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Military’s top leaders gather for rare San Diego meeting

San Diego hosts a rare gathering of the nation’s top military leaders.

The Chief of Naval Operations joined the commandants of the Marine Corps and Coast Guard in talking about the future of warfare.

Possible threats to America’s military superiority include rising Russia and China.

A generation of sailors and Marines who waged counterinsurgency wars overseas must adapt quickly to a changed world, where rising powers such as Russia and China threaten to usurp America’s once impervious military.

That was the urgent message delivered Thursday afternoon at San Diego’s convention center during a rare public gathering of three service leaders: Chief of Naval Operations John M. Richardson, Marine Corps commandant Gen. Robert Neller and Coast Guard commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft.

In an hourlong discussion moderated by retired Navy Adm. James G. Stavridis before a packed audience, they described the vital need for a steady funding stream to retrain and rearm services straining from nearly 17 years of constant counter-terror operations.

Hoping to avert another government shutdown, lawmakers on Capitol Hill struggled Thursday to pass a stop-gap spending measure along with a long-term budget that sends $165 billion to the Pentagon over the next two years and increased the federal debt more than $1 trillion.

Over the past decade, Congress paid the military’s bills with a series of continuing resolutions, with fewer funds for the services due to spending caps enacted in 2011’s so-called “sequestration” legislation.

“I’m hopeful that it’ll pass and it’s a lot of money,” Neller said. “But we’re going to get that money like we did last year, with about half the fiscal year left to spend it. That’s not any way to run a business.”

Although both he and Zukunft fretted about the national debt and its economic effects in coming years, Neller said that the influx of military spending was important to preserve the nation’s survival.

“The adversary out there is making big bets, big investments, in their capacity. And their capabilities have grown,” Neller said. “Whether they want to take us on or not, we have to be able to go and display the capability to deter them.”

Richardson said his top priority was revamping the Navy’s ballistic submarine fleet. The underwater Navy carries 70 percent of America’s nuclear warheads.

“Without that strategic deterrent, we’re really in a different world,” said Richardson, a career submariner and the former director of the Navy’s nuclear propulsion program. “Everything becomes impossibly harder. That’s got to succeed.”

Neller said the Navy needs more attack subs, too. The fleet is supposed to deploy 66 of them but today there are only 50 left, a number expected to fall to 43 before shipyards begin churning out two Virginia-class replacements annually in the next decade.

The silent hunters of the deep sail ahead of carrier and amphibious strike groups, sniffing out enemy subs and spying on a foe’s battle fleets.

“We need more attack submarines, OK? I need to get where I’m going,” Neller said.

“When was the last time we had to fight to get to the fight? We just went. We didn’t have to fight to get there,” he continued, pointing to the guerrilla wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We’re going to have to fight to get to the fight.”

Once in the thick of battle, Neller will need newer aircraft, swapping out his aging fleet with fifth-generation jets, tilt-rotor vehicles and high-tech helicopters.

He also wants more reliable and resilient command and control systems. That’s the technology that helps Marines know where their units are in relation to the enemy, clearing the fog of war. The challenge is keeping those networks up while the foe tries to jam, degrade or destroy them.

“We’re trying to create a modern Marine Corps,” Neller said. “The stuff we have we take good care of, but there are Marines over here wrenching on vehicles older than they are.”

Watching an increasingly wealthy Beijing build increasingly sophisticated warships, aircraft and missiles, Richardson said the Pentagon needs to reform the procurement process so that the Navy can more quickly and cheaply deploy vessels.

To contain costs, those ships need smaller crews but can make up the difference with better automated systems, sensors and weapons packing a more powerful punch from longer distances, he added.

They’ll be helped by underwater and aerial drones, plus new directed energy weapons like lasers, he said, but Congress also has mandated a 355-ship Navy.Today he can deploy 280. The problem is America’s industrial base. Shipbuilding capacity today is a third of what the Navy could get in 1955.

“There are 14 shipyards that build ships that shuttered or got out of the defense business,” Richardson said. “So you can see these two conflicting trends — the need to grow the number of ships and yet we just don’t have the industrial capacity to do it.”

Although Zukunft is finally getting the first large icebreaker built for the Coast Guard in four decades, his aging fleet of patrol boats on inland waterways struggles to keep $4.6 trillion in American commerce flowing.

Modern replacements will cost more than $15 million each but the commandant needs them to cost less to maintain and fuel, saving money in the long run.

“Some are 73 years old now,” he said. “It’s not a huge ask but it’s a huge return on investment.”


© 2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.