U.S. Navy

Urgent Job Opening: US Navy Secretary

The chaos and uncertainty atop the sea service is undermining national security.

On Jan. 19, Lloyd Austin had a very public job interview with members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The hearing contained surprisingly few questions concerning naval issues and when they did arise, Austin remained noncommittal. This is perhaps understandable for a former Army four-star. Nevertheless it is worrisome, suggesting that naval issues may not weigh heavily on the mind of the new Defense Secretary.

This makes the selection of the next Secretary of the Navy an urgent matter. The SecNav will, after all, be on the frontlines of pushing back against Chinese and Russian efforts to undermine the rules-based world order. The sooner we get this person the better, and the sooner he or she can articulate a strategy for allocating naval forces to key theaters and a vision for the future fleet.

At the time of Austin’s hearing, the biggest congressional concern was how a recently retired Army officer could lead as a political leader without undermining civilian oversight of the military. Not surprisingly, the general handled this concern swimmingly. Less adroit was his handling of naval questions. Asked whether he had read the Navy’s publicly released long-range shipbuilding plan and its underlying Future Naval Force Structure analysis, he responded, “No.” 

A shipbuilding plan is key to executing the national security strategy. The centrality of the Navy in today’s great power competition is not new; it transcends administrations going back to 2012’s Rebalance to the Asia Pacific and includes today’s National Defense Strategy

In the South China Sea and Eastern Mediterranean, the risks are real and significant. Given last year’s events surrounding the West Capella survey ship and the Navy’s sustained aircraft carrier presence in the South China Sea, the Chinese Communist Party may be especially eager to test the new administration. Time is short, especially considering that fishing seasons, weather, and Chinese military training and exercise routines make April a favorable season for Beijing to launch a challenge.

Then, of course, there is the issue of budgets. Already the Navy is working on its input for fiscal year 2023, and having political advocacy is critical. 

The longer the Navy lacks strong political direction provided by a service secretary, the less likely it is to receive needed resourcing and policy direction. Moreover, China and Russia can use that time to undermine our alliances, discredit our commitment to freedom of navigation and stymie the years-long course correction needed to grow our Navy to meet today’s threats. Today’s urgency is made even starker given the unprecedented turnover in Navy secretaries—three of them since November 2019. 

Given this, the next Secretary of the Navy must come to the job ready to articulate and execute a grand vision for invigorating and recapitalizing the Navy. Priorities for the first 30-days should include:

  • Describing the long-term plan for the size and disposition of the Navy by revising or supporting the Future Naval Force Study. Uncertainty is already costing the shipbuilding industry hard-to-replace naval architects and engineers; the government’s most recent report on industrial capabilities calls this a key vulnerability. 
  • Ensuring ships and other resources are available in the decisive theaters of South China Sea and Eastern Mediterranean. Of keen interest will be how naval facility recapitalization by the 20-year, $21 billion Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Program, or SIOP, figures in any national infrastructure initiatives. 
  • Exciting people to join the Navy as it undertakes an innovative future that uses the most advanced technologies to safeguard our nation’s interests. One area ripe for capturing public imagination while growing new industries at-home is the Navy’s development of unmanned ships.

The Navy has been at a crossroads for some time, and given the challenges, time is too short for a Secretary who would have to learn on-the-job or defer for yet another year long analysis to confirm what is already known. Needed is a Secretary of the Navy with the vision, pragmatism and drive to bring to fruition the maritime demands of great power competition. 

Brent D. Sadler is the senior fellow for naval warfare and advanced technology in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense.