Ray Mabus, who was navy secretary during both Obama Administrations and held that post longer than anyone since World War I, discussed innovation in the Navy – such as the use of green technologies – and the importance of public-private partnerships Thursday at The Cipher Brief’s annual Threat Conference in Sea Island, GA. After receiving a Master’s Degree from Johns Hopkins University, Mabus served as a naval officer aboard the cruiser USS Little Rock. He became the governor of Mississippi and ambassador to Saudi Arabia before returning to the Navy, 37 years later, as secretary. The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder sat down with Mabus after his talk at the conference to discuss in more detail his time at the Navy Department and current naval concerns such as China’s aggression in the South China Sea.
The Cipher Brief: When many people think of the Navy, they think of ships, and that’s all. Can you talk about the other roles the Navy has in protecting the United States?
Secretary Ray Mabus: What the Navy and the Marine Corps uniquely give America is presence – around the world, around the clock, in the right place, in the right time, all the time. Part of that is ships, part of that is having enough of those platforms – enough ships and aircraft – to be all those different places. They do a lot of things besides just what you see in the movies.
On humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, the Navy and Marine Corps are first responders. We got a request for humanitarian assistance or disaster relief on average once every two weeks, when I was there – so, we’re in the world, in places like the Philippines or Haiti or Japan, during the tsunami. We’ve got SEALs around the world – in Africa, in Asia – training and working with our allies. Same thing with our Marines. The day I left we had Marines in 43 different countries around the world. And there’s a Marine detachment in virtually every embassy in the world, to protect the embassy and the classified information, and to protect America as not just warriors but diplomats. We’re also in every domain – land, air, sea, space.
Finally, it’s things like the Navy has more data on stuff like oceans and climate change and the risk of that and how it will impact not just the Navy but America, as the Arctic becomes ice-free, as there’s more friction over resources there, as there’s more commercial traffic there. The U.S. Navy’s going to be the one that enforces keeping the sea lanes open as sea levels rise. If we don’t do something about sea level rise, [Naval Station] Norfolk – the biggest naval base in the world – is at risk of being lost. It will go away, in people’s lifetime, today.
TCB: What is the Trump Administration’s concept of the Navy, and how do you think that is going to affect policy in the coming four years?
Mabus: No. 1, there was a lot of discussion not only in the 2016 campaign, but also in the 2012 campaign about the size of the Navy. The Navy is too small. It went down from 316 ships in 2001 to 278 ships by 2008. In those seven years, only 41 ships got put under contract – which means bought. You put it under contract and then it gets built, and it takes four or five years or longer to get built. In my seven years there, we put 86 ships under contract and we turned the decline of the fleet around, and it’s growing again.
The Navy says, in a study we did before I left, that we need about 355 ships to do all the missions that we’re being asked to do. As a candidate, [President Donald] Trump pretty much echoed that. In his first budget, he put less money for ships than the Obama Administration had forecast that we would need. So far, the actions haven’t even come close to matching the rhetoric.
When you pull out of the Paris climate accord, you’re literally putting sailors’ and Marines’ lives at risk. You’re literally saying that you don’t care that storms are getting more intense, you don’t care about sea level rise, you don’t care you might lose Norfolk. That, just in terms of military preparedness of what it will do to the Navy and Marine Corps is a really bad message.
TCB: Compared to other arms of government – the Army, the Air Force, the Intelligence Community – how many public-private partnerships, or PPPs, does the Navy engage in? Do you think that these partnerships are really important now, especially in the cyber age, when we need the private sector to be able to develop technologies to secure the nation?
Mabus: Absolutely. Because so much of the technology in cyber is coming out of the private sector and not out of government, you’ve got to have these partnerships and they’ve got to be real-time partnerships. You can’t go through all the myriad government regulations to get these things. On energy, all our alternative energies are public-private partnerships. We didn’t build any of the solar arrays or the wind farms or anything. Private industry did that. What we did was sign a contract saying we’ll take the energy for 25 or 30 years so they could get financing.
Some other kinds of PPPs: all our housing in the Navy and Marines, the single-family homes, are privatized now. They’re owned by a private company. We sign up for 50 years. They’re doing great in terms of keeping the homes renovated and repaired. Much better than we did. There are also examples of the public-private partnerships where, if it’s not a core military function and you can get the private sector to do it, then you should.
The biggest example we’ve been talking about is we don’t build our own ships. The private sector builds all those. Companies should make money doing this, they should be successful. But in government, you also have a big responsibility to be stewards of the taxpayers’ money.
TCB: How did your background – having taken 37 years off from the Navy and then going back to become the secretary – help you in leading effectively, in being able to add 86 ships, while reducing costs, in being able to implement innovative programs by using green technologies, which you did under the Green Fleet initiative?
Mabus: In between being in the Navy and coming back, I was state auditor of Mississippi, which gave me a pretty good grounding in finance and how to follow money. I was governor of Mississippi, so that helped in terms of how you lead, how you come up with priorities. I was ambassador to Saudi Arabia, which really was one of the impetuses for looking at alternative energy when I saw that oil is a global commodity. It doesn’t matter how much we produce here, the price is set globally; it goes up and down. And you can be very dependent on some people that don’t have our best interest at heart for your fuel. Naval ships are the most vulnerable when they’re being refueled.
Finally, I was a CEO in the private sector and saw what the private sector has to go through: making the payroll, meeting expectations for various constituencies – your employees, your investors, the press – and so I think putting all those together was a pretty good background to be secretary.
One of the things I said at the conference was I think staying out for 37 years and not having a lot of contact with the Navy, except reunions with my old ship, was a big plus. I didn’t know what the issues were but I also didn’t bring any baggage. I could take a new, fresh look at it. Sometimes, when you get so involved in the day-to-day and you’ve been there for years and years it’s really hard to step back and say we need to work on this – like energy – which is pretty obvious when you take a step back from it, but just day-to-day it’s not so obvious.
TCB: The South China Sea has been in the news for a while now – what are your thoughts on that and how the Trump Administration is maneuvering in that area?
Mabus: China has built up some of these islands. They claim a very big swathe of the South China Sea. By the way, I think we ought to rename it, not the South China Sea, but the Western Pacific Sea or something. It has no basis in international law, it’s got no basis in practice, it’s got no basis in anything except their assertion that it’s theirs. What is necessary and what the Obama Administration did is not to accept the status quo, not to say well they’ve got these islands, so we’ll recognize them and work around them. I don’t know you can move China off these, but I do know that in terms of enforcing international law, not accepting the status quo, reassuring allies in the region, we ought to be sailing close to these islands – within the 12-mile limit – all the time. We ought to be doing overflights all the time.
The Obama Administration did several, and were criticized for not doing enough; the Trump Administration – who, during the campaign was one of the critics saying you’re not doing this enough – they’ve done it once in six months. And I think that the less you do it, the more the status quo begins to take hold and that you have to say you may be on these islands but we’re not accepting the fact you’re on this area.
TCB: Why do you think it’s not being done more?
Mabus: I would assume there are other issues they’re more interested in with China than this. But I think this issue’s too important to just let go. I also think you can have differing approaches to different issues without ruining the entire relationship with the country.