ALEXANDRIA – Good Evening, Drifters
Author's Note: This piece was originally published June 11 as an e-newsletter.
The LCS program, though very much still alive, is still a ghost that haunts everything the Navy does today. An argument can be made – and this is not an original argument though I have not asked permission to cite the source – that the FFG(X) is a kind of penance for LCS. It’s the “Don’t f*** this up” frigate. It’s a proven hull and all the technologies going into it are “best in breed” but they’re relatively mature.
Once fielded, the FFG(X) will be a monster of a frigate with a world-class combat system, 32 missile tubes, naval strike missile, an advanced ASW suite and, from what I understand, a very quiet hull to run it all on. But what it is not is a major advancement in naval warfare. It’s, to quote famous Virginia folk-pop artist Dave Matthews, “the best of what’s around.”
(Funny aside, my friend and cubicle-mate Daniel Woolfolk used to be a Cav Scout and says at the time he was in all the guys in his unit loved Dave Matthews. So, of course, he had to pretend to dig it too to fit in. He hates Dave Matthews Band. Deployments were a misery of saxophone solos and 10-minute live jam versions of “Crush.” Anyway, back to the Navy.)
So, now the Navy thinks its time for a new revolution: unmanned surface vehicles to that knee the cost curve back in the US Navy’s favor. But there are some folks on the Hill who are a teensy bit skeptical of the Navy’s designs on a leap-forward technology.
This is what I want to discuss today. For helpful background, please go back and read Vol. XXIV.
“What About Bob” is a fantastic movie and it really does hold up to the ravages of time, unlike other 90s comedies of the day. But one of the running jokes in that movie is that Bob, a mentally shaky man played by Bill Murray who develops extreme attachments to his therapists, takes too literally the ideas put forward in a book called “Baby Steps.” The idea was developed by his self-satisfied therapist, played by Richard Dreyfuss, is to make small goals for yourself that add up to larger successes.
It’s all pretty trite (which is the joke) but Bob takes it literally and just takes very small steps when he walks anywhere. (See clip here.) “Baby steps down the hall, baby steps through the door.” It’s a funny gag but ultimately the joke is not so far off where Congress wants the Navy to go with unmanned surface vehicles: Baby steps. Baby steps toward finding a suitable hull. Baby steps toward finding a reliable engine and generator. Baby steps toward installing weapons systems.
Please recall my hit article from 2019: US Navy to get large unmanned surface vessels in 2020 — with strings attached.
Excerpt: The U.S. Navy will get its two large unmanned surface vessels in 2020, but lawmakers want the service to proceed with caution.
The recently passed 2020 defense appropriations bill buys both the LUSVs the Navy requested, but the legislation puts strict limits on what the service can do with them. Furthermore, Congress wants the Navy to have a plan before charging ahead. Congress also forbade the Navy from dropping a vertical launching system into its new LUSV, as the Navy has said it intends to augment the missile capacity of its larger manned combatants.
“Incremental upgrade capability for a vertical launch system may be addressed in future fiscal years,” read the agreement between House and Senate appropriators. “It is directed that no funds may be awarded for the conceptual design of future LUSVs until the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Research, Development and Acquisition) briefs the congressional defense committees on the updated acquisition strategy for unmanned surface vessels.”
Here's why Congress did that: They see what happened with LCS (mission modules have still not been fully fielded), they see what happened with Ford (delays and cost overruns due to technologies that were developed concurrent with building the ship instead of before) and some have decided that the Navy has run out of leash.
The latest example of this Congressional intervention came today in the Senate Armed Services Committee’s mark of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act. According to a summary provided by SASC, the bill “requires the Navy to qualify the main engines and generators for certain unmanned surface vessels prior to vessel procurement.”
Essentially what this means is that the Navy is now using research and development money to build unmanned surface vessels. Before they transition to a full-up procurement program using procurement dollars, they need to have Naval Sea Systems Command certify that the engines and generators meet the Navy’s requirements. There have been some questions raised about whether the Navy can find an engine with suitable reliability run untouched by human hands for days and weeks on end.
Basically SASC wants the Navy to slow the hell on down, figure out key technologies first, and THEN push ahead with larger systems. This approach focuses on subsystem development instead of concurrent development of a hull and a new technology. If Ford had taken this approach, the Navy would have developed EMALS, Advanced Arresting Gear, Advanced Weapons Elevators, etc., before it embarked on building the hull.
According to sources who have discussed this with me, they believe the Navy can actually speed development of unmanned systems by slowing down. They can also save Congress the embarrassment of having funded yet another program that goes late, runs way over budget and maybe never gets fielded at all. It’s the classic “tortoise and the hare” approach: Slow and steady wins the race.
I must confess, I’ve been uncomfortable with the rhetoric around “We must move faster.” An old maxim goes: “If you want it bad, you get it bad.” Maybe instead of moving faster, we move determinedly and deliberately so we don’t f*** it up.
But there is also something to be said for slowing too far down to the point where a project dies on the vine. How long as it taken to do an integrated naval force structure assessment? By the time its done, we might be talking about President Biden’s priorities and we’ll be on to the next idea before the naval integration seed had a chance to fully germinate.
We’re all concerned about China and its rapid technological advancement, and the Navy is right to feel a sense of urgency to regain the upper hand. It’s worth considering (since Congress gets the final word and all) the approach we’re taking and if it is more or less likely to yield the results we want?
Is there such a thing as getting over our skis? Of course there is. So maybe – just maybe – slow and steady really does win the race.
Something to chew on anyway.
On to The Hotwash.
The NDAA mark had some interesting things in it. Most notably, there were lots of advanced procurement dollars in there.
I wrote about it with my colleague Joe Gould.
Excerpt: Despite howls of criticism from Congress over the Navy’s seven-ship budget request earlier this year, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s markup of the National Defense Authorization Act stopped short of adding extra ships. Instead, lawmakers are opting to authorize the purchase of long-lead-time materials to keep the industrial base healthy.
With submarine builders under strain from the coronavirus pandemic and a dearth of suppliers, Congress had sought to add a second Virginia-class submarine. But now the SASC has used its annual defense policy bill to authorize about $472 million for long-lead procurement “so they can be ready to go, if not this year, than at the next opportunity,” Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the committee’s ranking member said Thursday.
The strategy of authorizing long-lead-time materials is designed to maintain steady business for critical suppliers. It also has the benefit of making it difficult to cancel a ship on which Congress has already spent money. Several programs have already benefited from long-lead-time money, and for its part, SASC is looking to authorize money to the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer program, the amphibious assault ship program and the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock program.
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