New CNO must balance needs and capabilities
NAPLES, Italy — Adm. John Richardson, the new Chief of Naval Operations, faces the same dilemma as his predecessor — how to meet the growing needs of U.S. commanders with a limited number of resources.
The challenges were apparent as Richardson toured overseas naval bases in the Pacific, Mideast and Europe barely a month into his tenure. U.S. 7th Fleet, based in Yokosuka, Japan, is preparing for a possible confrontation with China over territorial claims in the South China Sea. U.S. 5th Fleet in Bahrain has been conducting air strikes in Syria and Iraq as well as monitoring the Persian Gulf. U.S. 6th Fleet in Naples has seen an uptick in Russian activity in the Black Sea, Baltic Sea and Mediterranean.
Richardson’s task is to allocate the Navy’s resources among each fleet, while accounting for manpower, maintenance needs and an unpredictable budget.
“It is a time where we are resource-challenged, even as the security environment gets more complex,” he said during a stop in Naples last week. “So resolving that gap is an important conversation we’re having with forward commanders.”
Richardson, 55, took over from Adm. Jonathan Greenert last month. A submariner and former director of Naval Reactors, he has said little about his long-term goals, focusing instead on personnel issues in recent audiences with sailors around the globe. Navy officials say Richardson will set out priorities later this year.
Under Greenert, the Navy sought to have more ships “forward,” either deployed or stationed overseas at any one time. Plans call for an average of 120 ships forward by 2020, up from last year’s average of 97. Most of the new presence would be in the Middle East and Pacific.
Finding the ships and manpower hasn’t been easy. The sequestration budget caps in 2013 curtailed training and maintenance across the Navy and delayed deployment of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman. Unexpected maintenance problems with the carrier USS Nimitz in the same year forced another carrier, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, to make unusual back-to-back deployments, resulting in maintenance issues that have delayed the Eisenhower’s next deployment until 2016.
Then there is the problem of Europe. Considered a quiet theater since the end of the Cold War, Europe has seen the rise of new security threats in recent years, from the spread of militants in North Africa to increased Russian activity in the Black Sea and Mediterranean. Yet Navy plans still call for little change to its European posture.
The Navy moved four guided-missile destroyers from the U.S. to Rota, Spain, for ballistic missile defense, a move that was years in planning. But some argue the fleet needs more. Major ships like aircraft carriers and amphibious warships today pass through the region only while on their way to the Middle East.
“We need a third hub,” said Bryan McGrath, a former naval officer and current consultant who worked on the Navy’s 2007 maritime strategy document. “We need a naval power consistently in three places — the Far East, the Middle East and the Mediterranean.”
Richardson signaled that’s unlikely to happen in the near future, telling his Naples audience that although he’d like to put more carriers and amphibious warships in the theater, the needs were greater elsewhere.
Demand for ships is high everywhere. Greenert told Congress in 2014 he would need 450 ships to fulfill every request made from combatant commanders for fiscal 2015.
The service is also interested in preserving manpower and maintenance schedules after several years of long deployments strained both. It unveiled the Optimized Fleet Response Plan in 2014, an initiative to bring carrier tour lengths down to eight months from the 10-month deployments common in recent years.
Earlier this month, the Navy pulled the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt out of the Persian Gulf before the arrival of its replacement in an effort to keep it on its deployment schedule.
Richardson hopes to have carrier tour lengths down to seven months by 2017, assuming deployments remain on schedule. World events could always change that, he acknowledged.
And while the Navy could use more big ships, the service’s financial realities say otherwise.
“You could easily justify 14, 15 carriers if you just look at global demand,” Richardson said in Naples. “But another element of the strategic picture is the resources available to meet those demands.”
Right now, the Navy doesn’t even have funding for the current fiscal year. It also has other shipbuilding priorities, including the $100 billion replacement program for the Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine, set to begin in 2020.
The Navy will need to remain flexible overseas and think creatively, Richardson said. In the meantime, he’ll continue talking to commanders to make sure he has the right balance.
“I feel that responsibility very deeply,” he said.
Stars and Stripes reporter Chris Church contributed to this report