'Included in Our Sticker Price': Interview with the Chief of Naval Operations

By John Miller and Brendan Greeley

I don't believe that the U.S. Navy or the naval service needs to reinvent itself for the Quadrennial Defense Review—and, indeed, we don't intend to. In terms of the number of ships we have, which today is 352, and the number of people we have, which is a little over a half a million, active and reserve-what they're asked to do for their country every single day of the year makes a pretty compelling case for the relevance of naval forces forward.

So that really positions us for Quadrennial Defense Review discussions—when you can put those cards on the table and are proud to do so.

Proceedings : Would changes in the overall strategy—one military regional contingency (MRC) versus two—affect it one way or the other?

Adm. Johnson : You'll read a lot about the MRCs cut up different ways. Because of the forward-presence, rotational nature of our business—we're out there all the time anyway—I don't get that involved in the debates. If you look at the Navy today, 48% of those 352 ships are under way; 29% are forward deployed with about 50,000 men and women. I need the Navy sized the way it is today to satisfy the next 24 hours, and that plays every day of the year.

Proceedings : I hesitate to say "stretched thin," but there are a lot of things going on, and the question comes up of modernization versus force structure. What can you afford to do right now?

Adm. Johnson : We're coming down to about 395,000 people and 346 ships, plus or minus—the numbers may vary a little but that's representative—and we can do the job that we're being asked to do for the country, today, with that percentage of ships under way and our six-month deployment limits, which we have for good reason.

If something changes, if the requirements go up a lot or if the force structure goes away, or the people go away, then I can't satisfy that tasking anymore. But right now, even though we're very much engaged around the world, we can meet requirements with the projected force structure.

I want to make one thing more of a foot-banger: We can do it that way without taking it out on our sailors, with no-kidding, six-month deployments portal to portal.

Proceedings : Are you holding to that right now?

Adm. Johnson : Yes. We are absolutely hard-wired to that for good reason. We learned that lesson some time ago—and we don't need to relearn it.

Proceedings : A few years ago, the CNO and the Commandant had a real problem with unfunded contingency operations that initially had to come out of hide. They had some flexibility early in a given year to move funds around and cover the cost. If they got caught late in the fiscal year, however, they were really hurting until supplemental funding eventually came along. Are things any better now?

Adm. Johnson : The contingency business is a challenge for all the services. In large measure, we do fund those out of hide. In my view, we haven't solved that one, but again, considering the naval contribution to forward presence as a day-today reality, part of that is included in our sticker price.

Proceedings : What is your long-term investment strategy? Can you make any more money from base closings?

Adm. Johnson : Yes. We had BRACs [Base Realignment and Closure Committee hearings] in 1993 and 1995, and this year is the crossover year for us—where the costs will be overtaken by the savings. This is a threshold year for us and, indeed, that's very much a part of our overall investment strategy because we do need more savings from the infrastructure, from being smarter about the way we do things so that we can recapitalize the force.

Proceedings : As part of that, El Toro is closing and the Marines are going to Miramar—hard to believe.

Adm. Johnson : Yes. I will say, though, that we're very proud of the F-14 piece of that, in terms of the way the East and West Coast fighter communities handled the move. The way they merged is really a good story.

Proceedings : We've heard that the first F-14 LANTIRN [Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night] did well on deployment. (See " First Tomcat LANTIRN Squadron Proves Concept ," Proceedings February 1997, pp. 79-80.)

Adm. Johnson : Yes. That was VF-103, the Jolly Rogers, which can be confusing because that was VF-84's name. I'll tell you exactly what happened. I had commanded VF-84 and was fortunate enough to be the speaker when the squadron was decommissioned. Because of the legacy of the skull-and-cross-bones emblem, the name was retained and moved to VF-103. In fact, if you go through the history of the Jolly Rogers, you'll find that it used to be VF-17. So it has been done before; the skull-and-cross-bones emblem lives on.

The LANTIRN system has brought a renaissance within the F-14 community. It's superb and it gives us a great capability that, frankly, we should have been smart enough to pick up on long ago.

Proceedings : Those were the days when a suggestion to put a bomb rack on an F-14 would get you thrown out of the club-fast.

Adm. Johnson : That's exactly right—to our detriment.

Proceedings : How will the F/A-18E/F be affected if the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) turns out to be a real airplane? Will you still build all these F/A-18Es?

Adm. Johnson : We're very excited about the F/A-18E/Fs—the first one went to the ship just last week. That airplane is going to merge into the fleet in such a way that when the F-14s start leaving, the -Fs will come in to replace them. We will then start replacing -Cs with -Es, and that's going to take us to JSF.

As to whether JSF is a real airplane: The real answer today is, of course not. But that's why we're in the concept demonstration. By about 2001, we're going to have airplanes flying and then we're going to see what we've got. We're making a serious investment in the JSF, and we have every intention of seeing it through. In my view, it complements the F/A-18E/F; it's not a replacement. Around 2010 to 2015, you're going to see aircraft carrier flight decks filled with F/A-I 8E/Fs.

Proceedings : Is it in the budget? We haven't mentioned the tilt-rotor V-22, but the CH-46s are very old, so you've got to buy V-22s, too.

Adm. Johnson : Yes. Right now, that's all in the plan.

Proceedings : Do you plan to accelerate V-22 procurement?

Adm. Johnson : Today's answer is no—although that answer is one that I wouldn't make without talking to [General] Chuck Krulak [Commandant of the Marine Corps]. The V-22 [acquisition] profile is the right profile for today. It's affordable, and we're on the leading edge. As we get into it—and perhaps get smarter about it—if there are investment decisions then to accelerate it, that probably will be the right time.

Proceedings : It looks like most of the new surface-ship construction is for Aegis ships, which seems like the high end of the scale. Is there any thought of getting more ships by going to some kind of a high-low mix?

Adm. Johnson : To be honest, I don't like the term "high-low mix." It carries connotations of different things for different folks. Let me characterize it this way: We have a great, an incredible asset in this Aegis technology. I'm a fighter pilot saying this—but the more I deal with it, and the more I study about the ways we're looking to tomorrow with the Aegis, I am increasingly awed. We're going to have 27 Aegis cruisers. We've got a fleet of DDG-51ls [ Arleigh Burke s] coming in and, in this budget, we're talking a multiyear buy for 12 more. We're very happy with that—proud of the package.

You've heard about SC-21 [Surface Combatant 21] and you've heard about the Arsenal Ship. You look at the numbers and you say, well, let's see, he just told me they're going to a fleet of 346 ships and if you run the numbers and you buy six a year, that doesn't get you to 346. But I think we're going to end up capitalizing on the technology that we've got in Aegis and what we're going to learn from the Arsenal Ship-that's a concept right now. We're going to get the richness out of that technology and apply it to SC-21 in ways I can't yet define—but we're making investments right now to take us there.

Downstream, when we've had time to let that technology give us something, then we'll make investment choices that will build us an SC-21 that will take us to tomorrow in sufficient numbers to keep us robust. The "low" end to me, connotes, cheap, basic…

Proceedings : Expendable?

Adm. Johnson : Expendable. That's very much what we do not have in mind. We need to get as smart as we can get here within the next five to ten years and then apply the technology and processing power to the next platform. That's the key, that's why I say that SC-21 is really the vision.

Proceedings : Several Proceedings authors have criticized the new LPD-17 for having too many bells and whistles—when it basically exists just to get Marines somewhere—just a Gator. How would you respond?

Adm. Johnson : Awfully important Gator, though—it's replacing four ship classes. I've heard the same [bells-and-whistles] thing, and here's my answer: A lot of folks aren't quite smart enough yet on the LPD-17 because it's not close enough to reality for us to see exactly the contribution it's going to make.

The Marine Corps is looking at operational maneuver from the sea. They're looking at new technology. They're looking at lots of different things as they get MV-22s, as they get new AAAVs [Advanced Assault Amphibian Vehicles]—they're looking at tomorrow.

The LPD-17 is going to position us well. I don't think it has any extraneous bells and whistles at all. It's going to be a very potent capability that is going to serve the naval needs of tomorrow. I'm very comfortable with that. And as it comes closer to reality, people are going to see how much sense it makes.

It's in the budget and the contract has been let. There's still some discussion going on, but by the time you print I think we'll be off and running.

Proceedings : You've got some battle experiments scheduled. What can you tell us about one called Hunter Warrior?

Adm. Johnson : This also falls into the category of investing for tomorrow. The Navy and Marine Corps leadership are working together—I don't like the word "synergy," it's overused—but we're working together to capitalize on the strength that naval forces can bring to the country. We're doing that at the Commandant and CNO level, and at all counterpart levels here in Washington and in the fleet. From my time as Commander, Second Fleet, I know that it was being done there.

One of the ways that we can really learn to capitalize on this technology I keep talking about is through battle labs. Hunter Warrior is happening next month out in Third Fleet's AOR [area of responsibility—West Coast]. They're working with Lieutenant General [Carlton W.] Fulford and the Marines out there to look at lots of different things from both the Navy and the Marine Corps perspective. We're using the Third Fleet command ship, the USS Coronado (AGF-11) out there; it's the first of a number of joint Navy/Marine battle labs or Hunter Warrior experiments.

Proceedings : Are they going to modify the Coronado ?

Adm. Johnson : Well, I don't know when you saw her last, but let me tell you something about that. It's worth describing. We have the Mount Whitney (LCC-20) as the Second Fleet command ship, the Blue Ridge (LCC-19) with the Seventh Fleet, and the LaSalle (AGF-3) in Gaeta, Italy, with the Sixth Fleet. When I commanded the Second Fleet, we took the Mount Whitney to Haiti and learned how to do joint operations. At the time, that ship was the Navy's leading joint command ship asset. But when I visited Vice Admiral Lautenbacher, the Third Fleet Commander, he took me aboard the Coronado and it blew me away.

All the stuff I wanted to do in the Mount Whitney —that we knew we needed to do in terms of modularizing, plug-and-play, commercial off-the-shelf technology, all those things—are there. They have rebuilt that entire ship to make it a no-kidding joint command ship and the Marines are going to embark a command element on the ship.

All four of those command ships are that way now. They are truly to the point where I'm going to change the designation for all four of them. They really are joint assets now. It's the darndest thing you've ever seen. They have taken the Coronado 's well deck and built a hotel in it, but the hotel is functional for a JFACC [Joint Force Air Component Commander], for a Joint Task Force Commander, for whatever you need.

Proceedings : Does "Jaeger Air" ring a bell in connection with Hunter Warrior? We've heard that General Krulak is interested in looking at the Jaeger Air experiment. Are you involved in that in any way?

Adm. Johnson : AirPac looked at Jaeger Air when Vice Admiral Spane was there. I haven't focused too much on it because I think they're still looking at it out West.

Proceedings : Desert Storm highlighted a couple of problems—mines and naval fire support. What is happening there?

Adm. Johnson : In both areas, I think we've taken significant strides forward. I also think that we can never, ever figure that we've done enough. It's an area you can't ignore. Admiral [Jeremy] Boorda [then CNO] and General Krulak put out the mine-warfare bible last year. We've got N-85, Expeditionary Warfare, serious about mine warfare with Major General [Edward] Hanlon there right now. Rear Admiral [Dennis R.] Conley was the deputy and he now commands the Mine Warfare Command. We're serious about it, and I don't see any of that changing.

At the end of the day you still have to be able to get ashore. In the fleet, there's a lot going on in the ATD [Advanced Technology Demonstration] business and with the technology demonstration business where we're looking at some new breaching techniques and some new remote sensor applications that I think will make great strides. We're committed to maintaining a focus on mine warfare and mine countermeasures. As we go ahead, the long-term strategy will be one where we can key in to technology and the innovative spirit that's out there with the forward-deployed battle groups and amphibious ready groups in such ways to make the capability organic. Then you don't have to worry about the big logistics effort to get it together. We're not there yet, but it's kind of a gleam in the eye still downstream.

Proceedings : The antiship cruise missile is a big threat. Are you en route to solving that problem?

Adm. Johnson : We've got a lot going in CEC [Cooperative Engagement Concept] and a lot going in some of the other programs. I didn't get back to your naval fire support question when we were talking about mines, but we'll set you up with Rear Admiral [Daniel J.] Murphy, Director Surface Warfare Division, to let him share some of that with you.

Proceedings : What about advanced technology demonstrations?

Adm. Johnson : We'll do that—and the same with the business of technology, [although] we're not into airships.

Proceedings : We didn't get a chance to ask you that, but you've got to have a big radar up there somewhere…the eyeball in the sky.

Adm. Johnson : It's not a bad idea, but right now I think we've got other things that are going to do it for us.

The naval fire support business is another one where there is an incredible amount of energy and good thinking and technology being applied. It gets back to the Arsenal Ship, but it's different even from that. It's for the whole surface force and airplanes, too, but the surface munitions and some of the new technologies in vertical guns and extended-range guided munitions. Rear Admiral Murphy has very much energized the community and the industry to help us solve some of those problems. This will help us. It will help my pal, General Krulak, down here, and it'll help the Army, and anybody we're going to be protecting onshore. Theater missile defense is another part of the picture.

Proceedings : General Hanlon was up at Willow Grove recently when they rolled out some Magic Lanterns for the reserves. (See " Reserve Helos Get Magic Lantern ," Proceedings , February 1997, pp. 74-75.) What are your plans for integrating reserves into operations?

Adm. Johnson : When I describe the Navy today as a half million strong, that includes about 98,000 reserves. I talk about them a lot because I believe in them, and I've been made to believe by experience. We are using reserves in ways we've never used them before. There is real strength that the reserves are giving to the whole institution. We've got reserve flag officers forward-deployed for months at a time serving in joint task force headquarters overseas. People don't even hear about that.

We deploy reserve ships and we use the reserve frigates forward. When we say Total Force now, that's not a bumper sticker, that's reality. I don't see any of that changing. I think, as we go forward, we're going to rely even more on the reserves. That's fine, because they're really good and we're getting a lot done together.

Proceedings : This May when you swear in another 700 or so new ensigns over at the Naval Academy, they're going to be getting reserve commissions. Is there plan for augmenting officers [all of whom are being commissioned as reserve] into the regulars?

Adm. Johnson : There's a plan. I haven't signed off on it yet, but I will. Where we're going is to be fair across the board. That was the point of commissioning everyone in the reserves. What we have in mind now is that all officers will be able to apply for augmentation beginning at about the four-year point. We're also going to look at an automatic consideration for all officers at about the six-year point. After that, everybody selected for lieutenant commander/major automatically becomes a regular.

The idea is to have several thresholds. If somebody wants to apply sooner, that's available. If you just want to pace it out normally, the system will pick up the good ones and, by the time you get to be a lieutenant commander, then it's an all-regular force. I think that's roughly what we have in mind. The Chief of Naval Personnel is putting the details on that and will bring it forward, but we'll be ready for it.

Proceedings : We haven't talked about submarines. What can you tell us about costs on the Seawolf versus the New Attack Submarine [NSSN]?

Adm. Johnson : The New Attack Submarine is designed to be less costly than Seawolf , which is a three-ship buy.

We're working a budget that includes the first four new attack submarines. You're going to hear about teaming, where the two yards—in this case, Electric Boat and Newport News—aren't going to be competing with one another for the New Attack Submarines; they're going to be teaming with one another to build the New Attack Submarines.

Proceedings : Can you hold costs down by doing that?

Adm. Johnson : We believe there is great, great potential for cost savings. The initial indications are very promising, and our budget is built on the teaming concept.

Proceedings : The Navy has seen some trying times since Tailhook. Is the Senate flagging [of officer records] over?

Adm. Johnson : No, it is not over, but we've made great progress in the last year. I was at Tailhook and so I spent a good bit of my confirmation time working with the Senate on Tailhook. I'm very much of the mind that says we're working very carefully but very positively through Tailhook. A significant change occurred just before the session ended last year in that they have changed the requirements. The flagging is not over, but it is now a one-time requirement; if you went to Tailhook and you're coming up for promotion, your Tailhook presence and whatever the situation was, has to be presented. Then, you're either promoted or not. Once that happens, if you're promoted, they never look at it again. This is a change. Sixteen officers awaiting clearance were cleared right before the end of the last session, so we're making progress and I can assure you that the whole Tailhook business is never leaving my scope.

Proceedings : Can you sum things up for us?

Adm. Johnson : I just want to tell you how proud I am of the Navy and a little bit about my vision in terms of pushing forward into the next century, because I think it's important and it captures a number of non-platform things that are important. I'm trying to talk to as many sailors as I possibly can, sharing with them the message of relevance—that naval forces are relevant.

It's pretty obvious to them because they're out there doing it. But when I go out and talk to them I try to make sure they understand the importance of what they're doing. The Navy is going to stay relevant unless this country changes its national security strategy—and I don't believe that it will. Forward-deployed naval forces will maintain relevance, and the vision that takes us from here to there is one that has us steering by the stars of operational primacy, leadership, teamwork, and pride—and not by our wake.

As Secretary [of Defense] William Perry said only this morning, "We have the best damn Navy in the world." He doesn't make things up, and he doesn't trivialize his statements. The challenge and the responsibility, I think, particularly in the operational side, are that we need to be able to deliver on that statement five months from now…five years from now…and five decades from now.

I've spent most of my life in the operational side, but I also think that in this environment, there could be a tendency to take your eye off the operational ball. I don't ever want us to do that, because if we're not the best in the world at what we do, then none of the rest really matters.

We're investing in leadership training in a way we've never done before. It started with Admiral Frank Kelso. Admiral Mike Boorda put some flesh on it, and I'm the lucky guy who gets to go to full implementation. It's a series of two-week training experiences—four for officers and four for enlisted—totally devoted to leadership, and it's taught by people who have been there. It starts in boot camp and never stops.

When you are selected for petty officer second class, for example, you go to a two-week course; you attend another when you are selected for first class, and another when you make chief. When you make command master chief or chief of the boat, you go to the senior enlisted academy, a nine-week course that includes two weeks of leadership. Officers will follow much the same course as they progress. Everybody in the Navy who is scheduled for command—doctor or fighter pilot—will go to Newport for two weeks for the Command Leadership Course.

We're going to take leadership training and implant all we've learned in these courses. We'll get rid of the rest of them, and put our total focus on these. It's powerful stuff and we need it.

We're serious about teamwork and chain of command beyond the business of giving orders and taking orders. It's a chain of command where we make an investment in each other 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can call it "back to basics," whatever you want to call it, but it's really about trying to take better care of each other.

When it comes to pride, I think that all of us who are Type-A personalities would say: "Oh, yes, it's just my job, don't worry about it, you know, I'm just doing my thing." The truth of it is, what these young men and women do every day is pretty remarkable in the grand scheme of things and I think they need to be proud of that and take credit for it. The key to that vision is not the CNO. The key to the vision is the sailor.

I'm really proud of the Navy today. We've got a lot out in front of us; we're making a hell of a contribution to our country; and I don't see any of that changing. 


Lieutenant Colonel Greeley, a former editor at Proceedings and Naval History, edited The Two Thousand Yard Stare: Tom Lea’s World War II (Texas A&M University Press, 2008).

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