Forbes: Naval Transformation At Risk As Key House Legislator Blasts SECDEF Esper

March 19, 2020
In The News

Naval Transformation At Risk As Key House Legislator Blasts SECDEF Esper

By Craig Hooper | February 18, 2020

Elaine G. Luria (VA 2), an up-and-coming member of the House Armed Services Committee, is angry. Fed up with perceived Pentagon disregard for Congress, Luria is demanding the Department of Defense abandon displays of feel-good management gimmickry and “get back to the basics of warfighting”. If something doesn’t change, fast, Luria and other exasperated legislators will likely derail Secretary of Defense Mark Esper’s aspirations of transforming the already hard-pressed U.S. Navy into an even leaner, high-tech naval force.

Washington traditionally embraces ambitious “transformational” efforts, but, today, Congress lacks confidence in the Pentagon’s ability to manage the tasks at hand. In January, Luria, a normally no-nonsense Congressional Representative, sent a blistering letter to the Secretary of Defense, castigating Esper’s flaccid response to long-known Pentagon deficiencies. After detailing poor performances by America’s aged and obsolete Strategic Sealift fleet, Representative Luria wondered why one of Esper’s aides, Lieutenant General David Allen, the Pentagon Director for Strategy, Plans and Policy, appeared before the House Armed Services Committee on January 23, 2020, only to dismiss the Strategic Sealift fleet’s widely-reported failures as “one of those good news, bad news stories…and it was a point of learning to understand the state of that…”

It was a such a poor performance that Representative Luria, a Surface Navy officer with a distinguished twenty-year record, finally fired a broadside at Secretary of Defense Esper.

In the letter, Luria, a member of the House Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee, vented over the lack of institutional urgency in responding to known and pervasive problems. After relating that “achieving only 40% of organic required Sealift capability should have been noted as a critical shortfall requiring immediate corrective action,” Luria wondered why America’s decaying sealift fleet “was never highlighted as a critical area of concern that limits overall combat capacity in all theaters and contingency planning.” The exasperated Representative then questioned the veracity of both the Commander and Deputy Commander of the U.S. Transportation Command, who, after receiving Congressional questions about the state of the Sealift Fleet, responded by stating that America “was able to meet all initial Sealift requirements”.

She continued, furious at the lack of institutional ability to confront the truth, writing, “In my short time in office, I have seen leadership from the Services and from your department come before Congress and downplay the significance of failures in programs, policies and initiatives.”

The irked legislator then channeled the Navy’s irascible micro-manager and father of America’s nuclear navy, Admiral Hyman Rickover, in attacking the Pentagon’s management practices, calling out the Pentagon’s regular habit of substituting buzzy phrases for concrete action, “I have repeatedly heard senior leadership say “we need to get after that,” or “that’s something we need to look at,” or that there is a new initiative that will be implemented to “fix” a problem that is in fact a core competency or function”

Luria’s contempt for the Pentagon’s participation-trophy management style was palpable as she relayed how “Naval Surface Forces recently stated an initiative to create “combat-ready ships and battle-minded crews,” as though this is a new initiative, rather than the longstanding primary mission of naval surface forces.”

In the face of this tough criticism, Secretary Esper remained aloof, refusing to even acknowledge the obvious distemper from one of the Navy’s key Congressional allies.

The Navy’s Response:

In contrast to the wider Department of Defense, Representative Luria’s relentless legislative pressure has been recognized throughout the Navy, and her fighting spirit and willingness to subject naval leaders to tough questioning has helped bring about the beginnings of real change in the Fleet. With Luria lurking, Navy Secretary Modly moved quickly—within the first few days of his appointment as Navy Secretary—to impose management discipline on the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78).

On the USS Ford, the renewed focus on firm, no-nonsense management is working. The vessel completed Aircraft Compatibility Testing (ACT) on January 31, well ahead of the schedule Modly detailed in his third weekly Vector, “Make Ford Ready”.  In his Vectors, Modly has made no secret that he prefers an engaged management style that focuses even upon the nitty-gritty details, relating, in his eleventh Vector, how he would use little things, like the quality of the employee bathroom to, in part, evaluate company management.

But while the Navy seems to be learning to respect—if not appreciate— Representative Luria’s tough-love type of oversight, the larger Department of Defense is still struggling to handle the no-nonsense, sharp-questioning legislator in the House Armed Services Committee. But Esper’s failure to even acknowledge Luria’s January letter is not making the Navy’s path forward any easier.

Secretary of Defense Esper may well be underestimating the power of this first-term legislator from Virginia. As the Pentagon plans out a full-court press to defend both an unpopular budget and a vision for a new fleet, Esper risks losing the support of Representative Luria and other key representatives who would, in normal circumstances, be natural supporters of naval investments. If the Secretary’s Integrated Naval Force Structure Assessment is just another fancy effort to avoid problems and, to use Representative Luria’s words, “put lipstick on a pig,” Secretary of Defense Esper may return from Congress empty-handed, a victim of the Pentagon’s refusal to manage the complex endeavor of protecting the United States of America.