Next Chief of Naval Operations Will Lead a Navy Facing Readiness, Personnel, Technology Challenges

April 29, 2019 6:49 PM
Adm. Bill Moran, the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, speaks with sailors assigned to the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN-73). US Navy Photo

When Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson took charge of the Navy in 2015, the service was still largely a support element for the larger U.S. effort in the Middle East. When Richardson leaves this summer, his successor will be at the helm of a service that is being grown and reshaped into a key role for the U.S. military’s drive toward high-end warfare in a new era of great power competition.

CNO nominee Adm. Bill Moran, if confirmed, will be tasked with finding sailors, developing new weapons and maintaining current ships and aircraft to reach a planned 355-ship fleet that can take on Russia and China.

Some of the work is already begun, but as CNO Moran will be charged with guiding the Navy through the largest changes the service has seen since the turn of the century.


Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran speaks to sailors during an all-hands call at Commander, Fleet Activities Chinhae, Korea on Sept. 11, 2018. US Navy Photo

Moran takes over as CNO at a time of dramatic shifts in Navy personnel. The force is growing – requesting authorization to add 5,100 sailors to the end strength in Fiscal Year 2020, enlarging the force size to 340,500 active duty personnel.

As of April 19, the Navy had 332,507 active duty personnel. Within five years, the Navy wants to increase its end strength by 14,000 more active duty members. However, low national unemployment rates challenge an aggressive goal.

“The lowest unemployment rate we’ve seen since 1969,” Moran said recently speaking at an event hosted by the U.S. Naval Insatiate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Low unemployment rates are the biggest enemy to retaining and attracting, recruiting military a force, a volunteer force.”

The Navy has for years met its recruiting targets, Moran said at the CSIS event, but the Navy’s challenge is retaining sailors during a time when the private sector often offers more lucrative employment options.

The Navy has rolled out several policies during the past year to keep sailors in uniform. Some of these new policies have been in the works for several years, dating back to when Moran was Chief of Naval Personnel.

Providing sailors more flexible options when it comes to career paths, creating more transparency in the detailing and fixing the permanent change of station process have helped with retention among enlisted sailors, Moran said.

At the same time, the Navy secured some long-sought changes to the way officers are recruited and retained. In 2014, as CNP, Moran started working with Congress to consider changing to the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA), which created a rigid “up-or-out system” he told USNI News at the time.

The intent was to offer the Navy flexibility in promoting and retaining officers. After four years of drumming up support for DOPMA changes among the other service branches and from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, the FY 2019 National Defense Authorization Act included many of the changes first suggested by Moran.

The Navy now can offer new commissions up to the rank of captain if an individual’s civilian experience warrants a higher rank. The Navy wants to use this authority with hard-to-fill positions, especially for recruits with cyber skills.

Shaping the Next Navy

Artist’s concept of a HELIOS laser system aboard a U.S. destroyer. Lockheed Martin Image

CNO Richardson in December 2018 laid out an aggressive set of technology development goals, most of which would come to fruition during Moran’s time as CNO. Moran, if confirmed, will be in a position to embrace these goals or put his own spin on shaping the Navy of the future that will be increasingly reliant on data.

Richardson’s Design for Maintaining Maritime Security 2.0 laid out many goals for new ship classes and aircraft types that would be reached during Moran’s time as CNO: a frigate contract would be awarded in 2020 or sooner, a Large Surface Combatant contract in 2023 or sooner, a Large Unmanned Surface Vehicle contract in 2023 or sooner and a CHAMP family of auxiliary ships contract in 2023 or sooner. Additionally, the MQ-25A Stingray unmanned aerial vehicle would have its first flight by 2021, and the MQ-4C Triton UAV would reach initial operational capability by 2021, among other goals. Many of these goals have already been baked into the Navy’s long-term shipbuilding and budgeting plans, and Moran would be responsible for keeping their development on track.

More broadly than individual programs, though, Moran will have to contend with the increasing role of data in the service. Data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are being talked about in the context of training individual sailors and units, assessing ship and aircraft material readiness and driving maintenance decisions, allowing for just-in-time logistics, helping operators sort through targeting data and choose the best course of action against a threat, and more.

Moran in January noted the need for more data and more data in actionable forms, saying that “many of us ask how are we going to convert our analog Navy into a digital Navy as a true force multiplier? How do we plan for a Navy where our decisions increasingly depend on mountains of data?”

Tests of Boeing’s MQ-25A Stringray prototype in St. Louis. Boeing Image

Moran’s Navy will need to invest in the right AI and ML tools, as well as networks that can share data – in real time, in some cases – for these data-focused goals to be achieved.

Spinning out of this data environment is the potential for live, virtual and constructive (LVC) training environments – which, when paired with AI to track sailors’ individual progress and give them training scenarios to train to their individual weaknesses, could prove to be an invaluable tool for the Navy.

Moran has previously told USNI News that “we are committed to getting after this and making sure that Big Navy is applying the right resourcing and pressure to deliver better training products, better training tools so that sailors get the right training at the right time, so they can improve themselves as they go.”

“I think the technology in terms of the virtual reality that they can produce today is eye-watering,” Moran continued.
“But what I’m challenging industry to think about is, how does that training system, how does that technology help us measure performance and measure proficiency in a way that we can then provide immediate feedback to individuals and teams so they can get better, they can learn faster? So that’s another aspect of this technology as it develops. There are certain attributes we want to make sure are embedded in that training, and one of them is how do you measure and evaluate performance.”

The data-driven environment would also support the Distributed Maritime Operations concept the Navy is pursuing, where platforms are spread out and would share intelligence and targeting data so the most appropriate “shooter” in the fleet has all the data it needs from other “sensors” to take action. Distributed Maritime Operations also requires distributed logistics and likely a reliance on additive manufacturing in the field. Moran’s Navy will have to sort out quality requirements for 3D-printed parts, especially those related to maintaining aircraft, so that additive manufacturing can begin to really drive ship and aircraft readiness and reduce the logistics tail in the field, rather than today’s focus on printing knobs and gaskets and other smaller items as more of a proof-of-concept display of 3D printing’s potential.


Sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) observe as the ship pulls into Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Va., on Aug. 5, 2017. US Navy photo.

If confirmed, Moran will inherit a Navy that has had a long struggle with readiness as it strained to meet the demands of a support role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other commitments like ballistic missile defense in the Western Pacific. Those commitments drained readiness even ahead of the Navy trying to re-orient to a high-end fight and expand the force.

Described by Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer as a “readiness hole,” the service has waged a campaign during the Trump Administration to catch up on ship maintenance it deferred while meeting the demands of the geographical combatant commanders.

“The cumulative effects of well-meaning decisions designed to achieve short-term operational effectiveness and efficiencies have often produced unintended negative consequences which, in turn, degraded necessary long-term operational capability,” reads a December 2017 SECNAV commissioned report following the fatal collisions in the Western Pacific.
“Simultaneously, Navy leaders accumulated greater and greater risk in order to accomplish the missions at hand, which unintentionally altered the Navy’s culture and, at levels above the Navy, distorted perceptions of the readiness of the fleet.”

Navy leaders have testified to Congress that the service is now slowly improving on both ship and aviation maintenance, with more ships getting serviced in dry docks

Earlier this month, the Navy said it has seen improvements to its tactical aviation readiness, seeing mission capable rates for its fleet of Super Hornets between 63 to 75 percent, up from a rate of about 50 percent in 2016. The Navy and Air Force have been on a drive to improve readiness for fighters after then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis ordered the services to reach an 80-percent mission capable rate.

The picture has been less rosy for the surface force, carriers and submarines. In 2014, the Navy announced it would organize around a readiness scheme called the Optimized Fleet Response Plan championed by then-Fleet Forces commanders Adm. Bill Gortney and Adm. Phil Davidson that was supposed to balance the training, maintenance and deployment cycle of a carrier strike group over a 36-month period. Since the implementation of OFRP, the Navy hasn’t been able to meet its 36-month goal yet due to maintenance delays.

The Los Angeles-class fast-attack submarine USS Olympia (SSN 717) arrives at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard for a port visit on Jan. 27, 2017. US Navy photo.

On the East Coast, the service has suffered a series of delays in carrier maintenance. Both USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) and USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-79) added months of maintenance that have likely thrown wrenches into future deployment schedules.

Attack submarines too have suffered maintenance delays in the public shipyards that have prompted the service to seek repair help from private shipyards. The Navy is also struggling to find the parts it needs to conduct submarine repair and modernization. To that end, the Navy has laid out a $21-billion plan to improve its facilities to keep up with the growth in required maintenance work.

“Sustaining the 355-ship fleet will require changes to both public and private industrial capability and capacity. Current infrastructure will require update and refurbishment to support modern classes of ships and repair,” reads the first-ever long-range maintenance report. “This includes investments in updating facilities and capital equipment, and as well as providing that workforce training that is both modern and relevant and compensation commensurate with the skill required to repair Navy ships.”

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone is the editor of USNI News. He has covered legislation, acquisition and operations for the Sea Services since 2009 and spent time underway with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and the Canadian Navy.
Follow @samlagrone

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