WASHINGTON, DC The U.S. Navy and the world it operates in are a far cry from what they were four years ago.
The relationship with China has deteriorated, as the growing Pacific power behaves more aggressively throughout the South China Sea and the Pacific, forcing a new focus on near-peer warfare. Budgets, once axed by lawmakers as part of a 2011 budget deal, began to rebound, with an uptick in readiness lagging behind. Two fatal destroyer collisions showed the fragility of the overworked fleet and the depth of the readiness challenges the service would have to overcome. And a goal to field a fleet larger than the Navy can build to has sparked conversations about how long existing ships can stay in service and what more can be done to support a shaky industrial base.
In short, the service Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson is leading is not the one he inherited in 2015.
As Navy and Pentagon leadership were looking for a 31st CNO, Richardson was sitting in his Navy Yard office, leading the Naval Reactors program – just over two years into an eight-year gig and not expecting to be part of the conversation about the next leader of the sea service.
"It was a huge surprise because I think it's unprecedented that the director at Naval Reactors leaves before the eight-year tenure is done, for a really good reason," Richardson told USNI News in a recent interview ahead of his retirement.
"I was just concentrating on doing the director job," when he was then approached by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
"It's one of those things, when they ask if you want to be the Chief of Naval Operations, you either say yes or you retire. And so that's what got us here."
With little time to give much thought about his priorities and his vision for the service, given the surprise nature of the assignment, Richardson said it was clear right off the bat that great power competition was emerging, that an increasing portion of national security activities would take place in the maritime environment, and that rapidly advancing technology would flip the service and how it does business on its head.
Asked how he left the Navy a better or a different service than he found it, Richardson said, "if I could write it out, I would say that when they look back on four years, when history judges, that the person who was in the spot of the CNO wouldn't weigh a whole lot into that. The main thing is that the Navy as a team, Navy leadership as a team – and when I say leadership, all the way down to the deck plate leaders and everybody else – came together, and we are in a better position now, more ready, modernizing on a good track, to prevail in this great power competition."
Richardson said his four years at the helm were only the start of "a long competition" and that the depth of leadership that helped him achieve change over the past four years would have to keep up that effort.
"We're going to be in this for awhile. We have to think creatively. We have to think sustainably. And we're not just in it to compete; we're in it to get ahead and stay ahead."
To the admiral's mind, the change in technology is one of the most defining features of his tenure leading the Navy. He said he's been surprised by the pace of change and, reflecting back, said he wishes he had been able to do more to make the Navy as a bureaucracy act more urgently when it comes to thinking of new ways to leverage tech developments and then actually finding and fielding solutions.
"The speed of it – every time you think that you've got a little bit of time to do something, you find out you're behind. This pace is relentless. And then with respect to the technology environment, we're still figuring out as we get that whole part of our enterprise up on a competitive footing, this sense of urgency that, okay, whereas maybe in the Cold War the Defense Department was the technology leader and then at an appropriate time things would be declassified – GPS – now, it depends on what technology you're talking about. For some, the private sector is in the lead. And so, okay, how do we become fast followers? Some things there's just not going to be a private market, so it's going to be the Department's responsibility to lead out in those areas," he said.
"Rationalizing all that and making sure your technology is focused on your strategic objectives, this great power competition, that's been an interesting part. But again, the surprising part is really I think the pace at which it's moving and this dynamic, who's in the lead and who's following, what's the appropriate balance there, and moving at speed."
Richardson issued a Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority 2.0 update in December 2018, with a slew of aggressive technology goals that ultimately his successor will have to carry out or disregard. Richardson declined to discuss his talks with Vice Adm. Michael Gilday, who will take over the job this week.
But, Richardson noted, the technology goals in his Design 2.0 reflect "a collaborative effort that brought those together. And so we tried to get the best sense of all of the leadership that, this is the trajectory that the Navy should be on. And so my hope is that we by and large stay on that trajectory and adjust where necessary."
To others, the most defining aspect of Richardson's tenure comes down to three digits: 355.
A 2016 force structure assessment called for a fleet of 355, which was 47 ships greater than the previous plan to grow to 308. The assessment stated that 355 was the "minimum force structure to comply with [Pentagon] strategic guidance," and that the "desired" force would be even larger: 653 ships to meet all global requirements with minimal risk, which would well eclipse even the Reagan Administration buildup.
Though Congress passed into law a requirement for the Navy to build to 355, it has become clear that there isn't enough money in the budget and there isn't enough capacity in the industrial base to do so – or at least not any time soon. A focus on extending surface combatant and amphibious ship service life began to help achieve 355 ships sooner.
Asked about the challenges of not only buying new ships and extending the lives of old ships to grow the force, but also manning, maintaining and operating the larger fleet, Richardson said it was best to consider "naval power" rather than fleet size.
Richardson last year outlined a six-pronged view of readiness: a bigger navy, a better navy, a networked navy, a more talented navy, a more agile navy and a more ready navy. After previously using a chemistry metaphor – "Those are the components of the nucleus; if you try to tear one out, you don't have naval power, you have some isotope of nuclear power, something that's close but not really [naval power]. These isotopes are sometimes unstable, sometimes they decay, et cetera. It's not the stable element we want, not the true thing." – Richardson has since moved on to a biology metaphor.
"If the shipbuilding plan itself is the skeleton of naval power, then on top of that, you've got to have the muscle of naval power, which might be the crew. And then you've got to have the brains of naval power, which might be the networking and information technology," he said, again foot-stomping the need for balance among the number of ships and the Navy's ability to man them, operate them, maintain them and more.
While Navy leaders never officially tied this focus on wholeness to Congress, it does come after years of lawmakers boosting the annual shipbuilding budget over the request – one Littoral Combat Ship here, one amphibious transport dock there – but often gutting the operations and maintenance budget to stay within spending caps. In the last couple years, the Navy has finally been more successful in making the case for readiness spending, with Congress doing more to address aviation readiness and the backlog of ship maintenance at public yards.
Still, readiness remains the big challenge for the Navy as it grows, Richardson reflected.
"A lot of them are on a pretty good track. Shipbuilding on a pretty good track," he said."Modernization is going really well. I think that some of the technologies that are right around the corner in terms of, first, that information technology. Directed energy weapons. We're back into the missile game in a meaningful way. Hypersonics right around the corner. I mean there's a number of unmanned and autonomy, machine-learning. I think Adm. Gilday testified that he's going to make that a continuing effort. And so these technologies in terms of the capability of each platform.
"Then our CONOPS, this distributed maritime operations, I think is an exciting thing. We need to go out and test it. We need to challenge it, test it, experiment with it. The large-scale exercise in 2020 will be a big factor in that testing and validation and refining. And then our people, we continue to meet our recruiting goals even almost 13 years running. Which is remarkable in this economy."
But, Richardson concluded, "readiness is the one thing that continues to be a challenge. Particularly ship maintenance. And so we have got to continue to crack that nut. Aircraft maintenance is on the mend. We're applying some state-of-the-art techniques to improve our throughput through the depot. We've got to bring that to bear on ship maintenance because it's just, we're not finishing enough for those availabilities on time, that cascades down the entire workup and deployment period. And so that's where I think our effort is really focused, both with the public and private shipyards."
Asked if he was optimistic that ship maintenance was heading in the right direction, he said, "there's definitely signs of improvement, and we've been really lucky that Congress has partnered with us in this regard. So since 2017 and the request for additional appropriations, '18, '19 and then '20 looks like it's going to be another great budget for us. But what we're realizing is that that hole was pretty deep when we started. We are getting out of it for sure. And so we're flying more, we're steaming, we're more ready now than we were three or four years ago for sure. And that's a tribute to the fleets. And we've just got to continue to get after it. We're applying that same analytical rigor, the Perform to Plan process (used in aircraft maintenance), to ship depot maintenance now. There has been some progress in there, with respect to carrier availabilities and some of the SSBN availabilities, et cetera. So there's progress, but we need to do more."
Though Richardson is confident readiness is moving in the right direction, the turning point on addressing readiness and perhaps the impetus for many of the reforms that have been made was a pair of fatal destroyer collisions. USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) hit a merchant container ship on June 17, 2017, killing seven sailors during a massive flooding event that the crew was able to fight until help arrived more than an hour later. Just two months later, a similar collision between USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) and an oiler killed 10 sailors and forced the surface navy to stop and closely examine what more it needed to do to ensure the safety of its crews and the readiness of its ships.
"Let me say that there's not a day that I wake up where I don't think of that, and we want to make sure that everything that we do as a Navy somehow honors those 17 sailors who paid the ultimate price in those collisions," Richardson said."And we've just got to continuously keep that in mind. And so as we've moved through that, I think you'll find it is a different surface force than it was. And they have taken this idea of, okay, we're going to be safe to operate at sea, we're going to comply with the rules of the road, [and moved] beyond that to a culture of real excellence."
"And so that's the best way that we can honor those sailors and their families, is to make sure that we're doing everything possible, and we've done a tremendous amount of change," the admiral continued, saying that individual and team training had become much more rigorous in the aftermath of the two collisions.
After several attempts before – including the 2014 rollout of the Optimized Fleet Response Plan – to move the Navy to a supply-driven deployment model rather than one where combatant commanders dictate how much naval presence they demand, Richardson said he believes that post-Fitz and McCain the surface navy is finally taking "a supply-side approach to providing forces, so that we are not sending ships out there, teams out there of any kind that are not trained and certified for the mission that they're going to do. I mean, this is a different surface force."
Though Richardson and other service leadership throughout the last year or so have repeatedly said at conferences and congressional hearings that the surface force is more ready and better trained – and, most importantly, operating more safely – than before the collisions, it took the tragedy of 17 sailors dying before these reforms were aggressively tackled and their success measured for accountability.
Asked why it took a tragedy to realize the depth of the struggles of the surface force, Richardson said, "I think when you start to take your eye off of those fundamentals, then it's going to catch up with you. And then you've got to have some way of sensing those and paying attention to those. There's got to be some kind of a trip wire, an alarm, a fire break or something. So we've really done some work to establish those so that it's now a system where if there's a mission assigned, there's a formal check to make sure that that certification is in place. If not, that's resolved and mitigated at the four-star level. But that's very rare."
Future of the Navy
Of course none of the Navy's challenges – addressing readiness, figuring out how to grow to meet operational demands, continuing to bring in the right people and technologies to be successful in the future – end when Richardson retires. Gilday, who formerly served as the commander of U.S. Fleet Cyber Command and U.S. 10th Fleet and as the director of the Joint Staff, will serve as the 32nd CNO and have to dive head-first into these issues. Richardson says Gilday is the right officer for the time.
"He's a consummate warfighter in the traditional parts of our Navy, a surface warfare officer. His early part of his career was just being stellar in that area. But then as you talk about either the future of warfare and what information warfare, including cyber, space, all of those things that are going to play an increasingly important part, who better than Adm. Gilday to understand that, having commanded the 10th Fleet," Richardson said."And so I think he's just a perfect guy, could not be more excited."
Gilday's nomination for the job came after former Vice CNO Adm. Bill Moran was confirmed to lead the service and then unexpectedly requested to retire amid an investigation into his ongoing relationship with a former Navy spokesman who faced sexual harassment claims by junior female officers.
Richardson released a memo shortly afterwards, briefly addressing what had happened.
He told USNI News that there was still more to say on the topic, eventually.
"There's a lot of lessons that we're teaching, and I hope you'll just give me a little bit of time, we want to have that conversation inside the Navy. It's one that we had to just sort of sit and take some time," he said."But I will say just as loudly as I can, what I hope people do not take away from this is that we don't want to be mentors to our people. And that includes, in fact, maybe especially includes, mentoring people who are struggling. I mean, those are the people that need mentors the most. This is not that. And so, please, all of you out there, continue to help each other out, and if somebody is struggling, continue to help them. That was not what was at play on this. And so if I could just stress that point as broadly as I can, that would be important to get clear right up front."
And the rest of it, we're putting together the program to kind of walk the Navy and talk and have those conversations throughout the Navy so that people can take the lessons from that, the broader lessons, away from this in time," he added.
More broadly, character and ethics played a role in Richardson's time as CNO: though the Fat Leonard scandal didn't break during Richardson's tenure, the Navy has continued to feel the effects, with additional censures against officers, investigations holding up officers' assignments, and more.
Richardson stood up the Navy Leadership and Ethics Center at the Naval War College in Rhode Island, and he said he believes character and ethics are being taken more seriously now than four years ago.
"We've got to make sure that we are behaving as an organization consistent with our values as a profession. I think we're in a much stronger place in that regard right now," he said."I don't think that there's two commanders that get together anymore without talking in some way about ethics. So that happens at just about every one of our leadership schools. It's operationalized more and more, so that there's some ethical dimension to just about everything that we do. … I'm optimistic that we're in a much different place now in terms of where ethics resides in our consciousness as a navy."