WASHINGTON — After four years on the job, U.S. Navy Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson on Aug. 22 handed the reins over to Adm. Michael Gilday.

Gilday was a nontraditional pick selected from the three-star ranks after the Senate-confirmed CNO, Adm. Bill Moran, stepped down amid an Inspector General investigation.

Richardson, who was himself a nontraditional selection, was pulled from his job as head of the naval reactors office, three years into an eight-year billet.

Before he headed out the door, Defense News sat down with Richardson in his mostly empty office to talk about the state of the Navy, great power competition, partnerships in Europe and the submarine industrial base.

You were plucked from naval reactors. You took on the CNO position from a job that was supposed to be your last job in the Navy. What stands out for your from the last four years?

Well, to me it’s all about how is the Navy doing. I would say that the Navy aligned to great power competition. I just keep getting unsolicited emails from the [surface warfare officer community] that says: “Hey, the tone and culture of that whole crowd has changed. They are leaning into this, you know, his drive towards war-fighting excellence."

It’s all about how can we be better war fighters. They’re celebrating command, empowering their [commanding officers] to get out there and — not to be completely risk averse — but to manage risk appropriately. Which is exactly what we want our Navy to be doing, particularly that part of our Navy, which is the visible Navy for so many.

And I’ve got the same thing going on and all the different war-fighting communities. So there’s a real palpable excitement.

Our allies and partners continue to be enthused and see there’s a tremendous amount of value with working with the United States Navy. I’m getting a lot of great messages from fellow [Navy chiefs] around the world. And so in terms of advancing U.S. interests around the world, you know, the Navy is often the first point of contact, either the Navy or a sailor going to shore. We’re being partners in war fighting and as diplomats. I think that’s going really well. Our people programs are just really rocking it. Recruiting continues to meet all its goals. Retention is solid right now.

So from all those dimensions, I think that we’re on a pretty good track. It’s not 100 percent roses. Ship maintenance continues to be a challenging problem. We’ve got a number of efforts underway to take a much more data-driven analysis of that, looking at output metrics. It’s the same approach that we’re using in aircraft maintenance, and that’s showing some returns.

But overall I think that the Navy is out there doing exactly what the nation needs to do and leaning into this challenge with great power competition, working with more agility. And our people can feel a difference in the Navy.

When you came into office, you made clear that you saw the world entering an era of great power competition, even before it was a Defense Department talking point. How has that competition played out, and what’s the state of play today?

The South China Sea is a kind of illustrative example maybe. I think what has changed there is — and I give all the credit to [Pacific Fleet chief] Adm. [John] Aquilino and [Indo-Pacific Command chief Adm. Phil] Davidson — we’ve kind of normalized our presence there, right? They’ve made it very clear, and it has been our consistent message that we are going to be present.

In fact, that’s the theme of every visit that I’ve made to China and every time I’ve talked with my counterparts there: We’re going to be consistent, you can count on us to be consistent and our actions will be consistent with our words. Our presence has been their constant for 70 years and you will see it in the future. This is a very important part of the world. You know, a third of the world’s trade flows through this body of water.

Since the beginning of the Navy, we’ve been charged with protecting sea lanes, contributing to the economic element of national power. We’re going to be there.

So we started to normalize freedom of navigation operations, which is exactly kind of how they should work. You know, before they were something different and kind of a [big] deal. And now it’s: OK, we’re going to be here. And these are for claims around the world, right? Not just in the South China Sea. If you have an excessive maritime claim, you shouldn’t be surprised if we’re going to challenge that. So it’s really that our actions now are really consistent with our words.

We're invested in this system of rules and norms that has allowed the gross domestic product of the world to roughly double or more.

In Europe you have a lot of high-end capabilities among allies. Britain is investing in aircraft carriers, you have a number of countries with sophisticated frigates. Where does the alliance need to go?

Just like in the Pacific, in the European theater the navy-to-navy relationships are really strong. I remember recently sitting in the 6th Fleet command center: In the Mediterranean, the European navies were monitoring and controlling the migration flow from Africa — a difficult mission. It’s maybe not a high-end, war-fighting mission, but a very difficult mission to manage properly to do that in a humane way. So they had that going on. And then up on the Hebrides range, they had this super high-end missile defense exercise going on with allies and partners and the Missile Defense Agency stitched in. We were countering anti-ship cruise missiles and ballistic missiles all at once, passing tracks back and forth — all of that.

And I thought: “Wow, what a spectrum.”

We’ve been doing a lot of operations with the French carrier Charles de Gaulle. The French CNO, Adm. [Christophe] Prazuck, has this “plug and fight concept.” And you know, we’re just about there. You’ll recall we kept the French air wing qualified on the carrier George H.W. Bush, so we have that level of interoperability.

The United Kingdom: Back in the carrier business now.

Moving forward we can look at the work plans for a couple of trilateral maritime agreements, one with the U.S., U.K. and France: Let’s get together and see what we can do to really closely partner in terms of carrier operations. How do we do that on a global scale?

And, of course, anti-submarine warfare is always challenging, so much more of team approach there.

When you came into office, the chatter was that you were chosen to deliver the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine program, the Navy’s No. 1 acquisition priority. The Navy is ordering the first hull in 2021. What’s the status of the program?

I think that the Columbia program is on track, but there is so little margin in that program. And I know, just because I’ve done this enough, that you’ve got to build that margin in. And we did. We built that margin in, but a lot of it has been eaten up by one unexpected thing or another. So we’re still on track, but a lot of the margin is gone.

We’ve got to build that margin back, and we’ve got a plan — we’ve set some pretty aggressive goals for that. We’re going to build the lead ship of that class in the same time we built the lead ship of Virginia. And it’s two-and-a-half times the size. But we’ve learned a lot about shipbuilding, so the design will be a lot more complete than Virginia was at the start. There is a tremendous amount of oversight where we think the risks are, the known knowns.

But I will tell you I just know there is going to be something in testing, it’s a super complex system. So we just need to be driving hard to build margin. We said in the [Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority 2.0]: “Hey, deliver it as fast as you can. Whatever [initial operating capability] we set for ourselves, let’s not take any comfort in that. Let’s just keep retiring risk as fast as we can. Get that thing out to sea as fast as we can.” Because if we get into that risk retirement mindset, that’s what will happen.

Generally speaking, the submarine industrial base is under a lot of pressure. You have creeping delays in the Virginia-class attack submarine program. What’s going on, and is it getting better?

We’re asking a lot of the submarine industrial base right now to continue with Virginia, two to three per year including that payload module, and deliver Columbia. That’s an industrial base that has a lot on its plate right now. And the workforce is going through a transformation.

The people who built and delivered the Virginia program, the Los Angeles program and Seawolf — those folks are retiring. We used to have this two-hump camel in terms of the demographics of the shipyard: You had the Cold Warriors and you had the post-9/11 folks. And that Cold War hump is gone. And I think that although it’s going through some friction right now, it’s really inculcating, indoctrinating and educating a brand-new workforce.

You can’t take a lot of the skill sets for granted. We’ve had some welding issues. We’ve got to be on that. [It’s] a lot closer oversight as we educate this new team. It’s not just the welders and other skills; it’s: “Well, who were the managers of that. What should they be looking out for?”

As I zoom out, it’s a super exciting time for the nation because a lot of people are coming into this workforce and they’re getting terrific jobs. They’re getting educated to do really high-end work both for themselves and for the country. But there is a learning curve associated with that. But if you think about it, I’d rather be doing that learning now [rather] than later.

The 355-ship Navy: Do you think vendors and builders can and will make the investments needed to reach that count?

Well, I think the buildup is really for real. We’re bigger than we were four years ago. We’re at 290 now and the path is going to get us to 310, that’s with decommissioning. Having said that, we are asking a lot of the industrial base right now.

David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.

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