Chief Concerns

Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the Navy's top sailor, tackles an expanding roster of missions with the smallest fleet the service has seen in decades.

In 1968, when a young midshipman from Los Angeles named Michael G. Mullen graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., he was commissioned in a 932-ship Navy engaged in a seemingly intractable war in Vietnam. In July 2005, Adm. Mullen became the nation's 28th chief of naval operations, taking command of a 290-ship Navy engaged in war in Iraq and Afghanistan. While much has changed for the Navy and the nation, Mullen faces perennial challenges for recent CNOs: how to recapitalize an aging fleet of ships and aircraft and redirect fewer troops for increasingly uncertain threats.

With more than a third of the fleet deployed across the globe and 10,000 sailors performing critical duty on the ground in the Middle East and elsewhere, Mullen balances a growing list of needs against limited budgets and personnel. Over breakfast at the National Press Club on April 24, Government Executive editor Timothy B. Clark spoke to Mullen about some of these challenges. An edited transcript follows:

Q: Could you spend a moment reflecting on how the Navy's mission has changed since the Cold War ended?

A: 9/11 made us look at the world a whole lot differently. For the Navy, it's had a dramatic impact on our mission. In Operation Enduring Freedom, because Afghanistan was a landlocked country, the Navy and the Marine Corps in particular generated major combat power from the sea, both from the decks of carriers as well as from our amphibious ships.

Subsequent to that, we were heavily involved in [Operation Iraqi Freedom].

Since that time, we've seen our Navy expand and respond to the tsunami relief in Indonesia a little over a year ago and literally build what I call a city at sea. You fast-forward to last August and we had upwards of 23 ships move very rapidly down to our own Gulf Coast and provide relief [following Hurricane Katrina]. Since then, we've had the Navy heavily involved in the [earthquake] relief effort in Pakistan. Then both the Navy and Marine Corps [provided] relief in the Philippines following the recent [deadly mudslides] there.

Additionally, we're working hard in the Navy to provide some relief to the ground forces because clearly they've been pressed very hard. Five hundred [sailors] just took charge of a high-security prison near Baghdad. I have a Navy two-star who's the commander at Joint Task Force Guantanamo now, who runs that [prison with] almost 1,000 sailors. I have another admiral who just took command [of U.S. forces] in the Horn of Africa, and truly I believe that effort is as important in this global war on terror as any because of the impact that these forces are having out in that part of the world, which is fertile ground for terrorists.

And we've [created a new] riverine force to expand our capability around the world in the very shallow waters.

So we've gone from a blue-water Navy, which was clearly where we were before the [Berlin] Wall came down, to a Navy that has vastly expanded its mission in a world that's much more uncertain.

Q: You now have 282 deployable ships, the smallest fleet in recent history. Two years ago, CNO Vern Clark was saying that the Navy needed 375 ships to meet its missions. Now you've submitted a shipbuilding plan that would increase the fleet to 313 by 2012. How concerned are you about the size of the fleet right at the moment?

A: I'm very concerned about it. I don't believe that the United States Navy can do what the nation requires if we get any smaller. We're much more capable than we used to be, because of the technology and the precision that we have these days. That said, you need a certain number. The 313-ship plan has been very well supported by [Defense] Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld. And the key then is to be able to fund that.

Q: So help me understand how it is that the Navy, in a two-year span, can reduce its requirements from 375 ships to 313 ships. Is this all we can afford, or have we decided that we can do the missions with a far smaller number?

A: I think it's a combination of both. I worked for Adm. Clark when we came up with the 375-ship number. I can just tell you that the analytical underpinning for the 313 is much stronger than what we had for the 375, so I'm much more confident in that number.

Q: Let's talk about the cost of the shipbuilding programs. Some say the DD(X) destroyer is going to cost up to $3 billion a copy. The new class of submarines is now costing $2.4 billion each, $400 million more than could support a two-per-year production schedule. At what point do these ships simply be-come too expensive?

A: Well, clearly, at some point they do become too expensive, and we can't afford them. There is no one who doesn't understand that we've got to get the cost down.

Now on the shipbuilding side of this, it's back to providing stability, so that

I don't change the schedule each year, I don't change what combination of ships I'm buying each year. In the '06 budget, we had four ships. This year in the '07 budget, we have seven ships. That number needs to keep going up, and I intend to do that. But at $3 billion per destroyer or $2-plus billion per submarine, we're not going to be able to buy many of them, and that's why we've got to drive the cost down.

The Navy has a lot of work to do to make sure we don't keep adding requirements and that we work together with our acquisition partners to deliver these programs on time and on budget, and continue to take cost out. The affordability piece and the cost growth is a huge, huge challenge.

Q: So you have submarines now that are being built at a cost of $2.4 billion against your goal of $2 billion. You've got capabilities that are built into these submarines so that a lot of thought has gone into them. How can you get 20 percent out of a single ship?

A: The submarine is a more difficult challenge than a destroyer because a submarine is already designed. We already have one under way. Actually we have a second one coming-the USS Texas coming very near in the future. The destroyer isn't built yet, so we can take more things out. But it's not just taking stuff off; it is controlling the costs.

There is enormous pressure on the budgets-not just what I have right now, but also the budgets of the future.

We've actually increased the amount in our procurement accounts in recent years in terms of overall dollars that are there, but that buying power gets eaten up by costs, which continue to rise. I'm very concerned about the rise in personnel costs. The Navy is coming down [in size] and fiscal year '07 [for] the fourth year [in a row] assuming Congress approves what I've put on the Hill-about 40,000 people. I am holding personnel costs to about a 2 percent increase, and I'm taking out 10,000 people a year to do that.

Q: Are more reductions in store, and do you anticipate achieving similar cuts on the civilian sides?

A: My long-term goal is to [eliminate the need for the jobs] and not just keep moving the work around from one part of the workforce to another. In the long run, I am anxious to invest in the technology in order to take the work out.

We have a tendency to look at what it takes to get a program out the door. We don't think too much about what the life cycle [cost] is. It's "Can I build it?" I would like us all to be mindful of what it costs to operate whatever we are building for whatever its life is going to be because I have to pay that bill every single year. That is why I am so excited about the reduced manning potential [of the DD(X)]. That process needs to apply in lots of areas.

If Congress approves the '07 budget, we'll be at about 340,000 [uniformed personnel]. We are working very hard right now to determine what number we can come down to. So will there be more [cuts]? There might be. Will it be 10,000 a year for the unforeseeable future? I don't think so.

We are approaching this over a three-year period. This year we are working the military side. Next year we are going to work the civilian side to see, again, how many we need and how should we change for the future. And then the third year, we will be looking at the contractor side.

Q: You said in a recent Senate hearing that your goal was to get a plan on the Hill to try to stabilize shipbuilding, establish a relationship with the Hill and with industry so that everyone is on the same page. Why hasn't such a relationship existed before?

A: We have had a different plan seemingly every year, and so there has been precious little belief in what we're doing. . . . That's what I found, that it had been a chaotic approach in many ways. I think it is that variation that has really created all the critics. I accept that as my challenge.

Q: Adm. Jay Johnson, the CNO before Vern Clark, raised an alarm about aircraft readiness. And he said that it's so expensive to maintain aging aircraft that there is not enough money to buy new ones. Is that still a problem?

A: Well, we have retired an awful lot of our aging aircraft. Some of our F-18 fleet, which is considered the new airplane, are approaching 20 years old. The P-3 [surveillance aircraft, the oldest] part of my fleet I am most concerned about, and I pay attention, managing each airplane literally flight-hour by flight-hour. They have to be around for another 12 years before we will have replaced the entire P-3 fleet. This is a very important airplane . . . to ensure we get at the anti-submarine warfare mission.

So it's a real concern. Overall, the age of the Navy air force is still too high, and we have to try to invest to bring it down.

Q: A question about anti-submarine warfare capabilities: We are rebuilding as you said. Why? What is the threat?

A: There are still nuclear submarines that the Russians have, that the Chinese have. But there are also very capable diesel submarines being built. The Chinese in particular are building lots of submarines. We have to pay attention to that development.

A peaceful rising China would be a great thing for security. They have got a booming economy that I think will not only prosper, but lots of people in the world potentially could prosper. But they are also investing heavily in military technology, and it's not real clear what the motivation is for that kind of investment. One of the areas they are investing heavily in is in the area of submarines. Being able to ensure that we have a deterrent capability is really important for our national security.

Q: Is concern about China what led you to assign more forces to the Pacific fleet, including another aircraft carrier?

A: One of the outputs of the [Quadrennial Defense Review] was to move forces to the Pacific. How do you balance the fleet, given the world that you're in right now? The Pacific is a lot bigger ocean than the Atlantic. It's a real economic center of gravity for the future. And so the thrust there is to ensure that we can respond and meet any challenges that might come up. So there is more focus in that area right now, and it isn't just the Pacific or just China because there are challenges out to the Indian Ocean. We have got relationships we're developing with India and Pakistan, engaging them, operating with them more frequently. So having more of the Navy in the Pacific made a lot of sense.

Q: You have 10,000 sailors operating on the ground in the Central Command area of operations. What strain is that putting on the Navy, and has this affected the morale of the sailors who signed up to perhaps do other things?

A: About a month ago, I was down in Mayport [Fla.] to visit the John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier. I went to see the crew to give an update [on the carrier's potential decommissioning]. After that, I walked around the hangar deck where hundreds of sailors remained, and the number of sailors that walked up to me and said, "How do I get to Iraq?" was extraordinary. And that is pretty much the theme of what I have heard since the Navy has been stepping up to take these missions.

Q: Last year the Navy established the new Navy expeditionary combat command. What was the thinking behind that, and does it represent a new mission?

A: It signifies the changed world we're in. When it's fully stood up, I think it will be a command that oversees about 40,000 sailors. Thirty thousand of them or so [such as security personnel and explosives ex-perts] exist right now [throughout the fleet]. We needed a command to really organize, train and equip these forces for the future.

In addition to that, the new riverine capability will be embedded [in the command]. One of the most important parts of the QDR is to focus us on what I call theater security cooperation and forward engagement. We have a very small capability right now. It resides in our [special operations] forces. This really is to enhance that capability. And it's everything from port security to local security in the maritime domain-how do you set up surveillance on your coast to see what is coming in and out.

Q: This is a return to the Vietnam-era riverine forces. How will you equip them? How big will a riverine force be?

A: Right now, the initial mission is to [relieve the Marines of the security mission for Haditha Dam in Iraq next March], and we will fall in on their boats. We are working our way through what kind of boats we will buy, what kind of other capabilities we will buy, and I expect we will do that in the next year or two. All of this is moving pretty quickly. It's one of these things where we really think we have a good concept, and now there are very pressing questions like the one you just asked.

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