The Navy’s top officer released a new plan on Tuesday to stay ahead of potential adversaries at sea, saying the service must develop new concepts for fighting alongside the Marine Corps, reorganize two of its largest headquarters and reinvigorate how it trains leaders.
Adm. John M. Richardson’s 10-page plan, titled “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority,” is meant to jump-start the Navy into better preparing for the future, he said in an interview.
“Our adversaries are bent on leaving us swirling in their wake,” the document warned. It later added: “Looking forward, it is clear that the challenges the Navy faces are shifting in character, are increasingly difficult to address in isolation, and are changing more quickly. This will require us to reexamine our approaches in every aspect of our operations.”
The document sets the tone for Richardson’s expected four-year tenure as chief of naval operations, which began in September. The admiral said he doesn’t see the document as breaking new ground, but as providing guidance that will shape planning in the future.
“I’m trying to create a sense of urgency, because I really feel a sense of urgency to start improving faster and learning faster,” Richardson said. “It’s kind of an all-hands evolution. Everyone should be chipping in.”
In the plan, the admiral specifically lists the actions of Russia and China as points of concern, along with the provocative actions of North Korea and the advanced missiles and proxy forces utilized by Iran in the Middle East.
“For the first time in 25 years, the United States is facing a return to great power competition,” the plan said. “Russia and China both seek to be global powers. Their goals are backed by a growing arsenal of high-end warfighting capabilities, many of which are focused specifically on our vulnerabilities, and are increasingly designed from the ground up to leverage the maritime, technological, and information systems.”
Richardson said one issue he wants to focus on is “gray warfare,” an area that falls between peace and full armed conflict. It typically involves some aggression or use of force, but is deliberately ambiguous in nature — “just below the level of conflict,” the admiral said. One example would be China’s recent development of artificial islands in the South China Sea that include runways from which they can project power.
The admiral said he also wants to partner with the Marine Corps more fully to develop new concepts and capabilities that could be used in operations ranging from situations that fall short of combat to full conflict at sea. That comes as the two services prepare to deploy Marines on ships they haven’t traditionally used, like floating staging bases. The craft don’t have as much combat power as traditional amphibious ships, but are available in greater quantities.
Planning for combat scenarios at sea must address so-called “blue water” scenarios that occur far from land, Richardson’s plan said. With the proliferation of precision anti-ship ballistic missiles, all planning must address how to deal with long-range strikes at sea in simulations and be addressed in naval exercises and unit training, the document added.
Richardson also called for the reorganization of headquarters overseeing U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., and the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Details are still forthcoming, but he said it’s to make sure that decision-making is effective.
The release of Richardson’s new plan comes less than a year after the Navy, Marine Corps and Goast Guard combined to release a 48-page document laying out the Navy’s future strategy for seapower. It called for the continuing of many longtime naval principles, including keeping forces deployed away from the United States on a permanent, rotational basis, partnering with friendly militaries across the world, and remaining ready to respond to armed conflict and crises like earthquakes with little notice.
Richardson’s new plan is designed to meet the goals set in that maritime strategy, while acknowledging that the service needs to have lower-level commanders make decisions on the fly without always having approval from higher headquarters.
“One clear implication of the current environment is the need for the Navy to prepare for decentralized operations, guided by commander’s intent,” the plan said. “The ability to achieve this end is reliant on the trust and confidence that is based on a clear understating — among peers and between commanders and subordinates — of the risk that can be tolerated.”
In a meeting with a handful of reporters last month, Richardson said the rate at which technology has become available changes how the U.S. military must adjust and stay ahead of its rivals.
“What’s really emerged is that by virtue of all these global systems and globalizations, a regional conflict is really kind of the exception these days,” Richardson said. “Every conflict is global in some nature, whether it’s a cyber dimension or some kind of information affect, or a longer-ranger weapon or something.”
The admiral added that Russia and China are the U.S. military’s chief competitors at this point, followed by Iran and North Korea. Aside from all that, there is the global counter-terrorism fight against the Islamic State militant group and other threats.
Richardson said that the Navy continues to contribute to the campaign against the Islamic State through airstrikes — currently launched from jets flying off the USS Harry S. Truman, an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf and by providing support for U.S. Special Operations troops on the ground, in part through intelligence gathering and surveillance.