Nearly two decades after then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Mullen championed a 1,000-ship Navy, the rationale for a combined fleet — that is, a maritime fighting force augmented by international allies and partners — is more relevant than ever.
Recent events demonstrate that keeping vital waterways free and open requires both political resolve and — in the words of the current CNO, Adm. Lisa Franchetti — ”players on the field.” But oceans are vast, ships cannot be in two places at once, and building them quickly is difficult and costly.
Luckily, the U.S. is the central node in a network of democratically minded, technologically advanced partners that confer a strategic advantage. Moreover, many of these allies operate similar platforms and systems in their respective navies — gas turbine engines, the Aegis shipboard combat system, P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, H-60 helicopters, and F-35 fighter jets — that can yield efficiencies in force design, generation and employment.
However, leaping from interoperability to interchangeability is, in part, a human endeavor. To that end, the U.S. Navy has exchange agreements to host foreign professionals and send U.S. personnel abroad. Refocusing these programs through the lens of potential military conflict can accelerate the benefits of collaboration.
First, expand the number of enlisted personnel exchanges to build a deeper reservoir of expertise across the allied force. Within today’s U.S. Navy, approximately 80 of nearly 300 foreign personnel exchanges are at the enlisted level — a number that should rise as the AUKUS pathway is implemented. These exchanges should be increased and modified to include a tour aboard a ship or with an aircraft squadron common to both navies, followed by an assignment at a regional maintenance facility, fleet logistics center or schoolhouse. Such an approach would develop common knowledge and capitalize on diversity of experience to generate better business practices and warfighting advantages for both sides. Leveraging some common ratings may even ease the strain on U.S. personnel by filling important, but gapped, seagoing billets.
Second, improve allied officers’ exposure to U.S. Navy operations and decision-making. Currently, foreign officers — including those with whom I served aboard all three of my destroyers — embed within an operational unit for a multiyear tour, and then return home. Consequently, their experience can vary based on their unit’s prescribed mission and seagoing time.
One option is to shorten the duration, widen the aperture and increase throughput to maximize the program’s return on investment. For example, a condensed assignment aboard a mission-ready ship, with an immediate successive rotation on a carrier strike group or numbered fleet commander staff, would expose exchange officers to challenges and problem-solving at different levels of command.
Conversely, it may make sense to lengthen some exchanges on common platforms (such as guided-missile destroyers) to achieve near-perfect tactical synergy — just like “Project Seedcorn,” in which British maritime patrol pilots integrated into allied squadrons for up to eight years to maintain their flying proficiency while the U.K. transitioned airframes from the Nimrod to the now-ubiquitous P-8A Poseidon.
Third, pair student learning exchanges with fleet experience to develop a more comprehensive picture of the American way of war. The Naval Academy runs myriad international undergraduate programs, ranging from reciprocal semesters abroad to four-year immersion, but foreign graduates return to their home country after earning their diploma.
Instead, Congress should amend public law to make these graduates eligible to attend fleet-accession training alongside their classmates, and then serve a shortened tour in the U.S. Navy so they return home as seasoned junior officers.
Similarly, assigning foreign graduates of the Naval Postgraduate School, Naval War College or even the Surface Warfare Schools Command — which teaches four ship-handling and tactical courses to international naval officers — to fleet staffs would better expose them to U.S. naval planning and operations, albeit on a larger scale than in their home navies.
The U.S. Navy has active agreements to host foreign personnel from 20 countries, 18 of which are parties to collective defense arrangements. However, at the Naval Academy, only 19 of the 57 midshipmen currently in the service academy’s four-year foreign student program hail from allied countries.
Though some highly capable allies operate their own national military academies, encouraging and favoring applicants from this partnership pool — authority Congress has granted to service secretaries — would generate maximum combined warfighting utility.
Lastly, reassess how the Department of the Navy is organized in order to optimize the foreign exchange program’s effectiveness. Responsibilities for international engagement policy, personnel placement, hardware sales and information access are currently divided across the fleet, Navy staff and secretariat offices. Mirroring the Secretary of the Air Force International Affairs office, which consolidates many of these programmatic functions under one managerial umbrella, could better centralize execution of diplomatic exchanges and align resources with operational needs.
To be sure, interpersonal challenges remain to achieving interchangeability. One is military rules of engagement, which can complicate real-world combined operations when they differ by country. Another is information sharing, where restrictions can delay personnel placements, induce frustrations and undermine program goals.
Fortunately, thanks to AUKUS, Congress is melting the bureaucratic permafrost that can freeze international coordination. For instance, the fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act includes a mandate to “reform and improve the policies, processes, and procedures,” “increase efficiency and reduce timelines,” review foreign disclosure policies, and reduce the use of Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals handling caveat.
These solutions can be applied more broadly to provide access, preserve safeguards, and enhance high-end combined tactical training opportunities in our warfighting development centers, schoolhouses and afloat commands.
Expanding soft power personnel exchanges can build common knowledge and complement the hard power platform choices many American allies have deliberately made to enable closer cooperation. Such investments — like Project Seedcorn — may grow into a sea of a thousand ships.
Cmdr. Douglas Robb commanded the U.S. Navy’s guided-missile destroyer Spruance, and is currently a U.S. Navy fellow at the University of Oxford. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the U.S. Defense Department, the Department of the Navy nor the U.S. government.