Esper told reporters that readiness issues — such as the electrical problems on the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman — are cutting into the U.S. defense strategy. The ship — a visible commitment to allies and partners around the world — cannot deploy.
"Any time you arrive late to a shipyard for maintenance or leave late out of maintenance, it creates ripples throughout the force," the secretary said. "The key thing is we need adequate shipyards and a qualified workforce to do that whether it's the public or private sector."
Esper emphasized DOD must manage the process better. He said schedules are important and DOD needs to "manage the demand" from combatant commands to ensure maintenance schedules are realistic. "At the end of the day we have to maintain a ready and lethal force not just for today but for tomorrow," Esper said.
The secretary also said the DOD needs to focus on suicide prevention. Three sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush recently took their own lives. "The suicides are tragic," he said. "Every single one is a tragedy. You mourn for the families and you mourn for their shipmates, everyone else."
"I wish I could tell you we have an answer to prevent further, future suicides in the armed services: We don't," Esper said.
Esper said DOD is part of the greater national epidemic of suicide among American youths.
"It's something we continue to wrestle with," he said. "I believe we have the means and the resources to get ahead of this and do better than our civilian counterparts."
Esper said DOD's budget will not be finished in time for the new fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. He said Congress has acted on a continuing resolution — which could be in place for the start of the fiscal year.
But continuing resolutions bring their own problems.
"Every day that we have a continuing resolution means it's a day in which our training, our maintenance, our modernization and everything is impaired because there are a number of things that you cannot do under the CR, such as new starts of programs," he said.
"The biggest concern we have out there is not only does this drag on for weeks or months, but it could end up being a yearlong continuing resolution. That is devastating — devastating to our military readiness."
Esper visited with Marines and sailors in North Carolina before arriving in Norfolk, the largest Navy base in the world. "I'm very impressed, of course, by our naval forces," he said. "They provide a great core presence. They are a symbol of American might and values."