Outgoing Navy Sec. Mabus leaves profound imprint on policies, ship acquisition
By WYATT OLSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 29, 2016
Note: This article has been corrected.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus recently recalled the last year in the life of his father, a timber merchant who died decades ago at 85.
“The last year of his life, he didn’t cut a single tree but he planted thousands, and he did that as an act of faith, an act of hope,” Mabus told sailors in Hawaii. “He knew as an absolute fact that he would never see any money, never see any benefit, but he did it. He did it for his granddaughters that he never met. He did it for their children.”
The long haul has been a major part of the philosophy that has driven the former Mississippi governor since he assumed the Navy post in May 2009. He retires Jan. 20 after serving longer in that job than anyone since World War I.
Mabus is also among the most controversial Navy secretaries. His coterie of fervent admirers consider him the Obama administration’s most effective service secretary. His detractors decry him as a social activist whose decisions -- from naming a ship for assassinated gay activist Harvey Milk, removing terms with “man” from enlisted rating systems and integrating men and women in Marine Corps basic training -- undercut esprit and combat effectiveness in favor of social engineering.
During Mabus’ tenure, the Navy signed contracts for 86 new ships, more than double the number contracted for in the previous seven years. His admirers credit his political skills for building bipartisan support for his policies on Capitol Hill.
“Ray Mabus is one of the most successful service secretaries in modern times,” said Loren Thompson, a defense expert at the Lexington Institute, a libertarian think tank in Virginia. “During the Obama years, the Navy has been by far the best managed of the military departments. Mabus has run a tight ship, and as a result the Navy and Marine Corps are in better shape than the Air Force or the Army.”
During his tenure, the self-described “disruptive” Navy secretary implemented an ambitious plan to wean the fleet off fossil fuels, increased the length of maternity leave and overruled a decision by the Marine Corps opposing a Pentagon order to allow women in all combat jobs.
He has also promoted gender neutrality in the Navy and Marine Corps by calling for unisex uniforms, instituting guidelines for transgender servicemembers, integrating men and women in basic training and stripping job titles of gender reference.
Those steps have drawn fire from conservatives, who are likely to look for a new direction in the incoming Donald Trump administration, which will be working with a Republican-controlled Congress.
The changes involving the Marine Corps so enraged Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Marine veteran, that he called for Mabus to resign and described him as “a greater threat to the Marine Corps than ISIS,” meaning the Islamic State.
Some female sailors are opposed to the proposed pants-only style -- no more skirts -- while others have criticized the possibility of having to spend more on uniforms during a transition.
The House Armed Services Committee noted in a markup of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act that the Navy was unable to identify an “operational necessity” for the uniform changes.
Mabus also angered some conservatives over naming ships. In 2012 he proposed naming an LCS after Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who has become an icon for gun control advocates since she was gravely wounded by a gunman in Tucson, Ariz., a year earlier.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., added an amendment to the 2012 defense authorization bill calling for a report on how far Mabus had strayed from unofficial naming protocols.
The subsequent report concluded that, aside from the USS Gabrielle Giffords, the ship names Mabus had chosen were “consistent with established, special and unofficial naming conventions.”
“I’ve always been astounded at people that work their whole lives to get into leadership positions and then refused to lead,” Mabus told Stars and Stripes. “If you are making decisions, you’re going to get criticism. If you don’t get any criticism it probably means you’re not doing very much.”
Mabus contends that the underlying motive for his changes has been to make sailors and Marines better warfighters.
“Overall, I hope that my legacy is that the Navy and Marine Corps are substantially changed but also significantly stronger than they were eight years ago,” Mabus said.
On the top of his to-do list was increasing the number of ships being built for the Navy, a goal Mabus has achieved.
“In 2001, the U.S. Navy had 316 ships,” Mabus said. “By 2008, seven years later, after one of the big military buildups in our history, we were down to 278 ships.” With the contracts in the pipeline, the Navy is on track to possess 308 ships by 2021, he said.
Mabus has also overseen the commissioning of the first wave of the troubled littoral combat ships, which have suffered from high-profile breakdowns at sea.
Critics say the Navy let construction get ahead of testing for the new style of warship.
“We just think the LCS program was totally mismanaged, that the Navy prioritized speed in the program rather than having a good sense of what they want the ships to actually do,” said Mandy Smithberger, a defense expert with the Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan watchdog organization in Washington.
The ships were designed for a smaller crew than past warships, but Smithberger and other critics argue that the manning expectations are unrealistic.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office recommended this summer that Congress pause funding LCSs until the Navy alters its acquisition strategy.
Mabus has defended the vessels, calling them “great ships” earlier this fall and maintaining that the Navy will work through the initial problems.
Mabus also touts the success of moving the Navy and Marine Corps away from fossil fuels to renewables. He launched the Great Green Fleet initiative soon after becoming secretary, and earlier this year the first aircraft carrier group was deployed using a 50-50 blend of fossil and biofuels.
As of last year, Navy and Marine Corps bases were getting half their energy from renewable sources, such as solar, wind and geothermal, Mabus said. Renewables account for about 35 percent of the energy the Navy uses at sea – half of which is nuclear.
“We’re better warfighters today because of it,” he said. “We’re more expeditionary because of it. We’re less vulnerable because of it.”
Sweeping changes in Navy policy, however, are likely what Mabus will be most remembered for – assuming they aren’t reversed by the incoming administration.
Mabus’ effort “clearly reflects President Obama’s views,” said John Hattendorf, emeritus Ernest J. King professor of maritime history at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island.
The length of Mabus’ tenure has provided stability and allowed him to shepherd changes, Hattendorf said, comparing Mabus to Navy secretary Josephus Daniels, who held the position from 1913 to 1921 and ushered in a more professional service.
Daniels drew fire from sailors for banning the use of alcohol on board, but Mabus’ decisions and policy changes have drawn greatest fire from Navy and Marine Corps alumni and conservative lawmakers.
Last year, the Marine Corps sought an exception to a Defense Department requirement that qualified women be allowed into combat jobs. The Corps had based the request on a study it said showed that teams and squads with women were slower and more prone to injuries.
Mabus publicly panned the study for failing to include physically capable women as participants. He also said that because the Marine Corps did not have standards in place for those combat positions, such a study was unable to judge minimal performance requirements for the jobs.
When it comes to naming ships, Mabus said, “I know I’m not going to please everybody. But my job, as I see it, is to make sure that those ships connect to the American people.
“If you live in Wichita, you don’t have much connection to the Navy normally. But now that there’s a USS Wichita, there’s that connection.”
Mabus’s predecessor instituted a namesake convention based on famous American explorers and pioneers for a new class of supply ships called T-AKEs. Mabus named ships after civil rights leaders Medgar Evers and Cesar Chavez because he regards them as pioneers.
“I got the name Cesar Chavez from the shipyard,” he said. “They were the ones who recommended it because 85 percent of the shipyard workers in San Diego are Hispanic.”
Mabus ushered in a host of personnel changes designed to attract recruits and retain sailors, such as increasing the hours Navy day care is available, allowing commanders to promote by merit rather than longevity for up to 5 percent of their enlisted personnel and tripling maternity leave to 18 weeks. That leave plan was curtailed earlier this year when Carter announced an across-the-force maternity leave of 12 weeks.
“I think that Ray Mabus, on the whole, has been good for the Navy,” said Shawn VanDiver, director of the San Diego chapter of the Truman Center for National Policy, a Washington organization that advocates progressive ideas for national security.
VanDiver, who joined the Navy at 17 in 2001 and served until 2013, believes that many of the personnel policy changes made by Mabus reflect generational change.
“My generation is now coming into the ranks of power, and nobody gives a [expletive] if somebody is gay or if a woman is running something in the military,” he said. “We just don’t care.”
How much of Mabus’ legacy, including contracting, renewable energy and gender equality, will survive the incoming administration is an open question since Republicans won control of Congress and the White House in the Nov. 8 election.
“It’s hard to roll back the stuff your predecessor did unless there’s some reason that it’s absolutely not working,” VanDiver said.
Of potential reversals, Mabus said, “If you go back, you make us a less effective warfighting force. I don’t know anybody who wants to do that.
“It shouldn’t be ideological. It shouldn’t be a matter of political correctness or anything like that. It’s what makes us better warfighters.”
Correction: An article about the tenure of Navy Secretary Ray Mabus incorrectly stated that a Marine Corps study that assessed integration of women into combat teams had not been released to the public. It is available at www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/wisr-studies/USMC%20-%20Line%20Of%20Effort%203%20GCEITF%20Experimental%20Assessment%20Report2.pdf