Mr. Sean Stackley, the long-serving, low-profile Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition, has served in his post for seven years and five months. He has beaten Franklin D. Roosevelt’s long-standing record tenure as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Seven years and four months–from March 17, 1913 to August 6, 1920–I trust the FDR Library more than the ‘ole Wikipedia). Mr. Stackley is now the longest-serving Assistant Secretary of the Navy in history!
Congratulations Mr. Stackley, and well done!
If haven’t thanked Mr. Stackley for his service already, be certain to congratulate him at the Surface Navy Expo next week. Think what you wish of his record–Mr. Stackley has served in a relatively thankless, draining post for a long time, and that’s worth celebrating even if you don’t like what he’s done.
And he’s done a lot. This Navy is, in large part, his.
America’s Fleet is the Fleet Mr. Stackley bought:
As I wrote back in February, American navalists will quibble over the procurement choices made during Mr. Stackley’s tenure for decades to come. But on the industrial base side, Mr. Stackley has made good use of what few funds he was given, positioning America–as best he could–to counter a slow-developing major-power maritime challenge.
To do this, Mr. Stackley tried to provide everybody in the business with viable options so they could live to fight another day, leaving, essentially, a functional (albeit a weak, over-capacity and, in some cases, almost-mothballed) industrial backbone–that could, if sufficiently funded, grow to support a relatively rapid (over the course of years) uptick in demand.
Naturally, some sectors have done better than others. One of Mr. Stackley’s undeniable achievements has been in tending America’s fragile sub production line.
Under Mr. Stackley’s stewardship, America’s undersea platform industrial base is ideally placed for rapid growth. Remember the sturm and drang that the Trident Program unleashed as it got going? In conjunction with the Los Angeles Class build-up? Remember the labor disputes? The poor quality? The near collapse of Electric Boat? That won’t happen as SSBN(X) starts up (sure, labor access and ramp-up is always a challenge, and General Dynamics executives will wail, stomp, and gnash their teeth until offered palliative contract terms, but there is no denying that the sub industrial base is far more prepared now than it was back in the bad old early days of the Trident Program).
As for Mr. Stackley’s legacy, it really centers on when we believe conflict at sea will occur.
It almost comes down to style–given the strategic challenges, a more Lehman-like all-or-nothing confrontational approach might have left the Navy in better shape for a near-term major-power conflict. But you can’t argue that Mr. Stackley has done a bad job by taking a low-profile, less urgent approach, either.
Heck, tone and style may have been out of Mr. Stackley’s capable hands–he may have simply stuck to his knitting, did what he was told and left issues of grand strategy and tone to SECNAV Mabus and Undersecretary Robert Work.
But in that case, maybe Mr. Stackley was just too good at his job. Had he fumbled, precipitating an industrial base crisis–a real crisis where a large component of the national shipbuilding or other key piece of national naval industrial base might need to be sacrificed–his error might have forced the American taxpayer (and Congress) to acknowledge some ugly geopolitical challenges–possibly spurring ’em to release more funds for our cash-strapped maritime force. But that never happened.
Mr. Carter’s Nasty Note
We shall see–an industrial crisis is gonna happen pretty darn soon in one or the other of the LCS yards (and probably in a few other places too). In my mind, Secretary of Defense Carter has already opened the first salvo on the debate over Mr. Stackley’s legacy. The SECDEF’s brutal December 14, 2015 letter slashing the LCS/Frigate Program was less a slap at SECNAV Ray Mabus than a roundhouse right to Mr. Stackley’s legacy of keeping the the majority of the naval industrial base quietly (if not entirely happily) ticking along.
Not content to continue setting the pieces in place to support a longer-term buildup over the course of a decade or two, SECDEF Carter is focusing on getting the fleet ready to fight in the relatively near term–maybe even within within the FYDP–and he’s OK with overturning some industrial base apple carts to do it.
It’s going to be tough, and I will be eager to see if Mr. Stackley will do as he is told.
Or not. Maybe he’ll retire.
Mr. Stackley, Departing
Regardless of legacy, Mr. Stackley has completed a great run of bipartisan service to the nation, serving in both Republican and Democratic Administrations. We shall see if Mr. Stackley continues his record run (my guess is that he will follow his other service procurement chiefs out the door relatively soon). But, if Mr. Stackley retreats from public life, the Nation will miss this cerebral, options-oriented steward of America’s naval industrial base. My fear is that after such a long run, the U.S. naval community has taken Mr. Stackley’s gruff-but-fair leadership for granted, and they’re not ready for the chaos that will descend when Mr. Stackley packs up his institutional memory and leaves his post.
So….if you naval folk haven’t readied for Mr. Stackley’s departure, start today. It’s going to be a particularly rough ride when Mr. Stackley finally does retire, and–mark my words–the tenure of Mr. Stackley’s replacement will be nasty, brutish and likely very, very short.