Highlights: A conversation with the Secretary of the Navy

A detail onboard of the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, USS Carl Vinson, is seen after it docked at a port in Danang, Vietnam March 5, 2018. REUTERS/Kham - RC1351904F80

America’s maritime forces are undergoing significant changes to address the realities of great-power competition. As the 76th Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer explained at Brookings on October 23, evolving technology, ongoing uncertainty about the budgetary and fiscal climate, and accelerating innovation by America’s competitors have forced the Navy and Marine Corps to adapt quickly and comprehensively to fulfill the vision laid out for them in the National Defense Strategy.

Secretary Spencer said the return to great-power competition has tested the Navy’s readiness and capabilities in ways they haven’t been for a long time. How will the Navy and Marine Corps adapt, react, and fight? As the power-projection force for the country, the integrated naval force must be ready at any moment’s notice. It is Spencer’s goal, in concert with the commandant of the Marine Corps and the Chief of Naval Operations, to have a single, unified service. The adage that “the Navy takes us to the next battle” is outdated, he said.

Spencer urged attendants to read the Marine Corps Commandant’s Planning Guidance, calling it “revolutionary”: “The Marine Corps will be trained and equipped as a naval expeditionary force in readiness and prepared to operate inside actively contested maritime spaces, in support of fleet operations.” There will be no daylight between the services — the maritime forces will move forward as one, ready, lethal, and forward-maneuverable team.

Spencer then listed several strategic goals going into his third year. One is investing in human capital both inside and outside of government. Another is prioritizing learning as a strategic advantage. Spencer said that “the era of great-power competition will be marked by investments in gray matter as well as gray hulls.” Finally, Spencer noted that his integration efforts are focused on the industrial base — synchronizing the supply chain to get ahead of global trends and ensure partner nations can work with each other better.

During their conversation, Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon asked Spencer to assess the state of the maritime forces’ readiness, and then to assess the state of the all-volunteer force. On the latter, Spencer said that the Navy and Marine Corps aren’t a volunteer force — they’re a 100% recruited force. And while recruitment goals are being met, recruitment keeps him up at night. “We can’t simply rely on our logo to bring people in the door.” It is essential for the services to provide service members with training and education so that they can go out into the private sector, or elsewhere, and speak well of their experience, which is an invaluable source of goodwill and advertising.

76th Secretary of the Navy speaks at Brookings.

On readiness, Spencer declared that “for 18 years we have flown the wings off the plane, and sailed the bottoms off the ships, and wrung our sailors and Marines out to the n-th degree. We are now paying for that.” While he acknowledged recent funding from Congress, he said the maritime forces are performing maintenance on ships that haven’t been looked at in five to seven years. Turning to recent scrutiny over the Navy’s new $13 billion aircraft carrier the USS Ford, he accused some of spreading “disinformation” about the program and its expense.

To enhance readiness, Spencer said that “we looked at our systems, we looked at our command and control,” and assessed where changes needed to happen, and then “we looked outside … It is kind of an irony that in the ‘50s and ‘60s, corporate America looked to the Pentagon for risk management and industrial process, but we atrophied there completely, and the private sector went around us, and now are way out in front of us.”

O’Hanlon then asked Spencer if the United States could afford to be less predictable in deployments, referring to then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ assessment that the U.S. could be strategically predictable but operationally unpredictable. Spencer agreed and said that the United States maritime forces should be out there with dynamic force deployment, referring always to where the threat levels are. “One of the things we have to go back to — and we did this in the Cold War, then abandoned it when we were doing COIN [counter-insurgency] operations — was action, reaction. Try something over here and watch how the reaction goes, try something over here and watch the reaction. We’re moving towards that direction.”

Turning to his vision for the future, O’Hanlon asked about the aircraft carrier fleet, and specifically what Spencer thinks about the future of the survivability and utility of the carrier. Laying out various points of view — that the carrier is actually pretty survivable because we can interfere with an enemy’s reconnaissance satellites and data downlinks; that if we put more, longer-range air platforms on the carriers we can mitigate vulnerabilities; and that the carrier can be useful in crises and low-level conflicts whether or not it is dependably survivable in an all-out war with Russia and China — O’Hanlon asked what camp Spencer is in, to which he said he’s in all three.

Finally, O’Hanlon asked how actors in the Western Pacific have felt in the last two years, since Spencer has been been Secretary of the Navy. Spencer responded that he’s more concerned about the Pacific now than when he arrived because he now knows more than two years ago. The United States now has a competitor, China, that does not differentiate between the military and civilian domains. We now need an “all-of-government approach — DoD must be joint with Commerce, DoD must be joint with Treasury” to address the long-term pacing challenge that China represents.