The acting secretary of the Navy makes the case for a bigger budget

David Larter

WASHINGTON — Since taking over for the fired secretary of the Navy, Richard Spencer, in November, acting Secretary Thomas Modly has made clear he’s not going to just keep the seat warm.

He’s been vocal about achieving President Donald Trump’s stated goal of a 350-ship Navy and has called on the service to prioritize fixing the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford.

Following reports of proposed cuts to shipbuilding and existing force structure on deck, Modly sat down with Defense News in his Pentagon office on Jan. 2 to discuss the headwinds he faces and the road ahead for a 355-ship fleet — a number identified during a force structure assessment.

There are reports about potential cuts to shipbuilding. How do you intend to balance the need for a larger fleet with the need to maintain readiness?

I think that’s the balance we always have to strike. With respect to the fiscal 2021 budget, I can’t get into the specifics other than to say that it has not been fully baked. We’re still in the process of making trades, and the secretary of defense is still in the process of working with the Office of Management and Budget on what the final numbers are going to look like.

We definitely want to have a bigger Navy, but we definitely don’t want to have a hollow Navy either. These are difficult choices, but the requirement to get to a bigger fleet, whether that’s 355 ships or 355-plus as I like to talk about, it is going to require a bigger top line for the Navy.

If you are growing the force by 25 to 30 percent, that includes people that have to man them. It requires maintenance. It requires operational costs. And you can’t do that if your top line is basically flat.

How is the Columbia-class submarine program impacting these discussions?

We’re investing in a brand-new strategic ballistic missile submarine, and that’s going to be eating up a big chunk of our shipbuilding budget. That’s coming at a time that we are trying to build a bigger fleet. We have to make a lot of trades, and it’s not easy.

But we hear the president. It’s what he wants, it’s what Congress wants and it’s what we want as well.

Virginia Democrat Rep. Elaine Luria had a confrontation with your predecessor in which she expressed concern that the carrier Ford wouldn’t deploy until 2024. Where do you see things with Ford and where do you see that deployment landing?

I think 2024 is not acceptable, from my perspective. I think we need to pull that in substantially. One of the things I did since taking this seat is put the entire Department of the Navy on notice that the Ford is a priority for me. And we’ve taken some concrete steps.

I’ve moved Program Executive Officer Aircraft Carriers [Rear Adm. James Downey] down there permanently to Newport News so that he can be the accountable party. Fleet Forces Command has assigned a two-star as well to be the person on the fleet side to make sure we’re headed in the right direction.

We’re going to have a summit here next week with all the key stakeholders to talk through this. I want to look them in the eye and make sure we have a commitment on this, and I want to see if there is anything we can do to accelerate the timetable because I think it’s important.

I’ve said this before, but it’s not good for the Navy to have our most expensive asset be a poster child for what we can’t do right. It’s a complicated ship, it’s going to be an amazing ship once everything is working, and we all need to make sure that’s the case.

Maintenance has been a constant concern for the Navy for years now — especially in relation to surface ships and attack submarines. Do you see a path forward for stabilizing ship maintenance?

I certainly hope so. That’s another one of those areas: You can have a 355-ship Navy, but if it’s not working, it really doesn’t matter.

We need to invest in our [public] maintenance and repair facilities, it needs to be modernized to make sure we have the best flow. We have to invest in getting more qualified shipyard workers in place.

When I talk about a 355-ship Navy, I’m talking about all of it: The people that man it, the people that maintain it, and all of that needs to be modernized into the 21st century.

With Columbia on deck this year, are you on a good trajectory?

I think we are on a decent path with Columbia. We don’t have a lot of margin in that schedule, but to date the acquisition community thinks we are on a good path. And we have the best submarine builders on that ship, and I think we will get it right. It’s not something we can take our eye off of, however.