Was Secretary Spencer any good?

At Sea – Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer, right, speaks with Carrier Strike Group 8 Command Master Chief Petty Officer Michael Bates in the in-port cabin during Spencer’s visit aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman, Feb. 25, 2018. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Kaysee Lohmann

Now that Secretary Spencer is officially no longer the Navy Secretary, I’m able to openly ask the question: why is everyone up in arms about him being fired? People (military and non-military) were hot and bothered by it on Facebook. Perhaps I’m a cynic, but I’ll ask what should be the most important question: what, exactly, did Secretary Spencer do as SECNAV for two years?

If we judge his tenure by the shape of the Navy, it isn’t pretty. US Ship Force levels have been relatively flat. This is made worse by the continued deployment of ships to respond to, basically, everything around the world. The Joint Staff uses a process called “Global Force Management,” where each Combatant Commander requests presence of different forces. Aircraft Carriers in particular are the subject of much discussion, and when one breaks (like the Harry S. Truman), you have people arguing over how to surge another carrier out, rather than discussing whether a carrier is even needed in the first place. This causes our carriers and other ships to wear out, and given we can’t build them fast enough, we are left with a Navy full of worn out ships and crews.

Secretary Spencer had to have seen this, and yet in two years, we haven’t had any change. His long range ship building plan put us at 355 ships, maybe, in 2030. We’re building 10 ships a year…maybe. While it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, China is set to overtake the US in ships by 2020. Numbers don’t account for crew readiness and weapon systems, but here again, the US is using relatively expensive weapons while China and Russia crank out increasingly cheaper missiles. Quantity becomes its own quality, and bankrupting the country to win the future fight isn’t a good option.

We could tackle this problem in a lot of ways. Building different ships, for example smaller carriers, would help get more ships to meet global requirements while saving higher-end ships for the big fight. Building a better shipyard infrastructure (getting away from having only a few places we can build Navy ships) could help lower the cost. Sharing ship designs with allies, similar to the F-35 program, could lower cost and make overseas repairs easier. Or perhaps we add in diesel submarines to help bring more submarines to the fight. Or we could build some smaller vessels, like the PCs of old, but with advanced striking power, to get a cheaper vessel that can fight in the littorals (the Littoral Combat Ship is anything but small or cheap).

But we have no innovation. The Long Range Shipbuilding plan sticks to traditional platforms, just calling for more of them. The one different platform, SSGN (converted ballistic submarines that shoot Tomahawk missiles and deploy SEAL teams) are going away, to be replaced by smaller Virginia submarines with specialized modules. Slightly innovative, but not enough to deal with China and Russia, who are designing very different Navies to fight very different wars in the future.

And how is that new carrier catapult working out? Even Bob Work was able to get LCS module price back on track.

We didn’t get much with Secretary Spencer. Our Navy isn’t in great shape, and ground wasn’t laid to make it much better. When the Secretary then decides to openly disagree with his boss, what did he expect would happen? If your boss is telling you to do something, and its not illegal, you get to disagree in private, but if he insists, then you get to resign.

For everyone mad about Secretary Spencer, I have to ask why. Is it because it was Trump that fired him? Did you really think Spencer was doing a good job? Because while I have some issues with Secretary Mattis leaving (I would prefer he stay on), I don’t see how Secretary Spencer was making our Navy great again.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.

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