive, complicated orders during battle. This continued despite intermittently effective communications, confusing tactical actions across his fleet. Jellicoe was a cautious and untrusting man. His sailors and officers were not empowered.

Both Admirals respective leadership styles impacted tactical outcomes. Nelson is justly renowned for his empowering leadership style. The victory at Trafalgar was not unique. He had two similar victories under his belt, he had also failed before. Trafalgar was a victory not from technology, but from leadership. Technology is important, but English clergyman Thomas Fuller rings true with his comment, “tis skill, not strength that governs a ship.”

Our sailors are our strength – how do we empower our sailors in a similar manner as Nelson? I think the answer builds upon the culture of the organisations we lead. Regardless of the circumstance and the challenges we face; trust, and honest communication, are building blocks to reaching out collective full potential.

Nelson always shared his ideas with his team, often conducting round table discussions in his cabin and he welcomed feedback. This decreased ambiguity in battle as his people knew his overarching vision. Sailors and officers who have awareness of their commander’s thoughts operate with far less ambiguity. Keeping our people informed on what our intent is – telling them the effect, the end state we require - so that in the most dire of circumstances they may act to save lives or the mission. I seek to lead a Navy that understands, and breathes life into my Command intent.

Retaining our valuable people in service is as important today as it has ever been. We invest huge amounts in the training of our people; it takes decades to generate a Chief Petty Officer or Commanding Officer. Retention is a big focus for us in Australia. We have had a significant number of people leave service after the COVID experience of 20/21. Each leaves for their own reasons; indeed, the only surety of joining our Navy is that one day you will hang up your uniform.

I see my job as our Navy Chief is to make the decision to leave as hard as possible. This is, to make their time in uniform so rewarding, so exciting and so meaningful that our people want to stay, want to remain part of our team, and are proud of what they do. And we must strive to do the same for their families. To include them in our Navy. To support them to achieve their goals and to encourage them to support their sailors to continue serving. But this is easier said than done.

In 1780, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to the U.S. Navy’s John Paul Jones in which he stated, “If you should observe an occasion to give your officers and friends a little more praise than is their due, and confess more fault than you can justly be charged with, you will only become the sooner for it, a great captain”. What Benjamin Franklin was highlighting here is what I referred to earlier – the environment Commanders create within their Commands will either empower or disempower their people. 

The environments we create contribute to retention or separation. I am focused on fostering a culture in the Australian Navy that achieves results – with and through our people. Not at their expense. An environment in our ships, submarines, squadrons, and teams built on shared responsibility; dignity, respect and trust. Key to retention is the environment our leaders create around them. I seek to equip our leaders – at all levels – with the tools and training to enable them.

Every Australian sailor contributes to our culture and our mission. For me, it is the character and quality of our people that is our greatest source of strength and potential advantage. Finally, we must include their families. Ur power at sea is derived from strength at home. Our navy families are our power.

As a final comment I want to state that fundamentally, great sailors, are built by great Chiefs. They are the greatest influence and example. They train them, they empower them, and ultimately they will be the ones who retain them in service of our nations and unleash their full potential when needed most by their nation. It has been an honour to share my perspectives with you today. I hope that I have provided you some food for thought.