ALEXANDRIA, Virginia – Good Evening, Drifters
The first time I interviewed a sitting Chief of Naval Operations was Adm. Gary Roughead, and I was about four years removed from sleeping in Operations Berthing on USS Normandy. To a sailor for whom the Navy was entirely contained within the lifelines of a cruiser in Norfolk, meeting a four-star admiral for the first time was intimidating.
There is a great quote from Michael Shaara’s brilliant novel The Killer Angels where Col. Chamberlain contemplates the almighty power of the generals over his life and the lives of his men. He muses that there is “nothing quite so much like God on earth as a general on a battlefield.” If that’s true of the Army, that’s sure as hell true of the Navy. Only for OS2 Larter and the rest of the crew of the good ship Normandy (and, indeed, on every ship in the fleet), God on the deckplates was the captain. An O-6 controlled me and everyone around me, and everything revolved around him.
So, imagine my sense of trepidation at meeting the highest-ranking officer in the Navy – a guy so far up the chain of command he can barely see my command from his level.
He’d come to our old Springfield, Virginia, office to graciously submit to a battery of questions from Navy Times and Defense News. My editor at the time, Politico’s Dave Brown, asked me to question him about Capt. Holly Graf, who had been accused of cruelty to her crew. So, this wasn’t going to be a softball and it terrified me. All my training screamed out against being so forward with an admiral. But I wasn’t a sailor anymore, and I think that may have been Dave’s way of breaking me in.
I asked him how an officer with a track record for being overly aggressive with her crew could screen for major command. The SWO community is small, I posited, and clearly her reputation would have been known. What happened?
I was a nervous wreck, but not too nervous to realize that what he was coming back with was load of BS. “Navy Times only focuses on one percent of officers who make mistakes and ignores the 99 percent of our commanding officers who are out there doing great things every day for our Navy,” or something to that effect. People familiar with my occasionally short fuse will imagine what was going through my head: I was ticked.
It was a good lesson: These guys are human, not gods. It was a question without an easy answer. So, he turned it around on me, as if I’d done something wrong, to get me to back down. I followed up and I managed to get a better answer from him on the second try, though I don’t recall the specifics.
I told you that story to tell you this one: Had a chance this week to catch up with the current Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. John Richardson, along with my colleagues in the Navy press corps, and this time it went better. CNO answered a broad range of questions, some of which you may have seen turned into stories, but I thought it would be helpful for me to recount it here for everyone’s benefit. I found it to be a helpful discussion.
Sorry for the long introduction. And Adm. Roughead, if you read this, no hard feelings. Thanks for doing the interview way back when.
The Navigation Brief
CNO Meets the Press
CNO Richardson spoke at the McAleese/Credit Suisse Defense Programs Conference on Wednesday. After about a 25-minute talk, he launched into a 30-minute Q&A session with the crowd, then sat down with me and my colleagues to take questions for another 30 minutes. Both discussions were wide-ranging and so I’m going to break out the most interesting questions and answers for you here. He even spoke about sealift! So we’ll start there:
CNO on Sealift:
Richardson acknowledged that the sealift fleet needed to be recapitalized, but said the Navy was also in the process of redefining what it will need in terms of logistical support as it looks to fight in a distributed way in the future:
The Quote: “As we think about things like distributed maritime operations, there’s a difference in supporting that distributed fleet – there’s a different challenge from logistically supporting a massed fleet. So, we are doing a lot of requirements definition in terms of how we do both inter-theater lift, but then once we get there how do we do intra-theater lift … Whether its refueling, resupplying, rearming – all those things that need to be done, a lot of thinking going into that”
CNO hinted that a new class for moving supplies intra-theater is in the works.
CNO on Decommissioning the Truman:
Richardson left the door open to back out from the decision pending the results of two ongoing reviews in his response to a question about what the Navy’s official position on the Truman was.
The Quote: “This year, we’re continuing to study the security environment. We’re doing a force-structure assessment that will update the assessment that resulted in the 355-ship goal. The combatant commanders are doing their analysis of the security environment and updating their global campaign plans.”
“That work will all be done this year. And what this budget also entails is the flexibility to respond to what those studies tell us.”
Later, when asked whether the decision was linked to an agreement with the Office of the Secretary of Defense over the two-carrier block buy, Richardson was initially evasive.
The Quote: “The decision on Truman is really connected to balancing capabilities between 25 years of the Nimitz Class aircraft carrier against the requirements which are being studied. And then also this idea that we do want to make sure we’re not missing opportunities to exploit technology. So, I don’t see them as being tightly coupled”
When pressed on whether there was a deal, CNO acknowledged discussions with OSD but implied that people were making too much of what part of the normal budgetary process.
The Quote: “There are always really robust discussions between the services, OSD, amongst all of us, to make sure that we are taking the most thoughtful approach towards providing America’s security. The best solution will always come from a discussion where people have different points of view. We bring them together, we resolve those points of view. I just don’t want to over-dramatize that process.”
CNO on the status of Large Surface Combatant:
The Quote: “We’re early in the discussion of requirements on the large surface combatant. I’ve got to tell you, given kind of the discussion that’s happened already, the first question that we have to do is prove to ourselves that we need a large surface combatant, right? What is the unique contribution of something like that in the face of all of these emerging technologies?
“Right now, the discussions point to the fact that it brings a unique capability in terms of being able to house larger types of weapons, larger missiles. You certainly get more aperture on a bigger sensor. So, there is sort of this emerging role, or persistent role, let’s say in the future security environment.
“Then how are we going to do at the large surface combatant level something that were really trying hard to do at the small surface combatant level which is okay, let’s define, take advantage of what we know in terms of those technologies that exist … And then design the ship to modernize in stride, so they don’t have to come in for a ten-month up-keep to modernize. I can come in for a ten-day up-keep to modernize.”
CNO on the decision to delay LPD-17 Flight II:
The LPD-17 Flight II was delayed, quite simply, to pay for the third Virginia-class submarine in 2020, CNO said, arguing that the Navy was much closer to the requirement for amphibs than it was for SSNs.
The Quote: “We’re much further away from our warfighting requirement in SSNs than we are in amphibs. So that was just a warfighting priority.”
CNO on extending the lives of the Los Angeles-class attack subs:
The Quote: “We’ve got to make sure that we do that with a very keen eye to the engineering challenges associated with that.
“So, one, you’ve got to be able to do the analysis that says these things, that the hulls, the tanks, the limiting components on a nuclear attack submarine are going to be able to be useful, be productive for that long. We’ve done a lot of that. It’s kind of a case by case basis. These submarines, the usage over their life is varying. You have to do it hull by hull. Overall, though, I’m pretty optimistic that that’s going to help us meet our requirements and attack submarine numbers.”
CNO on the Wall Street Journal Report that Navy contractors are under cyber siege:
The Quote: “I think that that is not the first report to show us that we’ve got some challenges there, right? You’ve ready about the defense industrial base leaking, and those sorts of things. And I think that our competitors are focused prejudiciously on those technologies where they see that they’re at a disadvantage. And undersea is one area where I think that we would definitely have an advantage, and in many other kinds of maritime types of capabilities. So, we shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose, that that’s a target. …
“I would say that while we made some great progress, even over the last three or four years. I mean we stood up the entire information warfare community. 10th Fleet is our operational arm in cyber. Those are maturing quickly. The environment’s moving fast too, and we’ve just got to continue to accelerate to keep up with it.”
CNO on the decision to buy two large unmanned surface vessels:
The Quote: “As we think about what sort of message or what are the take-aways from our budget, I hope that one of the take-aways is that we are really committed to moving into the future and to exploiting these technologies. We’ve been doing some work with unmanned surface vessels and making some progress there.
“I would liken it to this is sort of the, maybe the surface vessel version of where we picked up on MQ-25 and are moving very aggressively to get something on deck and in the air. And we were able to do that relatively quickly by virtue of taking advantage of what we’ve learned in that field to date, and also bringing industry in early. So we’re going to use a lot of those practices kind of as fundamental to the progress we’re making on the frigate program. So we’re really kind of bringing that all together.”
Yikes, this is long. On to an abbreviated Hotwash!