Since taking office in May 2009, Ray Mabus has served under four defense secretaries and with three chiefs of naval operations. He is the longest-serving Secretary of the Navy in a century and, when he leaves office on Jan. 20, will be the fourth-longest serving of all time. Among his proudest accomplishments is championing the use of alternative fuels by the Navy and Marine Corps – often at odds with Congress. The former Mississippi governor has butted heads with defense secretaries to defend the embattled Littoral Combat Ship and points to annual shipbuilding budgets significantly higher than the years immediately preceding his term. One of his last acts, in fact, was to sign off on a new Navy Force Structure Assessment that raises the Navy's goal for its total number of ships from 308 to 355 ships – outstripping even the incoming Trump administration's stated 350-ship goal.
In an interview this month with Defense News senior naval reporter Chris Cavas – before the new 355-ship total was made public – Mabus talked briefly about one of the fights he did not win: his effort to avoid personnel furloughs during the October 2013 government shutdown, when thousands of Pentagon employees were sent home for a week before a special act was signed to bring them back to work. He also made this startling declaration: that none of the furloughs were necessary, and the money gleaned from the furloughs was never spent.
What was your toughest time in office?
In 2013, one of the fights that I lost, the Navy didn't need to furlough anybody. We didn't. I fought to not furlough. We had seen it coming – we sort of cut back on expenditures and we were in these meetings where the then-deputy secretary of defense, Ash Carter, would say we're in this together. The Army needs the money, the Air Force needs the money. And they just took enough money away from Navy until we had to furlough to meet these other things.
In November , I asked Bob Hale, the comptroller, did Army put the money under contract? Did they need that money? He said, I don't know, we don't track that. But when we looked back – they didn't put it under contract. Nobody had to be furloughed in 2013. Nobody in OSD period had to be furloughed.
So they were furloughed to pay for things that nobody wound up paying for?
Yes. Nobody took a look at do you really need this money – $250 million for the Army was to fly fresh fruits and vegetables into Afghanistan. At least have a debate about it.
After nearly eight years in office, how do you describe your job?
I think the job of the secretary of the Navy is to insure the Navy and Marine Corps have whatever tools they need to do the missions the country asks them to do. That's platforms, that's people. I guess another shorthand way is I do the business of the Navy. I get the people that manage the force and I've got to get them the tools to get the job done.
I think that the way that it's organized with a civilian head to do that, to make the decisions on budget, to make the decisions on priorities and what we buy, how we do it, what we send to the Hill, works really well. The CNO [chief of naval operations] and CMC [commandant of the Marine Corps] give the best military advice and I give the best advice of how to get there.
You sometimes must feel like a rock in a hard place. You have all these different elements at work. They are all sometimes at odds and don't all understand each other and don't have the same priorities at the same time. You're navigating in all these areas.
It's one of the things that makes this job so wonderful. There are a lot of moving parts. There are a lot of constituencies out there and navigating that, you've got to pay attention. You better know where everything is.
I've got a long list of friends and a long list of enemies and I'm equally proud of both. How do you navigate that? When do you decide, I've got to do this or this is the right track and you know you're going to alienate someone or you know you're going to not make happy part of those moving pieces. I like that, I like that decision-making process. I like the complexity.
I think it's important to have those debates because people do come at it from different angles. I think if you don't listen to those debates, you're making a mistake. You've got to get all the information, and at some point, you've got to decide. One of the things that has always astounded me is people aspire for a lifetime to get into leadership positions and then when they get there, they don't lead. They won't decide.
Part of it is, this is not 100 percent business. It's like politics isn't 100 percent. Again, I go back to the Mississippi story, somebody said even if you win in a landslide and get 60 percent, you walk into a room of 100 people, 40 of them voted against you and probably don't like you. At the end of the day, I think my job is to make sure that the decisions I make are in the best interest of the Navy and Marine Corps of making it stronger, of making them a more effective fighting force. That's the only job I have.
I'll say one more thing. I talk about getting 308 ships by 2021. We're going to get there. I said in an all-hands call in response to a question that I guarantee you in 2021, whoever the secretary of the Navy is, they'll stand up there and say look what I did, I got to 308 ships, even though they will have had nothing to do with it. I've got 272 ships in the fleet today. That's a result of decisions that were made in 2002 and 2004 and 2006.
You cannot ignore today, but you better have an eye on 15 years down the road because if that secretary of the Navy in 2021 who is bragging on the fact that he or she grew the fleet isn't doing the same thing then whoever the secretary in 2031 is going to be in rough shape and is going to get pounded for it.
You've fought hard to preserve the littoral combat ship (LCS) from those in the office of the secretary of defense (OSD) who would reduce or change the program, particularly in the last two or three years. Why did you persevere in that?
I did and I continue to believe in the LCS. I think it gives us capabilities that no other ship does. I think the program had lots of problems at the beginning – cost, schedule, capabilities – and I think we've fixed virtually everything. First with the design and then with taking a look at how we use it and with the training and with how we crew it.
The frustrating thing was I couldn't get CAPE [the Pentagon's office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation – a prime detractor of the LCS] to even go look at the ship. I kept inviting [then-director] Christine Fox to come down and see one, let me show you what we're talking about. They haven't talked to fleet commanders or combatant commanders that really like these ships, that ask for more. You send an LCS in and it's a ship they can operate with.
I think one of the problems it's had is it doesn't look like other Navy ships. I think they made a mistake naming it LCS. I think it should have been a frigate all the way along. That's the job it was doing and I don't think a lot of people know what littoral stands for, at least outside the Navy. So I think the nomenclature offended some traditionalists for that reason.
Then we came up with the frigate design – up-armored, more lethal, more survivable. If you added all the things that people say you need, it was a destroyer. It was over a billion dollars a ship and it doesn't come into the fleet for another eight or 10 years. And say you substitute destroyers for LCS, just build 52 more destroyers or however many it takes to get to 52. Where's the money coming from? LCSs are coming in under $500 million, even the frigate design. Destroyers are more than three times that.
But I think after all the sound and fury that LCS will survive and be fine.
What do you hope are your most lasting accomplishments?
The first thing is I turned the fleet around. It was declining. It had been declining for years, just in terms of numbers. [The fleet we're building] is a balanced fleet. We're buying two submarines a year. We're buying 10 submarines over five years. We're buying 10 destroyers over the same five years. We've got three aircraft carriers under various stages of construction today. We've got two big-deck amphibious ships now under construction. We've moving to the LXR [amphibious ship replacement] to replace the LSD [landing ship dock]. You've heard this speech over and over again, but 41 ships put under contract from '01 to '08, 86 ships put under contract from '09 to '16. If we had put 41 ships under contract, like had been done before, our fleet gets down into the 220 or lower. If the next person and the next person and the next person doesn't keep building them, at some point we fall off a cliff.
I haven't done it at the expense of air. We've bought 35 percent more aircraft during that time. We're recapitalizing virtually every air program that we've got. Our air assets are hurting because we've just flown so much more than we thought we would when we bought these things. We've protected research and development. We've protected science and technology money so that weapons systems continue to have a technological edge.
I think the personnel initiatives, just in terms of making careers more flexible, in terms of having a more diverse force, having a stronger force, are part of Navy culture now. In terms of how we approach our people, how we deal with sailors and Marines, allowing COs to promote 5 percent of their sailors meritoriously. When I came in, we were doing perform-to-serve and enlisted retention boards, which were terrible. We were losing really good sailors just because their reenlistment date came up. We've stabilized that.
The maternity leave, child care opening earlier and keeping it open later, that's not just for women. That's for families. Co-location, trying to co-locate couples if you can. The notion that if you commit a bad act but you may have post-traumatic stress disorder, you may have traumatic brain injury – we may still separate you, but we won't give you bad paper so that you can get some help for that. We've changed that. I think we are a far stronger service today because of that. I think we are attracting and keeping a very high caliber of sailor and Marine.
I think in terms of power, the energy stuff that we're doing. At the very beginning, there was not much Navy or Marine Corps support. Now there's a tremendous amount of support for changing the way we make it, changing the way we use it. You've heard my speech – we were losing a Marine killed or wounded for every 50 convoys of fuel we brought in to Afghanistan. You landed at Camp Leatherneck or Bagram or anywhere and you drove by generator after generator after generator. Having the Marines just have rollable solar panels to put in their pack freed them up from being resupplied with batteries, also saved them 700 pounds a company. The Marines are making energy where you are and making energy where you fight so you don't have to be resupplied as much. That's not a push anymore. They're out there just doing it.
You go on board a ship and one of the things they're proudest of is how they're using fuel. These are efficiencies, but it's also biofuel at sea is sort of the new normal. Ships don't know when they're getting it and when they're not today. And the last biofuel we paid for, we paid $1.99 a gallon for it. All those folks that were yelling at me in 2012 for paying $25 a gallon for demonstrating biofuels at RIMPAC in 2012 – haven't heard from them.
We paid a lot of money for it. It was early. We didn't buy much. There wasn't much available to buy. But once we proved the concept, once the supply got out there, I think that's going to be a lasting legacy. To roll that back just means you're going to make us a less effective force. It doesn't matter which way you look at it -- we're going to be less effective at sea, less effective on land. We're going to put Marines at risk. Why would you do that?
I do travel a lot, but I think our foreign partnerships are way stronger than they were before. I used to get so many questions -- in the Pacific, are you guys for real? Are you going to be here? In Europe, I would get the opposite question -- what's this rebalance to the Pacific. Are you ignoring us? Are you ignoring NATO?
When you could tell them look, we're rebuilding the fleet. We were having to make choices as to where we sent ships as the fleet declined. We weren't doing the maintenance on ships when they came back. We were doing this sort of stuff, do we send this carrier back out before we get all the maintenance done because we just don't have enough presence?
The next Force Structure Assessment is going to be higher. We've put four destroyers into Rota, Spain. We've got two more destroyers going to Yokosuka, Japan. We've got more subs going to Guam. We've got the Marine rotational unit. We've got LCSs going into Singapore on a rotational basis. I'm not getting as many of those questions. And just getting to know these people [internationally] over a course of several years and being a steady presence – me being a steady presence, not just the Navy being a steady presence – I think has really helped in terms of settling down some of these relationships.
Here's the overall thing I hope, and I don't get to write this. People looking back will get to judge what I did, what I didn't do, how effective I was. I truly believe two things. One is that the Navy and Marine Corps are substantially different today than they were when I walked in the door. I also believe they're significantly stronger than they were and they're stronger across the board. It's not just in one area or another. They're a better fighting force today than they were eight years ago.
What accomplishments are you most worried about that could get swept away after you're gone? The elimination this fall of ratings for sailors?
That didn't come from me, that didn't come from CNO [Adm. John Richardson], that came from MCPON [Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Mike Stevens] trying to make careers more flexible, trying to allow more promotions, trying to allow more choice in the next duty station and trying to get people, when they get ready to leave, an easier transition out. There's a lot of goodness in it.
If you want to roll that back, you roll it back. I think that if it goes forward, then in three or four years people will wonder what all the fuss was about. They will be much happier with their career. If it gets rolled back, they'll never see the changes and there won't be the angst.
You can't worry about that. Other people are going to make their own decisions. I'll be part of the alumni association. The alumni association always thinks that place was perfect when we were here and when you leave and they change things it's not. I think if you worry about what's going to be changed or what's going to be overturned, you're not going to get enough stuff done.
You do the very best you can. You take the actions you believe are the best. Part of that is communicating to the Navy, to the Marine Corps, to the deck plates, to the lance corporal out there. Here's why we're doing it. Here's why we're doing it.
If the next person wants to sweep those things away, there's nothing I can do about that. If I've explained it well enough and if it's been adopted well enough, then it's just going to be hard to change. When I was governor [of Mississippi], my successor was 180 degrees from me. He undid a lot of stuff I did. Nothing I can do about that. If you always have an eye on if this is going to be controversial, is this going to last, then I don't think you make the decisions you need to make.
You've got to do the best you can today for what you need to do today and what you think needs to be done 10, 15 years from now. I'm pretty satisfied with that. I think what actions were taken, the decisions that were made, are going to hold up pretty well.