NAVPLAN 2021: A Delayed Change of Command Speech

By Robert C. Rubel

First, a little personal history. At the ceremony in which I took command of Strike Fighter Squadron 131 in June, 1990, after taking the command from my predecessor I went to the microphone for my remarks. Like most officers in that position I had thought hard about what I would say. I first issued a few thank you’s, to my wife, to the band, to my predecessor, and then I turned to the squadron, assembled in neat ranks, and said “In one year the Wildcats will own the night.” And then I walked off.

I used the remarks as a management tool. The word was that upon return from cruise we would exchange our F/A-18As for night strike F/A-18Cs. The problem was that there was an acute shortage of night vision goggles and navigation infrared pods (NAVFLIR), without which the plane would not actually have a night strike capability. My sister squadron’s CO said that they would just consider the Cs an updated version of the A. I thought about this and decided, no, I was going to go all in on getting to a night strike capability for the squadron. I didn’t know how, but there needed to be absolute clarity among the sailors and officers of the squadron about what I wanted. I decided to use my change of command remarks as a management tool.

By saying that one sentence and walking off, I created some shock value; the message was not buried among calls for excellence, the desire for winning awards, etc., that populated most change of command speeches. I wanted to increase the signal and reduce the noise. We ended up getting it done before I left the command, the JOs and troops doing things I would have never thought of.

NAVPLAN 2021 (NP21), despite being issued a year and a half after he took the reins of the Navy, is essentially Admiral Mike Gilday’s change of command speech. Capstone documents such as NP21 have been used routinely by CNOs as management tools. They are supposed to serve as a template for force development, which is the Navy’s primary mission as a service, while actual fighting is the province of the unified combatant commanders (COCOMs). Some, such as CNO Tom Hayward’s The Future of U.S. Seapower actually had some bite to them. Others, such as CNO Vern Clark’s Seapower 21, were of less influence. How NP21 will fare remains to be seen, but from this reviewer’s point of view, like a lengthy and rambling change of command speech, the key ideas and priorities are buried within a lot of pleading, utility arguments, and aspirational pep talk, which might dilute its effects. 

The key pleading element is the assertion that the Navy needs a bigger fleet. NP21 does not go into an extensive argument as to why, like, say the 2015 Cooperative Strategy (CS21R) document did, so apparently the CNO is relying on the actual implementation of some form of the SECDEF-issued Battle Force 2045 plan. But then he seems to hedge on the issue by saying that the most important things are fleet composition and capability. Does that mean that if Congress will not build more regular ships, the Navy will trade in some of its current ships (there is a short paragraph on divestments) for larger numbers of unmanned units? One either needs insider information or at least must read between the lines to discern the CNO’s true intent. 

The document calls for more fulsome cooperation with foreign navies. This is obviously a good and needed goal, but the document does not say much about how that will be achieved beyond coordinating capabilities and combined exercises. For the development of the 2007 Cooperative Strategy (CS21) we concocted a broader strategy for catalyzing greater international naval cooperation on maritime security that involved bringing international officers into the strategy development process, extensive international consultations, and including language in the document calculated to allay foreign fears of U.S. interventionism. There does not seem to be any such underlying strategy associated with NP21, just aspirational language. 

NP21 stresses readiness and all the good professional values the Navy has always held dear, and I suppose that such things need to be said in any such document, but they do add to the noise-to-signal ratio. To ferret out what key direction the CNO has in mind for the Navy, the document has to be read carefully. There are some hints.

First, the CNO is all-in on the Columbia-class SSBN program. NP21 makes this clear, and with no whining about where the funding is coming from. I cannot argue with this. But from there the message gets a bit harder to decipher. At one point NP21 says that the Navy’s highest priority is the development of a new C5ISRT system, the Naval Operational Architecture that kind of ties everything together. I do support this priority, but in other places the document calls for more missiles, more unmanned systems, and more small ships to populate a distributed operational concept. But then it also seems to support a continuation of current fleet architecture, such as the Ford-class aircraft carrier and future large combatants. Unless the Navy gets a large top line budget boost, this is just so much rhetoric. 

Along the same lines, NP21 calls for the Navy to “sensibly manage global force demands” in order to free up resources to focus on improving advantages over China. However, managing global force demands was the province of the joint chain of command, and that chain shows no sign of easing up its demands for Navy forces. So exactly how the Navy will do what NP21 calls for is unclear. Similarly, NP21, following the Tri-Service Maritime Strategy (TSMS), asserts the Navy will adopt a more “assertive posture” against excessive maritime claims. This again seems to cross the line of COCOM and indeed SECDEF and Presidential authorities. In any case, beyond just doing more freedom of navigation operations, which would seem to violate the idea of sensibly managing global force demands, it is not clear what Navy forces would do, such as whether it would intervene in a dispute between Filipino fishermen and Chinese naval militia.

NP21 addresses maintenance, which has been the source of severe readiness problems for the Navy. It says: “Better planning our maintenance availabilities, improving operational level maintenance practices, and providing stable, predictable requirements to industry will accelerate our improvements.” This sounds good, but remains aspirational and the document offers no guidance for how to achieve it. The Optimized Fleet Response Plan has been in force for a number of years and has not been able to dig the Navy out of the mission/resource mismatch. There is no more blood to squeeze out of the turnip, so “better planning” is not likely to be a source of relief. The CNO is right in that only a bigger fleet will ease the Navy’s maintenance and readiness hole within the context of the current U.S. grand strategy of comprehensive defense of the global system and current joint command procedures.

NP21 is supposed to be a companion document to the TSMS. The key feature of that document was the assertion that the three Sea Services would act in an integrated fashion to achieve synergies. NP21 offers only a head nod to that idea via a sentence here and there that basically just says it is a good idea. Otherwise, guidance on how the Navy is to approach it is missing. Such a revolutionary approach would seem to rate more guidance from the CNO so all the commands would understand how it would be achieved. This further reinforces the impression that NP21 is a kind of change of command speech.

There is some good content in NP21, like a call for developing the Naval Operational Architecture, buying more missiles, adopting distributed operations, and conducting fleet experiments to enhance the Navy’s ability to confront China. But the document is so comprehensive and so laden with utility arguments, aspirational statements, and equivocal prioritizing that its impact is diluted.

The overall impression is that the CNO will try to innovate around the margins while generally trying to maintain the status quo. I hope that is not the intent; the Navy needs a more fundamental shift in direction. NP21 does not provide either the stimulus or the roadmap for such a shift. As a normal change of command speech, NP21 is fine, but as a management tool it falls short.

Robert C. Rubel is a retired Navy captain and professor emeritus of the Naval War College. He served on active duty in the Navy as a light attack/strike fighter aviator. At the Naval War College he served in various positions, including planning and decision-making instructor, joint education adviser, chairman of the Wargaming Department, and dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies. He retired in 2014, but on occasion continues to serve as a special adviser to the Chief of Naval Operations. He has published over thirty journal articles and several book chapters.

Featured Image: Adm. Michael Gilday, Chief of Naval Operations, speaks at the CNIC change of command ceremony onboard the Washington Navy Yard. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Brian Morales)

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