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Good afternoon, everyone!
Thank you for joining us today at the Surface Navy Association’s 36th National Symposium.
It’s truly wonderful to be here with you again this year.
Thank you, Vice Admiral Hunt and Captain Erickson, for your leadership of this organization and for your warm welcome today.
So, let’s begin by imagining, if you will, a dimly lit room in Newport, Rhode Island in 1922.
Sunlight fades from the bay as a group of officers—admirals, strategists, junior officers—hunches over a sprawling map of the Pacific.
They move tokens representing the American fleet—and tokens representing the fleet of the adversary they were planning for—the Empire of Japan.
The wargames conducted by the Naval War College between the world wars were battles of intellect—a clash of strategy played out in whispers and scribbled calculations.
This was a Navy learning the harsh lessons of the First World War and experimenting in a laboratory to test new theories on carrier aviation, amphibious landings, and coordinated attacks across vast stretches of ocean.
Names like William Sims, Chester Nimitz, and Raymond Spruance echoed in those halls as they forged their personal doctrines and philosophies in the heat of intellectual conflict.
They weren't confined to the Pacific, either. The Atlantic theater, with its lurking U-boat menace, was another crucible for needed innovation.
Convoys, those vital lifelines across churning waters, were dissected and reimagined in wargames, their vulnerability mapped, defensive tactics honed.
Anti-submarine warfare was practiced and perfected on those mock battlefields—laying the groundwork for the crucial victories to come.
Wargames, then and now, aren’t just about tactics. They are about testing assumptions, revealing weaknesses, and confronting uncomfortable truths.
Then, they exposed the Navy’s lack of logistical capacity, its dependence on outdated technology, and its vulnerability to airpower.
Today, we face a comprehensive maritime power that demands the same rigor in our strategic planning. We must test our assumptions and be clear-eyed as we confront our challenges.
For the Ensigns, JGs, and Lieutenants in the audience, as you advance through the ranks, I expect you to know how to fight tactically—that’s your number one job as a junior officer.
I expect you to learn fleet operations well before you’re an admiral—and for the senior officers in the room, it’s your job to mentor them to make sure they do.
I also need you to become skilled strategists. Possessing the strategic acumen not only to fight and win if called upon, but also to prevail in protecting our national interests and prosperity during this era of intense competition.
As we develop our new approach to Maritime Statecraft, it’s imperative we have leaders in the Department of the Navy—and especially in the Surface Warfare community—that can identify, propose, and act decisively on the best courses of action.
Our national Maritime Statecraft is not only a set of initiatives, but also a cultural shift in thinking—Maritime Statecraft a mindset. It’s how we view ourselves and our contributions to our national security and the world.
Understanding the political influence of seapower in advancing the security and prosperity of the nation should permeate and color how we approach our operations every day short of war.
You—my fellow surface warriors—are a foundational element—a critical component—of our national Maritime Statecraft.
I firmly believe that is as true today as when John Adams created the Department of the Navy to protect our fledgling nation in the face of existential threats from great maritime powers.
We see how the PRC remains our pacing challenge and continues to behave provocatively and unsafely across the Indo-Pacific region, but especially in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.
And China’s Navy is just one piece of the maritime force Beijing employs to advance its aggressive foreign policy, challenging the rules-based international order.
China’s Navy, working alongside China’s Coast Guard and Maritime Militia, is conducting operations designed to force nations to submit to Beijing’s excessive territorial claims—some of which have been challenged and ruled illegal by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague.
Using these “gray zone” operations, the PRC is staking illegal maritime claims to offshore resources that threaten the peace, prosperity, and ecological stability of the world’s oceans.
While we do not seek confrontation, we will continue to pursue a free and open Indo-Pacific and we will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.
China seeks to exploit its growing economic and military power to coerce its neighbors and threaten their interests while undermining our alliances and security partnerships.
In Europe, Russia’s illegal war of aggression continues in Ukraine and their withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative is negatively impacting food security around the world as Moscow refuses to guarantee the safety of commercial ships sailing in and out of Ukrainian ports.
And I can’t overemphasize enough how we all must continue to call on Congress to pass legislation in the coming days to support our Ukrainian partners in their battle against Russia. It is critical to do so.
Iran, too—as recently as this summer—was interfering with merchant shipping in the Strait of Hormuz through a campaign of harassment and seizures with its para-naval forces.
And, of course, the Iranian-aligned Houthis continue to disrupt global shipping in the Red Sea.
Just last week, 12 countries partnered with us on condemning the Houthi actions in threatening global shipping—and more than 20 countries have joined Operation Prosperity Guardian.
In total this fall, our ships—especially the Ford and Eisenhower Strike Groups, and their surface escorts—have proven indispensable to our national strategy and defending American interests around the world.
Carney, Mason, Hudner, Laboon, and Gravely—five of our nation’s destroyers—have shot down missiles and armed drones launched by the Houthis over the Red Sea, and Mason has countered piracy and responded to distress calls issued by merchant ships under siege—and we sank three pirate boats, too.
Laboon, Hudner, Carney, Gravely, and Mason—in addition to all other fleet assets in the region—each performed with exemplary skill and professionalism.
They prove that we stand ready to defend our interests and protect global maritime commerce.
The Surface Force remains as a critical element of our national strategy—upholding the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea for the benefit of all countries.
Every day, our ships respond to aggression and illegal activities with our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific, the Arabian Gulf, the Caribbean, and across Europe.
To maintain a global, sustainable maritime posture, we must continue to innovate and invest in capabilities that keep our ships at sea, especially as their weapons magazines run low.
Last year, here at SNA, I announced that we would conduct an at-sea demonstration of Re-Arm at Sea using the Transportable Re-Arming Mechanism (TRAM) at Port Hueneme.
In this critical decade, the near-term deterrent effect of fielding TRAM in the fleet cannot be overstated—and we remain on track for the all-important at-sea demonstration I’ve directed to take place no later than this summer.
Over the past year, I have sought and approved funding required by our NAVSEA team in Port Hueneme to achieve our goal.
The team is finalizing preparations for the shore-based demonstration and scheduling ships for the at-sea test.
TRAM is designed to enable rapid reload of V-L-S cells in up to sea state 5 using the fleet's existing UNREP interfaces.
This capability will herald nothing short of a revolution in naval surface warfare.
Recognizing Re-Arm at Sea as a critical priority, Admiral Franchetti visited Port Hueneme in her first weeks as CNO to view the system—she came back impressed by both the system and the progress the team has made there.
As TRAM delivers an at-sea missile reload capability for the fleet, we look forward to working with industry to improve our missile supply through efforts like the Naval Modular Missile (NMM) program.
That program will use common components across the family of naval missiles—increasing our efficiency and resilience in manufacturing.
And just as critically, we are addressing the significant increase in fueling capacity necessary to sustain high-end combat operations.
For example, in the past year, we have awarded the contract for the ninth of 20 John Lewis oilers to NASSCO.
Even more importantly, as we increase the lethality of our current force, two additional advances at Port Hueneme will improve our refueling capacity—the Modular CONSOL Adapter Kit (MCAK) and the Modular Fuel Delivery Station (MFDS).
MCAK can be installed on any commercial tanker within 36 hours and without any hot work—and allows those commercial tankers to refuel our Combat Logistics Force.
MFDS, on the other hand, will allow tankers to conduct replenishment with any of our ships. Both of these initiatives will increase our refueling capacity and create flexibility in our operational planning.
Re-Arm at Sea and these refueling initiatives are game-changing capabilities that will be operational within two to three years—and will make our Surface Navy more formidable—serving as a powerful maritime deterrent.
At the same time, we’re tackling long term shipbuilding and repair challenges.
In November, I convened the inaugural meeting of the Government Shipbuilder’s Council.
Four different cabinet departments—Defense, Transportation, Homeland Security, and Commerce—and our five government shipbuilding partners—MARAD, Coast Guard, NOAA, and even the Army—met to discuss our common challenges in surface ship construction and share best practices.
Since the last SNA Symposium, we awarded 2.8 billion dollars to construct the new dry dock at Pearl Harbor Shipyard, AUSTAL opened a new maintenance yard in San Diego, and BAE is installing the shiplift capability at their facility in Mayport that will dramatically improve efficiency in surface ship maintenance.
I’ve visited additional private shipyards—including Mare Island and Richmond in California, Bayonne in New Jersey, and more—as part of our efforts to increase capacity at both our public and private shipyards.
Next month, I will visit shipyards in Japan and South Korea to engage our Asian allies on their world-class, cutting-edge shipbuilding capabilities.
We’ve also launched a first-of-its-kind White House-led initiative on shipbuilding—defense and commercial.
And, as part of my cabinet-level awareness and advocacy campaign, I’ve met with leaders across this administration on the need to take collective action to restore our comprehensive maritime power and the long-term health of American naval shipbuilding—all as part of our national maritime statecraft.
And, innovation is at the heart of these efforts. As we stand at the crossroads of strategic competition, innovation is no longer a luxury—it's a necessity.
Innovation is key to unlocking our potential and maintaining our competitive edge. It's indeed the driving force behind progress and prosperity.
Our Navy and Marine Corps is today at the forefront of innovation.
From the depths of the sea to the vast expanse of space, our Sailors and Marines are at the forefront of technological advancements.
But innovation is not just about technology. It's about people. It's about culture. It's about mindset.
We need to continue to build on a culture of innovation that permeates every corner of our department and allows all to innovate.
We need to encourage our Sailors and Marines to think differently, to think strategically, to challenge the status quo, and to never stop asking, "Why can't we do this better?"
In the past year, we stood up the Department’s Science and Technology Board, chaired by former Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig, to bring together leaders across a wide range of disciplines to help identify new technologies and capabilities.
I charged them to explore how asymmetric, cutting edge technologies will impact both the near and distant futures of warfighting in all domains we operate in—and they have been doing so.
They’re working on addressing surface ship cyber defense, shipboard additive manufacturing, and innovations in improving lifecycle maintenance.
The future of shipbuilding, maintenance, and operations looks much different than it did when I retired from the Navy twenty years ago—advances in modelling, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence will allow us to reduce costs, optimize systems, and improve interoperability.
To that end, we continue our efforts to develop high-paying, high-skilled “new-collar” jobs that restore America’s manufacturing prowess.
As we gather here this afternoon, we have nearly 100 ships under contract and over 50 in construction, including Ford-class aircraft carriers, Constellation-class frigates, San Antonio-class LPDs, and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers.
This year, we commissioned the first Flight III destroyer, USS Jack H. Lucas, which marks an important milestone in that class’s already storied history and represents the most technologically advanced surface combatant ever built.
The Flight IIIs will serve as our Carrier Strike Groups’ Air and Missile Defense Commanders as we usher our cruisers into a well and hard-earned retirement.
And we continue planning for DDG(X), the future of large surface combatants.
But that isn’t all. We also continue our initiatives to build a hybrid—manned and unmanned—fleet.
Our hybrid fleet is not a distant vision or hazy concept outlined on a napkin, uncertain and undefined.
The hybrid fleet is today a tangible reality—operational and actively preparing to help us dominate the battlespace.
This transformation is evident in the Indo-Pacific, Middle East, Caribbean, and Latin America, where unmanned systems are seamlessly integrated into our operations.
U.S. Fifth Fleet, through Task Force 59, has accumulated over 60,000 hours of operational experience with unmanned surface, air, and subsurface vehicles.
UNITAS 64 in South America showcased our ability to seamlessly integrate seven distinct robotic systems into the exercise's command and control structure, executing missions alongside traditional forces.
U.S. Fourth Fleet has announced Operation Windward Stack to accomplish these missions by integrating manned and unmanned systems.
Right now, ten unmanned Saildrones are operating in the Caribbean Sea—using a range of sensors to dramatically improve our visibility and awareness in the region.
And this past summer, we made history by deploying four unmanned ships to Japan for the first time.
These platforms extend our reach beyond the limitations of traditional vessels, providing persistent all-domain awareness.
Their deployment demonstrates the Navy's ability to rapidly procure, develop, and integrate off-the-shelf technologies, freeing our more capable manned assets for strategic missions—and helping us swiftly deploy manned platforms when alerted by unmanned platforms. And there is much more to come.
Throughout this speech, I’ve highlighted areas of close cooperation with our allies and partners around the world.
That’s for an important reason: we cannot do this alone.
As history has taught us, the United States of America has flourished because of our many international partnerships—friendships.
Mutually respectful and beneficial cooperation with our allies and partners on, under, and above the sea, as well as ashore, are the key to our Navy and Marine Corps and our nation’s approach to naval diplomacy.
And by consistently deploying alongside our allies and partners abroad, we force our adversaries to face a stark reality—a fight with American naval forces and the forces of like-minded nations will be costly and ultimately unwinnable.
And we don’t only deploy alongside each other—we mutually support each other through intelligence sharing and underway replenishment.
In fact, we should strive to achieve interoperability on the paradigm shifting innovations I mentioned earlier—including the re-arming and refueling initiatives.
Because that’s the difference between us and our adversaries—our global network of allies and partners—indeed, our friends.
We are stronger together—we operate shoulder-to-shoulder to keep the world’s oceans free and open, and I am tremendously grateful for your continued support and cooperation.
Everyone, please give our allies and partners in the room a round of applause.
Vice Admiral Bulkeley said “You engage, you fight, you win. That is the reputation of our Navy.”
That is the reputation of our Department, still, 70 years later. It must remain our reputation throughout this critical decade and into the mid-21st century.
And that reputation was forged by many Surface Warriors—men and women like Petty Officer 1st Class Charles J. French, hailed as the “Human Tugboat” and the “Hero of the Solomons” for his daring, daunting, and heroic rescue during World War Two.
As many know, during the night of September 5th, 1942, French was nearly 24 years old when his ship, the USS Gregory (DD 82), was sunk by the Imperial Japanese Navy.
In the aftermath, French gathered 15 shipmates onto a raft and, fearing they would drift to a Japanese-controlled island, towed the raft himself to a different island.
He swam for hours, pulling fifteen souls from the jaws of the sea, defying the odds and the sharks with nothing but his own grit and compassion.
He was recommended for the Navy Cross for his actions, but only received a letter of commendation.
For too long, we did not recognize Petty Officer French appropriately, but we’ve begun to correct that.
Recently, we renamed the training pool at Naval Base San Diego after him.
And, today, with profound conviction and heart brimming with long-overdue recognition, I am proud to announce the name of our newest destroyer, DDG 142, will be the USS Charles J. French.
Let this ship inspire us to challenge our own limitations and to always—always—answer the call of duty, even when the waters are rough and the path ahead uncertain.
In closing, I thank you all for your service to our surface Fleet, our Navy, and our Nation.
May God continue to bless our country with fair winds and following seas. Thank you.
Carlos Del Toro
10 January 2024
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