Commentary: 76th SecNav Will Lead Resurgence of Naval Forces

By Philip M. Bilden

While funding for the military has been diminishing, geopolitical threats to the United States have escalated. U.S. interests are being challenged amid the return of great power competition to geopolitics. Russia and China are now near-peer competitors contesting U.S. naval presence in and around international waters and economic zones. Our naval forces also must deter aggression from North Korea, Iran, and terrorist organizations such as ISIL. The Navy’s ability to project power, control sea lanes, and dominate the maritime domain has eroded, while our adversaries have increased their capabilities.

The current naval posture is a threat to national security. President Trump and Secretary of Defense Mattis are taking actions to correct the situation. The next SecNav will have the opportunity to change course at a critical inflection point in the Navy’s history. As a matter of priority, I recommend that the SecNav move early on these critical challenges:

• Reverse the Navy and Marine Corps readiness and modernization deficits.

• Develop a strategic investment plan for a revitalized fleet of the future.

• Partner with industry and Congress to develop a multidecade procurement strategy.

Reverse the Readiness and Modernization Deficits

The SecNav must restore readiness and modernization to the fleet. Sailors and Marines have been exposed to greater operational risks because of civilian leadership’s inability to adequately fund operations. U.S. warfighters have been required to bridge the funding deficit in numerous ways that have strained both personnel and battle force assets. These include longer deployments with high, unsustainable operational tempo and deployment-to-dwell ratios; inadequate personnel end strength; reduced training on board ships that remain at piers and in aircraft increasingly in maintenance depots; deferred maintenance of equipment and facilities, compounding repair costs and recovery time; drawn-down spare-parts inventories that affect maintenance; and overextended service lives of aircraft, ships, and vehicles beyond safe limits of original designs.

The readiness deficit has further damaged the modernization programs of existing warfighting platforms. Our combat assets have not been modernized and integrated at sufficiently rapid rates to maintain relative capability against adversaries with upgraded ships, aircraft, combat vehicles, weapon systems, and C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance). Cybersecurity systems are insufficiently integrated across fleet assets. Phased modernization is urgently needed for guided-missile cruisers, guided-missile destroyers, F/A-18 Super Hornets, the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters, and many other requirements on a long Unfunded Priority List that will pay readiness dividends when funded.

The SecNav should work with the Congress and industry partners to accelerate the procurement of ships and aircraft currently on active production lines. This will produce numerous benefits, including reduced delivery times of ships and aircraft to the fleet, economies of scale in purchasing, greater planning certainty to industry partners, and lower unit pricing. An accelerated procurement schedule will bring greater capacity to the fleet in less time, alleviate readiness and modernization strain, and signal resolve to our adversaries.

Develop a Strategic Investment Plan for the Fleet of the Future

The next SecNav will have an historic opportunity to lead a resurgence of U.S. naval forces and design the fleet of the future. To achieve these goals, the SecNav will need a visionary strategic plan for a major increase in naval capacity over a multidecade time horizon. The Navy’s most recent 30-year shipbuilding plan, the Force Structure Assessment, recommends a fleet of 355 ships, up from the current 275. The SecNav will need to incorporate the Navy’s assessment with the recently completed Future Fleet Architecture studies to develop strategic plans for not only optimal fleet size, but also the complex mix of assets needed in future decades to address projected combat strategy in an increasingly contested, autonomous, network-centric, and distributed warfighting environment.

Similar to a chief executive officer of a private-sector company, the SecNav should be accountable for executing a capital investment strategy that maximizes return on the taxpayer’s investment. The SecNav will need to make strategic choices in allocating scarce resources to deliver maximum value. These high-impact decisions cover a broad range of platforms and capabilities, such as the littoral combat ship and new frigate; the successor to the Gerald R. Ford (CVN-79)-class aircraft carrier; unmanned autonomous systems for surface, subsurface, and air platforms; and cybersecurity systems across all platforms and networks.

These difficult strategic decisions on platforms, payloads, and personnel will dictate the naval fleet of the future. The SecNav will require a disciplined strat­egy and skilled managerial leadership to navigate competing funding and political priorities that will have an enduring, determinative impact on the Navy’s capac­ity and capability in years ahead.

Partner with Defense Industry and Revitalize the Supply Chain

Revitalizing our naval forces requires strategic partnership with major U.S. defense companies to produce the increased volume of ships, aircraft, vehicles, and weapons. Naval combat assets are capital-intensive, highly specialized, and technologically complex. They require long-range planning and production times measured in years and decades. Moreover, they are purpose-built by highly skilled civilian labor forces that must be recruited, trained, and retained during major procurement cycles in competition with the private sector.

The Navy’s industrial base has diminished and consolidated with years of disinvestment. Only seven major companies still produce, repair, and maintain our naval assets, and fewer produce and service our aircraft. Although thousands of smaller companies collectively support these prime contractors, the Navy’s supply chain has consolidated because of decreased funding. The net reduction in suppliers increases dependency on fewer companies and reduces price competition for Navy contracts. Industry partners have been challenged in recent years by government budget instability and uncertainty. Their shareholders require production stability to plan investment in plant, equipment, and skilled personnel—but they now have reduced capacity, workforces, and skill bases. It will take time to rebuild this industrial base.

The SecNav will need to reverse these trends and collaborate with industry to create win-win sourcing agreements. The DON should implement bulk-buying and multiyear procurements, which have been successfully employed in prior programs, and direct contracts to companies with active production lines and established designs and technical baselines to reduce production risk and time. Industry partners have strong incentives to increase volume at reduced unit costs on predictable schedules. If the SecNav partners with industry and the Congress to create funding certainty on procurement, the Navy will realize lower costs and reliable production of naval assets.

Strategic Leadership for our Sailors and Marines

The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps deserve vastly greater support than they have received from civilian leaders to be the most ready when the nation is least ready. The Secretary of the Navy will need to lead with strategic vision and managerial competence to ensure our Sailors and Marines have the resources they need to execute the mission. While I deeply regret that I will not have that honor, I stand by to fully support the 76th Secretary and all of the dedicated men and women who proudly serve in the Navy and Marine Corps.

Mr. Bilden co-founded HarbourVest Partners and was based in Hong Kong for 20 years as a private-equity investor. He serves on several boards, including the U.S. Naval Academy Foundation; U.S. Naval War College Foundation as Chairman, Center for Cyber Conflict Studies Task Force; and Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.


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