This is the second of a three-part series on the Navy’s struggles to develop unmanned ships and systems.

WASHINGTON — The attack from the late Sen. John McCain was predictable but that did little to lessen the pain.

From the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman’s seat in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in December 2016, McCain unleashed a polemic against what he saw as 12 years of programmatic futility displayed in the U.S. Navy’s efforts to field the littoral combat ship. From the witness stand, the Navy’s then-top acquisitions official Sean Stackley and top surface warfare officer Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden took the brunt of incoming fire.

By the time McCain had finished, the battle lines between Congress and the Navy had been drawn: lawmakers were through with expensive shipbuilding failures.

Terming LCS an “alleged warship,” McCain lambasted Navy leadership for years of delays to all three of the ship’s mission packages — a group of sensors and weapons designed to be swapped out as the ship’s mission changed — each of which were running years behind schedule. McCain reserved special scorn the mine-hunting mission package.

The mine mission module was designed around an unmanned system, known as the Remote Multi-Mission Vehicle, which was conceived as a safer replacement to aging minesweepers and originally projected to be operational in 2008.

“Taxpayers have invested more than $12 billion to procure LCS sea frames and another $2 billion in these three mission packages. Yet for all this investment … these mission packages are years delayed with practically none of the systems having reached initial operational capability,” the Arizona Republican said. “In other words, the taxpayers have paid for, and are still paying for, 26 ships that have demonstrated next to no combat capability.”

In 2021, the mine hunting mission module has yet to be fielded, though some components have been declared operational. Neither has the Navy delivered the anti-submarine warfare module. Congress sees these failures as emanating from improper analysis and testing ahead of launching into a full-fledged acquisition program, and now its pushing the Navy toward a much more deliberate process for fielding new technology.

The Navy wants a suite of unmanned systems to reduce the cost of owning and operating its fleet, while boosting the missile capacity and sensor distribution of its manned ships. But this idea for less expensive sea power depends on the Navy’s record for rapidly maturing technologies. Congress is skeptical of that history and intentionally tried to slow the Navy down.

Now, lawmakers have made evident a new plan for development.

Instead of rushing out half-baked systems, they want the Navy to go fast by getting the program right the first time.

That’s the thinking behind Congress’ move to slash 80 percent of the funding to the Large Unmanned Surface Vessel (LUSV) program in its 2021 appropriations bill, while retaining funding for the program’s major subsystems, including development of secure communications, command and control systems and increasing autonomy.

This focus on subsystems is favored by senior members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. Congress has also pushed for the Navy to set up land-based engineering facilities to test major systems and components to new ship classes like the LUSV and, lately, the new Constellation-class frigate that comes with a propulsion system new to the Navy.

The idea is this: Develop subsystems, test them on land first, then install them into a prototype before launching into an expensive acquisitions program.

But when it comes to the LUSV, however, Congress isn’t convinced the Navy actually knows its purpose.

Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., who is the ranking member of the HASC seapower subpanel, said in an interview with Defense News that he fully supports fielding unmanned systems and it’s fine for the Navy to fail quickly but repeating the mistakes of the LCS effort is unacceptable. Furthermore, having a clear understanding of how these assets will fit into and operate with the fleet is important and will drive design considerations, he added.

LCS 19 (St. Louis) Acceptance Trials. December 2019. (Photographed courtesy of Lockheed Martin)
LCS 19 (St. Louis) Acceptance Trials. December 2019. (Photographed courtesy of Lockheed Martin)

“I just believe that these elements haven’t been thought through and that the idea is, ‘Let’s just go ahead and build it and we’ll figure it out on the run,’ which was the same thing that we did with LCS,” Wittman said.

“What I don’t want — and I think many other members of Congress feel the same — is to go so far down a road and have created expenditures only to then find ourselves back at square one. Then we have wasted both time and resources, neither of which do we have surpluses of these days.”

‘Absurd acquisition debacles’

The approach favored by Congress is one that would have the effect of forcing more technical expertise back into the Navy that has been over the years increasingly outsourced to the defense industry. By slowing acquisitions timetables and having the service build land-based testing sites for new technologies, Congress hopes to translate the added time developing systems into fewer train wrecks akin to the seemingly never-ending quest to get the carrier Ford’s advanced weapons elevators to work properly.

In a joint op-ed in USNI Proceedings, Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla, and ranking member Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., decried an era of “absurd acquisition debacles that have set back the country tens of billions of dollars and delayed necessary weapon systems for years.”

Citing more than $8 billion in cost overruns between the lead ships in each of the last eight ship classes, Inhofe and Reed called on the Navy to summon the spirit of the “Father of Aegis,” the much-revered Adm. Wayne E. Meyer, whose mantra was “Build a little, test a little, learn a lot.”

Simply put: Congress wants the Navy to figure out the major systems that will go into a new ship before the new ship is built.

“Experts have continually noted a key step in successful shipbuilding programs is technology development—the maturation of key technologies into subsystem prototypes and demonstration of those subsystem prototypes in a realistic environment prior to the detailed design of the lead ship,” the article reads.

To break out of its funk, Reed and Inhofe believe the Navy needs to go back to figuring out subsystems prior to moving forward with designing new ships. And it should figure out what’s possible first before working toward major advancements in technology.

“We call for … the return to an Aegis-type development model in which critical subsystems are matured before the Navy procures the lead ship of a new class,” the senators wrote. “Without such an approach, we are convinced the cost overruns, schedule delays, and substandard performance that have defined Navy lead-ship development over the past two decades will continue. It does not have to be this way.”

‘Trust has frayed’

For the Navy, the year 2019 ended with a blistering memo from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget questioning why the Navy’s shipbuilding plans put the size of the fleet in reverse when the President ran on growing the fleet.

Just weeks later, the service saw its broad discretion in developing its own plan for shipbuilding and force design moved into the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Then-Secretary Mark Esper blocked the release of the annual 30-year shipbuilding plan and launched a year-long study to try and build consensus across the Department about what a future Navy should look like by 2045.

A sense of lost credibility was outlined in a recent essay by retired destroyer skipper Bryan McGrath, who consults for the Navy under the aegis of his firm The Ferrybridge Group. McGrath believes diminished trust goes back the same problems that so enraged McCain: Costly technology failures.

“To say the Navy has lost the trust of its governing institutions goes too far, but trust has frayed,” McGrath wrote in the piece posted to the Navy commentary blog CDR Salamander. “Congress, the Secretary of Defense, and the White House have each taken actions that indicate dissatisfaction with basic functions that in the past have been carried out within the Department of the Navy, and for which the Navy was generally considered competent,”

“The pathologies leading to diminished trust seem to disproportionately spring from major shipbuilding acquisition failures.”

McGrath goes on to describe how the Navy’s acquisition process prized “efficiency over effectiveness and, in the process, lost both,” and bemoans the loss of a competent cadre of government acquisitions and technical experts who could act as honest brokers between the government and the defense industry.

“In the end, increasingly expensive platforms advanced with immature designs shepherded along by a process that relied on optimistic assessments of technology readiness and a sense that whatever was broken could be fixed in the endgame. We are now two decades into this era of efficient shipbuilding and it is an unmitigated failure.”

But if the path to restoring trust in the Navy means taking the slow approach advocated by Congress, there are risks there as well, especially for those who fear a growing menace from China.

The cautious approach may not be tenable if the Navy want’s to make rapid progress on new technology, said Michael Horowitz, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert in emerging military technologies.

“If you think China’s catching up, then you want to take more risk,” Horowitz said. “If you’re way ahead, then you think about programmatic risk in a different way than if you think somebody’s getting close. But if they are getting close, you’re more willing to take risks at the technological horizon.”

Horowitz acknowledged the Navy’s track record with new technology and shipbuilding programs works against it and that the service must field systems that work. But given the rapidly advancing state of technology, waiting too long might be just as damaging, he said, pointing to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program as an example of a process that took too long because of technology goals that were too ambitious

“If what you’re waiting for is advances in robotics or [artificial intelligence] to fully pan out before you start a program, it raises the question of how relevant that program will be by the time it’s done,” Horowitz said. “So, there’s a balance. Priority No. 1 is reliability: If systems don’t work, they aren’t useful. But if you want to wait until everything is done, now you’re the F-35.”