John Lehman, Wall Street Journal
26 May 2015
The president disregards a policy that for decades has ensured effective leadership of the nuclear fleet.
President Obama, possibly unaware of the implications, has made a mistake by nominating Adm. John Richardson as the new chief of naval operations. Adm. Richardson likely would do a fine job in that important role, but by trying to move him from his current position as director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, the president has crossed a line and created a precedent that could have grave consequences for the effectiveness of the nation’s nuclear fleet.
First, a little history is in order. Adm. Hyman Rickover, the father of the U.S. Navy’s nuclear fleet and one of the fathers of commercial nuclear power, was a great man. Including his time at the Naval Academy, he served for 55 years on active duty and ran the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program for three decades until his retirement in 1982. He created and oversaw a culture of personnel and engineering excellence that is unique in the world.
While Adm. Rickover reported to the chief of naval operations and the secretary of the Navy, he had virtually absolute authority and accountability for the Navy’s nuclear submarine and surface-ship programs. Largely due to the culture of engineering excellence and quality control he created, nearly 300 U.S. Navy nuclear warships have operated flawlessly for 64 years without a single nuclear incident. They played a major role in giving the U.S. Navy command of the seas and victory in the Cold War. During the same period their Soviet counterparts had many nuclear accidents and incidents.
I was the secretary of the Navy in the early 1980s when it came time for Adm. Rickover to retire at age 81. The challenge was to preserve his fail-safe personnel policies and the culture of engineering excellence he had created, while ensuring that it could be passed on from one capable successor to another without endangering its discipline even for a short period.
Working with the bipartisan leadership of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, the Senate and House Armed Services Committees and the secretary of energy, we constructed a solution. We replaced Adm. Rickover’s personal rule with a position having executive power to prevent meddling from the layers of bureaucracy that were creating chaos in most defense programs. Importantly, we gave the new incumbent complete control of the selection and training of personnel. To ensure that such a powerful executive stayed long enough to execute programs and ensure accountability, a nonrenewable term of eight years was established.
That successful effort was put into an executive order by President Reagan that has worked effectively for 34 years. Since Adm. Rickover’s retirement there have been five outstanding admirals in the job. All would have made fine chiefs of Naval Operations. But because each of them before Adm. Richardson stayed a full eight years and exercised the powers granted them by the executive order, the Navy nuclear program has been an island of success in line authority and line accountability.
Unfunded overruns in other Pentagon programs total more than $400 billion, according to the Government Accountability Office. But the Navy’s nuclear submarine programs have been consistently on budget and on time. They have been protected from the 970,000 Pentagon bureaucrats whose paralyzing bloat has made a hash of most Army, Navy and Air Force weapon programs. The reason for Navy nuclear success is because there has always been one strong experienced person in charge and accountable, standing like a stone wall against the bureaucratic onslaught.
But by far the most important benefit from this unique arrangement is the fact that there hasn’t been a single nuclear accident in the seven decades that the U.S. Navy has operated hundreds of nuclear submarines, carriers and surface combatants.
President Obama’s nomination of a current director of the Navy’s nuclear program to be the next chief of Naval Operations puts this unique record at risk. If Adm. Richardson leaves the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, which he has headed for less than two years, all that was accomplished by the executive order will be swept aside. The job will become one more rung up the career ladder, a perch for ambitious admirals to use to interact with and please the politicians who have the power to elevate them to more glamorous positions.
Worst of all, if the job is seen as a steppingstone, a fraying of the zero-defects culture may begin and the possibility of a nuclear accident within the U.S. Navy may increase. The consequences of a nuclear incident would be devastating and would threaten the Navy’s ability to continue to operate its current reactor designs.
The president should reconsider, and with the help of the Senate’s advice and consent, should choose another nominee. The Navy has 10 other superbly talented four-star admirals and many more vice-admirals of similar experience to choose from. If President Obama fails to recognize the singular importance of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program and goes forward with the Richardson nomination, historians will have no trouble placing the date and the blame if our nuclear Navy comes to grief.
Mr. Lehman was secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration, and a member of the 9/11 Commission.