Q&A: Outgoing Navy chief talks submarines, F-35s and his legacy
In a recent wide-ranging interview over lunch, The Connecticut Mirror pressed outgoing Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, the longest serving naval chief in 100 years, about the future of submarine warfare, delays in the F-35 joint strike fighter program and why the Pentagon wants another round of base closings.
Appointed by President Obama in 2009, Mabus is a former Mississippi governor and ambassador to Saudi Arabia. He has led the Navy and the Marines in the continuing war with Afghanistan and with ISIS and opened the door to the first female submariners in U.S. history. He has made shipbuilding – and sub building – a priority as part of an effort to build back the Navy’s fleet. We learned he has named the nation’s next generation of nuclear ballistic submarines the Columbia class, after the District of Columbia, and that his favorite desert is ice cream.
Q. What is the biggest challenge you’ve had at the Pentagon?
A. I’ve never thought of it that way. Looking back toward the end, we’ve had, I think, enormous and maybe amazing success in this job, in getting things done. You got a lot of constituencies. You’ve got Congress you’ve got this building, you’ve got the White House, you’ve got the media, you’ve got the think tanks and the American people. I think the challenge was to get those all lined up, to get them all marching on the same page…The Navy and Marine Corps have a history of tradition and being resistant to change. But overall I haven’t found that that much.
Q. What did you focus on?
A. One of the things I learned as governor, because I was the governor of the poorest state in the union, is that there were a thousand things every day as governor that would make life better in Mississippi, but if I tried to do all thousand, nothing was going to happen. So I learned you have to focus on a very few things. Almost from the word go I focused on the same things I’m focusing on now, which are the ‘four Ps.’
Q, The Four Ps?
A. People – sailors, marines, civilians, how can we manage the force better… Platforms – when I got here the fleet was declining; it was declining precipitously. How do you turn that around? We simply weren’t giving our sailors and marines the tools they needed to get the job done. The third was power – energy, fuel. When I got here oil was about $140 a barrel and we were having to prioritize mission and deployment over training, which made no sense. The Marines were losing a Marine killed or wounded every 50 convoys of fuel that went into Afghanistan. Way too high a price to pay. I had been ambassador to Saudi Arabia. I knew how fuel could be used as a weapon, and I didn’t want that weapon to be used against us. And finally, there are partnerships. I’ve traveled now more than 1.1 million miles to 151 different countries and territories. By the way, I don’t think anyone is close to that in government, and we are doing something with every one of those countries.
Q. You also worked on diversity in the Navy.
A. A more diverse force is a stronger force.
Q, And you’re talking about women and minorities?
A. And experience. Diverse experience, diverse backgrounds. Gender diversity. I put women in submarines in 2010. If you get too homogeneous, it’s just not good. There’s a book called “The Wisdom of Crowds” [by James Surowiecki] which says if you’ve got a problem and you bring five experts who’ve spent their lives doing this, whatever the problem is, or you get a group of people with diverse backgrounds, a bigger group, working on it, they’ll be better at solving it.
Q. What are the growing geopolitical challenges to the Navy and the role of submarines?
A. The role of submarines, the importance of submarines, the importance of undersea warfare, is rising. It’s always been important, but it’s becoming even more crucial. And it’s being recognized not just by the Russians and Chinese but by virtually everybody. The Russians and Chinese are the most visible, but there are not many seagoing countries that don’t have submarines. And with some of the technological advances – independent propulsion diesel submarines have gotten a lot quieter, the weapons they can deploy are more diverse. We still have a big edge there – in a lot of ways that’s only undersea – but it’s not something that you can take for granted. If you quit evolving, if you quit working on it, you quit building, it can go away real fast.
Q. Was there a danger of that?
A. It was part of the overall fleet decline. We simply weren’t building those ships. Between 2001 and 2008 the Navy only put 41 ships under contract, of all kinds. In that same period, the size of the fleet went from 318 ships to 278 ships. Forty one ships was not enough to keep the fleet from continuing to shrink. And it was not enough to keep our shipyards going. I’ve been here for seven years now, so it’s a pretty exact comparison. I’ve put 85 ships under contract, including the biggest contract the Navy ever signed, for 10 (Virginia-class) submarines. But even building two subs a year, if you look out to the late 2020s and early 2030s, we’re going to have a deficit of submarines…and it’s because 30 years earlier, we did not build enough submarines. If you miss a year building a ship, you cannot make it up… they take so long and the skill set is so precise, and we just don’t have that many shipyards. The capacity to build is limited.
Q. Now the Navy is beginning to start work on the new ballistic-missile submarine, which you have called the “Columbia class,” but where’s the money going to come from for these expensive boats?
A. The Ohio-class replacement, that’s coming. Starting in 2021 we have to build the first one of those. You have to have 12 of those to maintain the at-sea presence we need for a nuclear deterrence, instead of the 14 we have of the Ohio class, because these don’t need to be refueled. They have a life-of-the-hull reactor, the Ohio class sub you have to refuel at midlife. But if the Navy is expected to pay for [the Columbia class subs] out of the shipbuilding budget, that would take half of the shipbuilding budget for more that 12 years, so it would cut the rest of the budget, including for [Virginia-class] attack submarines.
Q. Are you in favor of the National Sea-based Deterrence Fund, which would pay for these new subs outside the Navy’s budget?
A. Sure. Every time we’ve built a ballistic-missile defense submarine [we’ve done that.] The first time in the Sixties called “41 for Freedom,” the second time was the Ohio-class in the Eighties. We were given additional resources to do it because Congress recognized, and they do now, that it is a national program, not just particularly a Navy program, and you just don’t want to destroy the fleet in order to get this. You have to have them both. So we’re paying all the bills right now for the design work, engineering work (for the Columbia.) But when the first boat starts being built in 2021, we’ll need money in the fund.
Q. But there’s resistance to the fund. Others support that type of fund for other services. Right?
A. Well, here’s my reply to that. What you are talking about is the Air Force. We have one leg of the nuclear triad, undersea. Air Force has the missiles and the bombers. If Air Force can make that case, fine. But don’t say, “We’re not going to do it for the Navy.” One of the reasons people get so twisted around about this is that we don’t start building until ’21. We don’t need to appropriate money until ’21…but everybody recognizes this bill is coming.
Q. What do you think of what the direction of the Navy would be in the new administration?
A. We’re on the right trajectory for platforms, ships, planes, systems, But as it’s been shown, it takes a long time to rebuild the fleet. We will get back to 300 ships by 2019; we will get back to 308, which is what our need has been assessed at, by 2021. And this has been building ships at near record rates for seven years. If you miss a year, you don’t get it back. So, whoever comes in, you’ve got to keep that going, you’ve got to. The Navy and the Marines, you’ve got to give America this presence. Around the world. around the clock. Not being just in the right place at the right time but being in the right place all the time, and you’ve got to have enough ships to do that.
Q. You say the Navy and Marines are “America’s Away Team” because, unlike soldiers and airmen, they hardly ever come home.
A. A ship in port in the United States doesn’t mean much. If a crisis occurs, we give the president the option of what to do. When the president in 2014 made the decision to strike ISIS for 54 days, the only option was an aircraft carrier. And it wasn’t because we didn’t have aircraft in other countries and in other places. They wouldn’t let us take off. We don’t have to ask anybody, we’re sailing on sovereign American territory.
Q.How happy are you with the F-35 version for the Navy’s aircraft carriers, which isn’t’ expected to be operational until at least February of 2019?
A. It’s going to be a great aircraft, the F-35C. But we always want to have two generations on our flight decks. We’re buying more F-18s so we don’t have an aircraft shortage because the F-35 has been delayed.
Q. But there are real problems with the F-35…
A. The F-35 tried to be a joint aircraft, one version for the Air Force, one version for the Marines, one version for the Navy. There’s not a whole lot of commonality in those aircraft; they have to do completely different things. But the services haven’t been in charge of the program, and because it’s a joint program nobody is accountable. It’s way over budget; it’s way late. Who do you hold responsible? If this was a Navy project, if this were a ship, they would point at me…
Q. You support Sen. John McCain’s efforts to abolish the Air Force’s Joint Strike Fighter office because he says it helped paper over problems with the F-35?
A. Yes. McCain’s’s point, which I just made, is you can’t hold anybody accountable. I think it’s really important to have some responsibility. I’ve got another example of that. The Ford Class carrier. When the Navy in the late Nineties wanted to build a replacement for the Nimitz, the proposal was to put in a lot of new technology. But because there was so much new technology, their proposal was to put a third of the new technology on the first ship, another third on the second ship and the third would have all the new technology. In 2003, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said, “No, we’ll put it all on the first ship.” And because of that, the contract that was supposed to go out in 2004 did not go out until 2007. Costs just ballooned out of control.
Q. Although you’re building up the fleet, you support another round of base realignments and closures, right?
A. It’s very clear (the Defense Department) as a whole has excess capacity, you need something to shrink that.
Q. The Navy has less excess capacity than the other services, but it would still consider all facilities, including submarine bases, in a new base closing round?
A. I’m sure we’d have something (on the base-closure list), but I don’t know what that would be. As you pointed out, we have far less excess capacity; the Navy and the Marine Corps have less excess capacity than anybody else.
This Q&A was edited for length and clarity.
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