The Navy's top officer wants sailors to toughen up.

As maritime threats from Russia and China grow and anti-ship missiles proliferate among even low-tech adversaries such as Yemeni rebels, Adm. John Richardson is telling sailors to get tough. The chief of naval operations wants to get sailors in a mindset of constantly thinking about potential enemies and how to beat them.

"Not everything is going to go our way ... there may be setbacks along our path," Richardson said in a recent Navy podcast. "If we keep the competition in mind -- we want to be doing things better than our competition, outfoxing our competition, constantly thinking of ways to beat them -- I think this toughness dimension is going to be an important aspect."

The focus on toughness comes one year after a stunning series of mistakes led to 10 sailors and two patrol boats being captured by Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces after drifting into Iranian-held waters. Many senior Navy leaders questioned whether the lack of professionalism was a more systemic issue in a Navy that has not seen large-scale maritime combat since World War II.

By contrast, Navy leadership has seized on the Mason's fight with Yemeni rebels in October as an example of sailors getting it right. Richardson praised the Mason's crew for their response when the Mason came under missile attack. 

"They were ready and responded just as we would hope to a cruise missile attack off the coast of Yemen," Richardson said.

Richardson relayed his conversation with Mason's commanding officer, Cmdr. Chris Gilbertson, who told the CNO that training was the key to the ship's success.

"A lot of it was just drilling the team so that they became very familiar at running through the steps to identify a threat, target that threat and release the weapon to combat that threat," Richardson said. "I'll paraphrase Nimitz a bit, under stress, in combat you're not going to have your best day ever. You're not going to rise to achieve success like you've never seen it before. You are going to fall to the level of your training."

Richardson has made preparing the Navy for "great power competition" the core of his tenure as CNO. China and Russia have both made heavy investments in weapons designed to threaten American aircraft carriers and its high-tech destroyers and cruisers in an effort to keep the U.S. Navy at bay.

But the Navy's core mission is operating and showing U.S. presence all over the globe to protect freedom of the seas. That means in a world of high tensions between the U.S. and China and the U.S.and Russia, sailors are increasingly operating under constant threat of attack in places such as the Black Sea and the South China Sea.

This has sparked uncomfortable discussions among Navy leaders and observers about the possibility that, in a conflict with a major adversary, the Navy risks incurring casualties at a rate not seen since World War II. 

The need for toughness in the fleet was discussed in the podcast by the Mason's executive officer, Cmdr. Stephen Aldridge. Recounting the October attacks, he said that for some in his crew, combat was their introduction to life on board Mason.

"It happened on the ninth [of October], we didn't know it would happen again on the 12th," Aldridge said. We had new crew members check on board that day then on day one they found themselves in a missile battle. So you really have to be ready that first day you check on the ship, the minute you leave the school house."

You can listen to the full podcast here.

David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.

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