After many years of ongoing expeditionary operations in support of U.S. strategic objectives in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, the U.S. Navy today remains the world’s most seasoned and potent naval force. The Diplomat’s Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe spoke with Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, discussing the current state of the Navy, the implications of the drawdown from Afghanistan, the Indian Ocean’s importance, and other issues.
After being involved in expeditionary operations worldwide over a decade, what is the U.S. Navy’s current state is as it stands today?
Ray Mabus: The President’s defense strategy, with its focus on the Pacific, particularly the western Pacific, the Arabian Gulf and on building partnerships, is a very maritime-centric strategy. In order to execute that strategy, you’re going to have to keep a great Navy and a great Marine Corps to execute it worldwide, and I think we’re on track to do that.
We have had a very high operational tempo for the last decade and more, all around the world. We’ve been very involved in the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, but also in many other things: counter-piracy, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief. But, having said all that, I think the state of the Navy today, in terms of morale, resilience and readiness, is excellent. Our force and our fleet are as good as they’ve been for a long, long time. To give some numbers for a moment; on 9/11, 2001, the Navy had 316 ships. By 2008, after one of the great military buildups in American history, we were down to 278 ships. In 2008, we put three ships on a contract. Since I’ve been here, we’ve put more than 50 ships under contract. We’re growing our fleet. We’re at 286 now, and we’re on track to be at 300 by the end of this decade.
What will the drawdown from Afghanistan mean for the U.S. Navy?
Ray Mabus: We’ve been doing a lot more in Afghanistan than just logistics. We’ve got 8,000 sailors today on the ground in the Middle East, plus Marines. We had 20,000 Marines in Afghanistan, although that number has been substantially reduced in the drawdown. We do a third of the combat air roles over Afghanistan from carriers. What you’re seeing as the drawdown occurs are the Marines going back to their amphibious roots.
We get so many requests for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. I think there was a study a couple of years ago that said that, on average, once every three weeks we get a request for our Marines to do humanitarian assistance and disaster relief coming from the sea. Things like Operation Tomodachi in Japan or the earthquake in Haiti, which we can respond to in a unique and very quick way. You’re seeing the move from these two ground wars to this new defense strategy that the President announced in January 2012, which, again, is more maritime-focused than land-focused. I certainly don’t think that it’s going to represent a reduction in what is expected out of the Navy and the Marine Corps, because it’s going to require us to execute this strategy and to expand it in some very important ways.
Since the U.S. Navy has a sizeable presence in the Indian Ocean region, can you explain why this part of the world is strategically important to U.S. interests?
Ray Mabus: The defense strategy talks about the Pacific, but it does take in the Indian Ocean as well. In fact, both parts of our maritime strategy take in the Indian Ocean: the focus on the Arabian Gulf and the focus on the western Pacific. We’re looking at the Indian Ocean across the entire spectrum: fighting pirates off the coast of Africa, our partnership with Australia and the work that we do with the Indian Navy. We have very large exercises with India, such as Exercise Malabar, which is a good example of that.
We view the Pacific writ large, which includes the Indian Ocean running from the coast of Africa, all the way south to Australia and to our western coast. That’s the focus for the Littoral Combat Ships that are going to be forward-deployed in Singapore. The rotational Marine presence in Darwin, the Australia-U.S. ministerial consultations that committed to studying the way we work together, particularly in the Indian Ocean, including where you’re speaking from, Perth, and how all these things fit together. I think it shows a commitment from us that it’s not just a strait here, or a specific area there, but it’s the Pacific writ large, running from Africa and going back to the west coast of the United States.
How important is the base at Diego Garcia to the U.S. Navy, and what likely utility will it serve in the years ahead? To what extent does climate change and rising sea levels threaten the longevity of retaining a naval base at Diego Garcia?
Ray Mabus: I certainly think Diego Garcia is going to remain an important, and even crucial, part of this defense strategy as we move forward. Diego Garcia is one of the places that we can use as a logistics and repair hub to move people and platforms into this critical region. We put our guided missile submarines and our surface ships into there and, in terms of resupply and voyage repairs, it’s critical. That’s not only in terms of what it does for us, but also as an example of the great partnerships that we were talking about. Diego Garcia offers a way to increase not only our reach, but also the reach of our allies in that crucial region.
In terms of sea levels, we’ve got a task force on climate change and we’re concerned about rising sea levels everywhere because of the potential for instability and dramatic changes. I think, in terms of Diego Garcia, that you won’t begin to see impacts until the middle of this century, and major impacts until well into the next century. So, it will remain crucial for us as far out into the future as we are able to see right now.
A report published last year by the Washington-based think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, made reference to the possibility of the U.S. Navy using base facilities in Western Australia more often, particularly the Royal Australian Navy’s only Indian Ocean naval base: HMAS Stirling. Can you explain why Western Australia is of interest to the U.S. Navy?
Ray Mabus: Our partnership with Australia is one of the most important that we have anywhere. We’re interoperable and we do exercises and operations together; everything from the rotational presence of the Marines in Darwin, to your participation in things like RIMPAC, and all sorts of studies, talks, educational exchanges and projects on bio-fuels.
I went to HMAS Stirling last year and I’ve been to Perth and also to Darwin, to see where the Marines train. Perth’s a beautiful city and the base at Stirling is a great base. The last AUSMIN, the Australia-U.S. ministerial talks, agreed to specifically look at things like HMAS Stirling in Perth and how it would fit in. So, we are actively beginning to take a new look and work through finding out what the doctrine, or the issues, that would be involved with both countries, are. I think that shows the importance of Perth and, as the study gets underway, that importance will be confirmed. The fact that the ministers and chiefs of defense of both our countries thought that it was important enough for this study highlights it. So, we’re going to be very interested in the results and we’ll be looking at them very closely.
Finally, what sort of future challenges do you anticipate for the U.S. Navy in the Indo-Pacific region?
Ray Mabus: We take every challenge as unique, and respond to it and meet it accordingly. I think that what you’re hitting on is central to the doctrine of the Navy and the Marine Corps. If you had taken a look in, say, the late ‘80s, before the Berlin Wall came down, at what our challenges would be in the next 20-30 years, you would have been 100 percent wrong in terms of what you came up with. If you had a look before 9/11 at what the challenges would be that we’d face over the next 10 or 20 years, you would have been mostly wrong. I think that no matter how insightful you are, how smart you are, how hardworking you are, seeing what the challenges are going to be for the future is very difficult.
So, the job for the Navy and the Marine Corps is to be flexible; it is to prepare for whatever comes over the horizon and to give the President options as to how to deal with it. Behind me are the commanders of our Carrier Strike Groups and our Amphibious Ready Groups, and one of the things that is constant is that almost every time they go out, they face something that is unexpected. So, we’ve got to have the training, we’ve the platforms and the systems that allow us to deal with these unexpected challenges. Therefore, I think, in terms of forecasting, or comparing one region to the other, I think the better way is just that: to have the training, platforms and people to meet whatever comes along.
Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe is a security analyst, defense writer, consultant and visiting fellow at the National Security Institute, University of Canberra.