Building the Fleet Support Community

CAPT John Allen Williams, USNR

Remarks to the
Regional Fleet Support Training Conference
Naval Reserve Center, Great Lakes

7 August 1998

I have spent 29 years looking for the "real" Navy.

At Officer Candidate School in Newport the summer of 1969 they told us that the real Navy was out in the fleet -- anywhere but OCS. That fall I went through combat information center school, intelligence school, and electronic warfare officer school in Norfolk. There were grey hulled ships and aircraft all around us -- surely this was the real Navy. No, they said, the real Navy is on a ship (although opinions differed as to whether it needed to carry airplanes or dip below the surface to count).

So I went aboard USS COLUMBUS (CG-12), a guided missile cruiser assigned to the Second and Sixth Fleets, as intelligence and electronic warfare officer. With an intelligence designator at the time, I qualified as CIC watch officer and anti-air warfare evaluator -- today's "tactical action officer" -- and we took the ship into harm's way in the eastern Mediterranean. Surely this was the real Navy. No, I heard. The real Navy was out in the Western Pacific fighting the Vietnam War. And for that matter, didn't we dress for dinner in whites? How "real" was that?

My next assignment was to the very cradle of the Navy, the U.S. Naval Academy, to teach political science and naval history. Surely if this was not the real Navy, you could at least see it from there. No, this was not the real Navy, but only the surest route to the top of it for the students. Midshipmen were to be prepared to go out into the real Navy, wherever it was. Well, I hope they had greater luck in finding it than I have had.

After my active service I entered the Naval Reserve. Now that was surely not the real Navy, I heard, but I did get promising glimpses of it occasionally: as a communications officer on the staff of the Commander, Second Fleet; helping to write the "Maritime Strategy" in the Pentagon and later commanding the Navy's only strategy unit; commanding the assault craft unit down at the Great Lakes harbor; as Deputy for Readiness for Naval Reserve Readiness Command Region 13; and serving on various joint, Defense Department, and Navy staffs in the Pentagon. They all seemed quite "Navy" to me, but there were always others who would define the Navy to be elsewhere.

The Fleet Support Designator

The final step is one many of us can relate to: I woke up one morning to discover that I was no longer a General Unrestricted Line officer, but a Fleet Support Officer with no clear mission and (at the time) not even a flag billet in the Naval Reserve. Worse yet, it was - and in the minds of many still remains - the only specialty defined by what its members cannot do rather than what they can. Surface and submarine warfare officers drive ships. Naval aviators fly planes. The various staff corps are closely defined by their specialties: Medical Corps officers heal the sick; Dental Corps officers maintain dental readiness; Supply Corps officers keep the fleet provisioned; Civil Engineer Corps officers build things; and Judge Advocate General Corps officers investigate hot line complaints - among other things, of course.

Other restricted line communities have their specialties, as well: Cryptologists break codes. Intelligence officers prepare enemy orders of battle. Oceanographers study the sea. In each case the needed function preceded the creation of the specialty to perform it. In our case, the functions were there and most of us were performing them as General Unrestricted Line officers. Once the 1700 designator was created, however, the need arose to create a community of people who had little else in common other than not qualifying for a warfare specialty. This need will not be met from outside our community.

When you examine the Navy communities more closely, you find there are subgroups that contest for prestige and resources. This is especially true in naval aviation, where there are fixed wing vs. rotary wing distinctions propeller vs. jet distinctions, and even distinctions between the attack and fighter communities. These seem to outsiders like distinctions without a difference, but they are very real to those most closely involved.

What does all this have to do with us? It is simply this: we are not that unique in being unable to claim to be at the center of the Navy. Why is this so? First, the Navy has no one particular center, as my fruitless pursuit of the real Navy showed. Second, every community struggles to define itself and its contribution in ways that are central to the mission of the Navy to conduct prompt and sustained operations at sea in defense of national interests.

The Military Professional

We should understand that what we do as Fleet Support officer is firmly within the tradition of military professionalism and regard our effort as vital to the success of our Navy.

Some forty years ago, political scientist Samuel P. Huntington wrote his major work on military professionalism, The Soldier and the State. In this classic book Huntington reviewed what he believed to be the defining properties of professionalism: expertise, responsibility, and corporateness. He defined these qualities and applied them to the military profession to see if it met the test. We can do the same thing as we think about the professional Fleet Support officer, realizing at the outset that we are part of the larger naval and military professions. Huntington's ideas continue to make sense today: (Quotations to follow are from Samuel P. Huntington, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations (New York: Random House, 1957): 11-18.)

1) Expertise. Huntington noted,

"The officer corps appears to contain many varieties of specialists, including large numbers which have their counterparts in civilian life.... [J]ust the broad division of the corps into land, sea, and air officers appears to create vast differences in the functions performed and the skills required. The captain of a cruiser and the commander of an infantry division appear to be faced with highly different problems requiring highly different abilities."

He went on to note, quoting sociologist Harold Lasswell, that the particular area of expertise shared by all officers is "the management of violence." He continued,

"The function of a military force is successful armed combat. The duties of the military officer include: (1) the organizing, equipping, and training of this force; (2) the planning of its activities; and (3) the direction of its operation in and out of combat. The direction, operation, and control of a human organization whose primary function is the application of violence is the peculiar skill of the officer."

Huntington's notion of expertise was usefully refined by Franklin D. Margiotta some years later. He noted that while "management of violence is the raison d'être of the military, ... this role is often removed from the daily existence of the vast support forces." He suggested that "the central concern of the military" may be "the management of support tasks that permit the tip of the spear to perform its institutional role in the management of violence." (Franklin D. Margiotta, "The Changing World of the American Military," in The Changing World of the American Military, ed. Franklin D. Margiotta (Boulder: Westview Press, 1978): 423-449.)

2) Responsibility. Huntington argued that "the principal responsibility of the military officer is to the state." It is bound and defined by an officer's code, "expressed in custom, tradition, and the continuing spirit of the profession." In this, our Fleet Support community joins the rest of the military profession.

3) Corporateness. This is a more nebulous criterion of professionalization, but involves the membership in a "carefully defined body," whose membership is defined by the holding of a commission. Entrance to the profession is generally confined to the lowest levels, and there are unique "vocational institutions which mold the officer corps into an autonomous social unit." These include schools, journals, associations, and so forth. In this way, too, our specialty meets Huntington's definition of professionalism.

Issues for the 1700 Community to Address

Despite our firm grounding as military professionals - indeed, perhaps largely because of it - a number of issues are a source of frustration for both regular and reserve Fleet Support officers. These include the following issues and questions, edited from a collection by Captain Xzana Tellis, Executive Officer of Recruit Training Command, Great Lakes:

The Gender Issue

I cannot close without mentioning "the elephant in the living room": the perception that 1700 is the "women's designator." Although this is not true statistically in the Naval Reserve, where the majority of 1705 officers are male, the perception persists. It is fed, no doubt, by the widespread belief that the primary reason for the creation of this designator in the first place was to provide a category where women would not have to compete for promotion against men who had the opportunity to qualify for warfare specialties. Even if this is true, we cannot turn back the clock. If we are going to overcome this perception, we must figure out how to move ahead together.

Conclusion: Where is the "Real" Navy?

Those of us who are privileged to serve as Fleet Support Officers know full well what our contribution is and can be to national defense. Others know it, as well. However long this specialty endures, it will be vital to the operations of our Navy and part of the unparalleled contribution of our Navy to national defense. Whatever may have been the rationale for the creation of this specialty - and reasonable people will differ on this - it is up to all of us to define ourselves and work for an environment where we can make the strongest possible contribution to the Navy we all serve.

Long ago I decided not to let others define for me what is "real" and what is not about our Navy or to declare unilaterally that the Navy is any place I happen not to be. After 29 years of service, I know very well where the real Navy is: it is wherever there are Navy people. It is around everyone in this room who has the honor of wearing the uniform of the United States Navy and of serving our country, whether full time or part time, at the point of the spear or in support of those who are. I join everyone in this room in my pride at whatever role I may play in this vital service to our Navy and to our country. As I complete my own thirty years of service next year, my hope will be that those of us who were "present at the creation" of this community will leave a legacy that will be helpful for those yet to come. From what I have seen, the future of our community, and of our Navy, will be in good hands.

Captain Williams is a Fleet Support Officer and a NOBC-designated Strategic Plans Officer. He has performed Naval Reserve active duty periods with the Chief of Naval Operations (Strategic Concepts Branch), the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Strategy Branch), the Office of the Secretary of Defense (Assistant Principal Deputy Undersecretary for Strategy and Resources), Commander Second Fleet, the Naval War College, Naval Doctrine Command, Assault Craft Unit One, and the First U.S. Army. His serves as the Emergency Preparedness Liaison Officer linking the Commander, Naval Training Center Great Lakes with the First U.S. Army. In civilian life he is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Loyola University Chicago and is Executive Director of the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society at Northwestern University.  Comments are welcome and may be directed to or through his web site,