SECNAV Gets a Memo

SECNAV Gets a Memo
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In a stinging rebuke to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter issued a memorandum Tuesday that is noteworthy not only for its content, but also for its tone. Its prominence in the public domain raises questions about Mr. Mabus' future within the Department of Defense.

The heart of the issue is something that readers of this blog and navalists in general have been chewing on for a few years now, and that is the question of capability vs. capacity. During the first Obama term, Secretary Mabus was teamed with Under Secretary of the Navy Bob Work, a man of gigantic talent and deep strategic insight. Work has always downplayed fleet size as a measurement of anything of real importance, and he found a natural ally in the then CNO, Admiral Greenert, in putting forward the “Payloads over Platforms” mantra.  Mr. Work’s departure for the private sector in the second term seemed to unshackle Mr. Mabus, who dramatically raised the rhetoric behind shipbuilding and the importance of a larger fleet. This emphasis also coincided with Chuck Hagel’s tenure as Secretary of Defense, which was not marked by particularly dynamic strategic thinking. 

Work’s return to government as the Deputy Secretary of Defense (and Ash Carter’s eventual return as SECDEF) signaled rough times ahead for Secretary Mabus, especially in a pressurized budget environment. The simple truth is that Mr. Mabus has not chosen to concentrate his efforts as Secretary on two very important influence groups—the OSD staff, and Capitol Hill. And over the past year or so, OSD began to more and more prominently discuss “posture” as opposed to “presence”, even as SECNAV continued to reinforce the importance of numbers.  Posture is more of a nebulous term than presence; presence is a component of it, but so is capability, and forward basing, and employment patterns. Posture undercuts presence by insinuating that the Navy does presence for the sake of doing presence, and that is a luxury that could no longer be afforded.

And so in the annual process of submitting the Navy program, Mr. Mabus failed to account for the changed environment vis-à-vis OSD. It is difficult to imagine that a memo as strongly worded as this came out of the blue; it is likely that there were significant negotiations between the Navy and OSD at the staff level. What appears to have happened is that an initial program submission was criticized by OSD with “suggested” changes, and that those changes were insufficiently accounted for in the final program submission. And it was to this level of non-response that Secretary Carter ultimately responded.

There are several key elements of the memo worth discussion, but none more important than the third paragraph, which reads in part “…our military is first and foremost a warfighting force, and while we seek to deter wars, we must also be prepared to fight and win them. This means that overall, the Navy’s strategic future requires focusing more on posture, not only on presence, and more on new capabilities, not only on ship numbers.” 

I interpret this statement (and the thinking behind it) as saying that “in a pressurized budgetary environment, conventional deterrence is of relatively less importance than warfighting”, and one can see this reflected in the items taken from the budget (lesser capable ships) and what is added to the budget (munitions, upgrades to the submarine force, and strike fighter capacity).  

I am of two minds on this conclusion. First, as a Seapower advocate, I find myself rejecting the false choice between deterrence and war-fighting. The fleet must be balanced for both, and the rhetoric coming from OSD leads one to believe that budgetary restrictions have caused them to unbalance the Navy program with a thumb on the scale of warfighting. The nation can afford both, and the case must be made to ensure that the Navy receives the resources to do both. But that is not the budget environment we are in today, and so the consultant in me sees rationality and coherence in the OSD position.

Additionally, as a former Surface Warfare Officer, I am disappointed in the cuts to the shipbuilding program, but am buoyed by a number of important directives in this memo concerning surface electronic warfare, SM-6 missile procurement, DDG modification adds and construction rate, and TLAM upgrades. Now if we could just get moving faster on a higher performance ASUW weapon (even higher than a modified TLAM), we’d be talking.

What struck me most about this memo was its almost parental tone of disappointment. I told a friend yesterday that it sounded like a letter a young man would get in college from his father when he had serially overspent his allowance. One rarely sees THIS level of bluntness in correspondence between the policy elephants. Which brings me to the most shocking part of this memo—that it wasn’t classified or limited in its distribution in ANY way. Either OSD utterly failed to appreciate the gravity of the memo and simply overlooked its control, or there was a desire for it to be leaked to the media. And while I generally tend to follow the rule of “when faced with a choice between villainy and incompetence in a bureaucracy, choose incompetence”, in this case it appears that the darker view applies.

I do not know Secretary Mabus and so cannot imagine how he has reacted to this memo. But I have had some exposure to folks who work at such lofty levels, and this kind of repudiation—especially after six and a half years of service—is unlikely to go over well. I would not be surprised if Mr. Mabus decides to resign his office, a casualty of the fiscal environment and his refusal to recognize how the landscape had shifted around him. 

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