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Navy Leaders Say Readiness in Gear, People Key to Defense

Partnerships are crucial enablers for helping the Defense Department counter growing threats.

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Marine Corps General Eric Smith AFCEA West
U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Eric Smith addresses attendees at the AFCEA West conference hosted by AFCEA International and the U.S. Naval Institute in San Diego Feb. 14, 2023. Photo Credit: AFCEA International

Top military brass are outlining how critical partnerships will be in helping the services maintain a strategic edge of readiness against evolving threats in the form of foreign adversaries and even climate warming.

“The threat is absolutely expanding,” U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Eric Smith told attendees at the AFCEA West conference hosted by AFCEA International and the U.S. Naval Institute in San Diego last week.

Smith, who serves as the Marine Corps’ assistant commandant, addressed the conference of industry and defense partners focusing on work in the Indo-Pacific region in detailing the dire global security challenges and threats the service faces.

“Everybody knows [the threats]. That is China, Russia, [North Korea], Iran, violent extremist organizations. … China leading the way as the pacing threat, the pacing challenge,” Smith said. “They’re growing the number of ships, they’re growing the number of amphibs … their work in cyber, their work in space.”

But Smith pointed to one element they don’t have — partnerships.

“We’re creating friends, they’re not,” he said, citing allyships the U.S. has built and maintains with nations in the Pacific like the Philippines and Australia. “We have the allies and partners they would like to have.”

But as Navy Adm. Sam Paparo explained, the threat isn’t limited to nefarious nations. The Navy is constantly facing threats from climate warming and what that means for its infrastructure, technology and personnel training.

“I think climate change presents itself to navies in two vectors,” said Paparo, who serves as commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, during the conference. “I think the first and our most important vector is really its effect on our ports and on our airfields. … And then the second threat vector is its threat to populations.”

Paparo cited continuing exercises such as Pacific Partnership, which helps military and civilian organizations prepare for disaster response in collaboration with nations like the Philippines, Australia, Chile and South Korea.

“We are reinvigorating our look at the Pacific infrastructure and then what we’ve done with our operational forces to account for increasing frequency of tropical cyclones and hurricanes,” he said. “If oceans are warming and temperatures are warming, presumably cyclones will increase in frequency and intensity. So we are at the point of need faster to be readier to respond.”

Readiness — perhaps one of the most fundamental elements to military operations — comprises an analysis of resources and training that both Paparo and Smith say industry partnerships are critical to fulfilling, especially in the face of the growing threat in the cyber realm and what that means to military readiness.

“I do have concern about potential cyberattacks to U.S. infrastructure and data systems that could exacerbate our ability to deploy the force rapidly in response to operational warning of any act of aggression, and I think that it requires unending vigilance in our cyber systems, in our port systems, and it requires a greater focus on ensuring that more of the fleet is ready to deploy on a moment’s notice,” Paparo said.

“Our aviation readiness accounts — funded at the 95% level. The first time that I can ever remember all readiness counts 95,” Smith said in an outline of major procurement programs for defense systems, such as the CH-53K heavy-lift cargo helicopter that received initial operating capability in 2022 and the upcoming amphibious combat vehicle expected to receive initial operating capability soon.

This sense of readiness underpins Department of the Navy CIO Aaron Weis’ Cyber Ready concept advising service branches to consider cybersecurity as a problem of “readiness.”

Smith also addressed the challenging recruiting environment and pointed to the need to better retain its workforce.

“It’s not just about the gear, it’s about the training. It’s about the people. It’s about talent management,” he said. “We have a hard time holding the expertise that we need to operate in a disaggregated environment against the peer threat. So we’re going to retain, not recruit, our way out of a problem.”

In sum, Paparo outlined four avenues where industry partnerships will be key to the Navy:

  • Defeat adversary amphibious forces in a contested environment by fielding cost effective, lethal asymmetric capabilities.
  • Develop agile, resilient and secure joint and coalition buyers’ network and architecture.
  • Deliver maritime intra-theater logistics, fuel, munitions, food, repair, parts, etc. to sustain high-end combat operations across the joint force in highly contested environments.
  • Develop tactical-level electronic warfare and cyber capability to reduce the risk to our current forces.

“We’re going to have to increase the capability of the Defense Industrial Base. We’re going to have to get costs under control. We’re going to have to deliver our ships and our aircraft and our weapons. And, most importantly, our combat-ready sailors on time,” Paparo said. “I’ve got hope, optimism and faith in industry assembled there in this room that we’re going to be able to tackle that problem.”

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