2015 outlook: The next CNO

By David Larter

Adm. Jon Greenert will come to the end of his three-year tour as chief of naval operations at the end of fiscal 2015 and, barring an appointment to chairman or vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he’ll likely retire.

The race for the next CNO is on. Any Navy four-star is a possibility and there are roughly a dozen active today.

The next CNO will face declining budgets and the possibility of a huge budget crunch that could force the Navy to contract to the smallest it’s been since before World War I.

Half a dozen Navy and industry insiders have pinned three front-runners for the top job: Adms. Mark Ferguson, Bill Gortney and Michelle Howard:

Ferguson, a surface warfare officer, leads Naval Forces Europe and Naval Forces Africa. He knows the lay of the land in Washington perhaps better than any active four-star. Prior to assuming NAVEUR, he served three straight tours in Washington as chief of legislative affairs, chief of naval personnel and as vice chief of naval operations.

Gortney, an aviator, took over U.S. Northern Command Dec. 5 after vacating his position as the fleet’s top boss at Fleet Forces Command. There he was the architect of the so-called Optimized-Fleet Response Plan, designed to rein in long deployments and return some predictability to the maintenance cycles. That plan has had a rocky start and met with some skepticism, but has been given a vote of confidence by Navy leaders. Gortney also has extensive operational experience, including 5,500 flight hours and more than 1,200 carrier landings. He would be the first aviator CNO in 15 years.

Howard, a SWO who’s the most junior of the three, is seen as a top contender for CNO. The vice chief of naval operations, Howard has a bulky resume in the Gator Navy, is seen as a highly competent officer with solid expeditionary experience. Her most high-profile accomplishment was leading the task force that ultimately rescued Capt. Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama after he was kidnapped by pirates. Her selection would also be a historic statement, because she would be the first woman and first black service chief. (Gen. Colin Powell was head of U.S. Army Forces Command before becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 1989.)

Ferguson, Gortney and Howard are the names everyone seems to agree on, but insiders mentioned a few other contenders.

One is Adm. Harry Harris, a strong candidate to lead the Navy during the so-called Pacific pivot, which is moving forces to the Pacific Fleet that he had led; Harris has been tapped to lead U.S. Pacific Command.

Adm. Cecil Haney, head of Strategic Command, is also a contender for CNO, although it would mean a second submariner in a row in the top slot.

Adm. John Richardson, head of Naval Reactors, is a dark horse candidate and would also be the second submariner in a row. He began his eight-year tenure as NR boss less than three years ago.

Adm. Samuel Locklear, the current PACOM boss, could be in the conversation, but most experts who spoke to Navy Times suggested that Locklear, who’s ending his combatant commander tour, would more likely be a candidate for chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

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