CRYSTAL CITY, Va. (NNS) -- Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Mike Stevens outlined his key concerns about the future force of the Navy during a speech Jan. 16 at the 26th Annual Surface Navy Association National Symposium.
Stevens said the future force he envisions would be built upon strength through diversity, which includes opening more combat roles to women.
"We've made a lot of progress in that area," said Stevens. "The Navy's been working on this a long time. In 2016 we plan on putting [female] enlisted Sailors on our Virginia class submarines. This is an exciting time for women to serve in the Navy because of all the opportunities that are out there."
Stevens also talked about the drawdown in Afghanistan and the impact it would have on the individual augmentee program.
"In 2012, we had 6,812 Sailors in individual augmentee billets," said Stevens. "In 2013, that number dropped to 4,300. That's a 48-percent reduction over the last three years. Right now, the Navy as a force is 324,000 strong. The good news is there's no plan right now to draw the Navy down any smaller."
Stevens also spoke about suicide and its impact on the force.
"[Suicide] is a tragic event when it occurs. It impacts readiness, it impacts the morale of our units," said Stevens. "The good news is we're seeing the trends come down. We've seen our numbers drop from last year  to this year  by 18."
Stevens also condemned the prevalence of sexual assault in the military.
"Sexual assault is going to be the challenge of our time," said Stevens. "It's a tragedy, it's a crime, and it undermines the very fabric of who we are as an organization."
Stevens said that although the problem will not be fixed overnight, he is optimistic about the steps leaders are taking to correct sexual assault in the ranks.
"What we can hope for and work towards is continuous progress every single day," said Stevens. "We're doing that first and foremost through awareness. Our Sailors know what sexual assault is and they know how to report it."
Stevens emphasized good leadership is the best weapon against these challenges.
"I believe whether it's suicide, sexual assault or any of the other challenges that we face, the best weapons system against that enemy is good, sound, solid leadership," he said.
The Surface Navy Association was established in 1985 to promote greater coordination and communication among those in the military, business and academic communities who share a common interest in Naval Surface Warfare and to support the activities of Surface Naval Forces.
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