To the Navy’s top enlisted sailor, the greatest challenge facing the Navy’s enlisted workforce is simply keeping sailors focused on preparing for “blue water” warfare.

Speaking as a part of a senior enlisted panel at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space confab on Tuesday, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russ Smith called on fellow members of the Goat Locker to work hard to train their sailors for warfare on the high seas against peer rivals.

And they can begin by telling sea stories, which he sees as engaging “eyeball to eyeball” discussions between leaders and their sailors that will make junior enlisted personnel “understand that there is something coming that they need to get ready for, that war will come most likely in their generation and they need to be prepared to fight.”

Chiefs must help them balance and manage their careers but their bedrock duty is to make sure that sailors know their ratings and what they’re expected to do, especially in combat.

Smith believes that a key teaching tool is sharing “stories that some of us older folks have with our experiences and really painting it in a realistic fashion.”

MCPON painted a grisly picture of war at sea, with a “first missile hit that’s going to take out three or 400 sailors on a carrier.”

“Will it be painful? Yes. Will there be lessons learned? Yes. Will some fail? Yes. And will others rise that you did not expect? Absolutely,” Smith told the audience.

Smith said that the Navy must explain to sailors how they fit into their mission as they travel across an often complicated world.

“We need to better inform and not assume that a culinary specialist who’s working down in the galley on your carrier doesn’t need to know what’s going on in the world around them,” he said." I think that as a Navy, we can do far better at keeping our all of our sailors informed as to the why so that they understand."

Smith recalled a recent all hands call: “We had an aircraft mech who said, ‘I do corrosion control. What the hell do I do in contributing to this great power competition?'”

It’s a question MCPON often hears and he has an answer ready: “Everything we do in the Navy contributes in one way or another to lethality. We do not have the time, the resources or anything else to waste. Every resource, everything we have goes to lethality in one way or another."

The sailor fighting corrosion “keeps that jet airborne, which gives that pilot time and proficiency in the cockpit, which contributes to their readiness” so that “they’re ready to fight.”

“Everyone plays a role and without everyone on the team functioning, the team can’t win,” Smith said. “And every rating leads to lethality in one way or another.”

A simulated class alpha fire burns during a drill on board the aircraft carrier George Washington on March 26. The crew conducted the exercise with the Newport News Shipyard fire department because the carrier is undergoing a refueling complex overhaul there. (Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Tatyana M. Freeman/Navy)
A simulated class alpha fire burns during a drill on board the aircraft carrier George Washington on March 26. The crew conducted the exercise with the Newport News Shipyard fire department because the carrier is undergoing a refueling complex overhaul there. (Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Tatyana M. Freeman/Navy)

Since 2001, the armed forces were engaged in a vast counterinsurgency struggle in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and other global hot spots, Smith said, and the Navy’s skills at waging war at sea began to atrophy.

“The war of the future is not going to look like what we fought for the last 17 years," he said. "And we know that. And we’re not where we were 30 years ago when it comes to damage control readiness and firefighting readiness, so we’re making the adjustments we need to.”