WASHINGTON ― The U.S. Navy’s top officer made clear from the time he came into office in late 2015 that his job is to prepare the service for an era of renewed great power competition with Russia and China.
Key to that effort has been his belief that getting new technologies to the fleet can no longer take a decade to complete. In an age when advances in technology can happen overnight, the Navy has to be adaptable and agile to keep pace with the threat.
Defense News sat down with Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations, to discuss speeding up the acquisition process, some of his key projects and his vision for where competition is headed.
You’ve spoken about the Navy’s unmanned aerial tanker, the MQ-25 Stingray, as being a test bed for where the Navy can find efficiencies in the acquisition system. What have you learned going through this process?
Agile acquisition has been a big emphasis area during my time as CNO. We’ve stood up this accelerated acquisition program, and there are really two elements to that: One, if there is a problem out there for which we don’t have a solution, let’s get rapid prototyping going and get to a solution fast. And then for those things where we have a solution, either through rapid prototyping or off the shelf, what can we do to get that in production and in the fleet as fast as we can?
With using those two elements, given that we are in this competition, a position strengthened by the National Defense Strategy, the need to go faster was never more important.
The MQ-25 was really a signature program to test the limits and plow new ground in that direction. And so we brought industry in way earlier.
I think that’s key to getting the acquisition cycle faster, even in the refinement of the requirements phase. If I put people together in a room and they are not fully informed ― if they come out and say, “We’ve done the full analysis, and what we need is a time machine”; OK, that’s great, but that’s going to be a lot of money. If you have industry in the room, they can say: “Well, we don’t have time travel just yet, but I can get you 80 percent of it with something I’ve got that’s mature.”
And so that’s where we’ve been with MQ-25, is to bring them in, see what they’ve got and see how fast they can get a prototype together to fly.
One thing we did do was we locked down on requirements. We could probably get agreement from everybody that we need something to tank. It liberates a lot of our strike fighters from doing that mission and it’s something that we can get done ― its relatively straightforward.
What has made the difference in speeding up acquisition from where you sit?
Part and parcel with the acquisition approach has been: Let’s get empowerment as far down as we can. And you can see this manifesting down at Naval Air Systems Command where we’ve allowed a lot of those decisions to be made, at least in the prototyping phase.
There have been some areas where you take a look at the traditional approach to doing things and you find out, well, wait a second, that’s for a manned aircraft; this is an unmanned aircraft, so maybe we don’t need to do that. The operational testing and those sorts of things, I think there are a lot of interesting opportunities there.
The response from industry has been overall positive. I think they are enjoying being part of it. To date, it’s been smooth.
What are your thoughts on the reported initial operational capability date for MQ-25 of 2026?
I’d like to see it as fast as possible. 2026 is out there, but there is a pretty keen sense that we can drive this left, maybe by a significant amount. So I’ll just say as fast as possible. We’re going to continue to accelerate. There are some in the Future Years Defense Program already. If we can move it left, that would be good.
There were questions earlier in the process about whether the requirements for MQ-25 were stable. Are you comfortable with the requirements and do you know precisely what you want?
Yes, I think we’re pretty set right now. It was such new ground for us in terms of opening this conversation up so early. So there was a bit of exploration that needed to be done. And that back and forth, that refinement phase, I think was new and important.
So maybe when [industry] said: “Are you sure this is really what you want?” Boy, I welcome that question because that’s where you find all the knees and the curves, the cost-performance curves. And by asking us, “Is this what you really meant?” I think it sharpens us.
Moving on to Ohio-replacement: It’s a very tight schedule, and the Navy is reportedly eating into the schedule. Where do you think you can buy back some time?
If you ask anyone in that program, the thing that I’ve been driving is that we have to get as much schedule margin into that program as possible. The technological risk is understood, the mission and the requirements are certainly understood, we have an experience industrial base in this regard. I feel confident we are going to be at about 83 percent design maturity before we start to build. So that helps a lot in terms of controlling costs. All of that is trending in the right direction.
Having said that, it’s complicated. And while it is on schedule, we need to get ahead of schedule. Because inevitably something will happen, we’ll discover something in test. And it’s such a critical mission that we need to retire risk and pull everything to the left as aggressively as we can.
There is going to be a lot of strain on suppliers with two Virginia-class submarines in Columbia-class years, and perhaps even three Virginias in off years. And then the Columbia is equivalent to, what, a submarine and a half when compared to a Virginia?
More like two.
Are you comfortable with where the supply chain is in building all these submarines? What can the Navy do to make sure those suppliers are staying around and keeping up with demand?
You bring up this comfort level thing again. Nothing I do makes me comfortable. I’m kind of a naturally uncomfortable person.
I suppose Adm. Rickover didn’t train people to be comfortable with the way things are.
No, we don’t go to copacetic very well.
But you’re right, where we were with fiscal restraints have leaned out that industrial base a tremendous amount. It’s the second- and third-tier suppliers ― some of these are very small shops making valves or circuit boards or things like that. And because things are so leaned out, there is not a lot of room for any of those teams to fail.
And so where we are working with the primes, folks like Newport News or Electric Boat shipbuilding. We’re going to have great insight into those suppliers to make sure they are delivering quality on time, [the] first time because a delay in a shipment of valves can now delay the delivery of a major nuclear-powered warship.
Stable, predictable funding is the most important thing we can do to send a signal to the suppliers that their work is valued, we’re making the investments, stick with us, there are business opportunities. When we don’t have that, often times their margins are a lot smaller and they can’t absorb this uncertainty or these delays. So it makes it all pretty fragile.
What is your overall vision for where the surface fleet is going to go in this era of increased competition?
You have to think about what do we define as a platform. What are those technologies that define what a platform is? Networking for sure because unmanned might be something we really want to lean into. What are the qualities and characteristics of an unmanned platform so that we can call it a platform instead of just a robot that floats?
It has to be networked so we can tie back in. It probably has to have some autonomy for when the networks degrade. Sensors for sure. Maybe weapons. Maybe it could go with a small crew; and as the risk goes up we could pull that crew off and take it from there in an unmanned way ― looking at all those.
It’s getting harder and harder to completely disappear. So, there is a value to stealth ― that’s lowering your signal. But there is also a value to deception, decoys and those sorts of things where you are raising the noise. So you can see this new concept emerging where it’s all about controlling the signal-to-noise ratio for the threat. What can you do to lower your signature as much as possible and create a lot of noise? So you’re starting to see the role for electromagnetic maneuver warfare and those sorts of things rolling in.
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News. Before that, he reported for Navy Times.