Navigating the Shoals of Renewed American Naval Power: Imperatives for the Next Secretary of the Navy

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This is a hell of a way to run a Navy. The Department of the Navy’s revolving door of senior civilian leadership over the past four years, including two secretaries and three acting secretaries, has done a disservice to U.S. national security. New leadership will soon arrive, but the department should not squander precious time on restarting strategic studies, force assessments, and process improvement programs. Instead, steady and strategic civilian leadership is required to make progress in the marathon implementation of integrated force redesign.

American naval power can be a guarantor of the most important sinews connecting the international global system, and a welcome and unobtrusive instrument of diplomacy. Simultaneously it can be an intimidating backstop of assurance and support to allies and partners, and a hammer of deadly force sharply wielded from great distances against adversary shores and objectives, only to recede back silently into the ocean’s vast expanse. But American naval power cannot be generated by a department unmoored from strategic clarity and purpose. After two decades of high operational tempo, strained readiness, and deferred decisions, the Navy and Marine Corps now are belatedly shifting the fleet design to confront China. China’s increasingly assertive authoritarian regime seeks to rapidly transform into a naval peer competitor and leverage its new maritime power to underpin its ambitions to go global. Instead of pining for decisive blue water confrontations, accepting remote deployments ashore, or succumbing to China’s version of a Fabian strategy, the department should prepare the Navy and Marine Corps with a force design, and the commensurate expertise, experience, and cunning to be effective in the most intense form of naval combat: “firing effectively first” in the rapid, complex, and congested littorals.



The incoming secretary will confront sprawling bureaucratic processes, operators and planners preoccupied with platforms, conflicting congressional and industrial interests, and previously inconsistent strategic communications. Nearly all of the department’s transformation-era acquisition programs — littoral combat ships, Zumwalt-class destroyers, the expeditionary fighting vehicle, and the Ford-class aircraft carrier — resulted in failed attempts to modernize effectively and at scale, within the strategic window of opportunity. At the same time, stalwart platforms conceived in the twilight years of the Cold War, such as Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and Nimitz-class aircraft carriers with their associated air wings, have been employed for nearly every foreign policy challenge, year after year over the last three decades. Persistent and insatiable combatant commander demands have worn out America’s indispensable naval force, consuming resources that could have been used to redesign the fleet and replenish readiness for great-power competition.

The result is an anchor on the department’s ability to nimbly move to the required capabilities, proficiency, and force structure necessary to meet the challenge of the “terrible 20s” and beyond. Because of institutional inertia, redesigning a fleet is always much more difficult than building a new fleet. However, this is exactly what the Navy and Marine Corps are now attempting, through the nested linkages of the tri-service maritime strategy, operational concepts of distributed maritime operations and expeditionary advanced base operations, and supporting force design of the Future Naval Force Study, 30-year shipbuilding plan, and Force Design 2030. A more numerous, capable, and geographically distributed fleet, able to dynamically aggregate and disaggregate forces, is an aspirational change from the existing naval force structure.

Today’s force structure remains mostly centered around expensive multi-mission platforms, such as destroyers, big-deck amphibious assault ships, and aircraft carriers. These ships are most often utilized in large units of action at sea, such as carrier strike groups, expeditionary strike groups, or surface action groups. This period of transition reawakened a deep, if generally unspoken, philosophical debate about America’s naval force with roots that hearken back to classical naval strategists: In terms of design, should the new fleet prioritize sea control as advocated by Alfred Thayer Mahan or should it prioritize sea denial and influence ashore, as advocated by Sir Julian Corbett? Or perhaps it should follow Rear Adm. J. C. Wylie in design, focusing on sequential and cumulative effects? Looking at employment, should the Navy build a “fleet in being,” or should it focus instead on continuous presence? How will the new secretary balance recurring demands for a near-term focus consumed by force employments with the ability to drive toward achieving the future naval force structure that is required?

The new secretary, along with the chief of naval operations and commandant of the Marine Corps, should bring consistency to the integrated vision for force redesign and employment. Although the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy will be revisited during this new administration, the recent framework of strategy, operational concepts, and force design provides the integrated foundational guidance for planning, phasing, resourcing, and execution. Consistency from the department, through transparent communications, public hearings, and operational demonstrations, will be a critical factor to make steady, tangible progress. The secretary can inform Congress, strengthen U.S. allies, and message to adversaries the American determination to build the Navy and Marine Corps across three primary lines of effort: mission focus, people, and organization,

Mission Focus: The Steady Navigational Aid for the Future Horizon

The secretary’s first line of effort should be mission focus. Although seemingly straightforward, the important question is which missions should the department prioritize and when? The 500+ ship navy outlined in the future naval force study is an aspirational goal, with a long timeline to become fully realized. Which components require near-term focus and priority in the budget? How will progress still be made toward pacing the longer-term goals? A more numerous, capable, and dynamically distributed fleet will require a delicate balance of stable resourcing and budget programs to deliver new effective capabilities and platforms at reasonable costs, while at the same time allocating dedicated forces to experiment with and refine naval and joint operational concepts. Crucially, ensuring these forces are available for experimentation will necessitate some form of combatant command appetite suppressant for the near-term employment of naval forces. Building and evolving a new force will require husbanding many of the frequently used and highly sought-after naval assets, so they can instead be available for fleet experimentation, rather than continuous forward presence and combatant command tasking.

The naval force redesign should deliver platform quantities that provide presence and capacity. They should meet current mission requirements and have the room to adapt and incorporate future technologies and missions. This means building in margins of weight allowance, equipment space, power generation, and cooling capability, so that future capabilities can be installed without requiring expensive major reconfigurations. It also means divesting and replacing force elements to enhance the fleet design in new ways. Traditional large multi-mission platforms and strike groups will remain essential units of action within the larger distributed maritime operations and expeditionary advanced base operations concepts. These naval forces will continue to be the nation’s deterrence and response forces for crisis and conflict, critically enabling America’s long-standing grand strategy of always fighting an away game. However, as the Navy and Marine Corps progress in redesigning and evolving the fleet, old and new force structure elements should be prioritized for relevance, readiness, and affordability, or phased out as required.

Successfully achieving the force redesign approach requires parallel efforts of getting near-term bridging assets to the fleet, finally initiating new design efforts and new start programs, and retiring programs and platforms from the force structure when they are no longer as relevant or a priority compared to other alternatives. Through aggressive experimentation the department should move quickly to integrate all fleet assets into efforts like Project Overmatch, and deliver proven naval integrated fire control capabilities, but at great resiliency and scale, for the entire fleet. Most importantly, the department should not let the future challenges and fear of the unknown of force integration and concept development inhibit decisions today, or drive excessive requirements and delay undertaking and delivering new force structure elements. The secretary of the Navy should focus on leading and driving these decisions about redesign and employment with the joint force, secretary of defense, the new administration, and Congress, all of whom are likely to be consumed with other national and international priorities over the next four years.

People: The Propulsion Engine of Activity and Progress

The secretary’s second line of effort should be people. Military, civilian, and contractor workforce and talent should be renewed and cultivated in support of this fleet redesign. Despite the leadership flux over the last four years, approaches they championed can be built upon, such as the Education for Seapower Strategy 2020. The new secretary should review these documents and their implementation progress, in partnership with the chief of naval operations and commandant to provide an education enterprise to support the training and operations required for the fleet redesign.

The organizations involved in talent management for the department are numerous and extensive. Education, training, and manpower resourcing leads are federated across multiple organizations with several areas of overlap for talent management. This entrenched ecosystem delivers educated leaders with the required training to man the ships, submarines, squadrons, platoons, and operational units of U.S. naval forces today. However, these overlapping delineations of organizational responsibility and accountability ashore would never be allowed to persist at sea, and do not foster effective change. If the Navy and Marine Corps are going to operate more numerous, capable, and dynamically distributed platforms, including unmanned capabilities, the talent management ecosystem should adapt and simplify.

For example, although unmanned operations and maritime operations centers will not require personnel to be forward deployed on a platform, they will require new, focused technical training to operate and dynamically network capabilities. As forces distribute, providing sufficient and necessary information to the right shooter at the right time (but not all shooters all the time) will become more critical than traditional warfighter skillsets of maneuvering a weapons platform in and out of an engagement zone. Legacy force components of manned platforms will still be vital to America’s defense, but enhanced sensing, processing, storage, and transport of data will become more valuable to the entirety of the redesigned fleet, and its constituent elements. Warfighters not associated with a platform should dynamically allocate and protect the data of this distributed fleet.

The talent management machinery of the Navy remains finely tuned to receive and train officers on platforms in the traditional domains. The allocation of recent 2021 Naval Academy career assignments is telling. Out of the approximately 1,100 officers who will be commissioned into the naval services, only seven will be directly commissioned as cyber warfare officers and six as information warfare community professionals. The overwhelming majority continue to be ground, air, surface, and submarine officers, demonstrating a talent management accession program that remains inexorably linked to platforms and traditional warfare communities for manpower allocations. Most officers in restricted line communities, such as cyber and information warfare, are transfers from the surface, submarine, and aviation communities after they complete their initial operational tours. This is not a sustainable model for the numbers of fleet network architects, coders, and cyber warriors required to operate the redesigned distributed fleet. As the department produces more numerous, capable, and dynamically distributed manned and unmanned platforms, and develops and refines new concepts, the naval services should adjust the education and training of sailors and marines to ensure that tactics are technically informed by proficient and capable operators who are able to use their skills immediately.

Organization: The Make-or-Break Keel of the Department

The secretary’s third line of effort should be a continuous organizational review process, which is likely to be the most challenging and fraught effort. Both the Navy and Marine Corps are deeply tradition-driven organizations, and any significant change, no matter how rationally sound, elicits extensive feedback, both positive and negative, from diverse voices across all corners of America. However, to operate a numerous, capable, and dynamically distributed fleet, that can successfully concentrate fires wherever and whenever needed, for both sea control and sea denial, deliberate organizational change is needed.

These changes should prioritize and test new concepts and cease activities that no longer adequately support the mission and people of the redesigned fleet. In 2020, the department’s stem-to-stern review found savings of $8 billion per year over the next future years defense program, to free up additional internal resources for shipbuilding. However, secretary-led reviews will be increasingly unlikely to find large efficiencies. Instead, they should ensure that the department puts effective organizational solutions in place to support the fleet redesign and removes unhelpful legacy constructs and processes that inhibit continued progress. As redesigned fleet force structure elements are fielded, operational concepts are matured, and the education and training pipelines are adjusted and refined, the department should refrain from making frequent stove-piped organizational changes to the naval services.

To realize the necessary level of naval integration described in the tri-service maritime strategy, Advantage at Sea, significant leadership and bureaucratic change in both secretariat and fleet organizations is needed. Previous department organizational staff changes have been episodic with unclear outcomes or influence from the fleet redesign. These include the stand up and then cancellation of the deputy assistant secretary for unmanned, deputy chief of naval operations for unmanned warfare systems, the Naval Analytics Office, and the chief learning officer. Some areas of positive change include the stand-up of the Navy chief information officer, chief of the Digital Transformation Office, deputy chief of naval operations for warfighter development, Training and Education Command, and NavalX Tech Bridges, but these efforts lack clear and direct linkages of their roles to the fleet redesign. Operationally, the department reconstituted the Second Fleet, started the process to change the name of U.S. Fleet Forces Command back to Atlantic Fleet, and announced plans for a First Fleet in the Indo-Pacific region. While the focus for these changes is great-power competition, the linkage to the force redesign remains unclear. Change in large organizations is disruptive and difficult, and often can only be successfully executed in a crisis. The department can no longer accept inefficiencies, indecisiveness, or ineffectiveness in its organizational constructs. Organizational designs and operations should be informed by the fleet redesign, link closely to talent management, and encourage informed risks. Insatiable appetites for current operations should be suppressed, and instead prioritize the necessary requirements and activities in support of the redesigned fleet.

Time to Ship Out: Full Speed Ahead!

Former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman once said, “Our recommendations are not a Chinese menu. They are a whole system. If all the important elements are not adopted, it makes it very difficult for the others to succeed.” The next secretary should provide stability in vision, leadership, and budgets to redesign the naval forces, educate and train Department of the Navy personnel, and successfully organize for the security environment that America faces over the next decade and beyond to mid-century. Both self-inflicted and because of the evolving strategic environment, America’s naval force design has experienced unsteady and chaotic effects during the last three decades. Force redesign is a complex endeavor, and stability is only achieved through the integration of clear vision, steadfast leadership, mature technology, and sufficient resources. Fortunately, the new secretary already has well-established leaders at the top of both the Navy and Marine Corps, ready and eager to shift the rudder over. The new secretary should provide the fix, and the department and broader American naval ecosystem should keep updating the position, charting the course for renewed American naval power.




Bryan Durkee is an active-duty Navy captain with more than 27 years of service. He is currently the Navy Fellow assigned to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments as part of the Federal Executive Fellowship program.

Dr. Chris Bassler is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. He formerly served as a civilian in the Department of the Navy.

The views expressed here do not represent those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or the U.S. government. 

Image: U.S. Navy (Photo by Mass Communication Spc. 3rd Class Erik Melgar)