Devin Stewart & Admiral John Richardson, chief of naval operations, U.S. Navy. CREDIT: Amanda Ghanooni
Devin Stewart & Admiral John Richardson, chief of naval operations, U.S. Navy. CREDIT: Amanda Ghanooni

The U.S. Navy's View on Security in Asia and Beyond

Jun 2, 2017

Carnegie Council's Devin Stewart talks with Admiral John Richardson, the U.S. Navy's most senior-ranking officer. Topics include strategy; the security challenges the Navy faces today, focusing particularly on the Pacific; and the need for a bigger Navy. Admiral Richardson also discusses the Navy's core values: honor, courage and commitment.

DEVIN STEWART: I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council, and I'm here with Admiral John Richardson. He is the chief of naval operations and he is the most senior-ranking naval officer in the U.S. Navy.

Admiral Richardson, great to have you here at Carnegie Council.

JOHN RICHARDSON: It's a pleasure to be here, Devin. Thanks.

DEVIN STEWART: What does a chief of naval operations do?

JOHN RICHARDSON: He does a lot. I find myself spending not too much time in the pool halls these days. Most importantly, a chief of naval operations supports and advocates for our sailors, our Navy civilians, and their families as they execute their responsibilities around the world. I find that I can be a strong advocate for them, removing obstacles for them to do their work, to execute their mission, providing a professional framework, and also, I would say, a values framework for them to identify with and to draw others into the Navy. Then the specified task is to organize, train, and equip that Navy to do the job that our operational commanders around the world need to do.

DEVIN STEWART: You're based at the Pentagon in Washington?

JOHN RICHARDSON: We are, yes. My office is at the Pentagon.

DEVIN STEWART: Part of your task is also advising the National Security Council, the Homeland Security Council, secretary of defense, and the president. Can you elaborate on that?

JOHN RICHARDSON: There are a couple of roles for us service chiefs; the chief of staff of the Army, chief of staff of the Air Force, commandant of the Marine Corps. We serve as our heads of service, which is the chief of naval operations role, and then we also are part of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, so as a joint chief we provide our best military advice to national security leaders and national leaders in that role as well. Under one hat you're running your service, making sure it's sustainable, ready to execute its mission, and under the other hat you're providing strategic advice to the president, National Security Council, and other major leaders.

DEVIN STEWART: Is that also an advocacy role?

JOHN RICHARDSON: I would say that is more of a strategic role. You've got to make sure that you advocate for your service to deliver on that strategy, but it is much more what we call a joint approach when you are operating in your Joint Chiefs of Staff role. You really just want the best solutions, the best advice for the president, to provide him the most functional, relevant options. Sometimes that is going to be your service, and sometimes that is going to be a solution that is predominantly another service. At the end of the day, we all operate very closely together.

DEVIN STEWART: Part of your bio is that you graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1982, and now you are a four-star admiral. My understanding is that chief of naval operations is always a four-star admiral. Is that correct?

JOHN RICHARDSON: That is correct, yes.

DEVIN STEWART: What have you seen from 1982 to four-star admiral? What changes have you seen in the Navy?

JOHN RICHARDSON: It is a really poignant question because I just was present there at the graduation of the United States Naval Academy last Friday, the class of 2017, so about a thousand midshipmen, unbelievably talented young people, graduated from the academy, got their commissions as ensigns and second lieutenants in the Marine Corps, and then went off to do their jobs. It was 35 years to the day since I graduated on that day, so it was one of those misty-eyed moments.

But I will tell you, when I was commissioned in 1982, the Cold War was at its very height. We all joined the service to go and take on the Soviet Union. That was the defining conflict of our time. That defined the world order, that Cold War. It was within about 10 years—not even 10 years—that that whole structure came down, the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union collapsed, and then we were in this transition to where we are now.

Whereas in 1982 it was very much a bipolar type of structure with peripheral conflicts around the edges of those two big poles, now what you see emerging is a much more multipolar, much more complex world, and this threat of terrorism that seems to be almost everywhere. No place is immune from that. It is this very much more complex combination of nation-states, relative power balance, much different than it was in 1982, and then these non-nation-states that are just challenging us, very resilient, very adaptive.

DEVIN STEWART: I understand you've put out a couple of white papers recently; one was in May. Can you give me a sense of developing what you've seen over the past 35 years as you were just talking about? What is the big strategic picture from the Navy's perspective right now in the world?

JOHN RICHARDSON: The big strategic picture is that it continues to be a very global situation. I would argue—and I believe firmly—that the role of the Navy is in protecting America from any kind of attack, but also promoting our interests around that world. Significant responsibility is on us right now. As that world has grown more multipolar, more complex, more globalized, and the global economy is surging around the world, we have interests in every part of that world, with the naval forces—the Navy/Marine Corps team—being that team that is in its ideal on-station, providing credible options for national leaders in a timely manner, protecting our interests, promoting our prosperity.

A lot of people don't realize that 60-to-70 percent of everything that is in our house comes to us from the sea. We are a maritime nation, so being out and about to deter any kind of conflict—and hopefully if something arises we can respond to that. Then the long-term shaping function of navies being present around the world, I would say that role has only grown in importance in the last 35 years.

DEVIN STEWART: Comparing 1982 to now, what is the influence of strategic thinking on the U.S. Navy? Are the classic texts like Clausewitz still relevant today or have they been replaced by others? What is influencing American strategy these days?

JOHN RICHARDSON: I would say that they all are relevant. To get a global sense of how I see the library of classic texts out there, I would invite you to take a look at my reading list, which is huge. I just didn't know where to cut it off, and so I decided I'm not going to. But at its core are some of those classics. Thucydides still has a lot to teach us; Clausewitz for sure; Sun-Tzu; Mahan; Corbett, the classic maritime strategists. All of that is still very relevant.

Also you've got emerging strategists that we are learning more and more about—Mao; I mentioned Sun-Tzu. The exciting thing now is to see how it all blends together. How do you get Mahan with sort of an Asian twist, if you will, Mahanian types of strategic approaches but with a little bit of Mao's active defense thrown in? It is giving rise to new inflections and new subtleties in maritime strategy that I think are really interesting.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you have a favorite personal book?

JOHN RICHARDSON: I am a huge fan of biographies and histories. The best ones are those that do their very best to take you back in situ. It is very easy to get this 20/20 hindsight definite approach, "Hey, this was all preordained," but the best biographies go back and take you back into the situation. So the best books about the Cuban Missile Crisis, for instance, take you into that scenario that nothing is assured, give you a sense of the uncertainty that all of those decision-makers were dealing with, all of the unforeseen things that happened, and the one person who didn't get the word and did the worst possible thing at the worst possible moment; how does all that factor into the history? I like these scenarios.

Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievement of Horatio Nelson, a biography of Nelson, I think is a terrific one. Nelson is obviously one of the greatest naval leaders. That book takes you back there to show you that all of that brilliance was certainly there embodied in Nelson, but also the fact that he had to train his crew. You just can't have a stroke of genius and expect it to go perfectly. Just as Admiral Nimitz said: "You're going to go to the lowest level of your training when it really counts. You're not going to rise above and have your very best day when the chips are down."

That is a great historical biography, but right now we're really enjoying a period of time where we recall the 75th anniversary of so many World War II naval battles. This is the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. There is just a library of books there about Pearl Harbor: At Dawn We Slept, etc.

Midway is the greatest naval battle perhaps even fought, and we are coming up on the 75th anniversary of Midway. You can see a number of terrific books on Midway, both from the United States and the Japanese perspective, to really understand how both teams thought about that. I think those are great.

DEVIN STEWART: Now that we're turning to Asia and the Asian Pacific, can you give me a sense of how the Navy looks at the strategic environment in Asia? What's the picture there?

JOHN RICHARDSON: I think it is undeniable that that part of the world, the Indo-Pacific—Eurasia really—is the emerging center of gravity for things, the growing economies there, the growing militaries. China, I think, obviously is the main power in the region. Everything in that region is shaped by them very strongly.

It is also important to remember that the United States is a Pacific nation, and we have tremendous interests in the Pacific, and have for the last 70 years. Those interests will persist, and so it is important for us to be involved in all of that.

DEVIN STEWART: What are some things that are possible in the Pacific that maybe you hope might not happen but that you're prepared to respond to? What are some of the scenarios you all think about?

JOHN RICHARDSON: You just have to read the papers. The South China Sea is often in the news. Our relationship with the nations in Asia is extremely important. It is much more complex and multilateral than just a bilateral relationship with China. It would be oversimplifying it to say that it is just about the United States and China; it is really the region.

If you go to a place like Singapore, for instance, and you appreciate the perspective from being on the ground there, you start to see why it is so important for things like the Law of the Sea and these conventions that govern traffic over the sea, behavior in the global commons, behavior in territorial seas, behavior in exclusive economic zones, that body of rules, it is really important that we continue to advocate for that. That has been the body that has allowed all those nations to prosper, rise out of poverty, and do so well over the last 70 years. It levels the playing field. Everybody pretty much has an opportunity to take a shot and prosper in that environment. Continuing to advocate for that, I think, is a terrific challenge and an opportunity for us as we manage the rise of those nations, particularly China.

DEVIN STEWART: So it is kind of maintaining a certain order in the Pacific. You are defending institutions like freedom of navigation and Law of the Sea.

JOHN RICHARDSON: Right. And you do so in a way that would deter any kind of a conflict. In our relationships with all those navies, with all those nations, there are certainly areas with all of them where we have common interests, and you sort of want to pile in on those and do what you can to move forward briskly in the areas where you have common interests.

But as with all relationships, there are areas where you don't agree, you just don't see things the same way. In an environment where things move so quickly now—and we can maybe dwell on that in a little bit as well—while you work out and negotiate those differences, you want to do everything you can to minimize the possibility of a miscalculation or some kind of a misinterpretation that in this high-bandwidth world we live in could quickly escalate and would require tamping down. So all of those structures, even some operational or tactical structures about how ships will behave with each other when they encounter each other on the seas, those go a long way toward minimizing misunderstanding and allowing things to proceed without getting out of control.

DEVIN STEWART: Your answer to my next question might be "at all levels," but when you think about the fragility of basic peace in the Pacific, would you say the fulcrum rests at a certain level of command? In other words, is it the commissioned officer's responsibility, or does there need to be a hotline between capitals? What type of thing do you think is most important?

JOHN RICHARDSON: I would advocate for all of the above. I don't mean to dodge your question when I respond that way.

We do a lot of work in leader development to make sure that those commanding officers are ready to confront the decisions that they face. Again, just take a look at the news; they've had their fair share of decisions that they have had to confront and contend with. A lot of those come at them very quickly, split-second decisions that they have to make. There is not a lot of time for you to call home to your boss and say, "Hey, this is going on. What would you like me to do?"

We have to instill in them the independent thinking to do their job in a very decentralized manner. That is at a very tactical level. The commanding officer of a ship, that man or woman has to be able to make those split-second decisions. So we spend a lot of time training them for that independent action.

But we would be naïve if we led ourselves to believe that there was never going to be some kind of a situation that could be misinterpreted. Accidents happen, even in the best of scenarios. In those times it is always great for me to be able to pick up the phone and call my counterpart—the head of that navy—and say: "Hey, look, I think we both know what just happened. Let me tell you my side of that. I want to hear your side of that. Let's all breathe deeply and not let this thing escalate out of control until we figure out what's going on."

Those types of relationships between heads of navies, heads of nations, I think are very important, so that in the event something unexpected happens you can put that in context quickly and prevent it from escalating.

DEVIN STEWART: How often does that happen where you need to call the head of another navy?

JOHN RICHARDSON: Thank goodness, not too often in that type of a context. But as you can imagine, like with any relationship, you don't want that first call to be in a time of crisis. So we spend a lot of time building those relationships amongst heads of navies.

I sponsor a symposium in Newport, Rhode Island, at the Naval War College every two years, where we invite over 100 heads of navies and chiefs of navies and coast guards. We run through an agenda; we break into groups. But perhaps more important than anything else, we just spend time in each other's company looking at things, looking at the same challenges, and coming to these agreements. Some of these operational arrangements have emerged from these conferences—and this is just one of many that happen around the world.

I mentioned Singapore; I just got done with a visit to Singapore where they celebrated their 50th anniversary, the Republic of Singapore Navy. It was a big event. It drew a lot of chiefs of navies, and we spent time just talking through things. If you think about it as a bank account, you want to build those deposits in so that when something happens and you need to perhaps make a withdrawal in a crisis you've got a good balance built up.

DEVIN STEWART: Sure. It's like political capital.

JOHN RICHARDSON: Absolutely. So we spend a lot of time just building those relationships, calling to stay in touch, to wrestle through things before the crisis comes.

DEVIN STEWART: You mentioned a lot of things there including a couple of concepts that you mentioned in your white papers. One is your concern about the pace of change these days. Can you elaborate a little bit on how you think about that in the long term?

JOHN RICHARDSON: Certainly. This is one of the biggest changes, I think. You mentioned 1982 versus now. When you start to talk about the pace of change to people who make this their business, the word that emerges as much as any other is "exponential." Certainly in the technology world, the exponential rate of change is one of the things that has defined information technology—Moore's law. You have processing power increasing at an exponential rate, but also the rest of information technology, storage, and everything that comes with that, the amount of information is doubling in the world every two years. These are exponential types of curves, so you've got this technology push.

This information world is something that is literally brand new. Nobody said "cyber" when I graduated in 1982. Now you can't have a conversation without considering cyber. It is just such a big part of our business.

Space is a much more contested area now than it was even in 1982. It is much more multidimensional. It is moving faster. And that has big implications for the maritime business as well.

Depending on how you look at history, you can say that people have been going to sea for 10,000 years; you're probably on pretty safe ground. So if you think about the last 10,000 years of people going to sea, more and more ships at sea, that has increased by a factor of four in the last 25 years. Inside the time since I've graduated, maritime traffic has quadrupled.

If you think about the shape of that curve, that is tremendous change. You think about technology that gives us access to resources on the ocean floor and places we never could reach before. You think about climate change and the opening up of passageways in the Arctic, the exposure of continental shelves in the Arctic that, again, have resource implications. You think about the information age—99 percent of that information runs from continent to continent on undersea cables. We talk about the cloud and we look up. We should be talking about the lake. It is not a data "cloud," it's a data "lake." That information runs under the sea.

So you can start to see that even in both classical and emerging maritime business this rate of change is a big deal for us.

DEVIN STEWART: Before we talk about changes you'd like to see in the navy—for example, more ships—since we are at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, I want to ask you to elaborate a little bit about what you mean by "leadership development," and particularly the emphasis on building character. How does the Navy see character, and why is that important?

JOHN RICHARDSON: It goes back to this changing global dynamic that we talked about. Another way to talk about this multipolarity, the changing relative power between nations, and certainly the challenge posed by non-nation actors, it has become very competitive. It is a competition now. In our Navy business, particularly in blue water sea control, it hasn't been competitive for some time.

So when I think about developing leaders to be effective in this environment, we have to develop leaders who are winners. So this idea of, "Hey, there is a competition on," our nation's position in the world, the fragile experiment we call democracy here in the United States—that is always much more fragile than people give it credit for—that needs sustaining by leaders who are going to go out there and win it every day.

In the military in general, and in the Navy in particular, those leaders are most effective when I can send that commander and his or her crew beyond the horizon, and there is going to be nobody looking over their shoulder. We're going to give them an area to operate, and we're going to give them a mission, and we're going to expect that team, that crew, to go out and execute their mission with very little oversight. In fact, we're going to expect them to not only execute their mission but come back stronger than when they left.

If you think about the level of trust that is involved with doing something like that, it is really astounding. Just as we talked about some of these scenarios that those commanders face, they are split-second, so a tremendous amount of trust and confidence is placed in those commanders.

What are the ingredients that might lead to that level of trust and confidence? Certainly they need to know their job. They need to be technically exquisite war fighters. They need to know how to operate their ships, their submarines, their aircraft, their networks, the whole business. So they need to be very proficient war fighters.

But there is also this important dimension that we have to share the same value structure. The character development of that leader is just as important a part of their total development as their war fighting and operational competence. If we think that the goal of leader development is to be able to produce winners, leaders who can build teams, who can win not only today but tomorrow, the path to that goal has two lanes: One lane describes building competence, and the other lane defines building character. It is the blend of those two that leads to a commander that I am confident to put in front of their crew who will execute their job, they will espouse for our shared values, and come back stronger.

DEVIN STEWART: What are those shared values? I know honor, courage, commitment, accountability, and toughness are some of them. Are they all equally important?

JOHN RICHARDSON: We could really go on all day about this. The Navy core values are honor, courage, and commitment.

I will tell you this: We are just now celebrating the 10th consecutive year where we have met all our recruiting goals. That is an astounding statistic when you think about—the other thing about that is that by every measure that we've got, it is the most talented Navy we've ever had. The sailors who are joining the United States Navy right now are exquisitely talented.

They have a tremendous amount of choices when they get out of school, and with all of those choices in front of them, we have a good cadre of very talented people who wanted to raise their right hand and swear an oath to the Constitution and be part of something bigger than themselves. It's not because I can pay them any more. I can't compete in salary. My belief is that it is our value structure that attracts them. It's a noble calling.

If that honor, courage, and commitment value structure is the thing that is attractive to so many of our super-talented people, then our behavior as an organization has to be consistent with those values. So now you start to appreciate the attributes—a couple of which you mentioned—integrity, accountability, initiative, and toughness. They serve as a sort of litmus test for our behaviors and our decisions to say: "Hey, if this decision embodies those four attributes, then I can be more confident that it lives up to our core values, and we don't have a 'say-do' mismatch with respect to our value structure."

DEVIN STEWART: Admiral, I know you're busy. I just have a final question for you. Looking ahead, you are well known for being an advocate for more ships, a bigger Navy. Can you explain what is behind that thinking, what you would like to see in the future for the Navy, and what do you anticipate for the next 10 years for the navy?

JOHN RICHARDSON: I think this is a very important, let's conservatively say, 25 years for maritime forces. The responsibility that the Navy is going to face we take very seriously.

To appreciate what is the appropriate size of the Navy, we're at about 275 ships in the battle fleet right now. But take a walk around the world. We'll move from here in New York City and we'll go east, and we run into Europe and the Mediterranean, the Baltic, the Arctic, and then down in Africa; Navy present in all those areas.

As we talked about this increasing complexity of the global environment, each of those theaters has become more complex for the navy as well. The Mediterranean, for instance, is much different than it was even 10 years ago in terms of responsibilities for a navy to advocate for our interests, to assure our allies, to deter major conflict, to contribute to the fight on terrorism in Syria and Iraq in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

You've got the Baltic and the Mediterranean, the Black Sea. You continue to move east, and now you're into the Middle East. The Red Sea is increasingly contested now. It used to be a body of water through which you would just transit. Now you've got to have yourself fully alert to go through that body of water with the conflict in Yemen and all that comes with that.

Then you go around, and you've got the Horn of Africa, and then into the Gulf, and an increasingly complex situation there. Continue to go east—in fact, you go so far east now you're west—and you're into the Indo-Asia, which we've talked about in terms of how complicated that has been.

If you just compare with the last time we determined what size the Navy should be, maybe even five or six years ago, compare the global environment then to what it is now, and when we did that, those calculations, that assessment, Russia was not even in that calculus; China was a much smaller maritime force than it is now. So just to maintain the appropriate balance to be able to protect our interests, I think it does require a bigger Navy. Real easy math will lead you to believe that.

DEVIN STEWART: You're saying 350, or do you have a—

JOHN RICHARDSON: It is not just me. We've looked across a spectrum of studies, and they all say the mid-300s is probably an appropriate size for the Navy to be able to meet our responsibilities without having such a high rotational pace that our people get crushed spending far too much time away from home.

DEVIN STEWART: Admiral, thank you so much for visiting us today at Carnegie Council. We really appreciate it.

JOHN RICHARDSON: It's been a terrific conversation. Thanks for the opportunity.

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