• From l to r, service chiefs from the U.S. Coast Guard, Navy and Marine Corps address critical issues facing the U.S. military. Photo by Mike Carpenter
     From l to r, service chiefs from the U.S. Coast Guard, Navy and Marine Corps address critical issues facing the U.S. military. Photo by Mike Carpenter

Tomorrow's U.S. Military Will Differ From Today, But Can the Services Get What They Need?

February 23, 2017
By Sandra Jontz
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Some 16 years of continuous combat, coupled with a U.S. military force that got too used to going against a benign power projection by would-be adversaries, has sidelined the services a bit, and the world is rapidly catching up, service leaders shared on the final day of the West 2017 conference.

Senior leaders from the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard took the stage Thursday afternoon to address critical military concerns during a panel discussion moderated by Adm. James Stavridis, USN (Ret.), former NATO commander and dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. The key issues they touched on ranged from military readiness and might to recruitment and retention and what a future military force might look like.

Here are a few highlights from the final presentation at the well-attended conference, co-sponsored by AFCEA International and the U.S. Naval Institute.   

Global warfare: Stepping foot on the crowded global stage now occupied with near-peer competitors has proven difficult for the sea services, offered Adm. John Richardson, USN, chief of naval operations. “We, frankly, have not been in competition for 20 to 25 years,” he said. “That’s a long off-season. And all of those off-season habits—the crew has gained weight, slowed down. We have got to get back fit-to-fight and be ready for this competition for sea control that will enable all those things we expect our Navy to do.”

Countries now have access to some of the very same capabilities as the United States and pose a serious rivalry, offered Gen. Robert Neller, USMC, commandant of the Marine Corps. “We’re kind of back to the future for so many things,” Gen. Neller said. That said, the U.S. maintains one key advantage over aggressors—and that advantage is its people, he added.

One volatile part of the planet where experts see evidence of increased commercial and military activity is in the arctic region, said Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft. The United States, presently, cannot compete with Russia in icebreaking capabilities, for example. “We are sitting in the stands, drinking a beer and smoking a cigar and our midsection is hanging over our belt,” Adm. Zukunft said. “We’re bystanders.”

Russia has 40 icebreakers; the Coast Guard two, he shared. Though on tap to add six icebreakers to its fleet, industry and government must “fast forward our ability to deliver ships in the 21st century,” Adm. Zukunft continued. “Why does it take 12 years to deliver a ship in the 21st century?"

Ground combat: Coming ashore, with population centers continuing to grow, the odds that the Marine Corps will need to assist in humanitarian aid missions or fight terrorism in a city are greater than ever, Gen. Neller said. “The ability to operate in [cities] is difficult and it will consume thousands of Marines or soldiers … in a matter of hours. We continue to work the urban piece" in order to plan accordingly for what future conflicts might bring to the table. 

However, it is unlikely the counterterrorism approach that the military has employed over the past decade and half in Iraq and Afghanistan will suffice for future conflicts, Gen. Neller said.

Personnel: Each service faces both unique and similar challenges when it comes to recruiting and retaining the work force, Adm. Stavridis pointed out.

Adm. Zukunft says he has spent a lot of time in "talent management" and has even sought counsel from innovation leaders such as those in Silicon Valley, he said. “I discovered that the talent I am growing is the talent they would like to have on their payroll,” he shared with a little laugh.

The Coast Guard currently boasts at 40 percent retention rate among enlisted personnel and a 60 percent rate among its officer corps. “What I need are [midlevel] E-6, E-7 and lieutenant commanders and above.”

The Navy has been meeting recruitment and retention goals, citing the value of service being a sailor gives them, Adm. Richardson said. “Our commitment has to be, once aboard, do we behave consistent with those values that we espouse as a profession?”

The Corps too finds itself in a good place for recruiting, Gen. Neller said. “And I don’t take that for granted. It’s the retention piece that has become more and more difficult, particularly as we as we grow people in service skill sets that [industry] wants.”

Equipment: With the new administration pledging to increase defense spending, Adm. Stavridis polled the panel for what tops the service chiefs' wish lists.

If the Navy were to receive increased resources, Adm. Richardson said his first dollars would go to restore readiness. “When [sailors] don’t have the gas to fly, don’t have the gas to go to sea to train, they don’t have the parts to repair their gear or don’t have the weapons and their magazines, that starts to influence their decisions."

Modernization tops Adm. Zukunft’s wish list, he said. “That really is a key part to our capacity. The good news is, we are modernizing at the fastest rate … since 1790,” he quipped.

For the Corps, readiness of the force is top dog followed by modernization efforts, Gen. Neller said. “The thing people forget is that the war has not stopped,” he said. “We’re still as deployed and as engaged … as we were at the height of Iraq and Afghanistan. Now the level of combat, thankfully, is not what it was. We’ve been fighting for 16 years, and our stuff got old.” 

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