Nuclear Navy boss seen as a top CNO candidate

By David Larter, Staff writer2:28 p.m. EDT April 12, 2015


The Navy’s top nuke could switch to its top officer.

Seen until recently as a dark-horse candidate, Adm. John Richardson, director of Naval Reactors, has emerged as a leading candidate to become the chief of naval operations when fellow submariner Adm. Jon Greenert’s term ends later this year.



2015 outlook: The next CNO


Four sources with ties to senior leaders say that Greenert is supportive of Richardson becoming CNO, though it would be the first time a Naval Reactors director switched to the CNO job. The eight-year NR billet is unlike any other in the military. Its longevity is designed to ensure continuity and exacting oversight the nuclear reactors that power submarines and aircraft carriers and the sailors who operate them.

Richardson would bring firepower to the looming battle over funding for the next class of ballistic missile submarines, which at $4.9 billion apiece will break the Navy’s shipbuilding account if they aren’t partially funded elsewhere.

Admiral Bill Gortney (Photo: Rob Curtis/Staff)

“Jon Greenert’s priorities are Ohio replacement, two Virginia[-class submarine]s a year and maintaining undersea dominance,” said a retired three-star, who like others asked for anonymity to discuss internal personnel deliberations. “He sees Richardson as the right man for those priorities.”

Pentagon leaders and the White House will make the final decision, and there are many other top candidates, including Adms. Mark Ferguson, Bill Gortney, Michelle Howard and Cecil Haney. Adm. Samuel Locklear, the outgoing U.S. Pacific Command leader, Adm. Harry Harris, the Pacific Fleet boss, and Adm. James “Sandy” Winnefeld, the vice chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, are also possibilities.

President Obama gets the final word and many sources said Howard, currently the vice chief of naval operations, is an administration favorite. But some suggested she needs more four-star command experience, beyond serving as the VCNO.

Greenert was a previous Fleet Forces Command boss, as was former CNO Adm. Gary Roughead.

Admiral Mark Ferguson, III (Photo: Colin Kelly)

Gortney is head of U.S. Northern Command, Ferguson leads Naval Forces Europe and Africa, and Haney is head of U.S. Strategic Command. All three are also top CNO contenders who have considerable command experience.

Like Howard, Richardson is also in his first four-star command job. But two sources said his work as the consolidated disposition authority for the Glenn Defense Marine Asia corruption scandal, tasked with dealing punishment to officers who have been implicated, has driven his stock up with Navy Secretary Ray Mabus.

One industry source said Richardson makes sense because the service will have to purchase materials for the next-generation boomers, known as SSBN(X),during the next CNO’s administration.

“When you are talking about building a nuclear submarine, there are major [reactor] components that nobody keeps on the shelf,” the source said. “You have to start buying those in 2019, which will be the last year of the next guy’s term.”

Adm. Cecil Haney (Photo: DoD)

Sources said that Richardson, with his experience at Reactors, would be the right man to communicate the service’s needs to appropriators and inside the service.

Former sub skipper

Richardson has been a star for his entire career. He’s a 1982 Naval Academy grad, the same class as fellow contender Howard. He also holds three master’s degrees, from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the National War College, according to his biography.

Like Greenert and former CNO Adm. Mike Mullen, Richardson is a recipient of the fleet’s most prestigious leadership award. Richardson earned the Stockdale Award for his tour as skipper of the attack submarine Honolulu in Pearl Harbor.

Adm. Samuel J. Locklear, III (Photo: Mike Morones)

He also has experience on the Joint Staff and has served as a naval aide to the president. He started his job at Naval Reactors in 2012, a post he is slated to hold until 2020. Two sources in the submarine community said the idea of Richardson becoming CNO has caused some heartburn in the Naval Reactors world. People there believe the NR director — a job founded by the legendary Adm. Hyman Rickover — shouldn’t be a temporary assignment for rising four stars.

But others see Richardson as the right person for the job. Sheila McNeill, former president of the Navy League and a long-time Navy advocate in Kings Bay, Georgia, said Richardson would make an excellent CNO.

“He has a real ability to connect with both members of Congress and sailors on the deckplates,” she said in an April 9 phone interview.

Mounting challenges

Adm. Michelle Howard (Photo: Jennifer Milbrett/Staff)

Whoever it is, the next CNO is in for a tough slog.

Greenert has been widely viewed as an effective CNO who has led the Navy through a budget crisis and time of social change in the Defense Department.

The next CNO will face declining budgets, including the possibility that a lack of financial resources might force the Navy to contract to the smallest it’s been since before World War I.

Insiders say that force structure, the number of ships in the fleet, will be a primary challenge over the next four years.

“If we are serious about [the U.S. defense strategy], we have to deal with declining force structure,” said one industry insider.

Admiral Harry B. Harris, Jr. (Photo: Rob Curtis/Staff)

The Navy has a goal of reaching 308 ships, but budget projections leave the shipbuilding account short of the money needed to get there, the source said.

That’s a problem the next CNO is going to have to confront, said Bryan McGrath, a retired surface warfare officer and a defense consultant.

Secretary Mabus is “banking his legacy on the 308 ship Navy,” McGrath said, who added that there won’t be enough money to fund it. That will force the next CNO to balance readiness with the shipbuilding account. (Mabus has said force structure should be maintained because it takes years to build ships and falling behind in shipbuilding is irreversible.)

“There will be unyielding pressure to rob non-deployed readiness accounts to protect shipbuilding and deployed readiness,” McGrath said.

Adm. James “Sandy” Winnefeld (Photo: James J. Lee, James J. Lee/Staff)

On the subject of the next CNO, McGrath said Richardson would be a fine pick but that leadership should put some thought into giving the job to an aviator, as the Navy faces tough hurdles in that world as well. McGrath noted that the last aviator CNO was Adm. Jay Johnson, who retired in 2000, to be followed by three SWOs and a submariner.

“What is the future of carrier aviation?” McGrath said. “We have to decide how many F-35s we need — do we need two squadrons per air wing or do we need one? What is the future of the [Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike] program? What will F/A-XX look like, will it be manned or unmanned? These are all questions the next CNO will have to wrestle with.”


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