SecNav Nominee Endorses Potential of Unmanned Ships
On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of the Navy passed easily through his Senate confirmation hearing. Among other highlights, former Marine Corps pilot and finance executive Richard V. Spencer told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the budget sequester had damaged Navy readiness; expressed support for controversial base closures as a way to save funds; acknowledged the threat that rising sea levels pose to Navy infrastructure; and expressed confidence in the potential of unmanned naval assets.
Sea level rise and naval bases
In comments before the committee, Spencer noted that the "Navy is totally aware of rising water issues, storm issues." He added that "we must protect our infrastructure, and I will work hard to make sure we are keeping an eye on that because without the infrastructure, we lose readiness."
The Navy has recognized climate change as a national security challenge since at least 2010, when it released its first climate "roadmap." As part of that plan, the Navy undertook to asssess the effects of sea level rise and weather patterns on Navy installations – like Naval Station Norfolk, which now floods about ten times a year. In general, the Navy casts this disruptive new development in apolitical terms, similar to Spencer's phrasing. “We don’t talk about climate change,” said spokesman Capt. Dean VanderLey, speaking to National Geographic during a tour of Norfolk last year. “We talk about sea-level rise. You can measure it.”
Spencer expressed support for an additional round of Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC. The controversial base closure process saves billions of dollars in overhead but eliminate thousands of local jobs – a hard decision for a senator or representative from a district with a base. The Senate version of this year's National Defense Authorization Act prohibits the Defense Department from conducting another round of BRAC, in keeping with a long-running trend.
"The five prior rounds of BRAC (88, 91, 93, 95 and 05) continue to save DOD $12B annually and I have been told a new round could save an additional $2B each year," Spencer wrote. "This additional savings would prove critical to efforts to rebuild the Navy and Marine Corps and improve warfighting readiness."
In discussing allocations and spending, Spencer described the effects of budget sequestration in dire terms. "We must immediately commence the heavy lifting needed to buttress the effects of this storm in order to build fleet readiness in the near term and increase the Navy’s capability and capacity, both of which are needed to satisfy the Combatant Commanders' requirements," he wrote.
Unmanned ships in a 355-ship Navy
Asked about future technologies, Spencer voiced confidence in the potential of unmanned vessels. "People have asked, 'what do you think of the 355-ship Navy,' and I say that it is a great goal to have, but I can't tell you what the construct of that would be, sitting here today. Because I think that unmanned, below the water, on the water and in the air is an area that we're just beginning to chip away at, and that's going to provide some great yield for us," he said.
The Navy already has multiple small- and medium-sized unmanned vessels, including the semi-autonomous "Sea Hunter" sub-tracking ship, but Spencer's statement appears to be a rare endorsement for unmanned systems as part of the composition of a 355-ship fleet.