SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — When William Leigher was growing up in the small town of Appleton, information came slowly. He remembers waiting for the Saturday edition of the Bangor Daily News every week, which he picked up at the town’s lone store, as a child to get an update on where the Red Sox were in the standings.
Now, Rear Adm. Leigher is one of the Navy’s topmost officers in the global war for cybersecurity, in which information crosses the world in the bat of an eye. He returned to the Portland area Wednesday for a three-day southern Maine tour, during which he’ll meet with state officials, educators and veterans as part of a Navy outreach and recruitment program.
In an interview with the BDN on Wednesday morning at his hotel in South Portland, Leigher talked about the importance of maintaining a visible Navy presence here in the aftermath of Brunswick Naval Air Station’s closure, making the University of Southern Maine a destination for Navy research and development, how the Navy’s contribution to the wars in the Middle East often is overlooked, and how a future shift of the military’s focus toward China could stabilize the workflow at Bath Iron Works.
And unmanned military aircraft — the controversial so-called “drones.”
Question: Why are you in Maine now and what does your itinerary look like while you’re here?
Answer: The Navy has for many, many years done what we call ‘Fleet Weeks,’ and we really make a big deal of it. We do it really in large ports where we can send three or four ships and paint the town white with sailors in uniforms.
But we knew that we weren’t getting the larger Navy message out to the parts of America that maybe don’t have that same big metropolitan draw. So this year our [chief of naval operations] decided that he was going to send 50 senior officers and senior civilians out to 50 cities — he called it the 50-50 program.
Portland was one of them, but they’re all across the country. So that’s the purpose of the visit, to talk about the Navy so the citizens of Maine and the citizens of the United States understand what the Navy’s about; how we fit into the Department of Defense structure and what we’re doing for the United States right now.
Over the next three days I’ll spend some time in Portland talking about those same Navy messages. I’ll visit a veteran-owned business. I’ll go up to Bath Iron Works and see the new ships that we’re building up there and talk with that crew. Tomorrow I’ll visit [University of Southern Maine], which is my alma mater — I graduated in 1980 — and [attend] a couple of other events like that — like a VFW meeting in the morning — and then the Chamber of Commerce in the afternoon and evening. Then on Friday I’ll be up to Augusta to talk to some of the state officials about the same kinds of messages.
Q: Is it important for the Navy to refocus its outreach and recruitment efforts in Maine now that Brunswick Naval Air Station is closed?
A: Now you see a little bit [of Navy presence] in Kittery if you’re near the shipyard and if you’re driving north on Route 1 you’ll see the ships we’re building in Bath, but you’re absolutely right: With Brunswick having been shut down by the [federal Base Realignment and Closure] process, I think with our primary message, it’s important to get it out.
We’ve heard a lot in the last 10 years about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and the citizens of Maine have been great, with [the troop greeters] greeting every plane coming back into Bangor as a great example of patriotism — but at the same time, what you haven’t seen is that the Navy’s had two aircraft carriers deployed to the Arabian Gulf continuously at the same time. That’s about 10,000 sailors at any given time and if you look at that collectively over 10 years, that’s a lot of sailors who have been in that theater.
That message doesn’t get out, and it’s a matter of pride for the Navy; it’s not a competition over what we’ve done compared to the Army. It’s the Navy’s contribution to the war on terrorism. At the same time that we’ve had that forward Naval presence, there have been almost 100,000 sailors who have supported operations on the ground. A lot of them have been reservists — I think the number’s really 95,000, and 63,000 of those have been reservists that have come out of places like Maine and every other small state in the union.
Those are Navy sailors that are doing things to take the load off combat forces like driving convoy trucks, providing medical services, anything you can imagine that’s a skill a sailor has.
In some cases it’s war-fighting skills as well, providing electronic warfare support, or upfront and personal in support of an Army brigade combat team — and not to mention the contribution of the SEALs continuously to the war on terrorism over the last decade.
Q: News broke Wednesday that China unveiled its first aircraft carrier. How does that affect our Navy’s future? What does the future of the U.S. Navy look like?
A: The Defense Strategic Guidance that was published earlier this year talks about the rebalance toward the Pacific. I think that’s important to the Navy. It’s really about freedom of navigation and freedom of the oceans in the South China Sea, and the Navy’s the only service that can do that.
We truly are, as our [chief of naval operations] would say, America’s away team that can be on that front line and working with our allies. Now it’s a different kind of alliance. It’s with the Japanese and the Australians, predominantly.
It’s a shift away from the things we would have seen when I was growing up with the Soviet Union. [That] was a very Euro-centered kind of war. That shift is really different from the Cold War in terms of where the Navy needs to be in order to protect freedom of navigation.
We think that keeps our force size at about the same — 10-carrier battle groups, about a total of 290 ships if you look over the next decade at what we’re forecasting. That will stay pretty consistent. And a force size of about 320,000 active-duty sailors. We think the Navy’s going to be pretty stable over the next decade because of that.
That freedom of navigation is critically important. If you look at the state of Maine’s top exports, it’s electronic components that are originally designed here in South Portland at Fairchild [Semiconductor]. Those components get sent overseas and put into stuff that you and I use, and that export line is really maintained by sea lines of communications, and that’s the Navy’s primary purpose over the next decade. It’s to be where America needs it to protect our trade and build those relationships with the allies.
Q: In recent years, there has been a lot of talk in the Navy about shifting its shipbuilding focus toward shallow-water vessels, like the Littoral Combat Ships, in response to the wars in the Middle East. Does the rebalance toward the Pacific and South China Sea give deepwater shipbuilders, like BIW, cause to be optimistic that there will continue to be demand for their products?
A: I think so. I think the reopening of the DDG-51 line (destroyers) — I’m not a ship construction expert, but as I understand how we see the capability that we need, looking at the threats around the world, certainly with ballistic missile defenses, that’s fundamentally the issue in the Middle East now between Iran and Israel, if you look at the ability of fairly small and industrially slow to develop countries like North Korea, to put out a missile like that is fairly significant.
We’re not going to provide that defense from an LCS. The LCS will have, I think, an important role. It’s going to work in the littorals. But you really can’t compare them to the DDGs (destroyers) we’re building in Bath. They’re two different kinds of ships for two different kinds of missions. I think that the missile defense mission in particular is going to be there. I think that will be a steady command signal. I think there’s probably work that continues to come in that. But it’s not going to be like it was in the Cold War, where we were trying to build a 600-ship Navy.
If you looked at the ways in Bath, you would see seven or eight FFGs (frigates) being built at the same time. The nation can’t afford that. So it’s going to be a small and steady rate, but we’ll have to maintain that. … The other thing that you’ve got to throw in is the importance of [Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in] Kittery and its ability to do nuclear work on nuclear-powered submarines.
Our submarine force, our ability to maintain dominance in the undersea, we don’t talk about that so much, but that’s one of the things we think sets our Navy apart from any other Navy in the world. We can dominate the undersea, and that’s important to controlling the sea lines, it’s important to putting SEALs on the beach where you want them, anything we want to do with that. It’s stealthy, it’s very precise, and it can do that.
That part of it — while it’s repair work, and the recent stuff with the Miami maybe isn’t so good — is an important thing over time. The capacity of our nuclear yards is something we watch very carefully. They’re always full, they’re always working on another ship. That’s the other piece of that you sometimes forget; that repair work that has to go on. There’s a very small number of yards that can do that kind of work, and Kittery’s one of them.
Q: What can you tell us about your upbringing in Maine and how that helped form you as a person?
A: I grew up in Appleton, in a part of Appleton where I would say, ‘I’m from Burkettville.’ You won’t find Burkettville on a map anymore, because the general store-post office-gas station isn’t open anymore.
I grew up on the Bangor Daily News. The store wasn’t open on Sundays, so you’d have your Red Sox standings that you got on Saturdays. And I lived on the Courier-Gazette the other three days of the week.
I went to Camden-Rockport High School, graduated in 1976, and went to the University of Southern Maine where I majored in political science.
With the Navy work, I haven’t been home much more than a week a year over the past 30 years — I just went over 32 years of service in the Navy. But I come home and always feel like I’m in a place where I belong. It’s good from that perspective. Maine is slow to change. I think that’s a good thing. I think it’s a comfortable place to call home.
In the Navy, I started off as a surface officer on a ship, on a destroyer that was homeported out of Charleston, S.C. About eight years into my career, I changed to the signals intelligence field and have been on a pretty straight track [since then].
The last 10 years I’ve spent a lot of time at Fort McNair because of what I do and its connection with the National Security Agency. I never would have guessed back in ’88 when I changed to this [line of work] that how we think about signals intelligence would become very close to how we think about cyberwarfare. I’ve become sort of the Navy’s front line guy for cyber warfighting capabilities.
I’m on the Pentagon staff now, but in my last job, I was the deputy commander standing up the fleet cyber command, the Navy’s 10th Fleet, which is our command to operate our networks, defend our networks, and be the people who think about doing stuff in other peoples’ networks. That’s a career that’s pretty typical now. You get into a specialty like that and go. It means I don’t spend a lot of time at sea, but I spend a lot of time doing stuff that I think is critical to the future Navy.
It connects back to shipbuilding. If you look at the interconnectivity of the systems we’re putting on the DDGs we’re building in Bath right now, we can’t do what we need to do, the way that we’ve invested in it, without our networks, without good, technically prepared sailors that have those computer science skills.
It’s all integrated, from combat systems to communications systems to intelligence systems. It’s not just about that gun on the front of the ship; it’s about a whole integrated combat system that’s very heavily networked and dependent on computer processors to do the jobs that we want to do.
Q: So does each ship have a mini-IT unit, for lack of a better term?
A: Absolutely. There’s a small network on every ship. Think of it like a small business that has a business plan — a mission — that it conducts.
It’s connectivity to command centers, to the intelligence that it needs, is primarily provided through satellite communication links. So I worry about protecting them, too, in the course of my job. My job now is thinking about that future Navy. That’s what we in the Pentagon do. Unfortunately, we don’t get to operate anymore; we plan tomorrow’s Navy.
The portfolio I have now, it crosses our networks, defending our networks, the people we train to do the offensive cyberwork, our intelligence systems, our tactical data links — which touches a lot of places on the ships, the interfaces, the combat systems. I’ve got all of the Navy’s unmanned platforms in my portfolio because of how these all come together under computer-centric communications centers.
It’s much different than flying a manned airplane. You depend on that mission system to really be the capability, whereas on a manned airplane … [Navy personnel play that role]. Now we’re replacing that with a camera and a computer processor in some cases. So it’s a pretty broad portfolio of what we do.
… We have surface warfare officers, we have submarine officers, and I’m an information dominance officer. That’s what my specialty is called. We believe it’s absolutely critical to the future warfighting success of the Navy, and it’s not just the hacking part, it’s how it all fits together and makes all the networks work together the way we plan for them to work.
Q: Are the computer science-based job requirements of the current and future Navy part of the message you’ll be bringing to a place like USM, where they can teach those skills?
A: It very much is the message at both Bath Iron Works, because of the integrated piece, but also at USM. I’ve come back as an alumnus a couple of times.
USM has a couple of what I think are really good programs. [One is] the Pioneers program, which is how the state university gets behind Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education — or STEM — and for Maine students that can do that, the Pioneers program gets that.
That’s a real challenge for all the services. From top to bottom, when you look at the Navy, the skills we need today to run modern ships, computer systems, nuclear power plants, it’s really a technical service. We think the Navy gets a bad rap sometimes as a really industrial place to work, and if you look at a shipyard, it’s a pretty industrial place to work. But our ships are high-tech things, and that’s an important piece of that.
The Navy, as a whole, spends a fair amount of time in having folks like me go to places like USM and talk about the importance of STEM, and looking at that as part of a really early recruiting effort. I might touch someone’s mind today or tomorrow, [and he or she] might say, ‘Gee, I might want to look into what I can do.’ And we really depend on ROTC and what comes out of mainstream universities, because although the academy produces a lot of technical grads every year, it’s only about half of what we need to commission in terms of officers. So that’s really important.
Andy Anderson, the dean that handles this at USM, I’ve worked with him over the last couple of years in getting the research work we can do through the office of naval research, which is the Navy’s R&D arm.
Tomorrow, we’re going to talk about designation as a DOD Center of Excellence in Cyber Security, which is an education piece that would draw students. And that connects back to Fairchild and it connects back to Bath Iron Works, because the university sees its students coming out of the university, and Bath Iron Works is their customer. The students are the product.
I’ve spent my last 14 years in the [Washington], D.C., area. It’s a different place to live — the education level. Then you come back home and kids aren’t really encouraged to go to college in the way that you find in the suburb I’ve been used to living in the last 12 to 15 years. So I think all the things we can do to encourage education at an early age is an important piece of the future of the country and the future of the Navy.