The following is the transcript from USNI News’ interview with outgoing Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson from earlier this month. It’s been lightly edited for clarity.
USNI News: Starting at the beginning, four years ago you were over at Naval Reactors thinking that you had some stability for eight years over there. I was just wondering if you could walk me through what happened, how much of a surprise it was to you, and how it came to be that you ended up being our next CNO.
Richardson: Well it was a huge surprise because I think it’s unprecedented that the director at Naval Reactors leaves before the eight-year tenure is done, for a really good reason over at Naval Reactors. I was just concentrating on doing the director job, and [Navy Secretary Ray] Mabus and [Energy Secretary Ernest] Moniz were the ones that kind of made this happen. And then Secretary [Ash] Carter, the Secretary of Defense, was instrumental in that. And it’s one of those things when they ask if you want to be the Chief of Naval Operations, you either say yes or you retire. And so that’s what got us here.
USNI News: Given that it caught you by surprise, as you were getting your mind around this, what at the time did you hope to get out of your four years as CNO? What do you think you got out of your four years as CNO?
Richardson: Well, I really just wanted to make sure that we could position the Navy as effectively as possible. And I’m going to use first person plural here all the time because it really has been a collaborative team effort. And so going back to the first version of the [Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority] in January 2016, you could see the emergence of great power competition already starting to manifest itself. So there was that. Then you could see that more and more of the security environment was going to be executed in the maritime domain. And so there was that. And then the third force, if you will, was this technology, the pace of technology – particularly information technology – really changing things. And so we tried to kind of accelerate the Navy to best take advantage of those forces in the context of this great power competition.
USNI News: Broadly, how would you say that you have made the Navy either a better navy or a different navy? What would you want people to think looking back on your four years here?
Richardson: If I could write it out, I would say that when they look back on four years, when history judges, that the person who was in the spot of the CNO wouldn’t weigh a whole lot into that. The main thing is that the Navy as a team, Navy leadership as a team – and when I say leadership, all the way down to the deck plate leaders and everybody else – came together, and we are in a better position now, more ready, modernizing on a good track, to prevail in this great power competition. As the second version of the Design talked about, it’s going to be, I think, a long competition. So we’re going to be in this for awhile. We have to think creatively. We have to think sustainably. And we’re not just in it to compete, we’re in it to get ahead and stay ahead.
And so I think if everybody’s mindset is in that mode right now, and everybody’s coming in and saying, “Okay, this is what we’ve got to do, we’ve got to compete and win in this environment. What can I do to achieve better performance than I did yesterday to get after that,” every single person, then that would be a good result.
USNI News: The Navy is obviously a very large organization. What has it been like trying to reorient everybody in all the different communities towards that new goal?
Richardson: You’ve got to really leverage the decentralization of the Navy. We here in OPNAV – the corporate Navy, if you will – will execute our part and then certainly it’s out to the fleet commanders and the operational navy to work that down through the chain of command and push that, communicate that message down echelon as effectively as possible, and then push responsibility down to the lowest capable level. One of the things that’s emerged is we’ve got to really continue to celebrate command, the importance of command, the special responsibilities and authorities, the charge of command, to try to be very articulate and complete about what that means. And so if we’re going to compete and win, celebrating command, really embracing command, is going to be essential to that.
USNI News: The environment in which you are operating has changed quite a bit over the past four years. We’ve heard a lot about that at hearings and events, but what do you think hasn’t been part of that dialogue that you think people need to know about the environment you’re seeing? Are there any points that you think have been missed about just how steep the challenges are right now?
Richardson: Well, I think it’s really the sense of urgency, is the one thing that we’ve been trying to instill. And as I think I’ve said before, one real challenge is moving technology through the process and into the hands of our sailors faster. And a lot of people talk about acquisition reform or what may help us do that. I think that if everybody was biased towards getting things done, we could do that a lot faster. It’s really sort of a human problem as much as a policy problem, probably more than a policy problem. And so some policy reform would help, but if we all kind of felt this sense of urgency and we’re moving towards getting things done, then that would be the one thing I think that I would’ve liked to make more progress on.
USNI News: One of the defining features as the environment’s changed, as the Navy’s evolving, is this need for the Navy to grow larger. 355 ships, I think, has really defined a lot of the last couple of years. Obviously, that comes with the challenges of needing more sailors to man that, needing more maintenance capability to keep that ready. How do you view the progress that the Navy has made, not only increasing shipbuilding but getting the infrastructure ready for larger service?
Richardson: The way we think about what you just described is that we’re on a road to get more naval power. And so naval power as we think about it – and there’s a lot of different ways to approach this – but as we think about it, it’s made up of some separate components which add up to make a more powerful Navy. So certainly the number of platforms is one component of naval power. So number of ships, aircraft, you name it. Then there’s the capability of each one of those platforms. So if everything is more capable, even without increasing the number of platforms, I made the Navy more powerful because every platform is more powerful. Then there is this emerging power that comes from networking that force together. The team with the best network, which includes resilience and security and all of that, that team will outperform a similar team that’s not as well connected.
How you operate that force, the concepts of operations – so distributed maritime operations and all of those things. The key to naval power as well. You mentioned the people. Absolutely. Bringing those people on board, getting them through the transition from civilian to sailor and then educating them, training them, retaining them; you’ve got to have that part. And then finally all of that is just kind of potential power until you take the team out and practice. So that means maintenance. That means all of the things that we do to maintain readiness: steaming hours, flying hours, exercises, et cetera. So any one of those six components of naval power can contribute to that, but what we’ve really tried to say is, and it’s been in our last couple of budgets submissions, is it’s the balance that we really have to achieve.
And so if you think about our shipbuilding plan – and I really think that 30-year shipbuilding plan right now is a great document. It’s really something you can sink your teeth into. And then it starts to talk about, okay, if the shipbuilding plan itself is the skeleton of naval power, then on top of that, you’ve got to have the muscle of naval power, which might be the crew. And then you’ve got to have the brains of naval power, which might be the networking and information technology. You’ve got to be able to maintain those ships. So you’ve got to build that infrastructure in, like you just said. And then you’ve got to be able to take it out and practice it. You’ve got to get trained up at the individual level, at the ship level, at the task force level and certify it and go forward.
So that 30-year shipbuilding plan is really starting to inspire some great conversations about the total ownership cost and the wholeness of the Navy. And if you get that out of balance, one of those elements is usually the bill-payer, and that bill goes down to the fleet commanders, which is the worst place to start to run up a bill.
USNI News: Looking at those six elements, are there any that you feel very confident the Navy’s on the right track to expand naval power, and any that maybe worry you there are some roadblocks ahead?
Richardson: A lot of them are on a pretty good track. Shipbuilding on a pretty good track. In fact, as you read that a 30-year plan, it starts to discuss, okay, here’s where we are resource-limited up to this point, and then we’re kind of infrastructure-limited, shipyard-limited beyond that. And so again, it just gives you some great insight. It also starts, I think, 20 or 30 years ago, and it shows the shutting-down of a lot of our shipbuilding industrial base. And so this is sort of where we are. If we want to get up, then we’re going to potentially have to build more shipyards. So I think that’s going well.
Modernization is going really well. I think that some of the technologies that are right around the corner in terms of, first, that information technology. Directed energy weapons. We’re back into the missile game in a meaningful way. Hypersonics right around the corner. I mean, there’s a number of unmanned and autonomy, machine-learning. I think [next CNO Vice Adm. Michael] Gilday testified that he’s going to make that a continuing effort. And so these technologies in terms of the capability of each platform.
Then our CONOPS, this distributed maritime operations, I think is an exciting thing. We need to go out and test it. We need to challenge it, test it, experiment with it. The large-scale exercise in 2020 will be a big factor in that testing and validation and refining. And then our people, we continue to meet our recruiting goals even almost 13 years running. Which is remarkable in this economy. And so we can maybe talk a little bit about why that is.
Readiness is the one thing that continues to be a challenge. Particularly ship maintenance. And so we have got to continue to crack that nut. Aircraft maintenance is on the mend. We’re applying some state-of-the-art techniques to improve our throughput through the depot. We’ve got to bring that to bear on ship maintenance because it’s just, we’re not finishing enough for those availabilities on time, and that cascades down the entire workup and deployment period. And so that’s where I think our effort is really focused, both with the public and private shipyards.
USNI News: Do you see any signs that you’re nearing cracking that nut with readiness, or do you think there’s still a ways to go?
Richardson: Well, there’s definitely signs of improvement, and we’ve been really lucky that Congress has partnered with us in this regard. So since 2017 and the request for additional appropriations, ‘18, ’19, and then ‘20 looks like it’s going to be another great budget for us. But what we’re realizing is that that hole was pretty deep when we started. We are getting out of it for sure. And so we’re flying more, we’re steaming, we’re more ready now than we were three or four years ago for sure. And that’s a tribute to the fleets. And we’ve just got to continue to get after it. We’re applying that same analytical rigor, the Perform to Plan process [used in aviation maintenance], to ship depot maintenance now. There has been some progress in there, with respect to carrier availabilities and some of the SSBN availabilities, et cetera. So there’s progress, but we need to do more.
USNI News: You mentioned technology a few times. Looking back over the past four years, I wonder if there are any technological changes that you see as natural progressions, or if anything’s really caught you off guard, any developments that have changed the Navy that you may not have seen coming?
Richardson: I think the speed of it – every time you think that you’ve got a little bit of time to do something, you find out you’re behind. This pace is relentless. And then with respect to the technology environment, we’re still figuring out, as we get that whole part of our enterprise up on a competitive footing, this sense of urgency that, okay, whereas maybe in the Cold War the Defense Department was the technology leader and then at an appropriate time things would be declassified – GPS – now, it depends on what technology you’re talking about. For some, the private sector is in the lead. And so, okay, how do we become fast followers? Some things there’s just not going to be a private market, so it’s going to be the Department’s responsibility to lead out in those areas. Rationalizing all that and making sure your technology is focused on your strategic objectives, this great power competition, that’s been an interesting part. But again, the surprising part is really I think the pace at which it’s moving and this dynamic, who’s in the lead and who’s following, what’s the appropriate balance there, and moving at speed.
USNI News: Your Design 2.0 document laid out some pretty aggressive technology goals. Given how fast technology’s evolving, do you see that being a long-living document, or do you almost see that the pace of technology may require some follow-up by the next CNO?
Richardson: Well I’ll tell you what: we put Design 1 down in 2016, and we put Design 2 down just a few years later. Force structure assessments, same thing. We did a force structure assessment in 2016 and we’ll deliver one later on this summer. I think for both of those, the short time between the two versions is indicative of just how fast things are changing in the security environment, in the technology environment. How do those two come together? How do we get the people in the right spot so that they’re ready to lead in that security environment? It’s all moving pretty quick, and so we did lay down some aggressive goals; if we can do faster than that, great.
The other thing that we’ve really tried hard to do is that, with respect to both Design version 1, Design version 2, many of the frameworks – it really is a collaborative effort that brought those together. And so we tried to get the best sense of all of the leadership that, this is the trajectory that the Navy should be on. And so my hope is that we by and large stay on that trajectory and adjust where necessary. Part of the design concept is this idea of continuous assessment. And so we’ll get the designs out, it lays out some aggressive goals across all four lines of effort, and then we’ll continue to sense the environment and adjust as necessary.
USNI News: Every time there’s a new force structure assessment or a strategy that comes out, one of the things we hear is that the documents are changing faster than industry can keep up with. So what’s even the point if, as soon as industry starts trying to ramp up shipbuilding, the number just changes again, for example. What’s the value in putting down a marker and saying, this is my Design 2.0?
Richardson: I think there’s a lot of value to having a plan. And you mentioned, hey, it’s a worldwide Navy, 600,000 people, sailors and civilians. And that’s why I like these designs and I like frameworks. They are specific enough to provide some helpful guidance, but not too specific that people feel constrained in their execution. There’s no attempt at all to say one size fits everywhere in our Navy. But these frameworks provide some kind of a way ahead so that we can all speak the same language and understand which way we’re going.
Same with the design – there are some specific programs that are called out, some specific goals, but I think that there’s great value to putting those types of things out because it’s a unifying force. And so even if we iterate away from that, well, okay, that’s an iteration away from something that we know, and at that point we can better understand what that iteration means. So I’m kind of a fan of strategic documents and strategy because of that unifying effort – it’s a thoughtful bridge between where we need to go and the resources we have.
USNI News: Looking back on your past four years, something that stands out are the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain collisions. You spoke to the media shortly afterwards and when the subsequent reviews started coming out. But reflecting overall on the Navy’s response, I wondered, looking back, if you think the Navy could have done anything more after Fitzgerald and before McCain? How do you want the Navy to be judged, not only by those incidents but also the followup response?
Richardson: I think that if I was going to look back through that – and let me say that there’s not a day that I wake up where I don’t think of that, and we want to make sure that everything that we do as a Navy somehow honors those 17 sailors who paid the ultimate price in those collisions. And we’ve just got to continuously keep that in mind. And so as we’ve moved through that, I think you’ll find it is a different surface force than it was. And they have taken this idea of, okay, we’re going to be safe to operate at sea, we’re going to comply with the rules of the road, and then move beyond that to a culture of real excellence.
And so that’s the best way that we can honor those sailors and their families, is to make sure that we’re doing everything possible, and we’ve done a tremendous amount of change. If it’s a sailor’s career or an officer’s career in terms of being more prepared to command that ship when they go to command and all the steps along the way, much more rigorous schools, much more time at sea and assessments all along the way. Then the teams on those ships in terms of coming together and being certified as a team, a lot more rigor there. And so these are the fundamentals of doing that.
And then, the scheduling that is happening, where we really do take a supply-side approach to providing forces so that we are not sending ships out there, teams out there of any kind, that are not trained and certified for the mission that they’re going to do. I mean, this is a different surface force.
And, by the way, the rest of the Navy has learned a tremendous amount. One of the things that’s very gratifying is that as I talked to Navy leaders around the Navy, no matter what part of our Navy they’re in, they say, “we read the Comprehensive Review very deeply and we learned from it and these are the adjustments we made in our community.” I talk overseas – I sent it to all the other chiefs of navy. They said, “thanks. We took a hard look and found that we had some of that vulnerability in our stuff.” So I think it’s had a profound impact on both the U.S. Navy and maybe some others.
USNI News: Why do you think it took a tragedy to get there? And how does the Navy better look out for warning signs in other communities, going forward?
Richardson: Well, I think when you start to take your eye off of those fundamentals, then it’s going to catch up with you. And then you’ve got to have some way of sensing those and paying attention to those. There’s got to be some kind of a tripwire, an alarm, a fire break or something. So we’ve really done some work to establish those, so that it’s now a system where if there’s a mission assigned, there’s a formal check to make sure that that certification is in place. If not, that’s resolved and mitigated at the four-star level. But that’s very rare.
USNI News: The Fat Leonard investigation has continued to affect the Navy. Reflecting back on your time, what fallout do you think the Navy is still dealing with now? What are the implications, ramifications leadership-wise, culture-wise?
Richardson: I think about it in terms of both leaders and culture, which are really hard to separate. And again, where are we now versus where we might’ve been before: we’ve done a tremendous amount to – and I’ll go back to the design, so there’s those four lines of effort. Sometimes people sort of walk by the four core attributes, those being the litmus test of our values of honor, courage and commitment. And so I go all the way back to recruiting; ask yourself the question, why do our young people raise their right hand and take this oath to join the Navy? Well, it’s not because we can pay them more. And oh, by the way, we’re going to ask them to go to sea and separate from their families and all of that. I think it has a lot to do with the value proposition that the Navy has. It’s a noble organization. You’re part of a team that’s striving to be the, at the individual and team level, striving to be bigger than, serve something bigger than themselves. So we’ve got to make sure that we are behaving as an organization consistent with our values as a profession. I think we’re in a much stronger place in that regard right now. And that’s been the result of, one, I don’t think that there’s two commanders that get together anymore without talking in some way about ethics. So that happens at just about every one of our leadership schools. It’s operationalized more and more, so that there’s some ethical dimension to just about everything that we do.
We’ve stood up the Navy Leadership and Ethics Center in Newport that continues to grow and become more robust. And we’ve tightened up the contracting procedures, so that when we go into port now, it’s a completely different scenario. So both from a procedural way, but most importantly, instilling this in our leadership. Again, I’m optimistic that we’re in a much different place now in terms of where ethics resides in our consciousness as a navy.
USNI News: That investigation cut short the careers of a lot of officers who could have been future fleet leaders, future high-ranking admirals. Do you think the Navy’s recovered from that yet, or are there still issues that you see?
Richardson: Well, I don’t think that we ever really saw a dip. And so that was obviously very front and center to me as the CNO; one of the most important things that we do as a Navy is make sure that we’ve got the proper leadership in place, and the importance of doing that is really paramount. And so I would hope that you would agree with me that as you look around at every one of the places where we have a senior leader right now, that you can look at that person and say, “You know what, they’re doing a terrific job.” I think that the team right now is as strong a team, particularly at the three- and four-star level. And right behind them is a really great cadre of one- and two-stars, and that goes all the way down to some fantastic O-6s and on down. And I think you would say that, if you sort of tracked through this, there was always a very, very capable leader in those spots. And so the Navy was in good hands throughout.
USNI News: You mentioned early on the National Defense Strategy and the focus on high-end, peer or near-peer competition, and obviously the Navy has done a lot to really focus on that. But throughout the past couple of years, Iran – which under the defense strategy is a second-tier threat – has consistently been posing challenges to the Navy, whether it was the Farsi Island incident, whether it’s recent tensions in the Persian Gulf, in the Strait of Hormuz. What do you think that says about the Navy needing to not be singularly focused on that high-end threat?
Richardson: We’ve always taken a very balanced approach to that. If you’re a global power, you really can’t afford to take your eye off of anywhere in the globe. And so that’s the way we’re doing it. Now, you’ve got to be able to do that mindful that your major strategic challenge is China and Russia, those two powers. And so even as we address the tensions in the Persian Gulf, maybe as we address wherever it might be, North Korea, we’ve got to do so maintaining the strategic balance. It’s just the nature of being a global power. I think it also shows that, going back to where we started, the maritime domain is going to be very, very important. It is going to put a lot of responsibility on the U.S. Navy and the Coast Guard to get this right. I think we’re achieving that balance today.
USNI News: Do you think the Navy and the Joint Force are equipped to focus on the multiple issues facing them right now?
USNI News: The process of you getting into the job was interesting, coming from Naval Reactors. The process of finding your replacement has also been a little bit unusual. I know you released a memo on Adm. Moran’s retirement, but what do you hope the fleet will take away from that? There’s been a lot of concern about recent events being a sign that you can’t make a mistake and have your career recover. I know there’s also, conversely, been concerns that if Adm. Moran had stayed, what message does that send about harassment in the workplace and that type of thing. What do you ultimately hope that sailors will take away from this?
Richardson: Well, there’s a lot of lessons that we’re teaching, and I hope you’ll just give me a little bit of time; we want to have that conversation inside the Navy. It’s one that we had to just sort of sit and take some time. But I will say just as loudly as I can, what I hope people do not take away from this is that we don’t want to be mentors to our people. And that includes, in fact, maybe especially includes, mentoring people who are struggling. I mean, those are the people that need mentors the most. This is not that. And so, please, all of you out there, continue to help each other out, and if somebody is struggling, continue to help them. That was not what was at play on this. And so if I could just stress that point as broadly as I can, that would be important to get clear right up front.
And the rest of it, we’re putting together the program to kind of walk the Navy and talk and have those conversations throughout the Navy so that people can take the lessons from that, the broader lessons, away from this in time.
USNI News: With Adm. Gilday’s background as a surface warfare officer and with cyber, what do you think he brings to the table as your replacement?
Richardson: Well, you just said it. He’s a consummate warfighter in the traditional parts of our Navy, a surface warfare officer. His early part of his career was just being stellar in that area. But then as you talk about either the future of warfare and what information warfare – including cyber, space, all of those things that are going to play an increasingly important part – who better than Adm. Gilday to understand that, having commanded the 10th Fleet. And so I think he’s just a perfect guy, could not be more excited.
USNI News: I’m fascinated by your U.S. Naval Academy class of 1982, which has been wildly successful in the Navy and in business. Thinking back to your time at the Naval Academy, did you guys see this coming? Did you think there was anything special about your class?
Richardson: Yes, we did. We all got together as plebes in fact, right after Induction Day, and said, “Hey, look.” [laughing]. No, we didn’t see any of that. But it is a kind of fun and gratifying and just a pleasure to see so many people do so well and to, coming up on 37, 38 years later, to be able to look around and having come through our careers together, come into leadership positions together. It’s just been a real delight. And so I don’t know how it happens, but it did and it’s been great.
USNI News: Do you think there’s anything interesting timing-wise, circumstances, global events that shaped you into leaders that were prone to be successful?
Richardson: Let me just make a confession. I wouldn’t – so going all the way back to our days at the Naval Academy, Adm. [Phil] Davidson is an ‘82 guy, also a physics major. So I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t copy his homework. As I’m getting ready to retire, I just wanted to come clean on that.
No, I think it’s just, it’s been a collaborative, kind of a work-together type of a class, even as we got started, and I think that those kind of team-building skills served us really well.
USNI News: Do you know what’s coming next for you after retirement?
Richardson: I have no idea. My wife is very clear that I am not retiring retiring, so I’ve got to go out and figure out how to make an honest living.