TAMPA — Saturday afternoon, just three days before his swearing in as the next Navy assistant secretary for acquisition, research and development, James "Hondo’ Geurts talked about how his old job prepared him for the new one.
"I’ll be responsible for acquisition for the Navy and Marine Corps," said Geurts, sitting in a chair on the bridge of the SS American Victory, an historic cargo vessel and museum docked in Tampa. "I’ll be trying to do what we did at (U.S. Special Operations Command), only at the service level."
For the past four years, Geurts, 52, has been the chief acquisition officer for SOCom, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base. During that time, Geurts, who retired from the Air Force in 2009 as a colonel, oversaw a budget of several billion dollars a year and helped usher in a new way of doing business called Sofwerx. It’s a rapid-acquisition program created in 2015 as a way to speed up delivery of special operations-specific goods and services by bringing academics, entrepreneurs and other innovators together with commandos to find solutions to capabilities gaps.
In a 9 a.m. ceremony, Geurts will assume his new job, where he will be in charge of purchasing big-ticket items like the new Columbia-class nuclear submarines and F-35 Lightening II fighter and oversee an operation with a $60 billion a year budget.
But with a bigger budget comes a bigger bureaucracy.
In his old job, Geurts was responsible for making sure the nation’s 69,000 commandos had the equipment and technology they needed to perform some of the military’s most dangerous missions.
Starting today, his new top priorities will be making sure the Navy meets Secretary Richard Spencer’s goal of building out a 355-ship Navy from its current 279 vessels and ensuring smooth sailing for the $100 billion program to build 12 Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines to replace the existing 14 Ohio-class subs.
He also wil have to oversee the Navy and Marine Corps’ portion of the controversial F-35 program, scheduled for delivery of 340 of the fifth-generation jet fighters.
Geurts said that the biggest challenge will be "ensuring we have the right workforce, trained and incentivized so we can push responsibility down to the lowest level and hold folks accountable."
He said he wants to take a page out of the SOCom playbook and help keep "the best Navy in the world" at the top of its game.
"I am hoping I can maintain the things the Navy is doing well and then to bring the innovation that SOCom has taught me," he said.
That includes bringing "diverse people to solve problems, leveraging commercial technology quickly and putting energy into thinking about problems in new and different ways and making our problems accessible to the community to help solve them."
The Columbia-class submarine program "is the Navy’s No. 1 priority," Geurts said. "But I’ll have to get into the job and understand the priorities of the Secretary of the Navy and figure out how to deliver."
Geurts said his biggest concern about reaching the 355-ship goal is the "acceleration of technology, of capabilities, of opportunities and of challenges. It’s a dangerous world out there."
As for the F-35, Geurts deferred questions to the written statement he presented the US. Senate during his confirmation process.
He wrote that both the Navy and Marine Corps are "fully committed to the F-35" which will ensure the U.S. maintains air superiority and provides global precision attack against current and emerging threats.
However, he was not aware of "the detailed status or risks of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter" and would have to review the program before he can make a recommendation to Navy Secretary Spencer on whether to purchase the full run of F-35s, mix and match with other aircraft like enhanced F-18s, or move some production toward a new airframe altogether.
But he added his time as head of acquisitions for SOCom reinforced his long-held belief that "teams which are empowered, have a close connection to their operational customer, and are all focused on the mission can accomplish amazing things."
Though he is looking forward to his new job, Geurts said he will miss Tampa.
"It’s the best military town I’ve ever lived in," he said. "It’s exciting, people are energized, they understand the future and I will miss being part of that."
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.