Businessman Philip Bilden is on deck to become the next Navy secretary after eight years of declining readiness inside the world’s most advanced fleet and profound cultural shifts inside the traditionally hide-bound Navy.
Under former Secretary Ray Mabus, the Navy made a policy of directing money away from operations and maintenance in order to keep funding shipbuilding, an effort to arrest the precipitous decline of the fleet’s size, which has dropped from more than 500 ships at the end of the Cold War to today’s 274.
At the same time Mabus pushed hard for major cultural shifts inside the fleet, including the inclusion of women in combat roles in the Navy and Marine Corps, unisex uniforms, gender-neutral ratings titles and opening the services to transgender service members.
Mabus's initiatives require long-term institutional commitments and its unclear how they will evolve under Bilden, who has spent most of his career as a Hong Kong-based venture capitalist with HarbourVest Partners, a global private-equity investment firm.
Donald Trump’s preliminary marching orders are to build the fleet from 274 ships to 350. But Navy leaders have already indicated that their first priority is to fix training and readiness which have taken hits while the service has endured budget cuts and crushing demands for its forces overseas.
The Navy’s leadership is lining up behind a unified message: fix our fleet, focus on war fighting, then grow the Navy.
Navy leaders have been banging the drum on declining readiness for years since across-the-board budget cuts in 2013 began eating into the money the Navy had to train its sailors and maintain its complex and hard-used equipment. In May, Navy Times sister publication Defense News reported that in 2016 the Navy shorted its operations and maintenance budget nearly a billion dollars, pushing off needed maintenance for ships.
In a recent speech, the vice chief of naval operations bemoaned the toll robbing maintenance funds had taken on the fleet.
"This long war we’re in and emerging or re-emerging threats have raised the stakes and kept us on the field longer than our bullpen is able to stay healthy," Adm. Bill Moran, vice chief of naval operations said. "Deferred maintenance is insidiously taking its toll on the long-term readiness of our fleet."
On the cultural side, Bilden comes to the Navy after years of internal change that began with the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell in 2011 moved more recently to the integration of women into combat jobs. To many Navy leaders, the conversations around complex social issues were becoming a distraction from the Navy’s core mission, especially while ships and aircraft were beginning to show troubling signs of decay.
"In eight years we went from ‘let’s not talk about gay people’ to complex conversations of gender identity and bathrooms," said retired cruiser skipper Capt. Rick Hoffman. "We leap-frogged 10 years of social growth in the Navy and people from leadership all the way down to the deck plates did not know what to make of it."
The future of much of the social changes inside the Navy remains murky. The Trump administration has signaled it plans to maintain the Obama administration’s commitment to inclusive policies towards gay, lesbian and transgender people, but influential voices in and around the Navy are pushing for a return to focus on fighting and defeating adversaries.
"I think I represent a lot of active, retired and former sailors when I say we welcome a balanced approach to running the Navy," said retired four-star Adm. Robert Natter, who was the Navy’s fleet boss from 2000-2003.
Natter said he supported leadership’s push to plus up the maintenance and training budget, a position supported by another former fleet boss retired Adm. John Harvey, who led Fleet Forces Command from 2009-2012.
Harvey said the heavy demand from big DoD for the Navy’s capabilities has been stressing the Navy’s declining resources, especially since they have not had sufficient time and resources to reset.
"My mantra at Fleet Forces Command was always the wholeness for the fleet for the long term," Harvey said. "That always runs into the insatiable demand for everything that Navy brings to the combatant commanders. It has to be clear that to make these wonderful ships, aircraft and submarines available for the long term you have to pay attention to maintenance. And for our people to perform correctly you have to pay attention to training."
Inside the Navy and the Defense Department, a debate has been ongoing between those who argue the Navy needs enough ships, including less capable ones such as the troubled Littoral Combat Ship, to provide presence globally. Others argue that having fewer, more capable ships, such as Virginia-class attack submarines and high-end destroyers, are necessary to fight and defeat complex enemies.
The promised influx of money from the incoming Trump administration was a unique opportunity to set the Navy up with both the capacity it needs to put ships all over the globe providing presence and the capability to go toe-to-toe and defeat complex enemies such as Russia and China, Harvey said.
"A 350-ship fleet sound about right to me," Harvey said. "This is our chance to get it all right, to get the right capabilities and the right capacity."
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.