WASHINGTON — As the U.S. Navy moves to field 10 new or modernized ship classes in the next decade, the head of the surface navy is considering how to get these ships and their more lethal capabilities deployed faster.
Commander of Naval Surface Forces Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener in January released “Surface Warfare: The Competitive Edge,” which outlines five overarching priorities, including improving how the surface navy introduces new ship types. Since then, the surface community has detailed a number of ways it could more quickly get new capabilities to the fleet.
One of those ideas, according to Kitchener, is focused on how the Navy transitions newly constructed ships from the acquisition process to the fleet. Today, a new ship completes shipyard construction, sails to its homeport city and almost immediately goes into what’s called a post-shakedown availability — a maintenance period to fix anything that broke during rigorous at-sea trials and to complete work left unfinished by the construction yard, including installing the most up-to-date computer systems.
“Wait a second, I just finished the ship; now I’m delaying it another six to eight months before I can start working it up and putting it through to the fleet commander for use,” Kitchener said.
The Constellation-class frigate will be the next entirely new ship class to enter the fleet, and Kitchener said he and other surface navy leaders are seriously considering skipping the post-shakedown availability and putting the ship right into training for its first deployment.
“We want to make sure [the ships] are done, and we’re going to go right into the training cycle,” he said. “We’ll fix things in stride as we normally do, and then we’ll get them turned over and certified for the fleet commander faster.
The Navy may experiment with this model on one of its under-construction destroyers so it can better understand what it would take to complete all construction and installation work prior to delivery.
Another of the 10 new ship capabilities set for fielding in the next decade is the DDG Modernization 2.0 project, which will upgrade the Arleigh Burke Flight IIA destroyers with new radars, combat systems and electronic warfare packages.
In this case, the Navy planned the modernization to take place in a single — and very lengthy — shipyard period. The capabilities could reach the fleet faster if the Navy did the installations in smaller pieces, moving the upgrades more slowly but keeping more ships available for operations.
Indeed, a traditional approach to this massive modernization project could keep a destroyer offline for two years or more. Defense News previously reported destroyer Pinckney would spend 18 months at a shipyard to receive the electronic warfare package alone — a pilot program to do the work in two tranches while the Navy and industry learn more about how to install and integrate the new capabilities — and would still need more time offline down the road to get the radar and combat system.
“It’s a very complex and very time-consuming operation, so much so that it worries me that we really can’t take DDGs offline for that long,” Kitchener said.
Splitting Pinckney’s work into two blocks is a start, but Kitchener said the program office and acquisition community still weighing other ways to bring that capability to the fleet on a shorter timeline.
The Navy has asked industry whether they could bundle the work into modules that could be installed at different times; whether there’s a different contracting approach that would facilitate a faster re-delivery; and whether there’s a way to help shipyards learn faster to cut the timeline of successive upgrades.
“That is a great example of, OK, there’s some really good capability, game-changing capability that we need in the fleet — but boy, the time to get it there is challenging, and maybe you just want ships out there with a great capability, not that exquisite capability,” Kitchener said.
Meanwhile, Kitchener said his counterpart on the East Coast — Commander of Naval Surface Force Atlantic Rear Adm. Brendan McLane, who is formally overseeing the fleet introduction line of effort within the Competitive Edge document — created a new staff position in Washington with the ship program offices. That official will sit in on gate reviews and other acquisition milestones and report back to Kitchener and McLane if the program offices aren’t sufficiently investing in training, spare parts and other enablers for a smooth transition into the fleet.
And, Kitchener said, the Navy is investing in more land-based engineering sites, including for the frigate and the eventual DDG(X) destroyer. He said testing at these facilities instead of the traditional approach — putting the first ship off the production line through lengthy in-water tests — will save money, find problems sooner and allow them to be fixed as the ships are still being built. This approach is also meant to free up the lead ship in the program to begin training and deployment activities of being stuck in test activities.
The Competitive Edge document lists the following 10 programs as set for fielding or construction within the next 10 years:
• Zumwalt-Class Destroyers (DDG 1000)
• Arleigh Burke-Class Guided-Missile Destroyer DDG 51 Flight III configuration
• Flight IIA DDG 51 Class Modernization (DDG Mod 2.0)
• Littoral Combat Ship Lethality and Survivability Upgrade
• Constellation-Class Guided-Missile Frigate (FFG 62)
• Light Amphibious Warship
• Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicles
• Large Unmanned Surface Vehicles
• San Antonio-Class Amphibious Transport Dock LPD 17 Flight II configuration
• Next-Generation Guided-Missile Destroyers (DDG(X))
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.