An influential group has a list of ideas for the future of US maritime power

With rival nations building up their navies, and in China's case getting a lot more aggressive, what should the United States' floating power look like?

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With rival nations building up their navies, and in China’s case getting a lot more aggressive, what should the United States’ floating power look like? The Navy League recently released a long list of recommendations for maritime policy. The League’s National Vice President of Military Affairs, Ret. Navy Rear Adm. Sinclair Harris spoke to Federal Drive with Tom Temin for the highlights.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Adm. Harris, good to have you on.

Sinclair Harris: Hey, Tom, thank you for having me.

Tom Temin: So tell us about the scope of this report. It seems to cover everything from the Maritime Administration (MARAD) through the Marine Corps out to the Navy itself.

Sinclair Harris: Yes, sir. Well, you know, the Navy League, which has been around since Teddy Roosevelt is uniquely positioned to support the advocacy of the United States as a maritime power and a maritime nation – across the Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, or as we call them, the sea services, and the Merchant Marine of the MARAD.

Tom Temin: Alright, and so there have been lots of talking about the Navy for the moment. There have been lots of strategies in the last, say, seven or 10 years: The Navy should have 300 ships, 500 ships – what does the Navy League think should be the strategy that perhaps everybody can agree on, and maybe stick with long enough to actually get it done?

Sinclair Harris: Tom, great question. And one of the things people always confuse is strategy with budgets. And I know they’re connected. Believe me, I had six tours in Washington, D.C. But the bottom line, when you look at all of the different studies and different strategies and different plans, all of them have called for a larger and more diverse sea power force, in order to meet the complexities that we see now and in the future, whether it be the rise of China, whether it be a more aggressive Russia, whether it be what’s going on in the Gulf, whether it be climate change, and the opening up of the Arctic. All these areas, as I used to tell my family, the world is wet, and getting wetter. So we have to have an ability as a maritime nation to support and defend what we want. And a prosperity that is important for us and our allies.

Tom Temin: And when you mention a more diverse fleet, in other words, manned, unmanned, different types of ships that might be more agile, and more suited to specific problems like cybersecurity, that type of thing, as opposed to the kind of less agile, carrier-based type of view we’ve had for so many decades?

Sinclair Harris: Well, you know, a lot of people make disparaging remarks about carriers that don’t really understand that that is the most survivable and agile and flexible projector of power. And I’m not a carrier guy, but I’m gonna tell you, the aircraft carrier continues to be the airfield that the enemy has a hardest time [to] target. And whatever there is a problem in the world, one of the first questions that comes out: “Hey, where’s the carrier? Where’s the big guy?

Tom Temin: All right. So in that idea of diversification, though, beyond that model, what are some of the elements of that diversity that you recommend?

Sinclair Harris: Oh, and I was not disagreeing with you on the unmanned part. The unmanned part is huge. That is the future. And it’s cheaper, we believe in the long run because you don’t have to pay retirements to unmanned vehicles. They can be more expendable. And as the technology and the use of artificial intelligence, and there’s a lot of different things – Navy League is working on some of these things – on unmanned systems, allows us to take away those dirty, dumb and dull mission, and dangerous missions, that manned platforms would do. Mine warfare, for example, and submarine warfare, for example, and find unmanned systems that got capabilities that can serve as surrogates in these areas.

Tom Temin: Yeah, you could say all those from the east or west coasts of the United States, so to speak.

Sinclair Harris: Yes, sir.

Tom Temin: And the other issue that comes up with the idea of new platforms, and that is affordability, because we’ve seen so many program near misses and failures, like the Littoral combat ship, that expend a lot of money, a lot of effort, a lot of years, and then they’re already starting to scrap them after only a few years. Does the report address that topic of how we can get there with some degree of reliability in the programs and some affordability components?

Sinclair Harris: Well, absolutely. We in the Navy League have a mixture of both retired military and myself and government civilians and business people that look at it from a very holistic standpoint. And we know that depending on the program, 70% of the total ownership costs of a platform is in sustainment. So we try to look for areas and we have meetings, the military services in general have gone and tried to look at more innovative ways and we want to encourage the innovation to get to more efficient, more effective ways so that more funds can be used for the tip of the spear, not the sustainment of the spear.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Ret. Navy Adm. Sinclair Harris. He’s national vice president of Military Affairs at the Navy League. And what about the MARAD – the Maritime Administration, the whole Merchant Marine component, kind of the invisible support mechanism, in many ways to the rest of the military operations? What’s your view of where that should go – the Navy League’s view, I should say?

Sinclair Harris: You know, we talked about the Jones Act and support the Jones Act for very good reasons because if you don’t have a Merchant Marine that is able to take the United States Army and Marine Corps, the stuff that can’t fly, that has to go by sea over there to help or to influence in far flung places, if you don’t have that ready, it’s not gonna be there, and then you’re not ready for the emergencies to come. And MARAD has been a key element and the forces of our Merchant Marines have been a key element in everything we’ve done in peace and war.

Tom Temin: And so how should MARAD look, beyond supporting the Jones Act? What should it look like, say in the next five or 10 years? I mean, they still have steamships there.

Sinclair Harris: Well, certainly we need to have more ships. Not necessarily steam – they can be gas turbine, I’ve even seen some other proposal platforms. But the main thing is to have a more modern MARAD fleet that is able to project the power when, where needed and as quickly as needed for the deployment of the Army and Marine Corps and others in defense of our nation.

Tom Temin: And of course, whether it’s manned, unmanned or whatever kind of vehicle or platform, you still need people. And so in many ways, perhaps the biggest challenge is the workforce for maritime forces of all types coming in the future. What does the report say about the workforce?

Sinclair Harris: The workforce is a challenge. And we’ve got to remind our younger Americans about the many opportunities there are in science, technology, engineering, and math, which is prevalent throughout all of the sea services. And to look at those opportunities. Fortunately, we’re seeing more women coming into maritime jobs via the Marine Corps like today, they were talking about women training with men in the Marine Corps for the first time in Camp Pendleton, to operations with MARAD and other places. But, you know, the role of women has increased, which is really been a significant boost to our capability.

Tom Temin: Yeah so in many ways, the armed forces have a little bit of work to do to make sure that they look as welcoming and inclusive as they need to be and as leadership wants them to be to get that diverse workforce, and to have the broadest possible base from which they can recruit, and which people will be willing to sign up from.

Sinclair Harris: Absolutely. And, it’s a recruiting issue, which I know that the services are on. It’s a retention issue. And I think, being highlighted by what Secretary Austin has been doing, going after extremist groups inside the military.

Tom Temin: So if you would then maybe just summarize the strategy and the recommendations as the Navy League sees them. And do you feel you’ve come up with something that future Congresses, future administrations can get behind in some kind of a sustained way? Because, to my point of view, one of the biggest problems is the constant dithering back and forth of what strategy really ought to be, what doctrine really ought to be.

Sinclair Harris: Well, the maritime policy statement, which we put out every two years, basically reinstates the fact that America is a maritime nation. And we need to have sea services, including MARAD, that’s able to respond quickly and effectively to the changing geopolitical environment. That we need a larger fleet. And that includes – a more modern fleet – and that includes manned and unmanned systems. The submarine, the nuclear-powered submarine the Columbia, is most important program in the Navy, as you know, and I think one of the most important parts of the nuclear triad. So that’s a top end, we talk about Russia and China, but the other forces are needed as well. And we need to get more young people, more Americans to understand we are a maritime nation, and to get involved in the science, technology, engineering, math and into the maritime forces, and come on and join the Navy League.

Tom Temin: Alright, and actually, I did have one more question. The whole idea is that if we are a maritime nation, you need the industrial supply base that reflects that. And in the case of the new submarines, they’re having trouble sourcing something as basic as a missile tube, because the welds aren’t very good. And so we need an industrial base that’s good at welding, for example.

Sinclair Harris: Well, this goes again, back to that whole STEM issue. You know, not all the jobs that I’m talking about are ones that actually put a uniform on. It’s the people that go and join and become tradesmen. I’ve got a cousin’s electrician down at the Newport News Naval Shipyard. We need more young people, men and women, people of color, to see these are not only great jobs, they are important jobs, because you’re right. The industrial base is that backbone that makes the spear that allows us to go out and do our nation’s will.

Tom Temin: Ret. Navy Rear Adm. Sinclair Harris is national vice president of Military Affairs at the Navy League. Thanks so much for joining me.

Sinclair Harris: Tom, thank you very much for having me.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview along with a link to the League’s report at Hear the Federal Drive on demand. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your shows.

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