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Aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) transits the Pacific Ocean, May 31, 2015. (U.S. Navy Photo/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Eric Coffer/Released)

Thoughts on Growing a Navy

Bryan McGrath

On January 20th 2017, the Trump Administration will begin to deliver on its promise to grow the Navy from its current 272 ships to an eventual goal of 350. No information is available to describe the timetable for this expansion of the Navy by nearly a third, but it is reasonable to assume that with several other priorities vying for resources, the growth of the Navy is likely to be measured and steady over time.

On September 30, 1987, the ship count stood at 594. Over the course of the next thirty years, that number steadily diminished to arrive at today’s level. The men and women leading the Navy (civilian and in uniform) today have spent the vast majority of their careers deftly managing decline. It would be hard to find an officer in the grade of Captain who had any memory of what was involved in growing the Navy during the heady days of the Reagan Administration, and those Flag Officers serving today who were junior officers then were certainly not in positions of leadership or authority. All of which leads to a very simple truth: The Navy Secretariat and OPNAV have no experience in what it takes to grow a Navy. This is not to say that they will be unable to do so; only that the mindset and major muscle movements of a growing Navy are unknown to them.

I have no practical experience with the management of a growing Navy either, but I have a few suggestions to offer gained through several years of friendship and wisdom extended to me by the giants of the Reagan Navy buildup, men like Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Shipbuilding and Logistics George Sawyer, his successor Everett Pyatt, and famous Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) analyst Peter Swartz. And while there have been great changes in acquisition since their time in office, the habits of mind and the repeatable processes they followed are worth considering as the Navy potentially embarks on another period of expansion, in addition to a few suggestions gained from my own thinking on the subject.

  • Craft a Compelling Narrative. The 600 ship Navy was a Reagan goal during the 1980 Campaign, part of his program to renew American military strength in opposition to perceptions of Soviet gains. Secretary Lehman recognized the innovative thinking of several Flag Officers in the Pacific who believed that the Navy could “go on the offensive” and open additional theaters of war to stretch Soviet defenses and resources. This thinking eventually became “The Maritime Strategy”, and Lehman linked it to the 600-ship goal. The 350 ship Trump Navy needs a narrative of its own, a justification to the taxpayers why such an increase is required. What will this Navy do? Where will it do it? Why must it do these things? These questions will be asked by their representatives in Congress, and so a compelling narrative that answers them is essential. Swartz is a wealth of information on these topics and more.
  • Grow Efficiently. As Secretary Lehman worked to “sell” the 600 ship Navy, he never missed an opportunity—whether talking to Congress or to the American people—to stress that the buildup would be done with great efficiency, that the additional resources were not a license to spend like….well, drunken sailors. Lehman built confidence that management controls were in place that would lower costs and result in better value to the taxpayer.
  • Manage Change. One of the ways that Lehman, Sawyer, and Pyatt could drive efficiency into shipbuilding was to wield ruthless control over configuration changes to hot production lines. New capabilities were thoroughly designed and tested before being worked into a ship class, but only after a number of ships that were virtually identical had been built. Cost and schedule risk was minimized, and American shipbuilding became more efficient. We have moved away from this level of discipline in shipbuilding, and concurrent changes bedevil programs to this day. Insist on mature designs before beginning production, manage change aggressively, integrate mature technologies only after thorough design and testing.
  • Get Out of the Hole. When Trump Transition Team members get a look at the Navy’s books for FY17 and the plan for FY18, they are unlikely to be happy with what they see. Rumors abound of devastating cuts to the Navy’s budget to comply with the Budget Control Act of 2011, and the reality will soon set in that the Navy’s current 300+ ship plan is a work of creative fiction, with insufficient resources applied to its achievement. Worse still are the cuts applied to readiness and maintenance accounts that are slowly hollowing out the Navy. In other words, the Trump Team must perform major damage control on the fleet already in existence, a fleet whose health and fitness is the foundation for future growth. They should endeavor to make that fleet whole even as they look to hot production lines to produce a few quick wins on growing the fleet size. Have a prioritized wish-list ready to hand the incoming administration that addresses these foundational needs.
  • Ask for Help. Lehman, Sawyer, Pyatt, and Swartz are still active voices in the extended defense community, and Navy leaders should consult them and tap into their collective wisdom and access their network of Reagan-era alumni. I have worked with many of these people in the past, and they are excited to contribute in any way they can.

There is an exciting time on the horizon for the men and women of the United States Navy, few of whom know what it is like to serve in a Navy that is sufficiently resourced and growing. Navy leadership and the incoming Trump Team have a responsibility to think deeply about their stewardship of this growth while they have a few precious weeks to do so.

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