Remember the AFJ article I linked earlier? I was thinking that maybe the author, a friend of mine, was pulling his punches a little to be more effective in getting his message across in that particular forum.
CDR Salamander, with a slightly different audience, feels no need in pulling punches.
The situation, in an overcompressed nutshell, is this: Ships are expensive. New ships are wicked expensive. We’re getting less ships. The AFJ article, written at more than a bit of a career risk for someone without top cover, recommends rethinking why we retain the aircraft carrier as the central unit of measurement, start thinking about foreign designs and getting some smaller ships; CDR S. additionally recommends we jam shut the revolving door from flag rank to defense contractor, bemoans the lack of good professional writing nowadays, and adds a little pour encourager les autres for spice.
I think the problems are deeper. A few years back I wrote about the best I’ll be able to do on this subject, since my knowledge of this subject peaked about then. That, and I got a lot of good and thoughtful comments from smarter’n’me guys like BadBob, Skippy and everyone else (back when I had time to rant at leisure). This post is necessarily incomplete without looking at the other post. I don’t think I’d change anything on that post and comment trail (except being a little more temperate in the comments-but what the heck). Since then, some things have changed that I can mention here. That and I can add a little to better relate to the argument at hand.
Getting One Ship
Nothing’s Really Changed Recently That I Can See
Since I wrote that post in 2005:
- LCS has pretty much died a horrible death.
- Representative Taylor has upbraided the CNO to little effect a few more times.
- Virginia production is still scheduled to go up to 2 in the outyears, said outyears always shifting right one year per budget year.
- We still spend almost the entire manpower of Navy in the Pentagon building annual budgets for what’s supposed to be a 2 year budget cycle in a five year plan that’s close to what a Politburo would put out.
- Not that I know anything about airplanes but we still don’t have planes and planes types we were screaming for in ’03, like maritime patrol aircraft that weren’t being flown until their wings fell off.
- The think tank and yard and Puzzle Palace guys who I heard bemoaning the falling asset count (ship, plane, etc) problem in 2003 said pretty much the exact same things when LCS got shot. No new ideas seem to be forthcoming.
- We still send guys to mast for stealing pencils but haven’t got the pittance of money back from what could be salvaged of the A-12 debacle or accountability for big losses of assets in procurement.
- Program managers still get their fitness reports based on the same thing as before, and do their honest best to do the things they are graded on–for better or worse–except there are more contractors now.
- We can’t even count contractors, much less optimize their numbers or figure out when we should keep the job in house.
- On the plus side, SSGN is on line–which started ten years before you heard about it and only lived because of congressional plus-up against the will of Big Navy–and the poor Ohio if we’re not careful will wind up doing the same thing its Polaris-era SOF carrier predecessors did, doing Foal Eagle every year and not being considered for operational tasks because of high level risk avoidance, unless it becomes a penalty box queen as a Tomahawk arsenal ship or the sub force is bold and lucky simultaneously. [Yeah, I'm on my soapbox.]
- We still have eyeglass factories run by the Navy with flagpoles in front of the buildings. We have more commands, too.
- There are more joint commands. There are more “fleets”. There are more billets there to fill.
- Norm Augustine’s prediction still looks right, except that IT costs even more than he thought.
- I bet that half the O-6s in the Navy are in the medical professions like we did in ’03.
I don’t know about you but I see a trend here and it’s not just what the future ship mix should be. Maybe we have to have a really big change in more than thinking about ship mixes.
I once heard CNO Clark in a public speech retell a story of talking to CNO Zumwalt, and discussing how Zumwalt at the end of his life was expressing regret at the personal cost of changing the Navy and the difficulty in maintaining that change. As I remember Clark’s speech, that discussion spurred Clark to not push as hard for change. It’s an interesting factoid to think about several years on. Big changes are risky and don’t always work, and we don’t merely go bankrupt when we fail.
I think we have to radically change a significant part of our organization and shore culture, and don’t see a path to do it or to grow senior leadership who can do it any time soon. What’s worse, I’m not sure I know what that change should look like.
Getting Many Ships Mixed Together Correctly
So, Given All That, What About Ship Mixes?
It’s really fun to talk about what kind of mix to put in your fantasy football Navy. It’s also the kind of decision that can lose a war. Britain, between the wars, built tanks but didn’t listen to their own doctrine; the Germans listened. The French had better tanks but no doctrine, fatal comms flaws (radio? Who needs radio?) and design mistakes not discovered by training with good doctrine. The Brits innovated in carriers but went the wrong way in the high/low mix and built something not good enough to work as well as the American carriers in the next war. So this stuff is important and will get incessantly argued about until kingdom come.
There’s a somewhat inflexible logic to buying expensive stuff. If one less capable gadget is $6 and a more capable one is $11, and Navy has $10, Navy tends to buy the $11 one. Capabilities tend to get added as the thing gets built. The example I learned is the DDG-51, a successful ship class, which started out as FFG-51 until people got upset that there was no air defense capability. I’m not able to reconstitute that decision process–I don’t have enough information to know if what we got was the best decision–but I do know that if capability “x” isn’t in the new ship design, good thinking people will ask who notifies the parents of the dead sailors that we decided to not buy the best defense or offense for them…and the ship becomes gold plated even before all the waste, fraud and abuse.
Back to Zumwalt. He tried to do something I mentioned a few paragraphs back called a “high-low mix”. Buy some Ã¼ber-nice stuff, buy some less capable stuff in numbers to be useful, and have more ships.
Didn’t work. We’ve got 535 folks who can give rudder orders for good or bad. Remember I mentioned SSGN? How much do you think a surface sailor CNO wanted to divert precious shipbuilding dollars from new craft to an SSGN?
There may be a way to break this logic trail but I don’t know what it is. Good luck increasing Navy topline with the Army doing warfighting OPTEMPO and James Fallows repeating Chinese talking points about why we should not worry about that country’s fleet, by the way. Didn’t Tom Barnett conclusively prove that thinking of China as a potential military adversary is morally wrong because we trade with them?
One Place To Start: Finding Brad And Admiring The Big Brain On Him
It might be nice to figure out how to get our bigger brains more in vogue. What I mean is this: When’s the last time you saw:
- A JO play a wargame for fun, and get praised for it?
- A bunch of field grade guys game for the heck of it?
- An Army guy not surprised when he looks at who his service sends to war colleges and who we send to war colleges?
- Anyone ban Power Point from their IT network because it not only uses a lot of bandwidth but stifles communication?
- An active duty writer for Proceedings get paid more than about a tenth of what the newspaper or magazine writers do…for that same magazine?
- A commander who not only doesn’t bash his subordinates for thinking and writing beyond the usual three traditional Proceedings topics but mentors them into writing effectively and praises them for it? (I’ve seen that happen recently, but is it common?)
- A “school” of thinkers in the Navy with a high ranking but quiet top cover, overly charismatic leader with bad interpersonal relations, and a cadre of acolytes who are going to be Very Influential Someday?
Okay, these are somewhat silly examples but you see my point. I fully understand that innovators, writers, and other similar people don’t usually make it to four stars in a year–Mahan himself is a good example. We do, however, need them. Someone has to think up, and articulate, strategy, beyond that of adopting effective business practices–especially since warfare overall is moving rather quickly in some ways to potentially outflank our, uh, core competencies.
Back in the bad old eighties, there was this thing called a Maritime Strategy. We only heard about it in the outside world after (as I understand it) intense meetings weekly or more often amongst the CNO (Watkins) and SECNAV (Lehman) and a whole lot of three and four stars in OPNAV. We heard about it because one of the first public mentions of the classified plan was a big article in the USNI Proceedings condemning it, starting a storm of useful argument. The concept was both reflective of, and shaped, the national strategy at the time. One big innovation was that link to national strategy–it wasn’t just a link, mind you; it was an integral part of that national strategy. By “integral” I do not mean ‘NMS came out, complete, last week, and we will cut and paste things from it to fit where we were going anyway’–there were huge arguments about what the nation needed and where it was.
Today the enemy we’re fighting in two ongoing wars doesn’t even have a name we agree to; a good chunk of the country believes that the solution for the nameless enemy isn’t even military and is driving actions with that mindset. Things are harder now but some of that is self-imposed. Where’s Navy supposed to fit here? And that’s just today’s war…what’s the next one?
Compare that earlier process to now, how the national and Navy strategies get made, how our naval decisionmakers communicate, and how we think about the ships we say we need to build. The last time I saw it, it seemed to me we did Bottom-Up Reviews that start with a predetermined conclusion given to us from on high by the high ranking guy who said that “x” number of ships “felt right”–all well and good to run analysis by colonic extraction on occasion, but if so why spend all that power point time trying to justify what you already decided? If we built that presentation, who looks at it overall and checks it against what we said a couple of years ago?
Is the reason why we don’t appear, from this distance from the Pentagon, to be building a new and innovative strategy that logically posits a range of asset mixes from which we can pull a given number and mix of ships and planes and people, because we’re so stuck in the day-to-day of building each year’s budget and defending it against raids in the zero sum world? Is it because we didn’t quite grow up thinking those egghead thoughts about strategy? Is it that we organizationally have forgotten how to argue about what matters?
Maybe there’s some other reason, or I’m not detecting something going on, but I would point to those reasons as to why we aren’t feeling too confident about the number and mix of ships even if we could build those ships.
Where We Are Now
In the email yesterday, a quote from Rep. Skelton in some hearing or other:
Opening Statement of Chairman Ike Skelton (D-MO)
Hearing on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Budget Request
I am very concerned with the shipbuilding program. Over the past two years this committee has been repeatedly told that a stable shipbuilding program has arrived. Yet, this budget request reduces the five year shipbuilding goal by 13 ships, from 60 to 47, and requests only seven ships this year. â€œFurthermore, two of the three shipbuilding programs currently executing on cost and on schedule, the DDG 51 Destroyer and the LPD 17 Amphibious Assault ship, are being closed down. The third program, the Virginia Class submarine, has been held at one ship per year for 8 years longer than originally briefed to the Congress. I find it almost inexplicable that we would choose to close or slow down the shipbuilding programs that are working. â€œI am also very concerned about the progress of the Littoral Combat Ship. By the Navyâ€™s own admission, this program was misguided and mishandled from the very beginning. A ship that was originally scheduled to cost $220 million will now cost upwards of $450 million, if not more. The Defense Department and the Department of the Navy have repeatedly affirmed that a 313-ship Navy is the minimum required to meet our national military strategy. Many of us feel the ideal number is significantly larger than that. The Navyâ€™s plan to get to 313 relies heavily on the LCS. But two ships, already authorized and appropriated, were cancelled last year. Why?
There’s lots of effort and talking and no results–so which effort is useless?