Up From the Depths

Why is the Navy off course? Some experts contend that too many recent chiefs were submariners.

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As the Tailhook sexual-assault scandal drove him into early retirement from the Navy, Admiral Frank Kelso last week sought to overhaul his image. The Navy's top officer claimed that during his nearly four years at the helm, he had helped rid the service of its tolerance for abusive attitudes toward women. If anyone treats women as did the drunken, groping aviators at the Tailhook convention 2 1/2 years ago, Kelso blustered at a press conference, "they're not going to be in this man's Navy."

In fact, his legacy is a Navy still straining to accommodate women, homosexuals and members of racial minorities. At the same time, the Navy's reputation has been battered by the investigations into Tailhook and cheating by midshipmen at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Some naval officers and military experts note that the Navy's recent problems have come under a series of chiefs -- from James Watkins in 1982 to Carlisle Trost in 1986 to Kelso -- who arose from the aloof and secretive submarine fleet. Submarine commanders usually are trained as engineers and are not renowned for their people skills. Presiding over crews of 155 or fewer highly screened men hasn't prepared the Navy's recent leaders to grapple with modern personnel problems. Kelso and other submariners "didn't have the leadership challenges that surface-warfare officers had," agrees Senator John McCain of Arizona, a retired Navy pilot.

The Navy hasn't been run by a purebred surface-ship captain -- whose sailors make up the bulk of its force -- since Elmo Zumwalt left the job a generation ago. "When you go a long period of time without having a surface-fleet CNO, then it becomes a very serious morale problem for that vast segment of the Navy," Zumwalt says.

Early speculation was that President Clinton would name Admiral Jeremy ("Mike") Boorda, a surface-warfare officer, as CNO. Unlike all 24 CNOs who came before, Boorda, a high school dropout, never attended the Naval Academy. As the Navy personnel chief from 1988 to 1991, he drafted a plan that allowed the Navy, unlike other services, to shrink dramatically without firing personnel. But an Administration official said Saturday that Clinton might prefer to keep Boorda in his sensitive Naples post, where he has been planning the possible NATO bombing campaign against the Serbs. If so, the next CNO is likely to be Admiral Charles Larson, the Pentagon's Pacific commander -- a Naval Academy graduate who would be the fourth submariner in a row to run the Navy.