China’s Aircraft Carrier: ‘Dreadnought’ or ‘Doctrinal Dilemma’?

This post first appeared on the National Maritime Foundation and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here

By Captain Gurpreet S. Khurana, PhD

Less than five years after the China commissioned its first Soviet-origin aircraft carrier Liaoning in September 2012, it launched its first-ever domestic carrier – the Type 001A – on 26 April 2017. The new carrier is likely to be commissioned in 2020 as Shadong. Even though the Liaoning and the Type 001A are medium-sized conventionally powered (non-nuclear) vessels equipped with aircraft ski-jumps (not catapults), and thus far less capable than the super-carriers operated by the United States, the occasion was celebrated in China as a major achievement symbolic of China’s ‘great power’ status. A report indicates that a larger, next generation Type 002 carrier equipped with a steam catapult has been under construction since March 2015, and its follow-on carriers may be nuclear powered.  

The launch of the Type 001A is, indeed, a milestone in the development of China as a major naval power. It reminds us of the famous battleship HMS Dreadnought commissioned into the Royal Navy in 1906. The Dreadnought was a highly successful warship induction marking the dawn of the 20th century warfare at sea. It became iconic of a transformative naval capability in a manner that the older existing warships of the world began to fade into obsolescence as pre-Dreadnoughts. The celebration in Beijing similarly justified, given the achievement of China’s defense-technological endeavor within a relatively short period of time. It stands out rather conspicuously in comparison to India, which has been operating aircraft carriers since 1961, but is yet to commission its first indigenous carrier named Vikrant.

Moving from ‘symbolism’ to ‘substance,’ such ‘flat-tops’ are indeed valuable platforms for maritime force-projection, which, for centuries, has been an important naval mission of all major power navies. However, given China’s maritime geography and the kind of insecurities it encounters today from vastly superior adversarial navies of the United States and Japan operating in the western Pacific Rim, the PLA Navy’s growing doctrinal reliance on carriers seems to be an aberration. It may have been more prudent for China to focus on bolstering its existing Anti-Access/ Area-Denial (A2AD) operational doctrine with the naval doctrine of ‘sea-denial’ – particularly given the PLA Navy’s traditional strengths in submarine, sea-mine and missile warfare – rather than diluting its naval doctrine by adding the carrier-based ‘sea-control’ doctrine.

Chinese carriers will also be highly vulnerable in the western Pacific Rim, not only to the advanced navies, but also to the many unfriendly airbases and submarine bases of the littoral countries dotting the periphery of the East and South China Seas. It is well known that even the smaller countries in the region are building potent sea-denial capabilities against China. The recent induction of the six advanced Russian Kilo-class submarines into the Vietnamese Navy is a case in point. If a maritime conflict breaks out in the area, the PLA Navy carrier would surely be a prime target and any such successful targeting would be a major symbolic blow to China’s morale, and thus its war effort.

The Chinese believe that ‘sea-control’ is necessary to assert its maritime-territorial claims in the China Seas. This could have been achieved effectively – and at reduced risk – by optimally using the air-bases in the Chinese mainland and the occupied islands, which China is expanding through reclamation. Ironically, China’s island-building activity in the South China Sea has caused a major damage to China’s claim to its ‘peaceful rise’ theory, which is now being aggravated by its own carrier-building program. Furthermore, the program lacks operational credibility, much into the foreseeable future. It would take the PLA Navy many years to operationalize a full-fledged Carrier Task Force, and possibly decades to make it effective enough to achieve sea-control against advanced navies. Meanwhile, the process could cause an indelible dent in China’s objective to propagate a ‘benign’ and ‘constructive’ image in the Indo-Pacific region, including through its ‘One-Belt-One-Road’ (OBOR) initiative.

Chinese strategists also believe that carrier-based sea-control is necessary to protect their Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) in the Indian Ocean, as indicated by China’s recently articulated strategy of “open-seas protection” in its 2014 Defense White Paper. However, this could have been achieved – again effectively, and at reduced risk – by deploying its warships in its naval bases at strategic locations such as Djibouti and Gwadar.

China is likely to have at least three aircraft carriers in commission at any given time in the future. The Chinese have clearly gone too far ahead for any reappraisal of its aircraft-carrier program, possibly lured into the ‘command of the seas’ gambit of the major western naval powers, without factoring their own geostrategic conditions and circumstances. One may therefore, expect that the PLA Navy’s ‘doctrinal duality’ in terms of primacy to both ‘sea control’ and ‘sea denial’ may become its dilemma in the coming years.

Captain Gurpreet S Khurana, PhD, is Executive Director at the National Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the NMF, the Indian Navy, or the Government of India. He can be reached at gurpreet.bulbul@gmail.com.

Featured Image: In this photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, a newly-built aircraft carrier is transferred from dry dock into the water at a launch ceremony at a shipyard in Dalian in northeastern China’s Liaoning Province, Wednesday, April 26, 2017. (Li Gang/Xinhua via AP)

Waters of Black Gold: The Strait of Hormuz, Pt. 2

By Imran Shamsunahar

The first part of this two-part series on the Strait of Hormuz analyzed the strategic importance of the Strait for global energy shipping and political stability in the Arabian Gulf, and provided an overview of Iran’s overall strategy of using its asymmetric doctrine to disrupt commercial shipping within the vital waterways to both deter enemies and fight a protracted war if necessary. This second part will focus on Iran’s actual maritime capabilities and discusses whether their threats to close down oil shipment in the Strait of Hormuz are credible or not.

Asymmetric Weapons and Tactics

Although Tehran has frequently made clear their intentions to close the Strait of Hormuz in times of war or heightened tensions, do they actually have the military capability to do so? Both the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) and the Revolutionary Guards’ Navy (IRGCN) have invested in a multitude of asymmetrical weaponry which would be used to harass and disrupt shipping coming through the Strait.

One potent tool in the Iranian naval inventory is its extensive range of ASCMs, a capability the Iranians have sought to invest in since the Iran-Iraq War, either through direct purchase or by depending heavily on Chinese designs for indigenous production. During the Tanker War, the Iranians would employ coastal-defense variants of the Chinese HY-1 and HY-2 ASCMs (also known as the CSSC-2 Silkworm and CSSC-3 Seersuckers) in a series of missile sites ringing the Strait of Hormuz, Qeshm Island, and nearby Kishk, thereby forcing any ship entering the Strait to sail through their missile envelope (it is believed Iran’s coastal missile defenses are still arranged in this manner). Fears of escalation meant the missiles were never used within the Strait of Hormuz (although two missiles were fired at Kuwait on October 15 and 16, 1987, each hitting a tanker). Iran’s inventory of shore-based missiles are maintained by both navies.1,2, 25 

Starting in the 1990s, the Iranians imported the C-801 and C802 missiles. The land-based variants had an advantage over the HY-1/HY-2s insofar that they could be mounted on vehicles and guided by mobile radar stations, instead of being pegged to fixed launch sites. This means the missiles can be used in a ‘shoot and scoot’ fashion, making it harder for the enemy to locate and destroy their batteries after having released their payloads. As well, the Iranians armed most of their fast small boats, referred to as Fast Attack Crafts (FACs), with the C-802, including the Thondor-class or Kaman-class boats, as well as all their frigates and corvettes. The Iranians also developed the Qadir missile, based on the C-802A missile. It has a longer range than the C-802 and is less vulnerable to radar countermeasures.3

Iran also possess three short-range missile systems, again influenced by Chinese designs. This includes the Kosar missiles, based on the Chinese C-701, while the Nasr 1 and Nasr 2 correspond to the C-704. All three systems can be deployed on both land vehicles for coastal defense, as well as FACs including the IRGCN’s North Korean based Peykaap-II class craft and Chinese-made Cat-class catamaran missile boats.4

The official Seal of the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (Wikimedia Commons)

The use of small fast boats plays a big part in Iran’s apparent ‘swarming tactics,’ in which they hope to counteract the enemy’s superior surface vessels through overwhelming numbers attacking from different directions. Unlike other navies, which seek to gradually acquire larger vessels as traditional navies would, the IRGCN has consciously sought to acquire smaller and faster boats based on their doctrine of asymmetric warfare. Alongside the FACs, the IRGCN also possess far more numerous Fast Inshore Attack Crafts (FIACs), which are smaller in tonnage and more lightly armed (usually with machine guns and rockets).

Since they are travelling in dispersed rather than large formations, they become harder to detect. Owing to their size, they could operate from any available jetty, with Iran’s numerous oil platforms and islands within the Strait providing forward operating platforms for these small fast boats (as well as forward observation posts to detect enemy shipping).5 Indeed, it is feared the Iran would exploit the broken littoral character of the Strait to wage a sort of maritime guerrilla war, exploiting its numerous small islands to hide small boats in ambush to await larger naval vessels and tankers to sail through. These small boats would utilize a variety of weapons to either damage or sink enemy shipping, including rockets, RPGs, heavy machine guns, torpedoes, and shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles. However, it is believed the main weapon of choice would be guided anti-ship missiles. Coupled with shore-based mobile ASCMs, Iran could turn the Strait into perilous waters for any shipping to traverse.6,7

Mining the Strait

Most analysts agree that the most effective means by which the Iranians could hope to disrupt traffic through the Strait would be through mining. Mines represent a defensive, cost-effective, low-technology weapon in which to hinder and manipulate enemy movement. It should be noted that during the Tanker War in 1988, an Iranian mine costing $1,500 dollars was able to inflict $96 million worth of damage to the frigate USS Samuel Roberts in the Arabian Sea (mines have accounted for over 77 percent of total U.S. ship casualties since the end of the Second World War). They are relatively easy to produce and maintain, useful for a developing country like Iran. Mines would grant the Iranians the ability to channel hostile shipping through specific channels, where they would then be more vulnerable to other attacks such as small fast boats and shore-based anti-ship missiles, as well as delay enemy war plans as they are forced to instead focus attention and resources on mine clearing operations. Even then, the simple threat of the presence of mines would grant the Iranians a great psychological advantage, as shipping companies become more hesitant to risk their shipping being mined as it transits the Strait (potentially causing global energy prices to skyrocket), as well as affecting the morale of personnel aboard U.S. and allied warships.8,9

Iran is one of two dozen countries in the world which manufactures mines domestically, although its more advanced mines come from Russia, China, and North Korea (even its domestically-produced mines are based on Chinese designs). The total inventory of Iranian mines is believed to range from two to five thousand. Iran now boasts a variety of mines in its inventory. These mines can differ based on their positioning in the water, from drifting mines which float on the surface, moored mines which float at a pre-programmable depth beneath the surface, and bottom mines, which are placed on the seabed (particularly useful in the shallow waters of the Strait). They also differ on how they are triggered, from simple contact mines to more sophisticated influence mines, which can be triggered by detecting a change in the acoustic environment, water pressure, or magnetic field. Iran also claims to possess nonmagnetic mines, which are more difficult to detect by enemy mine-sweeping. Analysts differ on how many mines the Iranians would need to successful blockade the Strait, with numbers ranging from just three hundred to having to gamble their entire stockpile.10,11 

Iran could feasibly utilize almost any platform within its naval inventory in a mine laying role. Its most potent platform would be its submarine fleet, with its three Kilo-class submarines, able to lay 24 mines per sortie. Its midget submarines, the Ghadir and Nahang class, could also be utilized in a mine-laying role (the Ghadir is believed to be able to lay between 8-16 mines per sortie). The Iranians could also use non-conventional mine-laying platforms, including its array of small boats, open-decked boats (such as naval amphibious and logistic vessels) and civilian shipping (such as fishing dhows). Since small boats can lay between 2-6 mines per sortie, they would probably be used in a mass mining effort by the Iranians. Their small size would make them difficult to detect and intercept, and in some cases the enemy would be unable to distinguish civilian shipping involved in innocent commercial activity and those involved in mine laying work.12,13

Closing the Strait: A Realist Assessment

But exactly how much of a threat would Iran’s swarming tactics and anti-ship missiles pose? It should be noted that in 2002, a joint wargame exercise conducted by the U.S. military called Millennium Challenge 2002 depicted an invasion of a fictional Middle Eastern country. Said fictional country fought using tactics and strategies closely resembling that of Iran, utilizing shore-based missiles and swarm tactics with fast boats. By the end of the game, the U.S. had lost 16 ships and the lives of thousands of servicemen.14 However, other commentators remain skeptical. J. Peter Pham, writing for The Journal of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, noted that the sheer size of modern tankers makes it difficult for small boats to make contact with the ship, with ‘the flow of surface water along the hull of such a large, moving ship creates strong currents toward the ships stern.’ As well, the piece noted that since crude oil does not ignite easily, the tanker would most probably absorb any explosion if contact was made, meaning modern tankers can take a lot of punishment before sinking. An estimated ‘eight to ten’ missiles would be needed to actually sink a tanker, which would exhaust Iran’s finite stockpiles (save perhaps in specific cases where the missile would penetrate the hull and subsequently explode, causing secondary explosions).15 The U.S. Fifth Fleet could also respond with the traditional strategy when it comes to protecting one’s merchant shipping from harm, that of providing convoy duties. This is a strategy the U.S. adopted during the Tanker War. The U.S. Navy would escort 252 ships between July 1987 and December 1988, with only one commercial ship damaged by an enemy mine.16 An article in Strategic Comments noted:

“The value of a convoy system would not just be in the missile defence offered by the layered missile-defence systems on board the U.S. Navy’s Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers currently deployed with the Fifth Fleet. Standard SM-2 and Evolved Sea Sparrow air-defence missiles along with the Phalanx gun-based close-in-weapon system would provide the main tools to counter the air and missile threats.”17

Besides the extensive defenses offered by U.S. warships, air dominance over the Strait would offer another added protection against nimble small boats threatening merchant shipping. American helicopters and fighters proved particularly useful in destroying IRGCN vessels during the Tanker War, and the apparent weakness of the Iranian air assets and air defenses today would arguably allow U.S. and Gulf air assets to achieve a similar goal. It should be noted that in February of this year, the U.S. Air Force’s venerable A-10 Warthogs took part in mock attacks on small boats as part of routine exercises, possibly demonstrating how air attacks against Iran’s fast small boats would play out in a real conflict.18

Firing Noor Missile from a truck launcher in Velayat-90 Naval Exercise. (Wikimedia Commons)

Mining also has its limitations. Like anti-ship missiles, some doubt that mines would be powerful enough to outright sink a ship the size of a modern tanker. As well, the U.S. Fifth Fleet has stationed in Bahrain four Avenger-class mine countermeasure vessels, and could theoretically call upon the help of the British, French, Saudi and Emirati navies, all of whom possess anti-mine vessels.19 It should be noted however, that minesweeping and clearance work is still a time-consuming endeavor. Gulf military analyst Sabahat Khan noted that clearing mines can take ‘two hundred times as long’ as it took to lay them. Creating safe passageways could take weeks, while clearing the Strait entirely would cost months. As well, more sophisticated mines would require more time consuming strategies such as unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) and human divers.20

Mines are not a discriminating weapon, and could potentially damage Iranian vessels as well as the vessels of neutral states. This could cause political complications with friendly nations such as China, with whom the Iranians depend heavily on for both arms sales and investment in the Iranian energy sector. The biggest loser from any attempt to completely close off shipping through the Strait would be Iran itself. An article from 2010 noted that Iran exported 2.4 million barrels of petroleum a day through the Strait of Hormuz (providing two-thirds of its total budget), and is also heavily dependent on the Strait for its gasoline imports, being the largest gasoline consumer in the region. As such, most scholars argue that the Iranians would only seek to close the Strait if they felt the survival of the regime itself was at stake, either in an outright war, in retaliation for a particularly crippling sanction imposed, or a foreign attempt to neutralize critical national capabilities (e.g. its nuclear facilities).21, 22

Ultimately, a successful closing of the Straits through mining is dependent on the Iranian mine laying effort not being detected and intercepted by its enemies early on, thereby hindering further mine laying efforts by the enemy’s overwhelming force. The first few hours would thus be critical, with the Iranians seeking to lay as many mines as possible. For the U.S. and its Gulf allies, preventing a mining of the Strait would thus depend heavily on effective intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, to ensure adequate maritime domain awareness to intercept Iranian intentions early on.23,24

Conclusion

Ultimately, it remains unlikely that Iran could actually close down the Strait to maritime shipping, with esteemed scholar Anthony Cordesman noting that Iran couldn’t close the Strait for ‘more than a few days to two weeks.’ Instead of a naval blockade, the most the Iranians could hope for would be a strategy of guerre de course on individual shipping, causing only minor inconveniences for global energy markets. Scholars suggests that Iran’s often highly embellished rhetoric about closing down the Strait to shipping has more to do with burnishing nationalist credentials to a domestic audience, as well as introducing volatility to the energy market to help raise energy prices and pump the regime’s coffers.25

However, this shouldn’t mean that those concerned with the protection of freedom of navigation in the Strait can rest easily. Constant vigilance should be kept, and vital capabilities such as ISR, anti-submarine warfare, minesweeping, and air dominance should be both maintained and improved upon. As Clausewitz reminds us, war is composed of passion and chance. What could start as sporadic attacks against individual tankers could rapidly escalate beyond everyone’s imaginations. U.S. and allied forces in the region should ensure adequate strategic and operation responses to Iran’s threats which are both militarily effective and carefully calibrated to the situation.

Imran Shamsunahar is a recent graduate of the University of Hull, where he earned a Master’s in Strategy and International Security. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of Toronto. He developed an interest in maritime security and naval warfare during his graduate studies, and wrote his dissertation on the South China Sea dispute and contemporary maritime strategy. He is currently based in his home city of Kuala Lumpur where he is interning for Horizon Intelligence, a Brussels-based security risk monitoring company catering to travelers. In the meantime, he enjoys writing articles on naval matters as a hobby. He is hoping to continue his studies in the near future, hopefully once again in maritime security.

References

1. ‘Strait of Hormuz: Iran’s Disruptive Military Options’, Strategic Comments, 18, no. 1 (2012), p. 2

2. David B. Crist, David B. Crist, ‘Gulf of Conflict: A History of U.S. – Iranian Conflict at Sea’, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, June 2009. Available online: http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/pubs/PolicyFocus95.pdf, p. 10

3. ‘Strait of Hormuz: Iran’s Disruptive Military Options’, p. 2

4. Ibid

5. David B. Crist, ‘Gulf of Conflict’, p. 22 – 23

6. Dave Majumbar, ‘Could Iran Sink a U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier?’, The National Interest, December 30th, 2015, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/could-iran-sink-us-navy-aircraft-carrier-14767

7. Robert Czulda, ‘The Defensive Dimensions of Iran’s Military Doctrine: How Would They Fight?’ Middle East Policy, 23 , no. 1 (2016): p. 92-109. Available online: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/mepo.12176/full

8. David B. Crist, ‘Gulf of Conflict’, p. 24 – 25

9. Sabahat Khan, Sabahat Khan, ‘Iranian Mining of the Strait of Hormuz – Plausibility and Key Considerations’, Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, January 2010. Available online: http://www.inegma.com/Admin/Content/File-29122013113155.pdf, p. 2

10. J. Peter Pham, ‘Iran’s Threat to the Strait of Hormuz’, p. 68

11. Ibid, p. 3

12. Joseph Travithick, ‘A-10 Warthogs Practice Blasting Swarms of Small Boats’, The Drive, March 2nd 2017, http://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/8052/a-10-warthogs-practice-blasting-swarms-of-smallboats?xid=twittershare

14. Brett Davis, “Learning Curve: Iranian Asymmetrical Warfare and Millennium Challenge 2002”, CIMSEC, August 14th, 2014, http://cimsec.org/learning-curve-iranian-asymmetrical-warfare-millennium-challenge-2002-2/11640

15. P. Peter Pham, ‘Iran’s Threat to the Strait of Hormuz: A Realist Assessment’ The Journal of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy’, 32, no. 2 (2010): p. 66 – 69

16. ‘Strait of Hormuz: Iran’s Disruptive Options’, p. 3

17. Sabahat Khan, ‘Iranian Mining of the Strait of Hormuz’, p. 3

18. Ibid

13. David B. Christ, ‘Gulf of Conflict’, p. 23

19. ‘Strait of Hormuz: Iran’s Disruptive Options’, Strategic Comments, 18, no. 1 (2012).

20. Sabahat Khan, ‘Iranian Mining of the Strait of Hormuz’, p. 7

21. Ibid

22. J. Peter Pham, ‘Iran’s Threat to the Strait of Hormuz’, p. 69 – 71

23. Sabahat Khan, ‘Iranian Mining of the Strait of Hormuz’, p. 9

24. J. Peter Pham, ‘Iran’s Threat to the Strait of Hormuz’, p. 70

25. Ibid, p. 71 – 72

Featured Image: The Persian Gulf (Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC)

2017 Officer and Board of Directors Election Results

By Sally DeBoer

It is my honor to announce the following individuals will compose the 2017-2018 Officer cadre and the 2017-2019 Board of Directors:

2017-2018 CIMSEC Officers

President: Andrew Poulin

Vice President: Travis Nicks

Director of Online Content: Dmitry Filipoff

Secretary: Ashley O’Keefe

Director of Membership: Michael Madrid

Director of Outreach: Andrew Walker

Treasurer: Jeff Betz

2017-2019 CIMSEC Board of Directors

Chairman, Board of Directors: Scott Cheney-Peters

Member, Board of Directors

Roger Misso

Matthew Merighi

Matthew Hipple

Claude Berube

Chris Rawley

Heather Havens, Ph.D.

John “Patsy” Klein, Ph.D.

Sean Plankey

Chris O’Connor

Nicholas Andersen

Congratulations to those elected! Official turnovers will be completed by June 30, 2017. To the new cadre: we look forward to seeing CIMSEC flourish in your capable hands. We would also like to extend our sincere thanks to all the members who took a moment to vote!

 

 

 

 

Sea Control 136 – Being SECNAV with Ray Mabus

By Matthew Merighi and Roger Misso

Join the latest episode of Sea Control for a conversation with Ray Mabus, former Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV), to talk about his experience leading the Navy. The conversation ranges from how a person becomes SECNAV, the challenges he faced in the role, and what he learned along the way.

Download Sea Control 136 – Being SECNAV with Ray Mabus

The transcript of the conversation between Secretary Mabus and Roger begins below. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Special thanks to Associate Producer Ryan Uljua for helping produce this episode. 

Roger: Hi, my name is Roger Misso, and I’m pleased to bring you another edition of the Sea Control podcast from the Center for International Maritime Security. In true CIMSEC tradition, we’ll ask our distinguished guest who’s here with us to introduce himself and to tell us about himself in just a few words.

Secretary Mabus: My name is Ray Mabus, I’m the immediate past Secretary of the Navy. Longest serving since WWI, from 2009 to January 20, 2017.

Roger: Thank you Mr. Secretary, it’s an honor and we’re really privileged that you joined us here today. We’re excited to talk to you and learn about your time as SECNAV. The first question I have for you is: A lot of people know how admirals and generals are promoted; they know how senators and governors and presidents are elected. They don’t necessarily know how service secretaries and political appointees are made. I was wondering if you could tell us the story of how you became Secretary of the Navy? Is it something you asked for? Is it something that someone suggested to you? How did that come about?

Secretary Mabus: In 2007 – March of 2007 – I endorsed a relatively unknown Illinois Senator named Barack Obama for president. I then went out and did about 300 events for him. I was his most traveled surrogate, ever. And when we won the election, his transition team called me and said, “Would you like to come into the administration?” And I said, “Well, it depends on the job.”

And they said, “Do you have anything in mind?”

And I said, “I want to be Secretary of the Navy.”

And they said, “Well, okay, what’s your second choice?”

And I said, “That’s pretty much it.”

I always thought that Secretary of the Navy – because I’d been in the Navy years earlier – 37 years earlier – I was commissioned in ‘69, got out in ’72 – I always thought Secretary of the Navy was probably the best appointed job in government. I had the best elected job as Governor of Mississippi, but in terms of appointed jobs, Navy Secretary is so big, it’s got a global reach, you can have a huge impact on large numbers of people and big policies, on things that happen in the world. And so that’s why I wanted it. It came from me.

Turns out, I found out it was the most requested job in the Obama administration. And so that’s how political appointees get made.

Most people believe you have to serve, but I was the first Secretary of the Navy since the early ‘90s that had served – in any branch in the military, but particularly in the Navy. John Dalton, who had been Secretary from ‘93 to ‘97, was a Naval Academy grad, but for everybody in between, nobody had served.

Roger: You mentioned you’re the longest serving SECNAV at least since…

Secretary Mabus: WWI.

Roger: 2,803 days as secretary according to Wikipedia at least, which is iron-clad information…

Secretary Mabus: It’s always true…

Roger: As you look back on your time, what do you wish you knew at the beginning of your tenure that you didn’t know then, and conversely, what do you wish you could change at the end of your time that you realized you couldn’t?

Secretary Mabus: I’ll take the first part of your question a little differently. I thought one of the great strengths I brought to Navy is that I didn’t know what the issues were – but I also didn’t bring any baggage. So I could take a fresh look.

I think that’s valuable, not just to the Navy, but anywhere. Occasionally, you need to bring in people from completely outside that can look and see what’s important that you may [overlook] because of just the day to day stuff, looking down, making sure that you’re getting the inbox cleaned out, making sure that you’re doing the stuff you need to do that day, that you don’t step back and say, “What’s important here?”

And I thought that that was a great strength coming in. The Pentagon does a really good job of getting you ready for your confirmation hearings and your job, because for several weeks in a windowless room in the Pentagon in one hour chunks from eight in the morning until five in the afternoon, I got briefed on what the Navy and the Marine Corps and the Department of the Navy were doing around the world. And as you listen to that, issues start popping up. So I picked four.

One of the lessons I learned as governor, and in any of these leadership roles, is that you’ve got to narrow your focus. You can’t try to do everything.

So I picked People – our Sailors and Marines; Platforms – the number of ships, aircraft, and systems that we have; Power and energy – to do the things we needed to do with our ships and with our aircraft; and Partnerships – internationally and partnerships with the American people.

In terms of the second part of your question, there were some things that I wish I had started working on earlier, because it really does take a long time to get some things done. One of the things is loosening up the promotion process, allowing people to not have a traditional career path, because I think that too many times we get into this “check the box” thing, where now with big data, with analytics, with metrics, you can take somebody that comes in from a very different way, you can categorize that, you can value that. So if somebody misses their Department Head tour or something, maybe they were out doing something else that was at least as valuable, maybe more valuable to the Navy, if we can keep them in.

Along those lines, I started the Career Intermission Program so you could take up to three years off, but I do wish that I had started some of these particular personnel initiatives sooner, started them maybe three years in. But it just takes, as you know, a long, long time for some of these to come to fruition. You’ve got to go through several cycles, you’ve got to give people a heads up, you’ve got to make sure that careers aren’t harmed by people that were under the old system. Now, I think it’s going to happen and I think it is happening, but I wouldn’t change anything that I did. I might have started a couple of things earlier.

Roger: In 2,803 days you worked under four different Secretaries of Defense. Secretary Gates, Secretary Panetta, Secretary Hagel, and Secretary Carter. Did your job differ at all under those four SECDEFs, and how did their different leadership styles affect the Navy?

Secretary Mabus: First, my job didn’t change. The Navy is so big. The Department of the Navy is so big. If we were a private company, we would be the second-biggest in the country in terms of employees after Wal Mart, third-biggest in terms of assets in between Exxonmobil and Berkshire Hathaway, fifth-biggest in terms of budget authority – $170 billion budget; 900,000 people. So because you’re so big, and because the service secretaries are the operators – recruit, train, and equip – the people buying things, training people, furnishing the equipment and the people that the combatant commanders need, which is why I think the service secretary’s job, particularly Secretary of the Navy, is a far better job than SECDEF, for example. Because you are so big, [you have] so much autonomy. SECDEF and DoD writ large is more policy, more advice to the president, more that role and not the direct operator role.

Now, I’m not going to get into individual personalities here, but one thing I will say is that the lessons of leadership that I’ve learned over a career in government and the private sector is that they’re exactly true. Whether Secretary of Defense or service secretary, you’ve got to focus on a few things that you can get done. You’ve got to be willing to let go; you can’t micromanage. If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re probably in the wrong room. You need to get good people, give fairly clear direction – which came from the president, basically – and then hold people accountable.

The only one personality thing I’ll get into is Bob Gates, when he was Secretary of Defense, before I got there. Bob Gates never raised his voice. He was, as far as I could tell, always calm. Yet he fired a Secretary of the Air Force, a Secretary of the Army, a Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and a Chief of Staff of the Army. And I think part of leadership is you don’t get heated up, you don’t yell and scream and this sort of stuff, but you do hold people accountable…that brand of leadership, that calm, steady leadership but then actually taking action. You see these people yelling all the time – ”I’d fire those people!” – but then if he actually did it? Not in terms of firing people, although I did that from time to time, but in terms of trying to be a responsible leader that had people under me, trying to give clear direction and then say, “Go do it, I will hold you accountable, but I’m not going to get in your business day in and day out.”

Roger: I think that’s a great lesson for everybody to take away, certainly, one that applies regardless of rank or position or title.

Currently Secretary Stackley is the Acting Secretary of the Navy, but we don’t have a newly appointed Secretary of the Navy yet. When that person does come along, what advice might you have for them?

Secretary Mabus: Well, first, Sean Stackley is terrific. He was there with me the entire time I was there. But he is an acquisition specialist. And I think Sean would be the first person to tell you that what he loves and what he wants to get back to is acquiring things, doing the negotiations, doing what he is unsurpassed at.

And I think the fact that it’s five months into an administration almost, and you haven’t had anybody even nominated to be Secretary of the Navy, is just terrible. The lack of direction – there was an Acting Secretary of the Navy when I came in, but he had only been acting for about six weeks. But even in that six weeks, he had decisions that he had to make. Now, BJ Penn was the Acting, and he was terrific at it. He didn’t make a decision that he thought belonged rightfully to the permanent Secretary of the Navy. He would just say, “I’m not going to do this because he may not agree with it,” which I think is right.

Sean is in the same position. He’s got to make decisions, but he doesn’t know which direction the new Secretary, whomever that may be, wants to go in. And with the confirmation process, and with the Senate schedule, even if somebody is nominated today, it’s probably going to be September or October before they’re confirmed – I mean, realistically. So you don’t know.

But I guess the things that I would say:

Number one, the things that I did in terms of the four Ps that I mentioned – People, Platforms, Power, Partnerships – I did to make us better warfighters. Because we’re going to alternative energy, fewer people are going to die. We were losing a Marine killed or wounded for every 50 convoys of fuel we brought into Afghanistan. Because of the personnel moves, opening everything to women, of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” we’re stronger. A more diverse force is a much stronger force.

And don’t look at it in ideological terms. Look at it in – is it working? And is it making the Navy and Marine Corps better warfighters? Because it can be proved that all four of those things are.

Second, pick your own stuff. Every Secretary is different, and they should be. But always have that touchstone, that if it’s not making the Navy and Marine Corps better, if it’s not making them better warfighters, if it’s not making them better at their job, then why are you doing it?

The third thing is you’re going to have to keep one eye on today, because of the things that are happening today. But if you don’t keep an eye on 10 years from now, 15 years from now…The quick example I’ll give you is in 2001, the U.S. Navy had 316 ships. By 2008, seven years later, after one of the great military buildups in our history, we were down to 278. In those seven years, the Navy only put 41 ships under contract. In my seven budget years, I put 86 ships under contract, more than twice what [the previous administration] did.

Now the day I left, there were 274 ships in the fleet, because of the decisions that had been made 10, 15, 20 years earlier. We’ll get back to 308 ships, which is what we were building toward by 2021, which is not that far away – four years away. And I guarantee you, whoever the Secretary of the Navy is then, whoever the president is, will say “Look what I did! Look at this! We got to 308 ships.”

But if whoever comes in as Secretary of the Navy now doesn’t continue building ships at this high rate, doesn’t keep doing it year in year out, then the Secretary of the Navy and the president in 2030, in 2035, won’t have the fleet that they will need to have to do the things that they need to do.

It takes a long time to build a fleet. It takes a long time to reverse a decline. And even if you don’t pay attention to it every year – it won’t happen when you’re there. Nothing the next Secretary will do, even if they stay like I did almost eight years, won’t see it in terms of platforms in particular while they’re there. But you’ve got to do it. You’ve got to do it for the Navy, you’ve got to do it for the Marine Corps, and you’ve got to do it for the country.

Roger: I think there was a sign on Joe Rochefort’s desk that said: “There’s no limit to what we can do together, so long as no one cares who gets the credit.”

Secretary Mabus: Right.

Roger: That seems pretty applicable here.

We’ve talked about the Secretary of the Navy; we’ve sort of talked about the president. Do you think there are ways that the Navy can strengthen its relationship with Congress? Are there things we can do better? Different approaches?

Secretary Mabus: I think one of the main things that the Navy or any federal agency needs to do with Congress is be completely up front, completely transparent, and not try to hide the ball. Bad news doesn’t get better if somebody else finds it out first.

Engage with them a lot. I found that was one of the things that was most helpful, is getting to know members as individuals. And again, this is a pretty nonpartisan job – I mean, the military ought to be a little separate from politics and from partisanship. And so, whether somebody’s a ‘D’ on the Hill shouldn’t really matter. And you shouldn’t just talk to the people in your party regardless of which party that is. But there’s people in Congress and, number one, they want to do the right thing I think more times than not. Number two, they need information, because they’re the ones appropriating the money. You’ve got to show to them that you’re tackling fraud, abuse, and that you’re not asking for money that isn’t going to be well spent. And so I think that transparency, along with some actual substance in terms of what you’re doing, makes all the difference.

Roger: There’s a unique challenge, as you well know, between inspiring change and then managing to produce results eventually. I think you tried to tackle this especially as it related to your Innovation Vision. How do leaders do this? How did you manage the difference between inspiration – inspiring the force – and actually creating change and seeing it through to the end? And do you think, as you look back, that the Innovation Vision has been a success so far?

Secretary Mabus: I’ll answer the last one first: yes, I do. Some of the things that we’re doing now – for instance, every time we put a ship in the yard we change the light bulbs. We had a suggestion from a Chief. It saves a destroyer 20,000 gallons of fuel a year to change light bulbs to LEDs. And it’s better light. And you don’t have to change the bulbs but every seven years instead of every six months like we do today. And you don’t have to break out the scaffolds and things like hangar decks.

But I think there are several things, one is first you’ve got to come up with the idea, you’ve got to come up with the inspiration. And it has got to be clear, and you’ve got to talk about it all the time. Whatever that is, whether it’s innovation as a general thing, or whether it’s one of the specific programs I mentioned. And you’ve got to repeat it over and over again so that people know that the leadership is committed; that if they go out on a limb in their career, or in their job, they’re going to have some top cover to do that.

Second, you’ve got to get people on the deckplates, people who are actually out there, involved. And there are lots of ways to do that. We did a crowdsourcing platform in innovation, we stood up Task Force Innovation which people compete to get on. It’s a year tour, it’s going to help your career to be on it, because you work on one project, you do a deep dive for a year, and you come out with recommendations.

Three is, as a leader, when somebody recommends something or it bubbles up through this innovation process, you’ve got to fund it. You’ve got to show people that, and then you have to recognize people. And you’ve got to explain to people over and over again, not that this is a great theory, but that this is how it’s going to affect you. This is how it’s going to affect your life. This is why it’s going make you better at your job. This is why it’s going to make the Navy better warfighters, better at what they do. We’re not just doing this for drill, we’re not just doing this because it’s a great idea. We’re doing it for a purpose – and here’s that purpose. And then when somebody comes up with one of these great ideas – recognize them. Recognize them in front of their peers, recognize them to the leadership, to show people we really will listen.

Roger: Last question, you mentioned that Governor of Mississippi is your best elected job, Secretary of the Navy your best appointed job. What’s next? What’s the next job? What’s the next task for you, after having been Secretary of the Navy for so long?

Secretary Mabus: I like change. I like being an agent of change. I like to be disruptive in a good sort of way. I like building more than I like maintaining. So I’m an advisor now with Google Ventures, in terms of what comes next. I’m helping several pre-IPO companies with: How do you manage growth? How do you instill a culture? How do you keep that culture as you’re getting bigger? How do you create a narrative about what you’re up to? Because one of the things – it doesn’t matter that you’re doing the right thing if nobody knows you’re doing the right thing, particularly the people working with you. It’s not useless, but it’s not as powerful as it should be.

I just finished teaching at Harvard Law School, Harvard Business School, and Harvard Kennedy School, and that was a wonderful experience. I’m going to continue at the Business School off-and-on this fall.

But it’s what’s over the horizon, it’s what’s next, it’s what technology or what idea is going to change this country, going to change the world for the better – that’s what I want to be involved in.

I’ll end with a Navy story. I was in Asia, talking to a Head of Navy there. And he said that the difference [between] soldiers and sailors is that the Army looks down; they look at maps, they see boundaries, they see obstacles. The Navy looks out; they see the horizon, they don’t see any boundaries, they don’t see any obstacles, and they want to see what comes next. It’s a different mindset if you join the Navy or the Marines than it is if you do anything else. And I’d like to think that’s my mindset. I want to see what’s over the horizon. I want to see what comes next. I’ve got that Navy and Marine Corps curiosity and mindset.

Roger: Well that’s something we can certainly all take to heart, Mr. Secretary. It was an honor to have you join us today, and I’m really looking forward to what’s next for you, for our Navy, and for everyone in it. So thank you very much.

Secretary Mabus: Me too, thank you.

The Honorable Ray Mabus is the longest serving Secretary of the Navy since World War I, and has also served as Governor of Mississippi, Ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Chairman and CEO of Foamex.

Roger Misso is the Vice President of CIMSEC.

Matthew Merighi is the Senior Producer for Sea Control. 

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.

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