ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The Navy secretary will release a strategic guidance document this week outlining how the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps will maintain maritime dominance globally, strengthen strategic partnerships and empower people to succeed against China.
Carlos Del Toro, who has led the department for two months, previewed the strategic guidance to the Brigade of Midshipmen during a lecture at the U.S. Naval Academy Tuesday night.
“The desired goal, quite frankly, is not to fight China. No one wants to enter into a conflict. … It’s our ultimate responsibility to deter them from what they’re trying to accomplish, including taking over Taiwan. So it’s incredibly important … that we make the investments now, this year, as necessary to actually be able to focus more so on China and many of the other threats that we sometimes face around the world,” he said.
With that overarching goal in mind, Del Toro said the first priority in his strategic guidance is to make tough decisions today about how to spend limited defense funds in ways that will deter China.
“We’re building on Secretary of Defense [Lloyd] Austin’s vision of integrated deterrence, with an agile and a ready force. We’re building on [Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David] Berger’s Force Design 2030 to modernize the expeditionary posture of the Marine Corps. And we’re implementing [Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike] Gilday’s Navigation Plan to expand our fleet capabilities for distributed operations. We’re making tough decisions today, to make sure future officers like you in this room have the right combination and the number of platforms and weapons for the full spectrum of threats tomorrow,” Del Toro said in his speech.
He added the Navy was making investments in shipyards and maintenance depots and other readiness enablers, as well, to ensure those platforms and weapons could remain in the fight.
“Artificial intelligence. Cybersecurity. Unmanned platforms. Directed energy. Hypersonic weapons. Distributed power. These are the frontiers that will define your advantage against the People’s Republic of China, and it’s crucial that we field them expeditiously,” he said to the midshipmen.
Following his remarks, Del Toro told a small group of reporters that he had reviewed Gilday’s distributed maritime operations concept and Berger’s Force Design 2030 plans and was satisfied that both were the right directions for the services to move in. Now he just needs to put the right resources behind those plans.
Del Toro confirmed that the Navy, even as it awaits a fiscal 2022 spending plan from Congress, has already submitted its FY23 plan to the Pentagon and the White House for review and has starting early planning efforts for FY24.
He called it a “complicated kabuki dance” to deal with three fiscal years at once, but he said all three efforts keep China at the forefront. He said he was hopeful lawmakers would pass a version of the spending plan that adds in $25 billion for defense, which could support additional naval capacity and modernization to keep China in line. After submitting the FY23 plan, he and the Biden administration will now “work through the different issue papers that present the areas that we believe need additional investment in, for example. And some of those, as you can imagine, are investments that are critical to deter China in the Indo-Pacific.”
And for FY24, he again said he’s looking to balance readiness, capacity and modernization in a way that has the best return on investment in deterring China.
“We’re looking at all options in terms of what’s the existing size of the fleet; are there ships that perhaps we were planning on decommissioning in the past that we want to try to retain; and we’re looking at all those options actually to try to provide the most agile and capable force that we can to do the job that the combatant commanders have to do in the Pacific today,” he said.
He later told reporters he would like to put the Navy on a path to reach 355 manned ships, in line with previous Navy goals and legislation that Congress passed in December 2017.
“But whether it’s 355, whether it’s 330, whether it remains 300 obviously depends on how you continue to modernize, how you continue to invest in new technologies that do make a difference. Our ability to invest in cyber, for example, is extremely critical to the fight: if I can prevent the Chinese fleet from actually getting underway from the pier, wouldn’t that be a great thing,” the secretary said, noting he cares about the lethality the Navy brings to the fight more than the exact number of ships in the fleet.
He added China has proven it has greater shipbuilding capacity than the U.S. in recent years and is making smart investments in space and cyberspace, making smart U.S. investments critical.
Given the threat China poses not just to the U.S. but to allies and partners and the overall set of norms that have promoted peace since the end of World War II, Del Toro said the second priority in his strategic guidance was shoring up alliances and partnerships around the globe.
When asked how to handle China and specifically its continued threats towards Taiwan, Del Toro said it was “critically important” for the Navy to build up partnerships with “countries like Australia, India, the Philippines, Indonesia, many of the other countries in the Indo-Pacific who are being threatened, and to provide the necessary arms and weapons and technology necessary for Taiwan to be able to defend itself as well, so that China can look around and basically say, we don’t have any friends, we don’t have any maritime allies who will work with us; perhaps this isn’t the right choice to make. And hopefully that will deter them from what some believe is their ultimate goal, which is to take Taiwan.”
The Navy needs to be present not just in the South China Sea but across the globe, Del Toro told reporters.
“The Chinese are everywhere: they’re down the Pacific coast of Central and South America, they’re down the West Coast of Africa, for example, and it’s so important for us to be able to continue to engage with our maritime partners around the world to better understand why is it their countries are making the investments they’re making” with China under its Belt and Road initiative and if there are safer ways the U.S. can help these countries solve their problems without becoming economically or militarily beholden to China.
“Our hope really is to deter conflict in every possible way, and [what] better way to do it than to build a 600-ship navy or a 1,000-ship navy with all your allies and partners, to be able to support them where they need the biggest amount of help. But first it begins with trying to understand your partners, what they’re going through and what struggles they have and how can we work together to get to a better place,” he said, noting the Navy has an important role in this effort.
“I think this is part of President Biden’s plan, basically, when he said that America is back and we’re trying to do everything we can to engage our partners in a very sincere, engaging way.”
Third, Del Toro said, is a focus on empowering people. He spoke several times during his speech, the question-and-answer session and the media roundtable about the need for good leadership and embracing diversity, with the Navy drawing power from its young leaders understanding and caring about who they are leading, what the sailors’ and Marines’ strengths are based on their distinct backgrounds, and how to bring the team together in the strongest way.
“Our strategy will invest in recruiting, retaining, and promoting the best America has to offer to build the strongest possible warfighting team,” he said, noting in his speech that part of this investment was standing up the Naval Community College, which was stood up earlier this year and last week began accepting applications for an expanded Phase 2 of the pilot program.
Del Toro told reporters that his guidance would also call for increased investments in the Naval War College and the Naval Postgraduate School, where sailors can find specialties to study beyond simply surface warfare or aviation — something that Del Toro said would help the Navy become more lethal while also boosting retention and job satisfaction.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs, and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.