Former U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus spoke at Millsaps College Feb. 17.

Ray Mabus, the former Secretary of the Navy, believes the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps are different than they were eight years ago.. They are “undeniably and significantly stronger,” he says.

Appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009, Mabus served as the 75th U.S. Secretary of the Navy and had the longest tenure of anyone in that post since World War I. He was governor of Mississippi from 1988 to 1992.

Mabus’ remarks, delivered Friday at Millsaps College, covered the expansion of the Navy’s fleet, the importance of alternative fuels and the strength of the Navy he is leaving behind.

Before he took the reins, the conditions of the fleet were grim, he said.

“Our fleet had shrunk, our economy was in shambles,” Mabus recalled. “Too soon we faced sequestration and a government shutdown. Oil dependency — prices threatened our operations. They were literally costing us lives. Antiquated personnel policies limited our ability to attract and retain America best young leaders.”

Because of the downsized fleet he inherited, Mabus said, he had to make decisions on which areas of the world received ships for support. Also, deployments had become longer and overused ships were breaking down.

“Because we lacked enough ships, the Navy and the Marine Corps could not do everything the nation expected of them,” he said. “From heightened combat to irregular warfare, disaster relief, humanitarian assistance, protecting the freedom of navigation and doing all this 24 hours a day and all around the globe.”

In 2001, the U.S. Navy had 316 ships in its fleet. When Mabus took office in 2009, that number had fallen to 278 ships. In those seven years, the Navy had only contracted to build 41 new ships, he said.

Mabus made building new naval vessels a priority. As a result, by 2020, the fleet will have 308 ships.

“The ships we build today determine the size of our fleet for years to come. If you miss a year, you never make it up,” Mabus said. “If not enough ships are built year in  and year out, the impact will not be felt in office. But 10 years from now, 15 years from now, that’s when the impact will be felt. That’s when America will be weaker. So now, we are building enough ships.”

Mabus meets with attendees before his speech.

In addition, Mabus said rising oil prices forced the Navy to begin looking to other fuel sources.

“Today the Navy and Marines get 60 percent of all the energy on soil from alternative sources. And our bases are moving to microgrids so that when something happens to the grid and it goes down, they can still do their crucial jobs,” Mabus said. “At sea, the Navy is about 35 percent alternative (fuels), half of which is nuclear and the other half is biofuels. And we are on track to get to 50 percent by 2020.”

He points to climate change as the motivation for getting the Navy to diversify its energy sources.

“You can’t ignore climate change. As the Arctic ice melts and new routes open, as sea levels rise, as storms increase in intensity, the Navy and Marine Corps face new and incredible challenges.”

For Mabus this switch to renewable resources was not just about the environment.

“I say this not to advance some green agenda. I talk about it because it is indispensable to the military today. A modern energy revolution, a strategic resolve to address climate change can transform how we fight, and it gives us a combat advantage. It’s the new normal. To unwind this would be the equivalent of going back to sailing for our ships.”

Mabus, who stepped down after President Donald Trump took office Jan. 20, also talked about the armed services’ recruiting difficulties, specifically that 75 percent of people between the ages 18 and 24 do not qualify for service because of the lack of high school diplomas, health issues such as obesity or criminal records.

“You want to help our military? Do a better job for public education. If you want to help our military, do a much better job with health care. That’s what will help our military in our country the most,” Mabus said.

“We’ve got a force that is the best force ever, but its also been stressed by a decade-and-a- half of continuous war,” Mabus said. “It’s a force at risk because of the crime of sexual assault and the tragedy of suicide. It’s a force of the brave (and) the talented who value service (and) country over comfort, ease and financial reward.”

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