The following are transcripts of interviews and prepared remarks from Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly. The most recent additions appear first.
All transcripts and recordings from commercial media sources are courtesy of the copyright holder.
Jan. 3, 2020: Interview on Hugh Hewitt radio program. Click here for the YouTube audio recording of the segment.
HH: Of course the huge news overnight: President Trump ordered the killing of Khasim Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard–probably the second most important person in the rogue regime that is Iran.
Joining me this morning to talk about that and of course our force structure overall, Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly.
Secretary Modly, welcome. It’s great to have you back. It’s been nine months since we’ve talked. I’m glad to have you this morning.
TM: Good morning, Hugh. How are you?
HH: Great. First question has to come about last night. Do we have the assets and the rules of engagement in place to protect our citizens, our forces, our allies in the region that Iran could threaten as retaliation?
TM: I certainly believe that that’s true, Hugh. I think the President’s number one priority is to protect our people overseas. And so any action that we take over there has that in mind prior to any action being taken. And so we thought through those things pretty seriously, and we feel like we have the forces in place to protect. But that being said, the Iranians are a rogue regime, and they’ve got all kinds of nefarious ways of going about things. So we just have to be very, very vigilant and make sure that we’re taking care of our people.
HH: Secretary Modly, do we have carriers in the region? Are we dispatching more naval strength to the region in anticipation of potential retaliation?
TM: Yeah, well, Hugh, we do have a carrier in the region. I’d prefer not to get into more detail about what other forces may or may not be flowing into the area. But the Harry S. Truman is there. It relieved the Lincoln that had been there for about ten months. So, but other than that, I really, I can’t really go into much more detail.
HH: All right, but last question on this. The rules of engagement do allow our troops, especially our ships, to respond to any provocation?
TM: Yes, they do.
TM: They have the ability to protect themselves and protect Americans, and so they, that’s pretty clear to all of our commanders.
HH: Now originally, I scheduled this to talk to you about force structure, so I want to go there.
HH: I first have to say, though, you’re a fellow Buckeye and a fellow Browns fan. What do you think of Urban Meyer as the head of the Browns?
TM: I’m tracking that very closely. It’s been a very disappointing season for all of us. But I don’t know. I think that he’s a pretty strong football mind, and I think he has been able to build pretty good culture wherever he’s been, and I think that’s one of the things that seems to be lacking there the team. So if that’s the direction they go, I think there are a lot worse choices they could make.
HH: Now the reason I asked that is he builds things, he gets a plan, he sticks to it. The Browns have had eight plans, ten plans over the last 20 years, and that’s why nothing ever works. They don’t stick to a plan. The President has a plan for 355 ships in his Navy, and for 12 carriers. We aren’t anywhere close to that. When we talked nine months ago, we talked about this. Is there ever going to be a plan, Secretary Modly?
TM: Yes, and in fact, I’m actually here today at the U.S. Naval Institute. I’ve gathered together a group of both folks from inside the Navy, Department of the Navy, and the Marine Corps, and a bunch of outside experts and academics, and folks who have looked at force structure for years. And we’re going to sit down and talk this through, and we’re going to come up with some recommendations for Secretary Esper, and for the, ultimately for him to bring to the President to say look, this is the path that we need to be on to get to the number that you want. And the number itself can’t just be a random number. It has to be a number that works in terms of when we look at various war gaming scenarios and how the national defense strategy has changed, and what the threat scenarios are, and that’s what we’ve been working on, actually, for the last several months internally, doing something called the integrated naval force structure assessment, which is the first time we’ve actually brought the Marine Corps and the Navy together to look at this to determine what types of platforms and what that force mix should look like.
HH: Now I am certainly not the person to tell you what the force mix should look like, but I know what the number is, because the President has said it repeatedly – 355 ships.
HH: What was that memo to OMB about? Because to a civilian, and that’s what I am, I’m just a civilian. It looked like near insubordination.
TM: Well, now I wouldn’t say that, Hugh. I mean, we’re going through a budget process right now, and you know, that budget process has puts and takes, as particularly as you get to the end game, which is where we are now. We roll the budget out in February. And so we’re looking at those various puts and takes, and trying to present some options to, both to the Secretary of Defense and the President in terms of final decisions. So I mean, I think the OMB memo was, you know, had some concerns about where this might look. I think they overstated in that memo where that, where those decisions would drive the end force number. I think we’re still, regardless, we’re going to be over 300, or close to 300 at the end of this year. We started out the administration at 275. But the path to 355 is a challenging path, because you know, frankly, it’s a mathematical issue. I mean, if you’re going to grow the force by 25-30%, and we started at 275, you need to have a top line that matches that. And right now, we sort of have, we had a big bump in the first year or two, but we’re sort of inflation-adjusted, sort of flat going forward. And so that’s where the decisions base has to be brought and made clear to the President and the Secretary of Defense about, hey look, if this is the path we’re going on, we’re going to probably need to have more top line for the Navy.
HH: So Secretary Modly, if you go to this sit down this morning, and your first question is here is our budget, what can we build with it, you’ll have a very different discussion than if your first question is the President has said 355 and 12, how do we get there as fast as possible, and then what will it cost. Which approach are you going to adopt?
TM: No, no, my approach is the latter, and I’ve made that very clear from my first day in the acting seat, is that I want a plan for 355 in 10 years. And so that is what, that is the mandate that I’ve given the Navy and the Marine Corps to look at, and that is the way we’re looking at it. It’s not completely resource unconstrained. I mean, we have to be realistic about things.
But you know, my perspective on this is very consistent with where I was two years ago when I was sworn in as the under [secretary of the Navy], which I think the number is going to be more than 355. And I’ve always called it 355 plus, because I think it’s going to be that number plus a variety of other platforms that we’re probably, that we hadn’t thought about before, and that includes unmanned vehicles, it includes a new type of, perhaps, smaller amphib-type ship that we hadn’t looked at before. So I think it, my perspective is the right mix for us is going to be 355 plus, and that could be anywhere from 400 to, you know, 420 platforms, some manned, some unmanned, you know, some under the traditional guise that we’ve been looking at before.
HH: I’m so glad to hear that, because you’ll get a plan, then, if you demand it. My question is you don’t get what you don’t ask for. You don’t get the money unless Congress knows you need it, and you have to persuade. Are you prepared, and I know actings have some limitations, but you don’t seem to care about that, and I’m glad to hear that. Are you going to go up there and persuade the Hill that we need this money now to get to what the President has said he wants?
TM: Certainly. I mean, that is, that has been the challenge, because a 355 goal isn’t law, but it was put in law by the authorizers, and not funded by the appropriators. So that is the big challenge, and I’m glad you mentioned this point about me being acting. I mean, being acting doesn’t mean you’re pretending. So you know, I’m in the seat, and I believe that I am, have the responsibility and the authority to address these challenges that the Navy has, because we don’t really know how long I’ll be in the seat. And it’s a very critical time for our Navy, and I expect to take that on full force.
HH: You’ve got a new CNO. Is he as committed to 355 plus as you are?
TM: I, oh, he’s definitely, both he and General Berger, the new commandant, have been very much involved in the process of determining what this new force structure will look like, and has opened up a lot of creative options. So yeah, he’s very committed to it.
HH: Does it involve new shipyards, because that is one of the crucial bottlenecks. I’ve known about it for years even as a civilian, and it seems to me we can’t get to 355 unless we open or expand places like Philadelphia.
TM: I think it definitely, in the final analysis, if we are able to fund this and convince people that we need to fund this, it will create opportunities for other shipyards, not just Philadelphia, but probably some things in the Midwest that can produce smaller vessels that perhaps are unmanned and also built in other parts of the country. So I think it’ll definitely open up opportunities for our existing shipyards, but also for others as well.
And also, the other thing you need to think about is that the bigger the force is, the more maintenance you need. And that also opens up opportunities for expanding our maintenance bases, or our maintenance infrastructure across the country. And part of the problem we’ve had with this is that we haven’t been able to send a good, strong, consistent demand signal to those other shipyards, and so they’re just not interested in engaging with the Navy. And so we have to make sure that you know, this is a national imperative, and we’re driving towards a bigger Navy, and I think then, industry will follow.
HH: There is also the need for a 5th generation fighter, or a declaration that we’re not going to have one. Have you made that decision, yet, Secretary Modly?
TM: Well, we have the 5th generation fighter in the F-35. We are looking at sort of the 6th generation fighter right now, and that is currently under development. But no decision’s been made on what direction we’re going to go with that.
HH: Excuse me, I misspoke. But do you, are you committed to the 6th generation, because the F-35 doesn’t have the range that a lot of the experts I read say you need.
TM: Oh, I think we should always, yeah, I’m committed to always advancing our aviation capabilities, so you know, if the next generations, you know, we’re on 5th now, then 6th generation is clearly something we should be looking at and understanding what that’s going to take to get there.
HH: Last question, are you going to put back the submarine that was cut in the OMB and the other cuts in the OMB memo? Are they going to be back on the board today at the end of the day?
TM: Well, all those things, all those things are decisions that are going to be made in the coming, in the next several weeks. Ultimately, it’s a decision for the Secretary of Defense. I think, you know, we would love to have that submarine back in. And we’re going to make the case for it, and we’ll see whether or not the top line follows.
HH: Secretary Modly, thank you. Come back after you’ve had your sit down, and I’m glad you’re asking the first question the way you are. Good luck in getting everyone on the same team, and rowing in the same direction. I appreciate it. Finally, we might get a plan for 355, and it’ll be Tom Modly’s achievement. Thank you, Secretary.
TM: Thank you. Thanks, Hugh. Thanks for having me on.
[End of interview.]