précis: In your more than forty years of service in the Navy, you held command at sea, you commanded aircraft squadrons, and ended your career commanding the Pacific Fleet. Thinking back on what you learned from those decades of experience, what would you change about the way the Navy works today?
SS: One of the criticisms I have about the Navy is that in some ways they change too much and in other ways they don't change enough. Anytime there's a turnover of leadership—which happens on a frequent basis, every two to three years within an organization in the Navy—a new commanding officer will have a sense of I've got a year or two years to leave my mark,” and that can be a disruption without a purpose.
When I took over the seventh fleet, I purposely didn't want to make a lot of changes right away. I spent 30 days listening, 30 days talking about what I'd heard and what I thought other people were saying, and then 30 days discussing what changes we needed to implement. Too often, we change for change's sake in the Navy. But the flip side of that is there's great resistance to change. We've seen this in the major conflicts that we've been involved with, certainly in World War I and World War II. There's an example of resistance to change in the Pacific with Admiral Chester W Nimitz. He was of the mind that he couldn't implement the changes that he felt were necessary until the Navy got to a failure point. In his sense that failure point was the attack on Pearl Harbor. Broadly, we don't think enough about strategy and I really don't think that we fully understand strategy.
précis: You've said before that the United States does not have a grand strategy right now. What do you think the consequences of not having a grand strategy end up being for the day to day life of people in the Navy?
SS: I'm interested in a grand strategy, not from a theory perspective, but from the practical perspective that the US has international interests it has to protect. We know we need to be focused internationally, and that we believe in free and open markets. These kinds of elements are the things that make up a grand strategy. But I think it’s really important to write things down, and I think we should make an effort to go even further than the National Security Strategy to codify what we think our grand strategy is. I think the national security strategy, as it stands now, is a great step forward, but you have to look at where we're stepping forward from. What our nation needs is a grand strategy with a clear rule set that makes up its approach to its international interests from a global perspective.
From that grand strategy comes regional strategies. All fifteen departments of the executive branch should think about developing their own strategy in connection with that grand strategy. For homeland defense, there are a lot of areas where they could be engaging with countries around the world to help them better understand how we manage defense of our homeland. And then from each of those strategies, we should derive our policy, but currently what we do is we see something we don't like and we just throw a bit of policy at it. Then we cobble all those bits of policy together and say that must be reflective of our strategy. What we do is we see an action, like a freedom of navigation operation and we try to correlate it to this grand strategy. If we are going to make the investment to do one freedom of navigation operation, there shouldn't be this debate that surrounds why we're doing it. That's what's should be tied, I think, to a grand strategy. And without making that connection, it's difficult to make the case for exactly why we're doing freedom of navigation operations.
précis: So from your perspective, the consequences of not having these things written down really comes down to not understanding how your operational objectives tie into a national goal?
SS: Absolutely. When I was the director of operations working for Admiral Robert F Willard, we developed a process that we call derived strategy. We categorized and characterized public statements being made by the various secretaries of each of the departments, and assumed that must be representative of what the grand strategy was. Then based on that, we would figure out what operational and tactical things were consistent with that strategy. It’s absolutely crazy. Can you imagine building a house that same way? You look at other houses and you take pictures of them saying, okay, from those pictures were going to construct our house. We're going to give this album of pictures to a builder and say, go build an amalgam of a house based on this. Outlets definitely wouldn't be in the right place. You need a design to drive your activities. Otherwise the opportunity that you have to derive value and support national interests is much more limited.
précis: Over the past few decades there has been a change in which individuals in the uniformed services started to do more and more policy work and more and more diplomacy on behalf of the civilian government. Given that change, military leaders might now have unique insight into what US goals and interests should be. How can military leaders contribute their insight to that conversation without overstepping their limits and disrupting civil-military relations?
We need to be cautious about that approach. I think the most important thing that I did as Pacific Fleet Commander was build relationships. I started to understand that when I was the Seventh Fleet Commander, that building relationships really was a prime part of my responsibilities and obligations as a senior commander. It's also important to point out that I didn’t make policy. I don’t think even the Pacific Command makes policy. But after the 2016 election, what I found was that as I continued to travel through the region, more and more of my agenda filled up with meetings with prime ministers, chiefs of defense, more senior people. And the first question that they all asked was, "What is going on in Washington?" So of course I didn't know what the answer was and still don't know what the answer is today.
But I had a strategy. I would ask their permission—knowing that the protocol was that it was appropriate for them to talk first—to ask the first question. Invariably, they would be polite. I’ve known most of these people for a long time because all my 40 years in the Navy except for three Pentagon tours and two years in the Middle East were in the Pacific. My question would be: “if you could provide me any insights as to what the hell is going on in Washington, I would appreciate it.” It was an immediate icebreaker, because that was their first question as well. So there is a concern that our foreign friends are reaching out more and more to the military, because they see us as an organization that’s bringing stability to an unstable environment. I wouldn't go so far as to say that’s dangerous, but it is counter to what we believe as Americans. It's counter to what the framers of the constitution had in mind as far as the sanctity of civilian government.
I don't think that the military should be making policy. I think Secretary Jim Mattis had it exactly right with respect to North Korea. When Rex Tillerson was secretary of state, Secretary Mattis continued to say that the State Department has to lead with China, with North Korea, with any international relations that are being negotiated or renegotiated.
précis: Do you think there's anything that senior leaders in the Department of Defense can do in terms of correcting that perception of the military as policy-makers or getting officers out of that awkward position?
SS: Yes and no. I think it's all right as long as officers are correcting the record in the moment and saying "I'm happy to share my opinion, but you really need to be talking to the State Department and I get the government appears to be confused." A lot of the problem is that we just haven't filled the civilian positions for whatever reason. So engagement is difficult, but I think it's important to make a caveat that “I can give you my military view, but that's not necessarily reflective the State Department's view and the State Department really has the lead on these points. I think freelancing to fill that in yourself as a military leader is certainly not ideal and potentially dangerous.
I'm not averse to the military being involved in policy development. They should be involved just like the Department of Agriculture, the Department of the Treasury, the Department of Homeland Security—they should all be involved in policy development. I don't have an issue with that. But in the absence of policy actions where it's up to our best guess to think what will be supportive of national policy, that's where we start to get in trouble.
précis: One of your signature issues as Pacific Fleet Commander was asking for more support for readiness and less for new ships. Can you elaborate on that and say what you think the Navy’s operational imperatives are right now?
SS: I've gotten myself into hot water by saying we own more Navy than we can afford. Every year Congress says: “here’s the money you have to run your Navy.” Well, if this is the pot of money we have, and this is the amount of Navy we have, we have to make a reduction. This is just balancing your checkbook; it isn't rocket science. We don't have enough cash to operate, but we don't cut our operations. So that's why I say we own more Navy than we can afford. Well, people in DC didn't like that. But let's take the proposal for a 355 ship navy. Do we have enough shipyards to maintain 355 ships, to maintain more ships in Japan. We have more ships in Japan than we have dry docks to service them either in Yokosuka or in Sasebo. So we started doing some innovative things, trying to use any excess capacity that the civilian dry docks in Japan had. But that creates new security issues. Ship workers need to have clearances.
I remain skeptical about a 355 ship Navy for many reasons. Can you tell me what the grand strategy is again? Why 355? Can we support it from an infrastructure perspective? We can't support the Navy that we have today from a maintenance or a ship building perspective. And then when you look at it from a readiness perspective and what it takes to sustain that fleet, that's not what Congressmen want to hear. They want to build more ships because they want jobs. I think we can support the jobs program just by maintaining the fleet that we have.
précis: What is it that you wish civilian social scientists, policymakers and people like your colleagues this year at CIS understood about the Navy?
SS: It's really about understanding military personnel.It's so easy to judge folks in the military because it’s so hard to understand. People are initially uncomfortable when they find out what my background is. I get that that's part of the baggage, but I hope that my being here at MIT is going to help break down some of those barriers and allow people to make more holistic judgments about people they’re working with in the military. It's a big problem that the military has working with NGOs—there's this natural lack of trust. That's why I say the most important thing I do is build relationships. And the byproduct of building relationships is trust. I hope we can generate a deeper understanding of where we're coming from, and what we can do.