NORFOLK, Va. — The head of U.S. Fleet Forces Command operates a fleet smaller than the Navy planned, due to delays in ship and submarine construction and maintenance.
But Adm. Daryl Caudle said reducing operations isn’t an option, as Navy forces routinely find themselves in contact with their Russian and Chinese counterparts and demand for their presence is on the rise.
So the admiral has put together a four-part plan meant to maximize the fleet’s usefulness.
Using Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday’s prioritization of readiness spending on people, maintenance, parts and training as a starting point, Caudle’s plan is intended to turn that readiness into operational lethality.
This plan focuses on improving how the Navy budgets for and creates readiness, how it trains, and how it can best employ those ready forces at home and abroad.
There are some problems the Navy has that can’t be solved in a single five-year budget planning window, Caudle told Defense News in a March 30 interview in his Norfolk office.
And these problems hit at the heart of Navy priorities: sailors, maintenance, training.
The first piece of Caudle’s four-part plan addresses readiness problems across 15-year periods he views as more manageable from a cost and execution perspective.
For three initial readiness problems, Caudle charted an ideal spending path that would gradually fix these complex issues over three five-year budget planning windows. If they Navy had extra money one year, it could accelerate spending and bring about faster improvement; if budgets were tight, the Navy could make informed decisions about the risks it would incur by spending less.
“There’s transparency, there’s accountability, there’s risk illustration to it, which is very appealing to me so that I know kind of where I am,” he said.
Caudle developed these spending curves as the user of the manpower, spare parts and training, and passed them along to Navy budget teams in the Pentagon who he said have begun turning to them to inform budget decisions.
Caudle called this effort “committing to the curve,” and said he’s already briefed three- and four-star admirals.
He said there are three topics he addressed first: manning, repair parts and Live, Virtual and Constructive training systems.
“We’re undermanned,” he said. “I cannot apply enough money, enough resources, enough recruiting effort, enough retention effort in one five-year period to go compensate for the manning deficiencies. So you can see, if I can phase what that curve would look like over three [five-year Future Years Defense Programs] and keep us on plan, I can digest that amount of resource allocation, understand the risk that I’m taking … and then go solve this more gently over time, like an amortization process.”
On repair parts, Caudle said the service has accumulated a backlog of spending on parts, leading to frustration when maintainers can’t fix their ship or airplane because the needed part isn’t in the supply locker.
Caudle’s “curve” for repair parts would prioritize spending on high-impact parts, a small number of parts that account for a large percentage of maintenance troubles. The second priority would be parts for ships and planes going on deployment, and the lowest priority — and where the Navy could accept risk if funding is tight — would be routine parts for ships at homeport.
Caudle said he mapped out this spending curve too late to inform the FY24 budget proposal, but the chief of naval operations included in the service’s annual unfunded priorities list $175 million for spare parts for aircraft in deploying air wings, to bolster Navy spending to get “on curve.”
“We did some experimentation with the George Herbert Walker Bush air wing and plussed-up some of their supply parts that they took on board. And they have been able to maintain, on average, around three additional tactical airplanes up throughout their deployment,” Caudle said. “I’m in conversation today with other fleet commanders, and of course the CNO’s staff, on what level to fund our air wings so that we get the most readiness when they deploy, but we don’t break the bank.”
On LVC, the service already has mature, connected training systems on ships and training ranges, but it still needs to loop in aircraft and make the training systems more realistic and inclusive of new weapons. Caudle’s curve for LVC investments shows an affordable 15-year path to buying the additional training systems and doing the integration needed to connect the whole force in a virtual training environment.
One Atlantic concept
Caudle, since taking command of U.S. Fleet Forces Command in December 2021, has sought to maximize his ships and planes’ ability to meet operational commanders’ needs.
He said a new One Atlantic concept, which is another piece of his plan, will help share ready naval forces across the Atlantic.
One Atlantic would ensure that, if the other three prongs of his plan succeed in creating more readiness and lethality, he can apply that to real-world operations, particularly to deter Russia or respond to Russian threats on both sides of the Atlantic.
In some cases, that would mean pushing ships and submarines across the Atlantic outside of their normal deployment cycle. This happened with Virginia-class attack submarine Oregon, he said, which participated in a high-end exercise in Europe that U.S. 6th Fleet otherwise would have had to skip.
Oregon joined the Navy in February 2022 and hadn’t even conducted a post-delivery shipyard period — but Caudle said the boat and crew were ready enough to conduct this limited mission and fill a gap that deployed 6th Fleet forces couldn’t.
One Atlantic could also use ready forces on this side of the ocean or cover the seam between U.S. Northern Command and U.S. European Command, which Caudle said fellow Virginia submarine South Dakota did.
“I have three or four times now sortied South Dakota in support, under tactical command of U.S. 6th Fleet, to use South Dakota to counter Russian out-of-area deployers,” Caudle said, referring to Russian submarines that stray beyond their local waters.
“This idea of fungibility across the actual [Unified Command Plan] line is what improves our warfighting,” Caudle said, noting it’s also “a utilization improvement” at a time he doesn’t have enough ships in the inventory.
“If you have some deficits in your force structure, then you have to be more creative, so utilization of an asset is extremely important,” he said, adding that One Atlantic “improves the quality and amount of force that is ready to actually respond” to homeland defense missions and foreign threats.
One Atlantic only works if ships are ready outside their usual deployment schedule, which today is not always the case. So, the remaining two pieces of his plan deal with training and readiness generation.
For one, Caudle wants to overhaul the Optimized Fleet Response Plan, which governs ship maintenance, training and deployment.
The three-year OFRP cycle starts with ships in maintenance. They go into basic, advanced and integrated training, and then deploy. After the deployment, there’s a sustainment phase; depending on the circumstances, some ships stay highly ready at this time in the OFRP cycle, while others see their readiness tank before they head into maintenance again.
Caudle’s OFRP renovation questions how ships and staffs move through the three-year cycle and how ready they are at various points along the way. Caudle is specifically examining whether ships have proper manning and munitions during training and in sustainment — something that could make or break a ship being able to duck out of training to conduct a real-world operation, like South Dakota or Oregon did.
The Navy doesn’t have enough money, munitions, people or parts to keep all ships fully ready throughout the entire OFRP cycle, but he said the Navy needs to keep more ships highly ready during sustainment — through initiatives like the Task Group Greyhound anti-submarine warfare group — to realize One Atlantic.
“As I speak, there are submarines that have Russian and Chinese submarines on their screens. So we are, no kidding, the only force that every day [has] troops in contact with our peer adversaries,” the admiral said, making it important to have additional ships and submarines that are, or quickly can become, trained and certified outside the normal deployment cycle.
To that point, Caudle said his plan would make further investments in Live, Virtual and Constructive training systems and the Ready Relevant Learning training model to ensure individual sailors, small units and ship crews are as prepared as possible, so they can jump into action quickly if called upon outside of their typical deployment cycle.
Ready Relevant Learning is a five-year-old training and education reform effort that rephased sailor training in technical schools, on the waterfront and on ships. LVC systems allow sailors to experience complex training scenarios they couldn’t rehearse live, and with more repetition than the Navy could afford to conduct live, to bolster sailor- and crew-level proficiency.
Asked if the early progress the Navy has made in each of these four lines of effort — investing in training, revamping OFRP, drafting long-term readiness spending plans and enacting One Atlantic — has made the fleet more ready to fight tonight, Caudle said “we are world class at operations when it’s certified, trained, equipped and ready. I’m trying to make that tank larger, so that there’s more of that level.”
“Anybody who goes against the Navy we’re talking about will have a very, very bad day,” he said. “That’s what we want them to contemplate on. If they look and see that’s hollow, or there’s chinks in that armor, then I think it gives them maneuver room to do things we don’t want them doing.”
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.