We Need a Two-Ocean Secretary of the Navy

January 19, 2017

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I speak only for myself, but I suspect that I’m not the only one disappointed to hear that Congressman Randy Forbes will apparently not be the next Navy secretary.

Forbes is widely credited with making the strategic and operational case for a bigger and strategically re-oriented U.S. Navy, and in fact for making the case for serious naval strategy in the first place.  Until days ago, it was assumed that he would be nominated as the next secretary of the Navy by President-elect Donald Trump.  I was chagrined in June when Forbes — a Republican boasting 16 years of experience as a member of Congress and as the longtime chairman of the House Armed Services seapower subcommittee — lost his party’s nomination for re-election in a Hampton Roads re-districting tussle.  I was thrilled to hear the speculation that he was the consensus favorite to be the Navy’s civilian leader. And then I was once again disappointed to read that he was no longer slated for the job.

I have no insight into Forbes’ plans for the future, nor any contact with him.  For all I know, he is done with public life and plans on coming ashore for the last time, but I doubt it.

That said, the rumored choice of Philip Bilden as Navy secretary is a disappointment.

I have absolutely nothing against Bilden. He is well connected in the Navy as well as being accomplished businessman who surely knows China’s business environment well after having lived in Hong Kong for decades.  To his considerable credit, Adm. (ret.) Jim — former Supreme Allied Commander-Europe, dean of The Fletcher School, and Bilden’s colleague at the Naval War College Foundation — gives Bilden a strong endorsement I am sure that he’s everything the admiral says he is.

But he is not Randy Forbes.

Forbes as secretary of the Navy would animate the constitutional prescription to maintain a navy.  This is anything but a transactional responsibility. Yet when Forbes would ask what the Navy needed and why, the response was essentially silence.  With the budget as the independent variable, and sequestration the plan of the day, there was no Navy voice save Forbes’ to challenge the status quo.

The Navy doesn’t need a savvy businessman as secretary.  It needs a mindful and informed leader to continue to insist that the chief of naval operations is allowed to formulate and speak for the Navy’s operational strategy, despite the apparent limitations imposed by the Goldwater-Nichols defense reforms.  Together with the chief of naval operations, the Navy secretary needs to be able to articulate not just what the Navy needs, but why it needs that fleet, what it intends to do with it, and where.  The next secretary needs to make this case.  And then he needs to be able to work with Congress to rationalize the cost and build the fleet the United States needs.

The Navy’s next secretary is going to have to preside over a long overdue renaissance of American seapower.  This is going to take insight and planning from the outset, born of deep thinking and careful consideration about the strategic environment, fleet architecture, new technologies, and the American industrial base.

Randy Forbes has the background to do this, and to follow in the footsteps of Rep. Carl Vinson, who took it upon himself to master the broad strategies and the small details of American naval power.

It might be useful to consider Vinson’s achievements during the decade from 1934 to 1944, which began with Vinson’s early work to pass the Vinson-Trammell Act authorizing the Navy buildup to interwar treaty limits and ended with a true two-ocean Navy.  Vinson, the grand-uncle of Sen. Sam Nunn, represented a landlocked district in Georgia for 51 years.  He was such a power in Congress that he demurred when asked after World War II if he would like to be Navy secretary himself, responding that he’d just as soon continue running the Navy from his congressional office.  He first came to Washington in 1914, and as a junior congressman decided that he was going to be the legislative branch’s Navy expert.  With war looming in the late 1930’s, Vinson, by then the acknowledged congressional voice of the Navy, set out to build a global fleet.  By 1944, that two-ocean Navy numbered more than 6,000 vessels, including 827 surface warships, 90 fleet and escort carriers, 23 battleships, and 230 submarines.  In large part owing to Vinson’s work, in June of 1944 the Navy was able to mount two virtually simultaneous fantastic amphibious invasions in the same month, one across the English Channel and one to seize Guam, Saipan, and the Marianas.

In the Pacific, Japan lost everything when it bet on a short war.  Vinson’s two-ocean Navy was built for a long war, despite the earlier preference of both the nation and the Navy for a quick battle.  Obviously numbers count, but there’s much more to fleet design.  Vinson started by insisting that the United States build up its Navy from its post-World War I low ebb to interwar treaty limits, with modern ships.  He built eventual consensus for a global Navy using his great intelligence, command of Navy issues, superb articulation of the Navy narrative, and his ability to work within Congress to get his brilliant legislation passed.

Randy Forbes possesses these same qualities.  He has the background and the calling to follow in the footsteps of Carl Vinson, whose expansive and visionary thinking will be required again in our increasingly uncertain world.  If the United States wishes to avoid the cataclysm imposed on it by Germany and Japan and threatened by the Soviet Union, we will have to maintain a powerful Navy that underscores the irony of deterrence – that we must be prepared to win to avoid having to fight.

I’m all for fresh blood when it is warranted, but the change of administration sufficiently provides that cleansing sweep more generally.  To reiterate, I have absolutely nothing against Philip Bilden, except that he’s no Randy Forbes.

 

Paul Giarra, a former US naval aviator and strategic planner, is the President of Global Strategies & Transformation, a Washington, DC, area strategic planning consultancy. He has an extensive background as a national security analyst on Japan, China, East Asia, and NATO futures.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Petty Officer Nicholas Frank

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