Modly’s Brief, Busy Tenure Started, And Ended, With Carriers

Modly’s Brief, Busy Tenure Started, And Ended, With Carriers

Then-Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly, and President Trump.

WASHINGTON: The resignation of acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly shut the door on an often bold, ambitious four-month tenure that was bookended by concerns over how President Trump viewed problems aboard two aircraft carriers.

The crisis that sunk Modly — the COVID-19 outbreak aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt — which led him to take a reported $243,000 flight to Guam to lambast the crew of the stricken ship, is hardly over. The ship remains pier side without the captain Modly fired and more than 400 sailors who’ve tested positive for the virus.

The TR controversy can be seen as a bookend to the carrier Modly adopted as his cause at the start of his time leading the Navy, the USS Gerald R. Ford. The issues with both ships were very different — the TR faced a virus, the Ford faced festering technology issues — but in both cases, the secretary mentioned his concern over how Trump might react if he didn’t act quickly.

Aboard the TR on Monday, Modly’s angry diatribe lashing out against the ship’s captain, it’s crew, the news media and even presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden hit all the notes of aggrievement that have become so familiar in the national discourse.

The Trumpian undertones didn’t go unnoticed. Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Adam Smith said the speech “was kind of like he was trying to do a half-assed impression of how Donald Trump would give a speech.”

Just days after taking over from his predecessor, Richard Spencer, Modly said he recognized Trump’s repeated frustrations with the troubled $13 billion Ford, and was looking to get ahead of it.   

“The Ford is something the president cares a lot about, it’s something he talks a lot about, and I think his concerns are justified,” Modly said at a defense summit days after assuming office, “It’s very, very expensive, and it needs to work.”

The Ford had become, as Modly stated, the “whipping boy” for problems in the Navy, and Spencer’s boasts over fixing the myriad problems on the ship were among the things that got him crosswise with the White House. Spencer enjoyed telling the story of how he told the president he was happy to be fired if he couldn’t get the Ford underway by July. The carrier missed that date, and finally got underway months later for more testing and to shake out persistent technology issues. 

Staking a different path, Modly quickly called together executives from shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls and the Navy’s uniformed leadership for a “Make FORD Ready” summit to chart a course for pushing the program forward. Press releases were sent, and the message was clear: Modly was here to get things done. 

Some Navy officers grumbled privately that Modly was out to secure a bigger job in the administration, leading him to publicize his involvement with the Ford. Problems with the ship were already known, and fixes were in the works, officers said, Ford summit or no. 

Fair or not, that assessment colored how some Navy officials would view him.

Modly also began issuing sharply-worded weekly “Vector” memos tackling issues like hypersonic weapons, modernization, Navy education, and the quest for a 355-ship fleet, using the public releases as a way to reach the fleet, and message reporters and the Hill that there was positive movement within the Navy.

One congressional staffer referred to the Vectors as “please don’t fire me” memos meant for White House consumption. But others saw a Naval Academy grad eager to push the service forward after what some saw as strategic drift under Spencer.

Then, in February, Modly initiated the “stem to stern” review, hoping to find at least $40 billion in savings across Navy budgets. The effort finds a home within a larger Pentagon push, spearheaded by Esper, to take a “white sheet” review of the entire military to find savings and cut commands, where possible. 

Perhaps his biggest legacy, if it lasts, might be the deep dive into the future of the Navy’s aircraft carrier fleet launched last month. The Future Carrier 2030 Task Force will study how carriers stack up against new generations of stealthy submarines and long-range precision weapons being fielded by China and Russia. It comes at a fraught moment time for the fleet, as Defense Secretary Mark Esper has taken personal ownership over the service’s force planning while publicly lambasting the Navy’s deployment model as broken. And there are strong indications that super carriers such as the Ford Class may be scaled back in favor of more and smaller ships such as the Wasp Class from which the Marines fly F-35Bs and Ospreys.

That review is slated to wrap up in early fall, when the Navy should — should — have a confirmed secretary in place if Amb. Kenneth Braithwaite passes Senate confirmation, whenever Congress is able to come back into session.

Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Jim Inhofe said in a statement this week that once the Senate is back, “I will make sure the Armed Services Committee considers the nomination of the next Secretary of the Navy quickly, and I ask my fellow committee members to help me expedite this nomination as well. Our Sailors, Marines and their families deserve to have stable, capable leadership at the helm during these challenging times.”

More quietly, Modly was involved in the Navy’s force design struggles, pushing for a new way of thinking of future threats, according to some analysts.

“He was driving the Navy to rethink its fleet design to account for the potential scenarios of the future,” said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute.

Clark said the emerging thinking, driven by Esper’s office and shared by Modly, is that future wars will look less like the World War III of popular imagination and more like a succession of “gray zone” fights of varying intensity spread across wide distances. Those fights will need a wider variety of highly adaptable ships to maneuver around threats from advanced enemies, while also holding off less predictable, more fluid threats.

Esper took over the Navy’s force planning effort in February after declaring he was dissatisfied with the 30-year shipbuilding outlook and a new report on the design of the fleet. Several people familiar with the effort have said Esper was unhappy with the Navy’s more traditional approach to force planning, which continued to call for large ships and legacy platforms, rather than more innovative designs and plans that Pentagon brass was looking for.

All of the initiatives put in place will be reviewed by the new acting secretary James McPhearson, a Navy official confirmed today. 

Whatever becomes of them, the slow improvements of the carrier fleet that began Modly’s tenure are likely to be buried under the story of the carrier that ended his term.

When the Roosevelt began reporting cases of COVID-19 while at sea last month, the Navy was caught flatfooted and struggled to get testing out to the ship before it pulled into port in Guam.

Modly would end up firing the ship’s captain for sending a memo pleading with Navy leadership to step up efforts to help his crew as the virus moved through his sailors. “We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die,” Crozier wrote in his March 30 memo, which was leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle. 

Over the weekend, Modly told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius his decision to move on Crozier was done with President Trump in mind, much like his push to get Ford fixed. “I didn’t want to get into a decision where the president would feel that he had to intervene because the Navy couldn’t be decisive,” he said, adding, “if I were president, and I saw a commanding officer of a ship exercising such poor judgment, I would be asking why the leadership of the Navy wasn’t taking action itself.”

On Monday, Modly flew to Guam to deliver his now-infamous speech. Afterward, he flew back to DC, where he was asked to hand in his resignation.

With the TR out of action (though Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist said the ship could put to sea if needed for combat), and other ships like the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier now showing their own signs of infected sailors, it falls on the new acting secretary, James McPhearson, to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and the fallout from Modly’s response. While senators might want to move quickly on the Braithwaite nomination, Congress probably will not come back into session for weeks, if not months. That means it is likely to be McPhearson’s job to lead the fleet through what could be a prolonged period of outbreaks, with the debilitating operational and readiness issues that stem from that. And the greatest attention will be, as always, on the carriers.

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