A conversation with Richard Spencer.
Richard Spencer is the 76th Secretary of the Navy and was appointed by President Trump in 2017. Spencer holds command over the United States Navy and Marine Corps, and manages over 300,000 military personnel along with an additional 300,000 civilians. A former Marine Aviator in the United States Marine Corps and a highly successful entrepreneur, Spencer brings to the Navy a blend of private sector efficiency along with a deep understanding and appreciation for the Navy itself. The N Magazine team met with Secretary Spencer and his wife, Polly, at his office in the Pentagon where he shared with us a wide range of thoughts about his role, the status of today’s Navy and both his concerns and his hopes for the future.
SPENCER: My connection actually started back in 1968 when my sister and her husband rented a place on what she called Reed Pond. I would come and visit, and then I was lucky enough to meet this lovely woman [his wife, Mrs. Sarah Pauline Polly Finch Spencer] who has a house on the island. That’s where my relationship with Nantucket became more current.
N MAGAZINE: You come to the Navy with a unique business management perspective. How receptive has an institution that is so entrenched been to a different point of view?
SPENCER: I spent ten years on the Defense Business Board, which is a group of CEOs that are picked to give the Secretary of Defense some consultation to questions that he or she may have as to how the civilian world would solve problems. You learned what the building speak was, how the building thought, and what the building antibodies are. So when Secretary [Jim] Mattis asked me to take this position, I had enough of a background to understand what I was getting into. What I didn’t realize was that we really were almost in a corporate turnaround.
After sixteen years of war, we’d flown the wings off the planes, sailed the bottoms off the ships, and we really had stretched the personnel to their nth degree. Over the last twenty-two months, we’ve really focused on bringing management skills up to our readiness levels, recovering our troops and our sailors and just getting things right again in concert with Congress giving us the funds that we needed to do it.
The reception was terrific in that we knew we had to get healthy across the board. The Naval institution and the Naval enterprise were welcoming in that regard. But that being said, there are still things we need to work on. Our acquisition process, we are turning that quite a bit, but it is a behemoth that has its ups and downs. And as you’ve read in the paper, sometimes it’s not the quickest. We’re trying to make it quicker.
SPENCER: I don’t like to look back and point fingers. What I’ll say is that what was inherited was an enterprise that was rode hard and put away wet. My job was to make sure we could recover and get better. That’s how I approached it. We’re out in the community now. We’re out with our allies and partners—that is a lot different. And it’s all positive news with what we’re working on together and doing together.
N MAGAZINE: Do you see yourself as a CEO or as the Secretary of the Navy in terms of your management style?
SPENCER: You are Secretary of the Navy, which has its own structure unto itself, but what defines your responsibilities is Title 10 of the U.S. Code. To man, equip, train and supply those resources necessary for the Secretary of Defense to carry out his mission. In that regard, you really are a CEO because I’m out there recruiting people, buying equipment—painting it either gray for the Navy or green for the Marine Corps—and distributing it, and making sure we train. So it is very much like a CEO in the operation of a management structure.
SPENCER: I don’t even have to go out thirty years because I can’t even fathom seven to ten years out. Cyber now has become a weapon. We are building up our muscles with sets and reps on how to actually counteract that and be offensive in that. It is going to be a different battlefield. You have some people who said, “Will there even be kinetics in seven to ten years?” Because someone can come in and shut down your economy electronically. You know what Sun Tzu says? Sun Tzu says that the best success in war is to own all the assets of your enemy. That’s what we are honing our movements toward in how we address the whole electronic and technological threat.
N MAGAZINE: Let’s move to the USS Nantucket. Can you explain how this ship earned the name?
SPENCER: One of the truly amazing responsibilities you have as the Secretary of the Navy is you’re solely responsible for naming ships in all of government. When we first launched the littoral combat ship class—there are two variants of that, the Independence and the Freedom—they were to be named after communities. So when it came time to name this ship, I looked at Nantucket’s history in the ocean-going world. During the height of whaling days, there was more wealth in Nantucket than there was in Manhattan. It was the hub. So it was literally a no-brainer as far as the importance of Nantucket as a community to our country. One of the primary missions of the Navy is to keep the channels of communication and trade open on the high seas. Ocean trade was the key of Nantucket, so it really was easy to name this ship the USS Nantucket, which will be launched in 2021.
N MAGAZINE: What stage of construction is it in?
SPENCER: There are three stages: the laying of the keel, the christening and the commissioning. And there are three separate events. The laying of the keel is when the first original backbones are laid down in the ship. The sponsor strikes her name on that piece of keel. Every single ship has always had a sponsor, and it’s always been a woman. Usually you try to get a sponsor who has an association with the community or person that the ship is named after. In this case, it was very easy to pick [my wife] Polly for this job. Then you have the christening, which everyone thinks is the last step when the champagne is broken across the bow and she’s launched. Well, then we have another year to a year and a half to test out the systems. After that, she’s then actually commissioned when the U.S. Navy agrees with the ship-builder that everything is in order and we take that ship on the registry.
SPENCER: It’s very moving. You have the whole crew lined out, the bands there, the crowds there. After all of the politicians have spoken, the sponsor gets up and turns around to the captain and says, “Captain, bring my ship to life.” At that point, all of the sailors run onto the ship and man the rails, horns and whistles, and the ship comes to life. It’s pretty impressive. We’ll see if we can get [the ship] to Nantucket. With cooperation from the Steamship Authority, we’re going to see if we can get that done.
N MAGAZINE: You manage over 300,000 people?
SPENCER: On the uniform side, yes. Then there are another 250,000 to 300,000 on the civilian side.
SPENCER: If you look at the National Defense strategy, we are focused on our competitive threat with China. Here’s where we stand. If China would like to acknowledge a rules-based participation in the rest of the world’s trade, there is a welcome placemat set for them at the table. My job is to make sure to keep the avenues of communication and trade open on the high seas. When I say communication, there are many thousands of feet of fiber optic and electrical cables lying on the bottom of the ocean. So I have to make sure that those do stay open and free access for everybody. To date, China has taken a different point of view. They have a controlling point of view versus open and free when it comes to the high seas around their area. So I have to respond appropriately. That does keep me awake at night. Secondarily, but very close, is getting the resources necessary so our sailors and Marines are prepared to deliver the fight tonight.
N MAGAZINE: You serve at the pleasure of the president. How do you manage your role, if things happen that you are uncomfortable with, such as the incident with the USS John McCain? How do you respond to that and how do you manage your own value system against something that you might be at odds with?
SPENCER: There is a free, open channel of communication. That is why you’re put in this position. At any one point in time that I’m called upon, I am to give my best advice as being Secretary of the Navy. I think you have to prioritize what those issues are. Delivering an aircraft carrier on time and on budget is a bigger concern than whether the John McCain had some maintenance done on it and had a tarp thrown over the back on a regular course of business that was interpreted as something else. Life has it that you spend time on brush fires here and there, but the channels of communication are open, and we work our way through it.
N MAGAZINE: You’re used to a corporate world where there’s a high degree of efficiency, and you come into an organization that is massive and is probably quite rigid. Have there been things that you’ve seen that make you say, ‘I’ve got to make a 180-degree turn’? What has surprised you the most?
SPENCER: I’ll start at thirty thousand feet and come closer. I thought I had a pretty good handle on what shape the Marine Corps and the Navy were in. When I arrived, the readiness hole was much, much deeper than I even contemplated. That being said, Congress gave us money in 2017 and gave us a two-year budget for 2018–19, and we’ve filled in the hole. We’re healthy, we’re getting better, we’re exercising, we’re transitioning from fighting violent, extreme organizations to great power competition— a different muscle set—and we’re getting after it. But when you talk about running an organization with the span that the Navy has—one moment you’re working on a $13 billion aircraft contract, the next minute you’re working on transgender integration, the next minute you’re working on the acquisition of a handgun or the application of rules of war—the span in a matter of six hours of what you work on is stunning. The greatest joyful surprise, and surprise is almost the wrong word, is that the intellect in this organization is absolutely stunning.
SPENCER: [Navy] Undersecretary Tom Modly and I have been really trying to structure all of the changes that we do to see how we can institutionalize them, so things don’t snap back to status quo. That probably is one of the hardest things to work on because you can have a great new idea and it can catch on, but if you don’t give it the institutional construct, it might disappear immediately. What we’re looking for is an organization of this size and breadth that is agile, that is responsive when it comes to parts and equipment, and more important, that understands its people and provides them the tools and the challenges to make this a career. Because as we all know, recruiting is going to get tougher as the economy gets better. We have to be out there saying, come into our Navy or Marine Corps and we can provide you a career.