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CHIPS Articles: A Few Minutes with Rear Adm. Michelle Howard

A Few Minutes with Rear Adm. Michelle Howard
Commander, Expeditionary Strike Group 2
By CHIPS Magazine - October-December 2010
Rear Adm. Michelle Howard, as the commander for Expeditionary Strike Group Two, has oversight of 15 amphibious ships and Naval Beach Group Two with its four tenant commands. Expeditionary Strike Group Two includes: four landing helicopter dock (LHD) ships, one landing helicopter assault (LHA) ship, four landing platform dock (LPD) ships and six dock landing (LSD) ships.

Howard took command of the USS Rushmore (LSD 57) on March 12, 1999, becoming the first African American woman to command a ship in the U.S. Navy. In 2006 she was also the first woman graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy to be selected for the rank of admiral. Rear Adm. Howard was the commander of Combined Task Force 151, which rescued the ship's master when pirates captured the Maersk Alabama in 2009.

Howard has been selected for promotion to rear admiral and will be assigned as Chief of Staff, J5, Joint Staff, Washington, D.C. CHIPS spoke with the admiral July 8 — just days before she was due to report to her new assignment to the Joint Staff.

CHIPS: As a surface warfare officer and commander of Expeditionary Strike Group 2, what are your technology needs, and what capabilities do you wish you had?

Rear Adm. Howard: The question about capabilities you wish you had is always a dangerous question because that means you want transporters like in 'Star Trek' vice the capabilities that are [realistic] requirements.

When you use the 'wish' word it gets dangerous; it means going down the path of what people desire and going past what they need — the request. In terms of needs, like most operational strike groups, we need reliable long-haul communications, we need bandwidth, and we need it across the force. One of the challenges we deal with [is that] operationally capabilities are not evenly distributed in terms of capacity, so life on a smaller ship is always more challenging than life on a big deck amphib in terms of communications capacity.

The other piece is interoperability as we move around the theater, not just within Navy forces, but with other services, joint, coalition partners and non-governmental organizations, [and] having common gear so that we can not only communicate, but also share a common operating picture. That is really [important], particularly when we get in missions like humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR) and counterpiracy which are fundamentally unclassified missions in terms of information sharing.

Having an operating picture on the unclass side that we can use with coalition partners, as well as NGOs, and as real time as possible, that's what I would wish for.

CHIPS: What are the essentials that expeditionary forces depend on?

Rear Adm. Howard: If you look at expeditionary writ large, it is not just the amphibious forces under ESG 2, but it is also the expeditionary forces that come under NECC (Navy Expeditionary Combat Command). We do work with explosive ordnance demolition folks, and we do work with divers. One of the pieces we have to get at is commonality of equipment. It's a piece we work at all the time with the Marine Corps. You can’t have different radio sets and different receiver groups. You have to be able to talk … 'Blue' has to be able to talk 'green.' We have to get that sort of commonality thought process working across all the different forces that make up expeditionary forces.

CHIPS: The ESG 2 mission mentions the Navy/Marine Corps team that provides robust "blue/green" capability unrivaled by any other combined force. What characteristics of the team make this combined force so strong?

Rear Adm. Howard: The first thing that comes to mind is flexibility, a very professional, well-trained force. When you look at the blue/green team and you look at the maritime strategy, the major pillars — power projection, sea control, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief — those tasks skill sets are core to the Navy and Marine Corps.

The characteristics associated with a traditional blue/green team, ARG/MEU (Amphibious Ready Group/Marine Expeditionary Unit) from other order of ships and a special MAGTF (Marine Air Ground Task Force), is one of the flexibilities.

The forces have trained across the range of missions for the last two decades, illustrated by the Nassau ARG with the 24th MEU deployment that started in January when the ship and the Marines went out. As they went to U.S. Central Command they diverted south, went to Haiti, did humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, and then two weeks after that went back to their original mission and became the Theater Reserves — 5th Fleet’s Theater Reserve — relieving the USS Bonhomme Richard ARG and 11th MEU in Central Command.

You have almost the span of the range of military missions within one deployment, and the execution by the blue/green team [is] just perfect in terms of supporting those missions and getting the job done. It's that flexibility that is probably the greatest characteristic of the Navy/Marine Corps team.

CHIPS: The ESG 2 mission statement mentions that ESG 2 provides the bridge between the Navy and Marine Corps planning efforts. How is team planning executed?

Rear Adm. Howard: We have natural counterparts with several Marine organizations. We are working with a MEF (Marine Expeditionary Force) for a Bold Alligator exercise coming up this winter to exercise how the Navy and Marine Corps operate together. Bold Alligator is an exercise geared to the ESG/MEB (Marine Expeditionary Brigade) level to revitalize amphibious planning and execution skills. The training audiences are ESG 2 and 2nd MEB. We will work within a scenario using the current force structure. The effort should integrate and operationalize emergent operational concepts, doctrine, policies and technologies.

We have integrated relationships with the Marines' concept development group, MCCDC (Marine Corps Combat Development Command). We also have natural relationships with expeditionary warfare on the Chief of Naval Operations staff, which is the part of the CNO’s staff where there are Marines embedded, and I have Marines on my staff. The Expeditionary Strike Groups 2, 3, 7 and 5 in Bahrain are Navy and Marine personnel making up a staff with a commander that is a one-star rear admiral. We have organic expertise from the Marine Corps and then that makes us the advocates and the subject matter experts for amphibious missions and expeditionary missions that fall into our domain.

My time spent with the amphibious forces is incredibly educational; it is not just the perspective of the mission set, learning how to plan the mission set and then executing it. You are working with a separate service, you are still one department, but there are language and culture [differences] because each military [service] has its own set of acronyms and language. But it is also educational to learn about the entire Department of the Navy beyond the ‘Corps Blue’ that most of us grow up in.

CHIPS: You were the head of the Combined Task Force 151 when the Maersk Alabama was captured by pirates in April 2009. What are the lessons learned from the successful rescue of the ship's master, and what were your thoughts during operations?

Rear Adm. Howard: One of the major lessons was a lesson relearned, which is that we have terrific Sailors and Marines, particularly the USS Bainbridge (DDG 96), which was the lead ship in that operation, and the special forces that boarded [the pirate vessel]. There were several ships out there, different associated assets were [involved], and every person did their job. The quality of people that we have, the care that they have, and the passion was probably the primary ingredient in that mission being successful.

From a tactical perspective, I could not have done that mission if we did not have reliable long distance communications. Look at Central Command, from the Somali Basin all the way to the Gulf of Aden, and the ships distributed through there with the fleet commander being homeported out of Bahrain, [it is] thousands of miles, and you are trying to coordinate with our headquarters, as well as coordinate with tactical units as the mission unfolds, so long distance communications were an essential mission set.

Another tactical piece that was a new lesson learned for me in terms of intelligence is that there are limitations to reachback. When you look at intelligence, and you go from the gathering phase to the analytical phase, there are advantages and benefits derived from having that core competency across the entire process chain, collocated with the commander.

If you are using reachback for the analysis phase, for example, the time and delay in pushing information back, having it analyzed and pushing it forward may not be timely for you to incorporate the knowledge that comes out [of reachback] as the mission moves forward.

The support overall was just tremendous, whether it was from civilian organizations or the fleet commanders. There was a huge on-scene team; there was a much larger remote team from Central Command going all the way back to the United States.

CHIPS: Navy leadership is promoting diversity in leadership positions throughout the Navy. What advice do you have for rising officers and enlisted?

Rear Adm. Howard: Officers and enlisted [personnel] at some point have to make that journey to where they don’t consider themselves part of the team — but they consider themselves the leaders of the team. My advice on diversity is that people as leaders get to an understanding of what diversity means for themselves and what diversity means for their organization.

CHIPS: In listening to your remarks at the Women in Defense breakfast April 8, in Virginia Beach, Va., I think anyone would be lucky to have you as a mentor. Do you have advice for the first women on submarines?

Rear Adm. Howard: Within the framework of integrating new units, one of the factors you have to look at is that the numbers of people who are integrating are generally very small. At some point in an organization when you go through the integration process, you hit this critical mass, where the new units are no longer obvious because they are part of the team.

At the breakfast, I think I mentioned that the Department of Labor considers work as nontraditional when women make up 25 percent of the organization or community. When you are starting off, and you are in the bow wave of small numbers, there is a need for that initial group of people to stay connected to each other to have sounding boards and someone to share thoughts with and walk through sessions on this happened, how should I react, and what should I be doing — or here are some challenges that I am dealing with.

There are very few people that they are going to be able to go talk to and are going to have a shared experience with. It is important that they find out who the other women are and, in some cases, it will be the women they are serving with on the submarine. They should stay connected to each other and create a selfsupport system.

CHIPS: Would you like to talk about your next assignment on the Joint Staff?

Rear Adm. Howard: I am sorry to be leaving the waterfront; this is where the Sailors and Marines are. I think anyone who has had the privilege of leading Sailors and Marines knows this is why we stay in. They are just a group of people who perform miracles all the time.

The next job is J5, chief of staff. For me, Joint Staff is always an exciting place to serve. Last time I was there, it was maybe too exciting because that was when 9/11 occurred. It probably won’t be that exciting this time, but it is professionally educational observing the leadership and then contributing to policy that has impact on the armed forces. It has always been professionally challenging but professionally rewarding as well.

Rear Adm. Michelle Howard
Rear Adm. Michelle Howard
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