Adm. John Richardson says it could complicate fight against Islamic State.Valerie Insinna, Defense Daily
30 July 2015
The Obama administration’s nominee for the next Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Adm. John Richardson, said on Thursday that the service’s planned aircraft carrier gap in the Middle East this fall will be a “detriment” to the service’s capability to fight the Islamic State.
Navy officials have said there could be a two-month void between the time the USS Theodore Roosevelt(CVN-71) leaves the Persian Gulf and the arrival of the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) to take its place, Navy Times first reported in June.
"That does concern me,” Richardson told the Senate Armed Services Committee when asked about the carrier gap during his confirmation hearing. “The overriding message that I hope is clear is our firm commitment to naval presence in that region. We've been there for decades."
"The absence of a carrier doesn't really authenticate a commitment,” quipped SASC chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), who pressed him to detail what platforms could replace an aircraft carrier’s capability.
Richardson said that while there was “no question” about the value of a carrier, the military could try to mitigate the gap through other air or strike assets, such as land-based air platforms like those operated by the Air Force.
Still, "without the carrier, there will be a detriment to our capability,” he noted.
The exchange between Richardson and McCain was the only contentious moment during the hearing, which – unlike the confirmation hearings of the prospective top generals for the Army and Marine Corps – focused on acquisition issues.
If confirmed by the Senate, Richardson will lead Navy efforts to build up from a 278-ship Navy to a fleet of 308 vessels – a process that involves procuring Ford-class carriers, Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) and the up-gunned frigate version, more Arleigh-Burke destroyers and Virginia-class attack submarines as well as the design and development of the Ohio-class submarine replacement – all while the budget remains stagnant.
The strategic environment lends itself to an increased appetite for even more vessels beyond the service’s current 308-ship plan, but there simply isn’t enough money to pay for them, Richardson said. "The current plan does allow us to meet our responsibilities in the defense strategic guidance, albeit with some risk."
As CNO, Richardson will also have to grapple with the Navy’s high operational tempo and problems cycling ships through maintenance availabilities – one of the causes of the potential carrier gap in the Persian Gulf. The service currently only has one carrier strike group and one amphibious ready group available to deploy in case of a contingency, even though it has a requirement to have three of each ready to surge, he noted.
"We're on a path to recover so that we've got full readiness in both of those areas by 2020, but that also is contingent on stable and reliable funding,” he said.
During his opening statement, McCain criticized some of the Navy’s ongoing acquisition programs. The service needs to justify the LCS’s transition to a frigate, address its fighter aircraft shortfall and make sure its carrier-based drone is developed to meet the right requirements, he said. He also cited the $2 billion cost growth of the Ford-class aircraft carrier and called for the Navy to study alternative designs.
Richardson agreed that the cost overruns on the Ford-class carriers were unacceptable, and said he looks forward to being “very involved” in the acquisition process.
“Controlling cost and schedule, while delivering capability, really results from adhering to a few fundamental principles. One is clear command and control that is lean and agile. We've got to have the definition of requirements that are informed by available technology and available resources. You've got to have a stable design and a build plan before you get to production, and also you have to have informed and close oversight," he said. "I think that the chief of naval operations is involved in every one of those four steps."
Ranking member Jack Reed (D-R.I) focused his questions on the uber-expensive Ohio-class replacement program, which is estimated to cost $100 billion.
The requirements for the nuclear ballistic missile submarine are “exactly what we need,” said Richardson, who is currently directs the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program. He cited the ship’s stealth capabilities and 16 missile tubes as critical elements of the design.
The Navy is slated to wrap up a study this fall that will help formulate the design and build plan for the Ohio replacement, he said.
“You’ve got to have a mature and stable design before you begin production so you’re not dealing and managing costly change orders after you’ve begun production,” he said. “Then I hope to provide a build plan that would allow for stable and predictable funding. That allows us, the Navy, to work very closely with the shipbuilders to provide a production line that results in the lowest cost per unit.”
Although he was asked during the hearing and in written questions prepared in advance, Richardson did not directly address whether he would support congressional efforts to pay for the program through the Sea Based Deterrence Fund, a Defense Department-wide account where the defense secretary could funnel excess funding from any service.
“The creation of this fund I think highlights the existential importance of this program to our nation and also that executing this program will require a combination of both resources and authorities,” he told the Senate panel.