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On 22 August 2019, Admiral Michael ‘Mike’ Gilday stepped into the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) of the US Navy at a challenging time. Amid growing threats around the globe – confront the forces of Beijing and Moscow and the ongoing counter-terrorism operations in the Middle East, Africa and Afghanistan – he must lead a Navy that is in the midst of a force structure assessment, resolve the persistent maintenance and readiness bills, deal with some of the fallout from the issues related to the development of the aircraft carrier USS GERALD R. FORD and cope with the questions about the training of the officers and sailors in the aftermath of the USS MCCAIN and USS FITZGERALD collisions. Faced with this laundry list of challenges the Admiral has no plans to follow a ‘business-as-usual’ approach. ESD had the opportunity to talk to him.

Photos: US Navy

ESD: Admiral, what is your assessment of the US Navy since you took command in August this year?
Adm Gilday: Naval warfare is undergoing a rapid transition, which demands integration between each of our fleets. We are adopting this transition with urgency. Our Navy will deliver a combat credible maritime force ready to conduct prompt and sustained combat operations at sea. Together with the US Marine Corps, our Navy is the bedrock of Integrated American Naval power. We will re-examine our force structures with the US Marine Corps, aligning our concepts, capabilities, programming, planning, budgeting, and operations, in order to define and develop future platform. Our strategic direction is strong, and I am convinced of the necessity of working closely alongside our allies and partners across the globe, as we have done for many years.

ESD: How has your nation’s maritime security environment changed in the recent years, and how have those changes impacted the operations, manning, and future plans of your Navy?
Adm Gilday: I believe that naval warfare is undergoing a rapid transition, demanding the integrated, multi-domain capabilities of our fleets. We must and will respond to this transition with urgency. The very nature of our operating environment requires shared common values and a collective approach to maritime security. And that makes steady, enduring Navy-to-Navy relationships more important than ever.

Combined with a robust constellation of allies and partners who desire to build and strengthen the international economic order, we are all operating towards the same end. I am keenly focused on continuing our efforts to ensure security and stability that results in a free and open maritime commons.

Given the changing security environment and the increasingly multi-domain nature of threats, accelerating our sea service digital transformation is critical to preparing our assets and personnel to fight effectively across all domains

ESD: How would you define the nature of the maritime challenges facing your navy?
Adm Gilday: The scope and scale of human activity today has made our economies more dependent on the seas than ever before. From energy generation to mining, from the transport of raw and refined products around the world to fishing and expanding digital infrastructures – all of us depend on the world’s oceans. Waterways enable economic prosperity of nations, allowing the free flow of more than 90% of all trade and 99% of digital information. Indeed, our global economy floats on seawater.

The rise of global information systems, and the role of data in decision-making have also helped foster the environment and competition in which we find ourselves. Today, we are in a competition for sea control, sea lines of communication, access to world markets, and diplomatic partnerships. These are challenges, but also opportunities for us to harness these forces and compete effectively in today’s maritime security environment.

ESD: Which are the difficulties facing your navy and how will you try to overcome these?
Adm Gilday: As we will still be using about 75% of our current fleet in 2030 we must continue to modernise our weapons, sensors, and platforms as we have learned over the past decade that it is cheaper to maintain readiness than to buy it back. Our near-term challenge is reversing the trend of delivering only 40% of our ships from maintenance on time by reducing, and eliminating, lost days through depot availability.

The USS GERALD R. FORD underway on its own power for the first time. The first-of-class ship – the first new US aircraft carrier design in 40 years – spent several days testing the ship’s key systems and technologies

ESD: What is likely to have the biggest impact on your Navy over the next years?
Adm Gilday: I am focused on the frontiers of technology, which has always shaped the naval environment. We are rapidly innovating and digitising our operations through tactical cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. We will combine that innovation with our talented sailors to generate unprecedented naval power – naval power that will preserve security.

The USN will further integrate space, cyber, electronic warfare, and special operations into fleet Maritime Operations Centres and the fleet staffs must strengthen and synchronise space, full-spectrum cyber, electronic warfare (EW), and information operations (IO) to fight effectively across all domains.

Thoughtful, focused decisions to rapidly mature, acquire, and field cutting-edge technologies – and integrating them into joint operating concepts – will be key to ensuring our navy always fights from a position of advantage among a network of allies and partners, unmatched by any rival.

ESD: As the former Commander U.S. Fleet Cyber Command/U.S. 10th Fleet, you are the right person to understand what the dangers of cyber threats are for your navy. What will be the greatest challenges the US Navy will have to face? What is needed to improve security in the cyber domain?
Adm Gilday: My experience as Commander of the US 10th Fleet helped me to understand the connections between the digital world and the maritime, and the challenges related to the interconnectedness of both. I believe we must strive to think differently and to educate our sailors about this digital realm as we rely on it more and more for security and stability. The US Navy will bridge the cyber divide to overcome new operational challenges in our own fleets. We must leverage the power of networks, tactical cloud computing, machine learning, and artificial intelligence (AI), including tactical clouds on our platforms and shore infrastructure.

ESD: Obviously, people are the key element in naval forces. Does your navy face any problems in recruiting and retaining the right people? Rumour goes that the crews are overstressed due to the increasing commitments and long deployments. What should be done to address these issues?
Adm Gilday: Our navy cannot succeed without its sailors – they are our asymmetric advantage. By every metric, our sailors are the best we’ve ever seen. Last year, 75% of our sailors who were eligible to reenlist for a second tour did so, and we’ve met our recruiting goals for the past 21 years.

Going forward, we must have the right mix of people with the right proficiency, experience, and training to properly man the fleet. I want my sailors to be focused on being at the highest possible operational readiness level. Therefore, we must care for them and their families and providing sailors stable and predictable deployment cycles, because at the end of the day, it’s not high technology that will win a fight – it’s going to be the individual sailors.

ESD: What do you think is needed for an effective approach to Maritime Security and Maritime Situational Awareness?
Adm Gilday: Today, the very nature of our operating environment requires shared common values and a collective approach to maritime security. And that makes steady, enduring Navy-to-Navy relationships more important than ever. Our common naval experience strengthens our ties and maintains the security and stability that continue to deliver prosperity to all. While any navy can surge forces, none of us can surge trust.

ESD: One of the first major maritime international events you attended as the new CNO was the XIIth Regional Seapower Symposium (XIIth RSS) in Venice. What is the value of this symposium?
Adm Gilday: The “XIIth Regional Seapower Symposium” underscored the inherent interconnectedness of the globe: of our economies, thoughts and ideas and our security. The symposium brought together a robust constellation of allies and partners who desire to build and strengthen the international economic order, all operating towards the same end – continued security and stability. Our strategic direction is strong, and I am convinced of the necessity of working closely alongside our allies and partners across the globe, as we have done for many years. I am focused on continuing our efforts to ensure a free and open maritime commons. Symposia like the Regional Seapower Symposium-series help us build relationships so that we can talk to each other in good times as well as in difficult ones. And that makes steady, enduring Navy-to-Navy relationships more important than ever. Consequently, we are committed to maintaining a steady course of naval cooperation, strengthening the connections among our services.

ESD: What is the course ahead for the US Navy? How do you see the evolution of the US Navy both on the short and long term?
Adm Gilday: Mission one for each of our sailors – active, reserve and civilian – is the operational readiness of the fleet. Improving depot-level maintenance, integrating space and cyber capabilities, modernising training and education, and striving toward a culture of excellence will ensure we have a ready navy for tomorrow. We must be a ready navy – ready to fight today – but also be committed to training, maintenance, and modernisation, which will ensure that we have a ready Navy for tomorrow.

We will experiment and exercise at the high end of naval operations. Hence my intention to organise again more large-scale exercises that will include a great deal of experimentation, starting already in the Summer of 2020. These exercises will allow us to develop and test alternative concepts in order to provide us the means to adapt or modify our doctrines and tactics where needed. And by doing so, we will improve our readiness and responsiveness, pioneer new concepts, strengthen deterrence, and positively shape the security environment.

I intend to ensure the sea service remains focused on its role, as part of the Joint Force, in protecting the American homeland and defending America’s interests. It is our duty to ensure that we can compete, fight and win across the spectrum from peaceful presence to violent conflict – in all domains.

ESD: Admiral Gilday, being at the helm as CNO since 22 August 2019, what do you hope to achieve by the end of your tenure?
Adm Gilday: It’s the honour of my career to be the Chief of Naval Operations, and it is my job to make sure that we have a ready navy, capable to conduct and sustain combat operations at sea if called upon and, at the same time, keep eyes on the horizon in order to build a navy that is needed for the future. I intend to ensure that we will be the navy the United States expects and deserves, always guided by our core values of honour, courage, and commitment.

The interview was conducted by Guy Toremans.