President Trump’s next Navy secretary will be walking onto a command deck with a massive number of headaches, including a lingering Navy SEAL scandal, a string of shootings on bases and a competition with China to define the 21st century.
Mr. Trump last month said he will tap Kenneth Braithwaite, currently the ambassador to Norway, to take over the Navy after the sudden firing of Richard V. Spencer. Mr. Spencer was forced out as secretary after revelations that he held secret talks with the White House over the legal fate of Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher. Analysts say the next Navy boss will be tasked with cleaning up the fallout from an incident that has divided military leaders and seemingly put the service at odds with the president.
If Mr. Braithwaite is ultimately confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate, he also will be expected to assure Navy service members and their families that bases are safe after shootings at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and at Pensacola, Florida.
Those are only the most prominent issues, analysts say. Mr. Braithwaite, a retired Navy rear admiral and Trump 2016 campaign official, will simultaneously face the daunting challenge of retaining the Navy’s global edge while China encroaches on American military dominance. Decisions made now are likely to affect the service for decades to come.
“I think it’s a competition to maintain naval supremacy,” said Jeff Benson, a military fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former commanding officer of the destroyer USS Stethem.
“If you look at China … the only element they’re missing is that naval component of being the largest and the greatest,” he said. “When you look at the next 10 years, the decisions made now, in the next two to four years, is the Navy we’re going to have in 2035. We’re at a pivotal moment in terms of the Navy and what direction we’re doing. We’ve got to maintain that capability advantage.”
In addition to overseeing the Navy’s modernization efforts — which include integrating unmanned technology into the service’s capabilities — the next secretary also will be challenged to restore confidence in commanders’ leadership at sea after the shocking crashes of the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain in 2017.
Mr. Spencer lost support in the White House and in Congress over repeated mechanical failures associated with the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier’s weapons elevators, despite declaring it a top priority.
Beneath those nuts-and-bolts considerations, however, some analysts argue that Mr. Braithwaite must put the Navy back on track after the Chief Gallagher saga damaged the service’s relationship with the White House and sowed doubt in its ability to police its own affairs.
Chief Gallagher was convicted this year of posing with the corpse of an Islamic State fighter in Iraq in 2017, though he was acquitted of more serious charges. He was demoted by the Navy but had his rank restored by the president.
Navy officials then announced plans to formally review the case and potentially strip Chief Gallagher of his Trident pin, which symbolizes membership in the elite SEALs unit. Mr. Trump publicly declared that the Navy would not go down that path, but officials planned to move ahead with the review board anyway.
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said he ultimately fired Mr. Spencer for holding secret talks with White House officials. Those talks apparently included a private guarantee that the review board would allow Chief Gallagher to remain in the SEALs.
The entire episode resulted in a stain on the Navy’s reputation.
“Another key challenge is resisting the climate of political correctness which led to the overzealous prosecution of Chief Gallagher and SEAL officers in his chain of command,” said J.D. Gordon, a former Pentagon spokesman and Trump campaign national security adviser. “Navy leaders then dug in to the point of apparently undermining President Trump, something which should have never reached that point.”
Mr. Gordon dubbed Mr. Braithwaite a “Trump loyalist.” His role in the 2016 campaign and close political alignment with the president could result in a much smoother relationship between the Navy and the White House. Mr. Spencer was a favorite among some liberal think tanks and, insiders say, was never ideologically aligned with the Trump administration.
In his departing letter, Mr. Spencer told Mr. Trump that “I no longer share the same understanding with the commander in chief who appointed me in regards to the key principle of good order and discipline.”
“I cannot in good conscience obey an order that I believe violates the sacred oath I took in the presence of my family, my flag and my faith to support and defend the Constitution of the United States,” Mr. Spencer wrote.
Mr. Braithwaite could have an easier relationship with Mr. Trump. As ambassador to Norway, he has been a vocal defender of the president’s leadership style.
“Donald Trump is not a politician. He speaks his mind, and sometimes without a filter,” he said during an Oslo security conference speech on Oct. 16, as quoted by Defense News. “He’s definitely not a diplomat. I think we all know that. He’s a businessman.”
Mr. Trump has delivered a major spending boost to the Pentagon, but the Navy faces perhaps the toughest budget situation of any of the services.
The Associated Press reported last week that Navy officials are proposing construction cutbacks and ship retirements in order to fund other priorities. The cuts would shrink the 293-ship fleet and lead away from the stated goal of a 355-ship Navy. The preliminary proposed cuts would target precisely the destroyers and cruisers that private analysts say are critical to meet the challenge from Russia and, especially, China.
“If you were serious about facing down the Chinese, you’d probably want more of that than less,” defense industry analyst Norman Friedman told AP.
Mr. Esper and other top Pentagon officials have expressed confidence in Mr. Braithwaite’s ability to lead the Navy. The defense secretary even said he personally recommended Mr. Braithwaite for the job.
But Mr. Esper and the next Navy secretary face a daunting challenge to reassure sailors and their families that U.S. military facilities are safe and secure. Over the past month, a number of incidents at naval bases across the country have raised fears and led to a reinspection of security procedures.
On Nov. 30, Master-at-Arms 3rd Class Oscar Temores was killed when his vehicle was struck by a gate runner at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story in Virginia.
Days later, two sailors were killed in a shooting at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard. Earlier this month, Saudi student Mohammed Alshamrani killed three people and wounded eight others at Naval Air Station Pensacola.
The Pensacola shooting spurred an internal debate about programs to train Saudi students at American facilities. Top military officials say those programs remain highly valuable.