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SECNAV Mabus Reflects on Time in the Pentagon

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus speaks during an all-hands call at Naval Base Kitsap-Bremerton on Oct. 21, 2016. US Navy

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus speaks during an all-hands call at Naval Base Kitsap-Bremerton on Oct. 21, 2016. US Navy

The biggest surprise Navy Secretary Ray Mabus had when he took office was how slowly the bureaucracy moves and the different tactics it uses to kill a program it doesn’t want.

The bureaucracy can study the program to death “for second and third order of effects” inside the services or saying the question needs to be addressed Defense Department-wide.

Speaking Monday at a Center for a New American Security forum with the other secretaries, he added he had no idea what the issues were facing the sea services or preconceived notions about what he needed to do when he took office.

But the “Pentagon does well . . . in getting you ready” for the new job quickly.

“There can’t be a seam” in transition from one administration to another or from one secretary to another in an administration still in office, Mabus said at the Washington, D.C., think-tank event.

“We’re ready to transition today on big items”—from threats to acquisition to personnel when a new administration takes office in January, and the work of handing over responsibility begins right after the votes are counted.

Mabus said he realized early on in office, “we didn’t have enough ships” to meet the requirements of the regional combatant commanders. “You were having to make choices” of where to position vessels. Picking up on what the other secretaries said about the role of the service secretaries and chiefs in “giving the future a place at the table,” he said the Navy embarked on a shipbuilding program that now has 86 vessels under contract.

“You’ve got to do that not knowing what the threat is going to be” possibly from Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, the Islamic State or other state or unidentified terrorist group because “we’re not very good at foreseeing the future.”

Later, in answer to a question from the audience, Mabus said developing personnel policy and acquisition strategy “can’t be just one administration” over four years. “You can’t simply say, ‘we’re there'” when a goal is reached.

On personnel policy, he said the Navy and Marine Corps have set standards for performance for each specialty, ‘If you meet the standard, you get the job,” regardless of gender, race or sexual orientation. “No one is suggesting lowering the standards.”

Mabus added, “We have simply not done a good enough job of recruiting [and retaining] women.” The retention issue comes down to a decision of “service or family,” often at the 12-year mark. “It’s always the woman who makes the decision.” He wants the sea services to provide policy means so they do “not have to make” that choice but can take extended breaks, return and still be promoted.

He said he once used a chart that “looked like a plate of spaghetti” to explain to a congressional committee what the procurement process was like in the Navy to establish a “program of record,” a line item in the budget and how long it took to field it.

To meet immediate warfighting needs, Mabus said, the Navy has been using pilot programs, such as with laser weapons first placed on USS Ponce to determine effectiveness quickly and make a decision to kill or proceed. Because the six-month pilot showed favorable results, “we’re using it now to develop follow-on-weapons” four years later.

He said that the Navy and Marine Corps deployed forces are at “the top of readiness” levels as are the forces that would immediately follow them, but the “surge force” is not getting enough training and equipment, and ships enough maintenance.

“The value of naval force . . . is presence.” He cited the quick response to missile attacks launched by Houthi insurgents on Navy ships as an example of that value. “We had a Tomahawk shooter [USS Nitze] there,” he said.

“You have multipurpose platforms,” such as guided missile destroyers, and “train sailors and Marines to be flexible and adaptable” in responding to threats like the missile attacks and responding to them.

Mabus said, “We do this as a joint force.” Picking up on that, he added the Navy, like the Air Force, is capable of continuing operations against the Islamic State while also establishing a no-fly zone in Syria.

In addition, “We operate off sovereign U.S. territory” that does not require seeking another government’s permission to strike, as the Navy did in 2014 to combat the territorial gains the Islamic State was making in Iraq.

  • Ed L

    Isn’t there anyone else be side a politician they can do an article about?

  • FourWarVet

    Some leaders are controversial because they are ahead of their time. For instance, visionaries such as ADM Zumwalt. Others deserve the dustbin. I doubt Mabus’ tenure will be one that historians look back on as positive.

    • publius_maximus_III

      He lead from his behind for sure (Mabus, not Elmo).

    • old guy

      My old boss, “BUD” would be proud of your comment.

  • RobM1981

    Did it ever occur to the secretary to try to streamline that bureaucracy he complains about? Or was he just a cog in the machine? Nice to see a victim, sitting at the top. What a joke

  • Quackers

    OK guys.
    who could be really a GOOD SECNAV in the new administration ??????
    Name a few. How about one of you.

    • publius_maximus_III

      Ted “Foghorn” Turner — “Terrible Ted” received the Lone Sailor Award in 2013, which recognizes Navy, Marine and Coast Guard veterans who have distinguished themselves in their civilian careers (Turner is a Coast Guard veteran). He also won and defended the Americas Cup many times. That should qualify him to run the USN. “Make America’s Navy Great Again.”

      “When I was a lad, I served a term, as office boy to an attorneys firm. I cleaned the windows and I swept the floors, and I polished up the handle of the big front door. (CHORUS: He polished up the handle of the big front door.) I polished up the handle so carefully that now I am the ruler of the Queen’s Navy…”

      • old guy

        I question his judgment. Remember, he married that traitor, Jane Fonda?

        • publius_maximus_III

          There was a fellow out in the shop where I worked who wore a hardhat with the following quip on the back: “Vietnam Vets Ain’t Fonda Jane.”

          BTW, old guy, they split up after she became a Christian without her husband’s knowledge…

      • old guy

        Don’t forget the last line, (modified)”So take my advice and NEVER go to sea and you ALL may be rulers of our great NAVY”

    • old guy

      Unfortunately, all of my best candidates are long since gone.
      As for me, at 89, I don’t even buy green bananas.

    • FourWarVet

      Robert Work, currently the Undersecretary of Defense.

    • Navy5717th

      Barney Fife could’ve done a better job than Mabus.

  • publius_maximus_III

    The bureaucracy can study the program to death “for second and third order of effects”…

    Oh is that so, Mr. Mabus? So what order effect would you consider the conclusions from rigorous testing by the USMC that allowiing women into combat will cost American lives? Or are the lives of Marines considered 5th or 6th order effects in this Administration’s grand social experiment?


  • Jack

    “86 vessels under contract” Thanks to you, all named after Progressive Liberals who in fact hated the Navy not traditional ships names……

  • eddie046

    If Mr. Mabus worried more about operational readiness and elicited more feedback from the sailors and Marines and their leaders we would be in a much different place. He has been a poor SECNAV overall and it will take years to undue the PC mess he has created!

    • Navy5717th

      A “poor SECNAV?” That’s an understatement of the first order. Mabus has been a disaster. Anybody who would name USN/USNS ships after the likes of John P. Murtha, John Lewis, Cesar Chavez, and Harvey Milk is unfit to have become SECNAV.

  • Ed Lindgren

    Mabus has been simply an awful SECNAV. It will take the USN years to dig out of the hole he put it into, if it ever does.