Colin Clark, Breaking Defense
13 May 2015
WASHINGTON – Even before it’s announced, the Pentagon’s pick for Chief of Naval Operations – the current head of Naval Reactors — is already being questioned, not because of his performance but because of his current job.
When Adm. Hyman Rickover created the unique post of director of Naval Reactors (NR) with its eight-year term, he did it to insulate the job from both congressional and Navy pressures.
“I have nothing but good things to say about Richardson, and I have no doubt he would make an excellent CNO at this time, but the precedent this will set if the Senate confirms him definitely gives me pause,” one congressional staffer said, referring to the expected announcement this afternoon by Defense Secretary Ash Carter that he will recommend the appointment of Adm. John Richardson to be Chief of Naval Operations.
The idea behind the Naval Reactors job was pretty simple. You get this job. You do a great job for eight years. You don’t have to worry about being transferred or pushed around as much because you’re in the job and you’ll do it and then you’ll retire.
A second congressional aide was less worried about the precedent and more concerned about Richardson’s paucity of experience with the surface fleet and the aviation components of the Navy. “Let’s make sure he’s not just the CNO of undersea,” noting that almost all of Richardson’s command experience was in submarines. The aide was at pains to note that, “we have confidence he will look at all the other pillars of the Navy.” And you can be pretty sure that Richardson will do just that because of comments like this and the pressure that will come from other parts of the navy that will suspect him of caring most about what he has done most — submarines. Also, it is worth noting he did serve as naval aide to the president.
One of the Navy’s most important lawmakers, Rep. Randy Forbes, issued this statement, making clear that the admiral must focus on all of the Navy:
“Admiral Richardson has shown exceptional leadership in the Submarine Service and I am confident, should he be nominated, that he will use the broader scope of this new role to focus holistically on our Navy’s strength, from reinvigorating the surface fleet to charting the future of Naval Aviation” (emphasis added).
Carter may have decided that the replacement for the Ohio class nuclear submarines is so important it needs a vigorous and unimpeachable advocate with enormous
credibility in the world of submariners. Why? The Navy has already admitted it can’t afford the SSBN-X or Ohio Replacement Program (ORP), as it’s become known. Each sub will cost at least $4.9 billion, according to the latest estimates. And odds are that they will cost more. One of the key reasons is the sheer complexity of an advanced nuclear missile submarine.
Here’s a Richardson quote on the complexity of the Ohio Replacement: “It’s like watching six buses moving down the highway — staying in formation, constantly staying even — and trying to paint those buses simultaneously as they go.”
For a glimpse at Richardson the commander, here’s what Sydney wrote when Richardson took the Nuclear Reactors job, which he was to hold until 2020:
Richardson, like Rickover and outgoing NR chief Adm. Kirkland Donald, is a career submariner, but he’s unusual in the normally reserved submarine community for writing a blog, including a recent, widely cited post on character that pulls together such diverse strands as the Naval Academy cheating scandal, the Abu Ghraib torture scandal and Plato’s Republic.
When this nomination hits the Senate, I think we can expect Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, a former naval aviator with a long Navy family history, to pay very close attention to Richardson’s personal and professional qualities. Will McCain raise questions about Richardson, the sanctity of the Nuclear Reactors job, and both their futures? It’s too soon to tell.
Carter is expected to announce Richardson’s selection at 1:30 pm.