WASHINGTON: The Navy’s new acting secretary has decided to move forward with several of his controversial predecessor’s biggest initiatives aimed at transforming the fleet, including a deep-dive study on the future of aircraft carriers and a wide-ranging cost-saving effort.
Acting Secretary James McPherson is only three weeks into the job, but his schedule has been dominated by weighty decisions, including his call on Wednesday for a wider inquiry into predecessor Thomas Modly’s firing of the captain of the COVID-19 stricken USS Theodore Roosevelt.
Days after the Navy recommended to Defense Secretary Mark Esper that Roosevelt Capt. Brett Crozier be reinstated, McPherson ordered a new review of decisions made by the chain of command in the Pacific leading up to his firing. While that decision is generating headlines, several other decisions McPherson has made might have a longer-term impact on the fleet.
Significantly, the new secretary has decided to keep the Future Carrier Task Force 2030, the stem to stern review of the service aimed at finding at least $40 billion in service savings, and the Make FORD Ready summits designed to push progress on the Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier. The decision to retain the efforts, all kicked off by Modly during his intense four-month tenure, were confirmed by Navy spokesperson Cmdr. Sarah Higgins.
Just days after taking over from his predecessor, Richard Spencer, Modly said he recognized President Trump’s repeated frustrations with the troubled $13 billion Ford carrier, and was looking to get ahead of it.
“The Ford is something the president cares a lot about. It’s something he talks a lot about, and I think his concerns are justified,” Modly said at a defense summit days after assuming office, “It’s very, very expensive, and it needs to work.”
Navy officers at the time pointed out privately that, for all of the public attention Modly was giving the Ford, not much about the work going on behind the press releases had changed.
Those sentiments were backed up last week, when Rear Adm. James Downey, the officer in charge of the Ford program, told reporters that the milestones Modly touted at the first summit, “were in place before we started those summits, we would have daily reviews at my level weekly at very senior levels throughout.” The outline of the plan for the ship Modly underscored “were more a public announcement of what our milestones [already] were,” Downey said.
But McPherson has decided that the regular meetings of top leadership are helpful, and they’ll stay.
Another program McPherson will keep is that “Stem to Stern” review Modly initiated in February. The effort finds a home within a larger Pentagon push, spearheaded by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, to make a “white sheet” review of the entire military to find savings and cut commands, where possible.
The final bit of Modly-era reform and transformation that will remain is the six-month deep dive into the future of the Navy’s aircraft carrier fleet that began in March. The Future Carrier 2030 Task Force, first reported by Breaking Defense, will study how nuclear aircraft carriers stack up against new generations of stealthy submarines and long-range precision weapons being fielded by China and Russia. It comes at a tense moment time for the fleet, as Esper has taken personal ownership over the service’s force planning while publicly lambasting the Navy’s model as broken. There are strong indications that super carriers such as the Ford Class may be scaled back in favor of more and smaller amphibious ships from which the Marines fly F-35Bs and Ospreys.
A recently leaked Pentagon assessment of the carrier fleet suggests it might need to fall to nine decks, down from the eleven in the fleet now — and the twelve mandated by law. Modly himself expressed frustration with how Esper’s office was wargaming the fleet, telling reporters last month, “my view on that is, if we’re not ever really going to get to 12, why are we wargaming around 12? Why are we not war gaming around what we most likely will have, and then figure out how we manage risk in those areas?”
That review is slated to wrap up in early fall, months after Esper’s team will have delivered the Navy’s new force structure assessment and 30 year shipbuilding plan in July. It’s unclear how the carrier report might effect or influence future plans to build carriers after the Ford class tops out at four ships, but both Pentagon and Navy officials have talked about getting lighter, faster, and smaller.
The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on May 7 to consider the nomination of Amb. Kenneth Braithwaite as the permanent Navy Secretary, but it’s unclear when the entire Senate might vote if he makes it through committee. That would allow McPherson, a retired admiral, to return to his Senate-confirmed position as Army Undersecretary, which he assumed only on March 23.
On the Teddy Roosevelt investigation, on Wednesday, McPherson said he has “unanswered questions” about the “sequence of events, actions, and decisions of the chain of command” surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak aboard the ship, and wants CNO Gilday to go back and perform a wider investigation into what happened.
CNO Adm. Mike Gilday has recommended Crozier’s reinstatement.but Esper said he needed time to digest the contents of the report. Several days later, McPherson sent Gilday back to the drawing board.
The decision marks the second rejection of a major Gilday project in the span of two months, after Esper took over the Navy’s force structure plan in February after he found its conclusions wanting. What, exactly, Esper wanted redone is unclear, but some have suggested he was frustrated that the Navy didn’t go far enough in looking at getting smaller, lighter and faster to meet emerging challenges from China.