The next four years will be critical for the U.S. Navy as our nation faces new challenges in the Indo-Pacific Theater and around the globe. During the 2020 presidential campaign, defense was not a major political issue. As a result, President-elect Joe Biden’s new Pentagon and Navy leadership teams will come to their posts largely free from campaign promises. So what can we expect? I see seven priorities emerging as the Navy and the nation plot a new course toward the future.
Appoint Stable Leadership
The Navy’s most fundamental need is for strong, stable civilian leadership team. During the past four years, the Department of the Navy suffered from constant civilian leader turnover, with five different secretaries or acting secretaries of the Navy and four different secretaries of Defense during that time. This leadership churn resulted in frequent changes in budget and policy priorities. Uniformed leaders did their best to adjust to the revolving door, but the result was chaotic. The new administration needs to assemble a strong, experienced, and diverse leadership team for the Navy and leave them in place to do their jobs. If changes are necessary, newly appointed leaders need to stress continuity, pursuing a consistent administration agenda instead of trying to “make their mark” with new pet projects. The keynote here needs to be stability and strategic continuity.
Develop a Readiness Plan
There has been a lot of concern over the past four years among Navy brass about readiness. The decision to shift as much funding as possible toward shipbuilding, combined with punishing ship deployment schedules, the COVID-19 pandemic, and severe maintenance delays, left many Navy leaders worried that we are moving toward a “hollow force,” with inadequate funding and time to man, train, and equip the ships and crews we already possess. To clarify this issue, the incoming Pentagon leadership team should ask the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) to develop a readiness plan detailing what support, if any, the Navy needs to prepare for war in the next two years. The new administration may not support everything on the CNO’s wish list—the Navy’s civilian leaders must strike a balance between investing in current readiness and force modernization for the future—but having the discussion would clarify the Navy’s current readiness challenge.
Produce a Rational Future Force Assessment
The Biden team will also need to create a new strategic roadmap to guide the design and development of the Navy of the future. This is essential because the Pentagon’s future force assessment process—the way it determines what kind of Navy America will need to meet national security challenges in the coming decades—has been a mess for years.
Calls from the past two administrations for a 355-ship fleet failed to produce a plausible plan to reach this goal. The Navy developed its own future force assessment in 2019, but it was set aside, widely criticized in the Pentagon for lack of analytic rigor and unrealistic assumptions. Then-Secretary of Defense Esper subsequently assigned the task to his own staff, which produced Battle Force 2045, a plan for a 500+-ship fleet. This plan failed to explain how it would be paid for, and its official release was blocked by the White House and its Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
Then, in December 2020, the administration sent to Congress a new 30-year shipbuilding plan. It endorsed the idea of a 500-ship fleet but ignored budget reality: the fact that we can barely pay today for our current 300 ship force, let alone one which is 40 percent larger.
This turmoil leaves the Navy’s future strategic direction in doubt. To correct this drift, the new administration will need to develop a visionary but financially viable plan for the Navy’s future during its first year in office. This could be done at the DoD level, but long term it would be better for the new administration to trust the Navy, the nation’s naval warfare experts, and return force assessment responsibility to them.
The Navy’s planning process will not be successful, however, unless the Department of the Navy secretariat and CNO staff develop a more capable strategic planning, wargaming, and force assessment capability. The new administration needs to create an internal think-tank to guide its force assessment planning process, bringing together strong voices from the Navy, Marine Corps, think-tanks, and naval educational institutions to review work and produce a more rigorous, compelling, and financially sound game plan. This vision will need to come to terms with three major facts: Pentagon budgets are likely to be flat over the next four years; the nation needs to respond to growing geopolitical pressure from Russia and China; and hypersonic missiles, cyber warfare, the militarization of space, artificial intelligence, and the development of uncrewed vessels and aircraft are going to alter naval warfare forever, making “ship count” less meaningful as a metric for power and effectiveness.
Focus on Talent Management
The Navy’s industrial age talent management system has not changed significantly for decades, while the nation and the nature of warfare has changed drastically. This has resulted in four significant shortcomings: the loss of many talented young officers, who are discouraged by slow promotions and inadequate educational opportunities; weak educational and intellectual preparation for war, as evidenced in the Education for Seapower Report; an outdated system to assess and promote talent; and a lack of diversity in the senior ranks. For example, African Americans comprise 17 percent of the enlisted force but only 5 percent of admirals.
To address these issues, the Navy needs a revolution in talent management. It needs to change recruiting, assessment, retention, and promotion practices to maintain a more diverse and equitable force, one that rewards excellence, slows down reassignment churn, retains our best people, and develops officers more effectively for senior leadership roles. The Navy must develop enhanced and empowered information warfare and information technology communities that are as strong and influential in those key areas as the nuclear and aviation communities are today. The Navy should update and execute the recommendations of the Education for Seapower Report. This will ensure our officer and enlisted team is better prepared, strategically and technologically, for the complex future that lies ahead.
Over the past twenty years, the Navy’s acquisition record has been highly checkered. The Gerald R. Ford–class aircraft carrier program has suffered from cost overruns, deployment delays, and technology failures. The littoral combat ship program failed to deliver as promised, leading the Navy to call for early decommissioning of some of its vessels. The Zumwalt-class guided-missile destroyer program was cancelled after three incredibly expensive prototypes of uncertain value. The Navy needs to come to terms with these failures, which call into question its ability to design and acquire technologically advanced and capable ships at scale and for a reasonable price.
One place to begin is by commissioning a high-level blue-ribbon study of these acquisition shortcomings to identify where the Navy went wrong and how to do better in the future. We should not prejudge what such a study might find, but it is clear that all three programs suffered from inadequate understanding and management of technology risk. In each case, assumptions that untested new technologies would develop on time, at estimated cost, with expected capabilities did not bear out. In fact, this almost never happens. We need to learn from product-development practices in the tech sector to bring weapons systems to market quickly, at a better price, and with greater risk mitigation for when the “unexpected” predictably occurs.
The Navy must also change how it prepares and assigns officers for careers that involve weapons acquisition. Tours of duty in acquisition are too short, undercutting expertise and accountability. Acquisition education can no longer focus just on process, but must incorporate business school–style case studies of successes and failures that identify continuing challenges. More acquisition officers need to attend world-class civilian business schools for graduate MBA programs (especially those with low residency “executive” delivery models compatible with Navy career paths), to develop a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of product development, finance, R&D, and risk management. And we have to stop measuring career success and significance by contract dollar amount, and focus instead on quality of results.
Improve Congressional Relations
Finally, the Navy needs to improve its relationship with Congress, which is an essential partner as it plans for the future. In the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, one hears often that the Navy’s credibility on budget, force assessment, maintenance, and acquisition matters is weak.
The new administration will need to reach out and rebuild this relationship. The best way to do so would be to listen. Before sharing plans for the future, the new Navy civilian leaders should ask Congressional leaders and expert Congressional staff from both parties for their views on the way forward, and then incorporate, with public acknowledgement, the best advice they receive. This openness and commitment to partnership will go a long way toward rebuilding essential trust.
The past few years for the Navy have been bumpy. The good news is that the U.S. Navy remains the most powerful and effective naval service in the world, with proud traditions and smart, dedicated, skilled personnel. The New Year gives the Navy an opportunity to reboot. Let us all hope that it does, for the sake of the Navy and our national security.