WASHINGTON — In the year and a half since Carlos Del Toro was sworn in as U.S. Navy secretary, sailors and Marines have seen significant changes and challenges. Those forces have raced to modernize through rapid experimentation with new unmanned systems and long-range weapons. And they’ve also shrunk end strength, seeking improved readiness instead.

But with war in Europe and fears China might invade Taiwan sooner than experts expected, should readiness remain king? Or do the Navy and Marine Corps need to stop shrinking and instead ensure they’re large enough to win a fight against a growing Chinese fleet? And when will new, high-end weapons enter the field?

Del Toro spoke with Defense News about the issues weighing on the Navy and Marine Corps ahead of the new year. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

The Navy wants to invest in readiness first, followed by lethality improvements and then growing capacity as the budget allows. How does the possibility of an accelerated Chinese attack on Taiwan affect the prioritization of investments for the Navy and Marine Corps?

I’m not sure we’re necessarily looking at an accelerated timeline. One can’t really predict what China’s going to do [and] when. However, there’s no question that some of the actions they have taken recently raise concern China may be accelerating some of its readiness to potentially try to take Taiwan militarily, if they decide to do so.

We obviously need to do everything we can to be ready at all times. From a budgeting and resourcing perspective, what does that mean? It means applying all the resources and capabilities that are necessary to ensure that we have readiness as our No. 1 priority. The chief of naval operations and myself and the commandant of the Marine Corps have done that in case any emergency should arise at any given point in time throughout the entire world.

In the past couple years, Congress has generally supported the Corps’ rapid modernization via Force Design 2030, but has been tougher on the Navy’s divest-to-invest mentality. Has this surprised you? How might congressional feedback impact your approach in the coming year?

I have taken a substantial amount of time to listen to the concerns of members of Congress. Many members of Congress have been very supportive of our efforts to decommission these ships; they actually do recognize the fact that our Ticonderoga-class cruisers are coming up on 40 years and there are structural issues associated with those ships. It’s a difficult decision because you lose the missile tube capacity in those ships, but at the same time you have an older Aegis weapon system on those ships that isn’t as lethal as necessary to counter the types of missiles that are being developed by China today.

The resources we would have to devote to continue to modernize the Ticonderoga-class cruisers would be detrimental because those are resources we can better apply for procuring, say, more DDG Flight IIIs or Constellation-class frigates.

When it comes to the LSDs [amphibious dock landing ships], it’s a similar challenge. The ships are also approaching 35 to 40 years of age. We would much rather use those resources for the future procurement of, say, LPDs [amphibious transport docks] or LHAs [amphibious assault ships]. These are difficult choices we face, but it’s the right choice to decommission some of those ships.

Take the expeditionary transfer docks, for example. Those ESDs are nowhere nearly as capable as the expeditionary sea bases we’re producing. We have ESB-8, for example: It’s just been authorized, and those are the kinds of capabilities we want to use in Africa and South America and the Pacific and the Mediterranean.

They’re difficult choices, but the opportunity cost of not decommissioning those ships means we have less resources to invest in unmanned technology. Given what we’re doing in 5th Fleet with unmanned technology on Task Force 59, that’s the way of the future.

What are your takeaways from Task Force 59? Where do you hope that effort will be in a year?

When you start thinking about all those evolving concepts of how we could do things differently, that’s the way of the future. It excites me very much. Whether it’s in the air domain, the surface domain or the subsurface domain, we’re at a point in time where we’re going to be truly transformational moving forward.

There are two or three things crucial for the success of unmanned technology and its integration into our manned force. One is, we need to continue to perfect the technology that goes into the individual assets themselves so they can operate safely, with proper due consideration to the rule of law.

Secondly, we need to develop the concept of operations necessary to match the unmanned technology with the manned technology. And the third part of that is continue to refine the training and the cultural changes that are necessary so we can train our workforce to be able to integrate those technologies into our warfighting structure, as well as provide the data, the intel and the warfighting capability necessary to support the joint force.

There’s much more to come. The integration of unmanned technology, for example, to combat illegal fishing in South America and other places around the world is going to be critical. The same thing applies in Central and South America in countering drug runners. In working with our allies and partners, many don’t necessarily have the resources to buy the high-end platforms that are necessary, but they do have the resources to use unmanned technology to then queue those manned resources they do have to more effectively combat the drug runners.

The Navy has not maintained a regular presence in U.S. Southern Command’s area of responsibility, but it has conducted experiments there with the littoral combat ship and the expeditionary fast transport vessel. What’s next in terms of naval presence in that theater?

Our partners in Central and South America are very important to our overall national security and our economic security. It’s important to support our partners and allies in Central and South America. We need a more consistent approach in the future like we’ve had in the past. I hope — working with the Navy and the Marine Corps — to be able to provide more assets in the way of LCSs and EPFs, and engage with key leaders in the area to better understand their challenges, support them and hear what they have to say about the relationship.

China is trying to extend its reach everywhere around the globe, including Central and South America. That’s why I’ve been going down to SOUTHCOM — to hear their problem sets and then try to apply additional resources when possible to support them.

Is there a conversation underway to create a more routine presence there? What is that conversation?

There is. On a military level, we just concluded the exercise UNITAS; we not only had nations from Central and South America participating, but we actually had African nations participate as well. Cameroon sent over several patrol boats to participate.

There are so many common economic interests we share in the South Pacific and South Atlantic and the Caribbean Basin; having our navies operate together is helpful. We need more collaboration, we need more mutual support, and we need to understand their problem sets better and be smarter about how we can apply asymmetric capabilities to better solve these problems through unmanned technologies, for example.

You visited Oceania this year. While the Pentagon prepares for a high-end conflict, partners there are looking for lower-end assistance with maritime domain awareness and protecting fisheries. What is the Navy’s role in working with these nations for peace in the Pacific?

First and foremost, the Navy needs to be ever present in Oceania and the blue Pacific, and working with our island-nation partners elsewhere — in the Caribbean as well. That engagement demands that you be present, that you understand the challenges they face.

I have visited Fiji and Papua New Guinea, and I’ve met at conferences with many of the leaders of the other nations of the blue Pacific. Inevitably, it seems, their top two concerns are climate and China.

Climate presents an existential threat on lower, outlying villages on small islands that are already being impacted dramatically by rising tides of seas and oceans. We’re trying to work with them through our Office of Naval Research, for example, to bring technology they can use to make informed decisions about how best to invest their resources.

On issues of their national and economic security, many of these countries see China as the No. 1 threat — when China presents itself with fishing fleets of 150-300 vessels just outside their exclusive economic zones, or inside their extended exclusive zones. They want to be able to counter that in a way that makes sense. We work very closely with the U.S. Coast Guard on this mission, both in the Pacific and in Central and South America. There’s a greater call for maritime domain awareness. To the extent that we can provide greater P-3 or P-8 aircraft coverage to some of these nations, that will be critical.

How can the Navy ensure it has the bandwidth to maintain that presence and continue partner-building missions?

As the Navy goes down in terms of physical numbers of ships, the demand signal doesn’t necessarily decrease. In fact, it’s increasing. And so we have to make sure that we stay constant to that with more manpower as necessary so that we don’t burn out our people, and with more ships when necessary so we can keep up with the demand signal that’s constantly being placed on us by the combatant commanders.

How is the war in Ukraine affecting the Navy and Marine Corps? Have you reconsidered previous assumptions or spending priorities?

Absolutely, and particularly in the Marine Corps. We have been advising, and we’ve been observing Ukraine’s tactics, their methods, their procedures, and the implementation of all the presidential drawdown gear sent to Ukraine and how the Ukrainians have been able to use those munitions and capabilities to their advantage. We’ve been watching that very closely and applying a lot of those lessons learned to the principles of stand-in forces, for example, in the Indo-Pacific region as part of Force Design 2030 and the commandant’s vision for the future.

What priorities are guiding your fiscal 2024 budget submission? What will be new or different compared to FY23?

The focus really has to be on our strategy. The president has released the National Security Strategy, as well as the National Defense Strategy, both unclassified and classified. And with my three guiding principles I’ve set a very clear vision of what we need to do in the future about strengthening our maritime dominance, about creating a culture of warfighting excellence, and about strengthening our partnerships overseas and with industry to provide those combat-ready forces to the combatant commanders.

From what I’ve seen over the last year and a half, we have a commander-in-chief who is very dedicated to providing the necessary resources for us to be able to have our budget meet the strategy he has laid out for us. He came in last year with significant increases to provide a budget that meets the strategy. I’m confident this year he will do the same with tremendous support from the Department of Defense.

If there’s one thing we’re paying perhaps even more attention to, it’s quality-of-life issues for our sailors and our Marines. We understand the challenges high inflation places on their quality of life, and the secretary of defense and myself are extremely dedicated to ensuring we can provide the additional resources necessary, whether it’s proposing pay raises, increases in housing allowances, targeted bonuses, cost-of-living allowance increases, bigger investments in child daycare centers, investments in overseas DoD schools.

What have you accomplished in 2022? What do you hope to accomplish in 2023?

From a programmatic perspective, we were struggling with the Ford carrier program. USS Gerald R. Ford is on deployment right now, with 27 new technologies transforming the way we project power with our aircraft carriers.

If you take a look at the Constellation-class frigate program, it’s on track. I’m putting a lot of effort on the acquisition side to ensure we control requirements creep, that we actually deliver a Block 0 Constellation-class frigate on time and on schedule to meet its mission. That’s important; that hasn’t always been the trend in the past.

The Columbia submarine program is on time right now. We’re struggling a bit with the Virginia submarine program; we need the industrial base to actually speed up, to make greater investments so we can deliver two boats a year. We’re not there quite yet, and it concerns me. We’re working very closely with the industrial base to try to get them up to two Virginia submarines a year.

Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.

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