Friday, April 10, 2020

No Rush on SECNAV Hearings

Rightfully, the month of April for navalists has been dominated by COVID-19's impact on the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), the Acting Navy Secretary, and the Navy as a whole. Time to roll up the work week with a reminder that there is a pre-existing nomination for SECNAV out there. 

To discuss the issue, we have a guest post by Bryan McGrath. Bryan, over to you.

Late last year, the Secretary of the Navy resigned after crossing streams with the White House and the Secretary of Defense. Within hours, the President announced that he would be nominating a gentleman named Kenneth Braithwaite—then serving as the United States Ambassador to Norway—as the new Secretary of the Navy. In the meantime, Under Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly became Acting Secretary of the Navy. It is from this position that Modly last week fired the Commanding Officer of the USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT (CVN 71) and was then fired/asked to resign for his unfortunate remarks to the TR crew.

There are reports in the defense trade press of a desire on the part of the Secretary of Defense for the Senate Armed Services Committee to put Braithwaite to the “head of the line” so to speak, in order to ensure that there is a Senate-confirmed Secretary of the Navy to guide the service through its ongoing inability to get out of its own way. And although there are a number of dark corners in the Navy worth shining light on, it occurs to me that the presence of Senate-confirmed individuals atop the Navy civilian bureaucracy has not been as causal to these troubles as the judgment of the individuals occupying those offices. Which brings me to Ambassador Braithwaite.

Clearly, Ambassador Braithwaite is an accomplished man, rising to flag rank in the Naval Reserve in the Public Affairs career field, in addition to his successful civilian life. He may indeed turn out to be a solid choice to lead hundreds of thousands of people in the Department of the Navy, civilian and military, an organization with a budget of over $200B annually.

My wariness of the pick rests on two matters, both of which are worth due consideration in a deliberate process of vetting.

The first, is that what strikes me as having been Braithwaite’s primary qualification for the job of Secretary of the Navy is his close personal relationship with the Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper. I like being surrounded by my friends as much as anyone, but I am not running the Pentagon. And one of the problems with the Navy that I have identified elsewhere is that the Navy Secretariat (and the other service secretariats, I assume) has through the years declined in influence and effectiveness, with much of its authority diffused either downward into the uniformed service staffs it oversees (Navy, Marine Corps), or upward into the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Truth be told, both trends were aided and abetted by the Senate Armed Services Committee, whose former Chairman, Senator John McCain, seemed to have no love for the Secretariats.

Crucial to American Seapower is a reinvigorated Navy Secretariat that recognizes the unique role it plays in the nation’s security and prosperity. While there has been some forward progress in identifying renewed great power competition as the defining focus of national strategy, there has been little progress made in defining strategy suitable to that focus. It is my view that such a strategy would necessarily privilege Seapower, but that is debatable. What is NOT debatable is that a Secretary of the Navy would have a fundamental role in shaping such a strategy, and that doing so would almost certainly be a point of friction within the Department of Defense. Mr. Esper has already been dismissive of the Navy’s efforts to define its future architecture and placing an old friend in charge of the Navy is not a recipe for tough debate. Bureaucratically speaking, it is just the opposite. Which brings me to my second objection to moving forward quickly on this nomination.

Let’s assume for a second that Mr. Esper greatly desires his service secretaries to be independent power bases and thoroughly effective spokespersons for the capabilities resident in their services and the contributions those capabilities make to the National Defense Strategy. For this best-case scenario to be enabled, the Secretary of the Navy would have to thoroughly understand those capabilities, how they roll up into a coherent case for American Seapower, and how the strategic benefits of American Seapower decompose into desired capabilities. And while Ambassador Braithwaite has led an accomplished life, there is simply no evidence that he ever considered these matters closely before his name was put forward. I look forward to being disabused of this notion if there is an extant record, but my research does not reveal it. Graduating from the Naval Academy and then serving as a naval aviator for one’s junior officer tours—while common to Secretary Spencer, Secretary Modly, and now Ambassador Braithwaite—simply does not predispose one to think deeply about the things that a Secretary of the Navy deals with on a daily basis.

A final note. Flag Officer biographies are sometimes difficult to read, but as I look over Ambassador Braithwaite’s, it is difficult for me to discern where in the last 36 years since graduating from the Naval Academy he served in even one full-time Pentagon job. Is this a requirement for running an armed service? Not to my knowledge. But it strikes me as worth considering given the Byzantine world of process and culture that exists there.

I urge the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee to exert their influence in this situation. They should re-evaluate their complicity in the decline of the service secretariats, and they should require of this and all presidential administrations a higher level of professional knowledge and experience in Senate-confirmed positions within the services. Furthermore, the SASC should use its “advise and consent” power to foster sufficient organizational tension within the Department of Defense to encourage strategic debate. Finally, the SASC should slow down and think deeply about this nomination, and why it is so important to some that it be hurried. Ensure that Ambassador Braithwaite is his own man, and that he can articulate a theory of American Seapower that advances this nation’s security and prosperity. The uniform leadership of the Navy and Marine Corps can take the tiller while you do your work in thoroughly vetting this nomination.

Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC. He currently consults for the Navy on matters of Surface Warfare force structure and operational concepts.

No comments: