Adm. Phil Davidson watched the emergence of new threats while he commanded the Navy’s 6th Fleet from Naples, Italy, in the earlier part of this decade.
When those threats came full circle in more recent years, Davidson is proud that his sailors were ready to respond.
Davidson has led the Navy’s Norfolk-based four-star US Fleet Forces Command since December 2014. The command is responsible for manning, training and equipping more than 125 ships, 1,000 aircraft and 103,000 active-duty service members and government personnel. Davidson, a surface warfare officer, will lead the Hawaii-based U.S. Pacific Command after being nominated by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
Adm. Chris Grady, a University of Notre Dame graduate, will relieve Davidson during a change of command ceremony today aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush . Grady most recently served as commander of the Navy’s 6th Fleet.
Davidson spoke about his last 3½ years leading Fleet Forces during an interview earlier this week with The Virginian-Pilot. His large corner office at Fleet Forces’ headquarters at the Naval Support Activity Hampton Roads was already packed , photos removed from its walls.
Davidson described a Fleet Forces that is more agile and better prepared to handle threats from Russia, Syria, Iran and China after spending the earlier part of this century training to support land wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“When I came here, you know, the first thing I knew was, we’ve got to ready all the forces for a different operating environment,” Davidson said.
Davidson refocused training to prepare for battle at sea, an initiative that included a return to missile firing off the Virginia coast as well as the creation of a live simulation used at sea to practice against other threats. The Navy recently re-established a memorandum of understanding with NASA to recommence supersonic target firing off Wallops Island, Davidson said. Beyond testing new weapons systems, the Navy hadn’t done any firing for training purposes off the Virginia coast since 2003.
Restoring missile training “went a long way” to making the Norfolk-based guided missile destroyer USS Mason successful when it came under attack in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen in October 2016. Days later, the Norfolk-based destroyer USS Nitze destroyed three radar sites in Yemen in retaliation.
Davidson, who grew up in St. Louis, didn’t see the ocean until a trip to Florida at age 18. He followed an older brother to the U.S. Naval Academy and graduated in 1982. Among his assignments is command of the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group.
At Fleet Forces, Davidson also was responsible for rolling out a readiness plan that limits carriers to one seven-month deployment every three years, allowing more time for maintenance. The plan provides better predictability for ships, crew and shipyards, Navy leaders have said. The Eisenhower strike group was the first ship to deploy under the plan in 2016. Because of it, the guided missile cruiser USS Monterey, which deployed with Ike, was available in October to fill the gaps in coverage left by two separate collisions that killed 17 sailors in the 7th Fleet last summer.
The Monterey was one of three Norfolk-based ships that launched Tomahawk missiles last month as part of an airstrike aimed at taking out part of the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons infrastructure. The ship is scheduled to return to Naval Station Norfolk on Sunday.
Davidson said the Monterey did “extraordinarily well.”
Davidson was also tasked last summer with completing a comprehensive review of the Navy’s surface fleet operations and accidents at sea during the past decade, with an emphasis on the western Pacific, in the aftermath of the collisions of the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain.
Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, who was relieved of his command of the 7th Fleet after the collisions, criticized reviews in an April letter in Proceedings, published by the U.S. Naval Institute, writing that, among other things, Davidson didn’t adequately look at manning and the fleet’s “excessive tasking.”
Davidson declined to address Aucoin’s criticism.
“I think everybody out there in 7th Fleet was really busting their hump trying to meet the mission,” Davidson said.
At Pacific Command, Davidson will be responsible for about 375,000 U.S. military and government personnel and an area that covers half the earth’s surface and includes the high-stakes South China Sea and North Korea.
“It’s no secret what’s going on out there in Asia,” Davidson said. “There is a historic opportunity potentially on the horizon with this potential meeting with North Korea. I think at this point we should all view it as an opportunity.”
© 2018 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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