As the first commanding officer of the Admiral’s ship, the most profound memory of my time with this naval icon was his decisive response to my question, “What’s it feel like to have a ship and an entire class of modern warships named after you?” Without hesitating, he shot back, “I didn’t do enough.”
For me, that mindset forms this triad: Genuine humility is essential to the character of great leaders. A quarter of a century after the introduction of the first ship of his class, the United States does not have a big “enough” Navy to protect our national interests. As past is often prologue, leaders like Burke and his namesake ships will be needed to meet the crisees that almost certainly will arise.
Admiral Burke became the Navy’s 16th Chief of Naval Operations in 1955, leaping over a significant number of more senior officers after leading the “Revolt of the Admirals.” In his moment as the Navy’s longest-serving CNO, Burke got it right. Between his vast combat experience, coupled with a humble fortitude characteristic of the “Greatest Generation,” Admiral Burke did so much for the United States.
With the strength of character to take the long view, CNO Burke championed the introduction of nuclear power, ballistic-missile submarines, and jet aircraft, which laid the foundation of the post-World War II Navy and provided the initial direction for the 21st Century Navy. It is so fitting for the Navy to have named the most advanced class of destroyers after this giant.
Today, the Arleigh Burke-class, with 62 destroyers commissioned, comprises the largest since World War II and most capable single class of warship fielded by any nation. These destroyers carry out important national missions, including critical sea-lane protection and ballistic-missile defense. Every day, they represent and defend our nation around the globe. The restart of the Arleigh Burke production line has an additional 14 ships under contract today, 9 of which are in construction. Looking ahead, the Navy Shipbuilding Plan shows the purchase of two Arleigh Burkes for the next several years.
A Navy-industry partnership has been crucial to the class’s success, both in construction and modernization. Today, the USS Arleigh Burke (DDG-51) is the most combat capable warship in the class, having completed in 2011 her mid-life hull, mechanical and electrical upgrade, and in 2016 completed her Baseline 9 Combat System installation.
Today our Navy is not big enough to provide global presence, ballistic-missile defense, and crisis response. The Pentagon’s 2012 Force Structure Analysis documents a requirement for 306 ships, but today we have 284 warships. The National Defense Panel’s report on the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review recommends 323–346 ships, and more—if the Chinese threat and the PLA Navy continue to grow. Current and projected Navy shipbuilding budgets can support a Navy with perhaps 250 or less warships.
History tells us that as a maritime nation where the oceans play key roles in both our national defense and our economy, the U.S. Navy matters. Simply correlate these regional tensions to the following oceans, seas, and gulfs:
• China’s construction of stationary aircraft carriers by transforming and fortifying previously submerged reefs in the South China Sea
• Russia’s ballistic-missile submarine patrols in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and the Barents Sea
• War in Syria and unrest in Africa, which have prompted thousands of immigrants and refugees to use the Mediterranean Sea as a route to a better life
• The Persian Gulf as the buffer and potential battle zone if push comes to shove with Saudi Arabia, Gulf Cooperation Council states, Iran, and Israel all prepared to fight for their national interests
• The reliance on the maritime domain for United States and allied ballistic missile deterrent patrols and ballistic-missile defense
• The new contest for resources and security in the Arctic Ocean.
As surely as history repeats itself, naval forces will be needed to detect, deter, defend, and win in these pressure points. As a naval and national leader, Arleigh Burke helped avoid the worst outcome of the Cold War. That same outcome is not ordained in today’s tumult. Today’s leaders would be wise to anticipate and try to influence the future as he did. To sustain the global system’s stability, leaders in Burke’s image must be summoned; destroyers in his name must be funded and built—along with all elements of naval power; and history must not be forgotten.