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The Critical Year Ahead: Some Unsolicited Advice for Navy Leadership

Bryan McGrath

As 2016 draws to a close, Navy leadership is in possession of a great deal of blue-ribbon thinking about fleet architecture and force structure, the result of Congressional direction contained in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and elsewhere. Specifically, The Rand Corporation has submitted a study on the future of aircraft carriers, and three separate organizations (The Mitre Corporation, the Navy Staff (N81), and the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA)) have submitted views of appropriate future fleet architectures. The Navy is currently analyzing these products to determine the extent to which they might shape future plans and programs, as they work to “answer the mail” from the Congress.

This is a time of great intellectual ferment in the Navy, fueled by the Chief of Naval Operations’ (ADM John Richardson) quiet emphasis on the re-emergence of great power competition and the need to be prepared to wage it. It is unclear how the Congressionally mandated studies will influence Navy plans going forward, but that the Navy should be prepared to engage in a methodical and focused communications campaign to build public recognition of the challenges ahead seems obvious. Here are some suggestions to help frame that effort.

Great Power Competition is Central. The degree to which the Navy focuses its narrative on lesser threats is the degree to which its force structure will be optimized to meet them. While Carrier Strike Groups (CSG) are being employed in current operations against ISIS and other associated terror groups, this is a useful by-product of being prepared for great power competition and not the raison d’etre for that power.

The U.S. Navy Exists to Ensure Freedom of the Seas. Freedom of the seas is the irreducible minimum condition for world trade, the vast majority of which moves by sea. The Navy must be capable of ensuring that our economic interests are not damaged by a rising great power’s desire to impose regional dominance over resources and markets. Over a quarter of this nation’s annual gross domestic product (GDP) is directly associated with seaborne trade, and ensuring that such trade continues unmolested is essential to our prosperity.

Partner with the Marine Corps. The American public must be better informed as to the importance of robust American Seapower to the nation’s security and prosperity. Within the Department of the Navy resides the world’s most powerful Navy, the world’s most feared middleweight land force, and the world’s most mobile and lethal air arm. The efficiency and effectiveness of forward deployed naval power in the guise of an integrated war deterring/waging force from the sea should be touted as an asymmetric advantage that enables the U.S.—uniquely among nations—to exploit the simple fact that the world is mostly water, and most of that water is not claimed as territorial seas.

Do Not Negotiate with Yourself. The Navy is vastly under-resourced for what this nation currently asks it to do, let alone for the rigors of growing great power dynamics. When the Navy goes forward with its plan, it should couch it in the language of requirements. State what the force is designed to do, where it is designed to do it, against whom is it arrayed, and the likely operational objectives of those potential adversaries. Make the case that the fleet architecture and its dependent force structure is the requirement to achieve these ends, and state the resulting requirement unequivocally. It is the job of the Congress to balance those requirements against other important needs, and Navy planners should get out of the business of shaping their force around an anticipated level of funding.

Put the Admirals to Work. The Navy has hundreds of Admirals—active and reserve—on the payroll. They reached the positions they occupy on the basis of professional competence and leadership, and there are few better to explain the importance of American Seapower to a general public grown detached from its centrality. The CNO should energize the flag community and require his Admirals to schedule and conduct at least one public outreach event every month solely for the purpose of reinforcing the importance of American Seapower. The Navy Chief of Information (CHINFO) should create a twenty-minute presentation suitable for delivery to civic groups across the country, and provide it to Navy flag officers for their own tailoring. Additionally, CHINFO should maintain a master schedule of these presentations and work to coordinate local press coverage both before and after the event to amplify its impact. Finally, individual flag officers should be required to submit to CHINFO a brief post-event summary to include insights gained and their general observations on the receptivity of the audience to the message. This effort is about information and education, not advocacy, a distinction that the CNO should ensure his acolytes understand. Past suggestions of the value of such an effort have gotten hung up on the fear that outreach to those the Navy serves could run afoul of Defense Department guidelines on policy advocacy. A clear statement of intent from the CNO, followed by his personal interest in the program would go a long way toward its effectiveness.

The world is changing around the Navy, and the demands placed on it require it to think differently about how it is organized, trained, equipped, and postured. If it is to make progress in meeting those demands, it must also communicate its requirements with clarity, completeness, honesty, and relentlessness. Such is the burden of the world’s most powerful and consequential Navy.

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