This year State of the Navy Event found Admiral Mike Gilday Just got back from a west coast swing, taken mostly to watch naval aviation. But the chief of naval operations has much more on his mind as he enters his fourth year on the job, whether it’s trying to get the fleet on track to match the burgeoning strength of China or persuade Congress to pay for it. Associate Editor Bradley Peniston spoke with Adm. Gilday on September 14; the full video of the interview is available (registration required), here.
Q. Let’s start with aviation readiness. Reports from the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office noted a decline in aircraft preparation and rates adapted to the mission. Does this concern you, and what is the Navy doing about it?
A. Regarding our power wings, we are already in very good shape. And in particular, we remove a page from the framework that we use to support Preparing the Super Hornet 80%; it hasn’t dropped below 80% since the fall of 2019. We also apply this same model to our other aircraft in the standard model series, and we are succeeding. We fly every day.
And I would say that in terms of financing of flight hours in Congress, we were very happy. And although we made a big effort on live, virtual and constructive training, a big investment in simulators, I was just out to see a new integrated training center out in [California’s Naval Air Station] Lemoore—I would also say that keeping young airmen in the air is a priority. They must be in the air.
Q. Did you increase the flying hours? There was some concern that people weren’t stealing enough.
A. Just talking to the fleet over the past few days, Airmen are happy with the number of hours crews are getting on a monthly basis.
Q. In July, the Navy sent Congress a classified announcement Combat Force Ship Ratings and Requirements which required 373 combat force ships, some 75 ships more than today and more than any of the 2023 budget requests options– and said another assessment would come this year. When and what will be in it?
A: Our goal continues to be to maintain a ready, capable and lethal fleet today. Friction balances this against investments in a future fleet. The first priority has been the readiness of the fleet that we have and modernizing it at the same time. Because 60 to 70 percent of this fleet, we’re going to have a decade from now.
When we talk about preparedness, we are talking about filling cantonments at sea, so that shifts are properly staffed, ensuring that stores on board our ships have the right capacity and the right parts, so that ships can be self-sufficient there for long deployments. It also involves weapons and magazines. Although it is nice to talk about the number of VLS cells one navy or another might have them, unless they’re loaded with weapons, they’re irrelevant. And there is a second-order effect there in terms of retention, in terms of retention of sailors in the fleet. They want to serve in the navy which is ready to fight.
As for the fleet going forward, we are trying to turn the page here, giving the shipbuilding industry a stable and predictable demand signal. In our budget proposal, as an example, you see two DDGs at all levels for the next five years. For FFGyou see a bit of a see-saw pattern – 1, 2, 1, 2, 1 – over five years, but again we expect that to stabilize at least two to three per year once the chain of production will be running.
We have the highest shipbuilding budget right now—proposed—than we’ve ever had, at $27 billion. So we need to keep this demand signal steady. As you mentioned, we are 75 people short of our goal; we need to grow that fleet to at least 350 crewed ships.
Q. You said the biggest bottleneck to getting more ships is industrial capacity. But Ingalls Shipbuildingfor example, has sunk a lot of money into his yard over the past few years, and he said he could build more destroyers.
A. In the current budget it is on the Hill, there is a proposal to increase the number of destroyers to three per year, if the industrial base can support it. Right now we’re not at a point where the industrial base supports three destroyers a year. Right now, we’re somewhere between two and two and a half years old.
Q. Is the bottleneck at the level of the big yards or the smaller suppliers?
A. I think it is general. We encountered difficulties with the industrial base, the production submarines on time, on time and on budget. Same thing with aircraft carrier. Destroyers arrive, but we still have work to do. From shipbuilding to aircraft production, the defense industrial base is currently under severe strain.
And that has a lot to do with the workforce as we recover from COVID. That’s not an excuse. It’s just where we are in this country right now. And that skilled manual labor is something that these companies are laser-focusing on so that they can develop that talent and maintain it. But again, we shouldn’t expect them to make that kind of investment in our workforce or the infrastructure of their facilities unless we provide consistent demand.
A. I think it’s important for the Navy to stay ahead of the design. And so what we’ve done with DDG(X) is we’ve brought in private shipbuilders, so they can help inform the effort. So it’s a team, but it’s led by the Navy. The two companies [Ingalls and General Dynamics Bath Iron Works] who produce DDGs are involved in this initial design.
Our intention is to go into construction with a mature design…over 80% complete when we start bending the metal. We have had great success with this, with Colombia for example; we were over 80% designed when we started that first hull. This is something we are going to pay close attention to, as it actually reduces the technical risk. Technical risk has been a challenge for us, whether it’s Zumwalt, LCS or Ford. And it’s costing us in terms of keeping these ships, not only on budget, but also on schedule.
Q. Over the past few weeks the Iranians have been trying to steal several American maritime drones. What does this mean for the Navy’s efforts to increasingly use unmanned ships?
A. Well, we had a response plan. In fact, we put it into effect when the Iranians seized two of these Saildrones. It’s going to be a challenge for us, though. We are a learning organization, and we are learning from what has happened over the past month.
The middle east working group also indicates how we will evolve into larger, unmanned efforts. A large unmanned surface ship would be an example, where this could potentially be a missile truck in the future. A Medium USV would potentially have electronic warfare or some type of command and control functionality. Security is another aspect of this, whether these ships are initially lightly equipped, whether they are part of a surface action group, a carrier battle group or an ARG [amphibious ready group] so that they are not alone and without fear, if you will.
Q. What is the latest version of the year-old AUKUS pact that will help Australia operate nuclear submarines?
A. One of the short-term benefits I see from AUKUS is that it has helped us focus on the barriers we can break down in terms of technology sharing and information sharing.
As you probably know, we are currently in a consultation period. At the end of March 2023, we will finally present a recommendation to the Secretary of Defense and the President that will answer questions about stealth capabilities. Right now, double-digit working groups are looking at different aspects of the whole ecosystem that needs to be in place to support, operate, maintain, and produce submarines.
Q. And Project Overmatchthe effort to connect Navy ships and all other assets to a large information grid?
A. We are still on track for a task force in 2023 to go to sea with this capability. We’re also making big gains with something we call the software arsenal, which has applications that allow tactically advanced users to use that data in ways that put us in a position to decide and act faster than ‘an opponent. I think the Navy is well positioned to, if not produce, definitely inform the joint tactical grid of the future. I see us delivering that capability in this decade.
Q. Tell me about the software arsenal. Are these applications on the Aegis system?
A. Instead of integrating these capabilities inside the weapon system, we actually have them on the [network] the backbone of these vessels. And so they are much easier to update. It allows tactically advanced sailors, tactically advanced tacticians, to actually propose changes; they could actually code the changes themselves. These changes, of course, are tested before being released to the full force. It uses industry best practices, so we turn these updates from a days-to-weeks process into hours, and hopefully, in some cases, minutes.
Q. In 2016, I suggested to the skipper of the DDG 1000 that the sailors would eventually program their own applications on the ship. And he thought I was crazy.
A. Yes. You know, for the DOD, sometimes it takes us weeks to get software updates out to the fleet. This idea of having these apps right in the backbone, taking advantage of the microprocessor like you do in your phone or in your mobile device, is absolutely the way to go.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.