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Vice Adm. John Stufflebeem talks about some of the challenges the Navy faces, from a smaller force in Europe to the global war on terror.
Vice Adm. John Stufflebeem talks about some of the challenges the Navy faces, from a smaller force in Europe to the global war on terror. (Sandra Jontz / S&S)

NAPLES, Italy — If the work is hard, it’s probably worth it. And U.S. naval forces in Europe are going through some of the hardest toil in recent history, said Vice Adm. John “Boomer” Stufflebeem, the leader for six different U.S. Navy and NATO commands.

But “I have a vision to make this the most desirable duty station in the Navy. I would like to be able to create conditions in NAVEUR/6th Fleet staff such that the rewards meet or exceed the challenges,” he said in a Thursday interview at his Naples office.

While he has no details on how to make that happen yet, he said, he has two key paths:

“I intend to try to flatten ... the organization as much as I can — in other words, push down the decision-making as far into our organization as we can. Empower people at various levels to make decisions rather than all of them coming from myself or the commanders.”

And he’s going to ask sailors: “What is it that you want? What is it that you need?” From there, he said, plans will form.

Navy leaders are streamlining forces, moving the headquarters from London to Naples, decreasing the number of sailors and civilians needed to carry out day-to-day jobs, and merging three command elements into one.

“There’s great risk in this,” Stufflebeem said. “No one has ever done it before, so I find this extremely exciting to be in a place that is accepting the tremendous amount of risk of not exactly knowing what’s on the other end of this.

“I’m hungry to discover what [the potential pitfalls] are, and then we can put focus on them and improve them,” he said. “I have not found any specific pitfalls, but I believe there are hidden costs. I believe there are hidden vulnerabilities that we may not yet know.”

Stufflebeem, 53, assumed command of U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet on May 20 from Adm. Harry Ulrich, bumped up to commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe.

With Stufflebeem’s new job came “the other hats” of deputy commander of Naval Forces Europe, Joint Force Maritime Component Commander Europe, Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO commander, Commander Joint Command Lisbon, and Commander of NATO Response Force Five.

In keeping with European Command’s goals, he is focused on quelling problems in Africa by working tightly with nations to boost their own defense capabilities.

“Africa is a continent of potential great stress with some failing states, some not failing, with great internal struggle for power, disease, and is a breeding ground for terrorists because of loose borders,” he said. The Navy has had “great success” in working with nations such as Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, he said, highlighting a recent series of exercises.

Though much of the world’s attention is on the Middle East, the Mediterranean fleet plays an equally expeditionary role, he said.

“This is the front edge. This is what our Navy is about. We play the away game,” said the former U.S. Naval Academy and NFL Detroit Lions football player, never at a loss for a sports analogy.

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