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Interview: U.S. Navy Undersecretary Robert Work

Feb. 4, 2010 - 03:45AM   |  
By CHRISTOPHER P. CAVAS   |   Comments
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Bob Work was one of the foremost naval analysts in Washington when he was tapped in late 2008 to serve on President Obama's Pentagon transition team, where he was in charge of the Navy issue team. A former Marine artillery colonel, he has a wide knowledge of Navy and Marine Corps programs - past and present - and is a deeply experienced military strategist and wargamer. He took office as the Navy's second-highest-ranking civilian in May.

On Feb. 2, Work sat down for his first interview since the 2011 budget proposal was submitted.

Q. What is the theme to this budget submission?

A. At the broadest level, the two basic things are rebalancing the force and reforming the way we do business. Those two themes are well reflected inside our budget. There were four strategic objectives.

SecDef told us to improve your ability to defend the U.S. and civil authorities at home. Do better at counterinsurgency and counterterrorist operations, build the capacity of partner states, deter and defeat aggression in anti-access environments, prevent proliferation and counter weapons of mass destruction, and operate effectively in cyberspace.

Importantly, he said you had to be able to do that and maintain a strong nuclear deterrent and do not give up on your conventional warfighting dominance. Pretty expansive mission list in a time of tight resources.

The theme for the Navy is balancing all of these different missions. We think we were able to come up with a pretty good plan in aviation and shipbuilding, which reflected these budget priorities. You'll see, for example, improvements at the low end because we've stabilized the LCS program and increased the Joint High Speed Vessel program quite significantly, to 23 vessels.

There was a big debate within the department on patrol craft, PCs. People said these are very good for irregular warfare. But when we looked at it we said we wanted to have self-deployable platforms that have a lot of payload space that you can take to the fight whatever you need - SEALs, Marines, [a] Riverine squadron. So we decided to increase the Joint High Speed Vessel program, at the same time SLEPing [service life extension program] the 13 PCs we have, so they're going to be with us well into the 2020s. But the Joint High Speed Vessels will take over for them, because we like their self-deployability aspects - they can be a sea base, they can be an Africa Partnership Station, they're extremely flexible.

So when you combine LCS and the Joint High Speed Vessel together, that's going to be 78 small craft with a lot of payload space that can be configured for a lot of these irregular warfare missions.

At the high end, one of the clearer signals out of the Quadrennial Defense Review was a demand for more ballistic missile defense ships and ships that are able to operate in the open ocean in an anti-access environment. So we now have a very good and stable plan for large surface combatants, for example. We've made a choice - a good one in my view - that the DDG 51 is the hull of choice, upgraded with the Air and Missile Defense Radar [AMDR] and the SPY-3 active X-band, and together with those two that's going to be able to handle the integrated air and missile defense mission.

There are a lot of other things that went on but we were able to do exactly what the SecDef asked us to do. Kind of squeeze down the capability portfolio that was focused on conventional warfare and improve at both ends of the conflict spectrum. The whole idea of rebalancing is reflected in our plan and I think we're reforming the way we do business.

Q. The AMDR is supposed to start with the DDG 51 hull in 2016?

A. That's the plan. The AMDR study made a choice between an improved volume search radar and the AMDR, and because of the growth potential of the AMDR and its better capabilities we chose the AMDR.

We hope that the AMDR will be ready for the FY '16 ship. And the SPY-3, we're quite confident that that will be ready. It will be more of an integration challenge on the hull, making sure that the combat system is set - that we have the right crewing.

So our hope is that the FY '16 DDG will be the first Flight III.

Q. The AMDR effort had been envisioned as a dual-path development - a smaller radar for DDGs and a larger one for the big CG(X) cruiser. With cancellation of the cruiser, is this now a single-path development?

A. It's a single path. The size of the aperture was always the big thing - the larger the aperture, the better the performance. We've settled on a 14-foot aperture, and that's the single aperture we're focused on. … We're confident that will fit on the DDG 51 hull.

Q. Is the Navy seeking money to build the SSBN(X) outside normal ship procurement funds?

A. When the 2009 shipbuilding plan was published, the SSBN(X) - the first to be purchased in 2019 - our plan did not have the cost for that platform in its core budget. The Navy took a lot of heat for that. The Department of Defense said, "You will put that cost in core." We looked at the level of resources and this is the way we kind of handled this. We want to debate over this platform, it's an important debate to have. …

With the 30-year plan, we've essentially broken it into three segments: from FY '11 through FY '20, from FY '21 through '30, then '31 to '40. In each of these different segments, you're going to have different challenges, and unquestionably the biggest challenge in that second segment is the fact that we will be purchasing the SSBN(X), we assume, in core.

Because of the level of resources we think it is prudent to plan for, the SSBN(X) will take a large percentage of that yearly shipbuilding budget, which will constrain our choices for the other ships we might want to build. As a result, in the far planning period you see the size of the fleet decline, slightly.

The impact of the SSBN(X) is real; it's something we have to look at. We have it in core and we welcome working with the Office of the Secretary of Defense and with Congress to try and figure out the best way to handle this planning period in which this important national asset's going to be.

Q. Are you prepared to fund the research and development portion for the next few years?

A. Oh, absolutely. That's in our base budget, it's fully funded. We have, I think, $6 billion between now and FY '15, the first year we have advanced procurement for the first boat. So it is a robust R&D program. The analysis of alternatives for the platform has just been briefed, and we have money in the budget transferred to the Department of Energy for the reactor. We've already signed an agreement with the British on a common missile compartment. So work is proceeding apace on the SSBN(X). FY '19 seems like a long way out, but it's not really, not when you're spending $6 to $7 billion on R&D.

Q. So it's really the procurement part of that program the Navy would like some relief on?

A. In the 2020s, we will be constrained in buying non-SSBN(X) ships. In many of those years, we might only be able to buy one attack submarine or one major surface combatant, or some combination thereof. So the debate we have to have is: Is that what we want? But there's going to be another QDR in 2013, another in 2017, so those types of issues will be debated many times between now and then.

Q. What's a base price for that replacement SSBN(X)?

A. We're extremely conservative in pricing. I think we have the average price at about $6 billion.

Q. Conservative?

A. We don't want it to cost $6 billion; we want to be cheaper than that. But it is a very important platform, it is going to have to be very survivable - it's the most survivable leg of our nuclear deterrent. We've been conservative and over time we hope it will be cheaper than what we think right now. But we want to be sure we don't underestimate that ship.

Q. With the upcoming Littoral Combat Ship downselect, Navy officials seem to be wary of repeating the protest problems the U.S. Air Force has had with its tanker program. What can the Navy do to stave off that situation?

A. We can't control whether a protest occurs, but we can make sure the RfP [request for proposal] is extremely solid, and cannot be attacked from the angle that the RfP unfairly biases the selection toward one of the two hulls. The key thing people have to know is the Navy is happy with both designs - either fits the requirements. Both teams have been very good. We haven't tested it out, but all the data we have right now says both designs will meet the key performance parameters [KPPs] as desired.

Total ownership cost has been designed right into that ship - small crew, open architecture combat systems, reliance on offboard systems. One of the key things is going to be procurement cost. There will be some jostling back and forth where people will say this platform is better than the other platform, but the key thing the Navy has said is we're happy with both of the platforms. Both have advantages and disadvantages, but they all meet the KPPs.

Q. If the final determination really comes to price, will it be absolute? Is, say, $20 million enough to sway the decision?

A. That I can't answer. I don't know how that would break out. The acquisition officials will look at the two designs and say, are these credible bids? Can they deliver on performance? I can't get into what the final deciding factor will be because we haven't seen the bids.

Q. But the total package is a factor in making the decision, rather than just on price?

A. Oh yeah, there are several other things. One of the key parameters is production cost, but there are other parameters in the RfP.

Q. Is this really a 55-ship LCS fleet? I saw one plan where the two ships from the losing bidder would be disposed of. Is it 53?

A. We actually get to 55, a little slower than what we had expected, but we bid up faster with JHSVs than expected.

Q. You'll keep the two ships from the losing design?

A. That's a good question. I don't know what the final determination on that would be. Obviously, we have some very unique design ships, like we leased the HSV. But I don't know what the thinking is on that.

Q. The previous LCS plan had the Navy buying five and six ships per year - plenty for two shipyards. But now you've dropped down to fours and threes, moving to mostly twos and ones. Is that enough to keep two shipyards in the program?

A. One of the big differences between this 30-year plan and previous plans is that before, we planned to build to a 55-ship run and then have a decade or more where you're not building any. With this shipbuilding plan, we'll be building LCSs consistently year-to-year throughout the 30-year period. That gives us a lot of flexibility - if we decide we want to have 65 ships we'll have the capacity. … But right now we think 55 is the right number. We have set it up so that we can hold a competition between two yards throughout the 30-year period. Sometimes you'll have more ships in a given year to compete, but the whole thing will be set up to the yards can compete and we can keep the costs down.

Q. More problems have surfaced with the LPS 17-class amphibious ships, and Northrop Grumman has come in for a new round of criticism for weld issues and quality. What still troubles you about the work the company is putting out? Can they do more to fix the situation?

A. Between 2001 and now, we've really started to bring on a whole lot of new classes of ships. The T-AKE. Two different LCSs. The Virginia-class submarines. The LPD 17 program. Each has had its challenges, the LPD 17 program has more challenges than we had hoped. The basic design of the ship, we're very happy with, and the quality of the ship is getting better, although there have been these nagging problems, and NAVSEA is working with Northrop Grumman to resolve them.

Our confidence in the ship is reflected in the fact that we have the 11th LPD 17 in our plan, so the basic ship we're very comfortable with, and we're working with Northrop Grumman and all of our shipbuilders to make sure that performance is good and that we get ships that have few problems, covered by warranty, and we get them to the fleet as fast as we can. But the LPD 17 has been a challenge, no question.

In the main, I'm not worried [about Northrop Grumman's ability]. I think [shipbuilding president] Mike Petters and the shipbuilding team at Northrop Grumman understand the problems and are trying to work at them piece by piece. They've had a lot of challenges in doing so - stemming from the Katrina issue, their work forces and quality control. So, no, overall I think Northrop Grumman knows what needs to be done and I'm pretty confident they're going to be able to do it.

Q. What's the current Marine Corps lift requirement? Two Marine expeditionary brigades?

A. The Marines have to be very happy with the way the QDR came out. We had a target for 33 amphibious ships: 11 big decks, 11 LPD 17s, 11 LSDs. We already have 12 LSDs bought and paid for in the fleet. The 30-year shipbuilding plan has the 11th LPD 17 in the plan and funded. We have eight LHDs and LHA 6. LHA 7 is an FY '11 ship that will get us to 10. So we'll have the 33 ships, but we'll have one fewer big deck and one extra LSD. That gets to the requirement for 33, the minimum needed to do a two-MEB assault.

The MEBs will be specially tailored for the assault if we had to do it, but in this QDR the key thing is the amphibs will look very much as part of a fleet design in which you have a series of capability containers. The small ones are the LCSs and JHSVs. Medium capability is the SSNs and our cruisers and destroyers. Our large capability containers are the LSDs and LPDs. Our extra-large containers are the big-deck amphibs, and the extra-extra-large containers are our carriers.

They all have flexible payload space - LPD 17 is just like a giant LCS. So OK, you've got to go to Haiti? Why not take your extra-extra-large box and put helicopters on it? So we argued that the amphibs were critical to the overall design of our battle force. And we didn't focus so much on the two-MEB assault as we did on the flexibility these ships provide to every combatant commander who's screaming for them. I want them for Africa Partnership Station. I want them as a sea base.

One of the highest-demand signals coming out of the QDR besides ballistic missile defense ships is for independent amphib steamers that can go be an Africa Partnership Station or a mobile sea base.

So 33 amphibious ships is the requirement we've set in the plan, and we've hit that number pretty close throughout the 30-year period, but in the far planning period we fall down a little because of the SSBN(X) problem.

Not only that, we took the Maritime Prepositioning Force (Future) [MPFF] squadron, which was really designed for high-end, forcible entry, assault follow-on echelon stuff, and we now want three MPF squadrons with enhanced sea-basing capabilities. We'll have three squadrons with an LMSR, a T-AKE cargo ship, and a mobile landing platform [MLP], plus our 23 JHSVs. The Marines have to be saying "holy moly." Between the 33 amphibs, the three MPF squadrons with enhanced sea basing capabilities, and the 23 JHSVs, the Marines have got to be happy their lift requirements are going to be met in almost [every] case you can imagine.

Q. The Naval Operations Concept was to have had a lot to say on this, but it's been held in abeyance. Is that still coming out?

A. That's a good question. The last time we did a force structure assessment for the Department of the Navy was in 2005-06, and that's what set the 313-ship fleet requirement. There have been a lot of decisions made since then, primarily by the SecDef and the PB10 budget decision, as well as this QDR. So we're going to do a new Force Structure Assessment [FSA]. The Naval Operating Concept has been pretty much fully written and has been subscribed to by the Navy and the Marines. … But we have to do a new FSA.

When you look at the new 30-year shipbuilding plan, we just say we start at 313 because that's the most recent FSA. … So if you ask me today what's the number for the fleet? I would say it's about 300 ships, and I just don't know if it's going to be 313, 320. 313 is the baseline off which we say, here are the decisions that have been made that will change the 313 baseline.

Q. What were some of the conclusions of the hull-radar study for a new surface combat ship that would include the Air and Missile Defense Radar?

A. It's a very impressive study, extremely well done. Conducted by Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. A red team by Paul Schneider from DASN [Department of the Navy Research, Development & Acquisition] ships. Extremely well done.

We knew we wanted a dual-band system, an S-band search radar and an X-band. Essentially, the two choices we have are volume search radar or AMDR, SPQ-9B or SPY-3? And the best solution out of that study was a 14-foot aperture on the AMDR and the SPY-3. Put those two together and you have a pretty capable air and missile defense ship. I am very satisfied the study will withstand scrutiny from anyone. They might not agree with the decision, but they're not going to say this was some type of cooked book.

Q. So you're going to release an unclassified version of the study to the public?

A. That is a good question. I don't know the answer. I'll try to find out.

Q. Is there another hull planned for surface combatants over the 30-year plan, or is it DDG 51s forever?

A. The plan shows we're going to build 71 DDG 51s Flight I through IIA, so we're going to buy nine more IIAs through 2015. Then we ship to the integrated air and missile defense version of the DDG 51. We're still doing the work to say exactly [what] that ship will look like, but we believe the basic DDG 51 hull will be the platform for that. How many do we buy? There's a number in the plan through about 2030, then you have a DDG(X).

The Flight III is the integrated air and missile defense version of the DDG 51. What the DDG(X) will be remains to be seen. Will it be a variation of the DDG 51 hull? Don't know, might be another hull. But it's so far out it's hard for us to know.

But we'll be building the 51 hull - the first was authorized in 1986 - for about 40 years.

Q. Are you satisfied with your new 30-year aviation plan?

A. We did very well. One of the key things was to improve our rotary-wing lift. So the H-1 program was fully funded in a good, sustainable production stream. That platform has proved to be extremely good, both the Z and the Y - the Y in particular because of the tremendous command-and-control package. So good news on the H-1.

Good-news story on the H-53K. There was a snag in that program, we brought the IOC [in-service date] back, but the program is well-funded. V-22, well-funded - not at the level per year that if we had all the money in the world we would want, but at a good, sustainable rate. And with the H-60 program, all in really good shape.

The P-8s, again in good shape. That program is proceeding in place and will replace all the P-3s.

We were just given $4 billion to replace the EA-6B Prowler expeditionary attack squadrons, with EA-18G Growlers, and we're going to get those planes in the fight a lot sooner than we expected. … We will actually keep the Prowlers on the decks of the carriers longer than [we] expected to. We can get the first Growlers in the fight as quickly as we can.

Q. Were those plus-up airframes or reprogrammed F-18Fs?

A. No, those are plus-ups. DoD gave us the money to buy 26 additional aircraft on top of the numbers we were planning for the carrier decks. As a consequence, we keep the E/F production line open another year, to 2013.

The Joint Strike Fighter program also has been restructured, but we think it's a sustainable run and reflects what we can actually execute. So the JSF, E/F/G, our P-8 programs, and BAMS is funded. At the very end game DoD gave us $2 billion to add to the N-UCAS program, which will allow us to better reflect what we want out of that program.

So from an aviation perspective the Department of the Navy couldn't be happier right now. There are still challenges, obviously, but overall, when you look at our shipbuilding and aviation accounts we're sitting okay.

Q. What was the thinking behind the cancellation of the EP(X) program? Shifting the mission to other areas or dropping the mission?

A. Different platforms. There are a lot of different ways to look at this. We're not certain if it's an unmanned system, a system of systems. We haven't come to a definitive conclusion yet.

Q. There is a story line that elements in the Navy are urging the service to withdraw from the JSF program, buy more Super Hornets, and focus on developing a sixth-generation strike fighter that would be manned or unmanned. Are you aware of this debate?

A. There are always pockets within the Navy and the Air Force that have different opinions. If you search for them you can think there's some type of big debate. But at the top level - the secretary and me, the CNO and the commandant - there is absolutely no wavering on JSF, in either the B or C form. We are committed to that platform. That is going to be the fifth-generation platform that we have.

Now, there is a lively debate over whether or not the N-UCAS demonstrator should result in a penetrating, ISR strike bird, or be more of an F /A-XX strike fighter. That debate has not quite been resolved. Having this extra $2 billion added to the budget is going to help us resolve that debate. So we will end the E and F program line at some point and commit fully to the JSF as soon as that program is on solid ground and we finish out the buys of the Es and Fs and Gs we have right now.

Then the next thing we'll focus on like a laser beam is that N-UCAS. What is that going to be? An A-12-like platform that's extremely low-observable, more of a bomber ISR penetrator, or more like a strike fighter? That's going to be an issue we're going to resolve by the next QDR, because the timing will be such that we're going to have the demonstration program done, we will have proven whether we can operate these unmanned systems on board the big deck, we will have more technology maturation, we'll have a lot better understanding on the requirements for the system. I'm very bullish on N-UCAS. I just don't know exactly what it's going to look like, but I think we're going to resolve that over the next three or four years.

Q. Is there still a strike fighter gap?

A. There was a lot of debate and angst over strike fighter shortfalls on the Hill last year. We have a requirement for 10 carrier air wings. Do we have enough airplanes - is there exactly 44 in every single one? No, but we don't need it. The way the Navy does it is a tiered readiness rotational cycle, where [wings] that go out on deployment are fully up and ready, and the ones that are ready to surge are fully up ready, and the ninth and 10th wings are training up.

We did a lot of management mitigation, things that resolved the, we considered pretty much eliminated, any perceived strike fighter shortfall. … That was before the JSF restructuring occurred. So now, in POM12, we'll be looking at it again, what other management levers will we have to do, and we're actually right now having a debate within the department, and we're going to take it over to Congress and tell them exactly what we found out.

But we felt very comfortable that we had a good, solid plan prior to the JSF restructuring. And the JSF restructuring will cause us to look at it one more time.

Q. So is the phrase "strike fighter shortage" still operable?

A. There are management levers we still have to pull. For example, in our first plan, we only thought we were going to do a certain number of SLEPs of F/A-18 Es and Fs, and As and Cs. Well, we might have to do some more now. But we think we have the problem well identified, and we have the management tools to help us address whatever that shortfall is going to be.

We lost a certain number of tails in the JSF restructuring which we now will have to take into account. But we were able to come to a good solution as a department. The Navy and Marines agreed on the management moves we have to take to ameliorate the shortfall. We're in a good position overall but there's still more work to do.

Q. Air-Sea Battle is a new construct between the Air Force and the Navy. Descriptions of this have varied. What is it?

A. It's focused on one thing and one thing only. Joint operations in an anti-access environment against a high-end competitor who has achieved parity or near-parity in guided weapons warfare and battle networks. So it's very much how would the Air Force and the Navy operate in such an environment to prevail and gain dominance over the opposing battle network.

It could be a regional power who has gotten all sorts of high-end systems from another power. It could be any type of power that really says I want to be able to compete in this particular regime.

Air-Sea Battle really is focused on that high end, and it's part of that rebalancing that the secretary asked us to do: operating in an anti-access environment. Air-Sea Battle was secretary-directed to the Air Force and the Navy to say, think about it, how would you go about this problem? And don't come up with separate service solutions, I want you two services to work together like the Army and Air Force did in the 1980s on air-land battle.

Q. Do you see an overlap of platforms carrying out non-standard roles? A B-52 bomber, for example, performing maritime reconnaissance?

A. Absolutely. We've seen this movie before. In the Maritime Strategy, B-52s were armed with Harpoon [anti-surface] missiles so they could make long-range anti-ship strikes. What you would see in Air-Sea Battle, I would think, is a Navy submarine force, with the Air Force saying, "If the submarine force could do this mission for me, that's going to help in the overall construct." So you might see submarine doing different missions, [or] Air Force F-22s doing long-range offensive counter-air to help a carrier battle group get in close. All sorts of different joint tactics and ideas on how to protect bases, where Air Force tankers and ISR and Navy P-8s are going to be operating out of.

I expect all of those things to happen. The first time we'll hear about it is a Navy-Air Force warfighter conference due this May, where there will be ideas about some of the things the services need to do to tackle this problem. I don't have anything definite to talk about, but I think by May we'll be able to talk specifics.

Q. There are no replacement SSGN submarines in the new 30-year plan. Does the SSGN concept have a future?

A. Covert under-sea strike is an advantage for us in a wide variety of scenarios. The Office of the Secretary of Defense has asked the Navy to say how do you handle covert underwater strike in the future? How do you keep the strike capacity of the submarine force at a level we need to have? That might be having more Virginia payload tubes in a future flight of Virginia [attack submarines] where you would have a combination SSN/SSGN platform. It might say you need to have an SSGN.

The capability we want is capacity in our submarine force to be able to do this strike mission. The question is how much we need and what is the best way to handle it. That study may say you're going to need a couple more SSGNs. It might say add a couple Virginia payload tubes to a couple Flight 4 subs and you're going to be covered.

We've committed to doing the midlife engineering and refueling overhaul on the 13th and 14th Ohio-class submarines, so they're in service for 42 years. The 30-year plan says we will replace those 14 Ohios with 12 boats because we're assuming we'll have a life-of-the-hull reactor core [that doesn't need refueling]. We don't do the 13th and 14th Ohio until late in this decade. If it turns out we don't need the 14 Ohios through the transition, you could potentially make those SSGNs. So we have a lot of on and off ramps right now.

But first we have to do the study and say what is the requirement for undersea strike and undersea strike capacity and how might you go about doing it in the cheapest way possible.

SSGNs may or may not have a future, but right now we do not have them recapitalized.

- By Christopher P. Cavas in Washington.

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