This is an e-newsletter originally published Oct. 22
ALEXANDRIA – Good Evening, Drifters
Welcome to The Drift Variety Show! I don’t have any one thing on the agenda for tonight. Instead I have a few items to run through in a rapid-fire kind of way. I had a fun trip yesterday to Bath Iron Works and Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine with National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien to discuss his quest to build Trump’s promised 355-ship Navy. We’ll talk a little bit about that.
I also want to chat about the destroyer Stout, which came back from a record-breaking 215 consecutive days underway in really rough shape. (CHECK IT OUT, RARE DRIFT IMAGERY!)
We'll also talk about the Royal Navy and US Navy’s recent agreement to merge their tech futures and talk about what issues may arise there.
So, we should get this show on the road
Various & Sundry
For a National Security Advisor, O’Brien has taken an unusual interest in Navy force structure, down to the kinds of ship alterations the Navy should perform to field hypersonic missiles.
In his speech at Portsmouth he told the assembled workers that the Navy would put hypersonic missiles on all three flights of Arleigh Burke DDGs, which is a debatable move.
You can read my story on that here:
All US Navy destroyers will get hypersonic missiles, says Trump’s national security adviser
My friend Vago Muradian had an interesting conversation with friends of The Drift Jerry Hendrix and Bryan Clark about the positives and negatives of such a maneuver. Click here to listen to the podcast.
On the subject of why he’s been so involved, I’m going to write something longer about it. But here’s part of the answer he gave when I asked.
The Quote: “I don't think there's anything that falls more firmly within the role of the National Security Advisor than then focusing on our defense and making sure that we have the proper platforms, and proper mix of platforms, to protect this country.
“And, so, I've been focused on a number of things. Clearly the President made a commitment to the 355-ship Navy. The United States of maritime power, we have been since the foundation of our Republic, and we won the Cold War in large part because Ronald Reagan built the 600-ship Navy. We're now facing a generational challenge with the Chinese and its rising navy.”
That would be a good name for a beer. Poor Stout. Two-hundred and fifteen days at sea. Holy crow, I can’t even imagine how much that sucked.
My friend Tyler Rogoway over at The Warzone called me for my thoughts on the picture, recalling my Rust Dialogues from Season 1 of The Drift. You can read my thoughts here:
Check Out How Rusty And Battered USS Stout Looks After Spending A Record 215 Days At Sea
Look, as I told Tyler, Stout gets a pass. You can’t effectively do topside preservation while you are at sea. And according to the ship’s commanding officer in the Navy’s press release, they had to stretch their food supplies, dealt with parts shortages and got low on fuel on a few occasions. Here’s what I would say on Stout:
- What are we even doing? I recognize we’re only ever one sick sailor away from a bloody plague ship like we had on Theodore Roosevelt earlier this year, but what we’re doing to sailors now borders on abuse. These ships aren’t supposed to run for 215 days straight. It’s poor husbandry to send these ships on full deployments for one continuous underway. On my deployment in 2005, I distinctly remember at least two “working ports” where we did topside preservation, maintenance, flew in tech reps to help us fix gear in a hurry and took deliveries of lots of toilet paper and cleaning supplies. The ships need care. And more importantly, the sailors need breaks. They need a night in a hotel. They need to go get a few drinks, get a meal not made in the galley and they need a break from the endless grind of watch rotations. We can’t keep this up into 2021. The Navy needs to fix this.
- I’m genuinely concerned for the mental health of these crews. I think of myself as pretty resilient. I held up well on deployments. But I’ll tell you one thing, I’ve never been more aware of my mental wellbeing and what I needed to do to maintain it as I was on my 2005 cruise. It isn’t easy. I’ve spoken with officers from some of these long deployments of 2020 and they are at once very proud of their sailors for putting up with this bullshit, but also very concerned about where the breaking point is.
- I covered why I think the appearance of our ships is of utmost importance in peacetime: If our ship’s look beat to shit, America’s adversaries (or worse, her allies) might assume that the outward appearance matches the condition of the systems on board. Worse still, they may assume the appearance matches the condition of the crew. In the case of Stout, her sailors didn’t do that to her, the Navy did. And the Combatant Commanders did. And the Secretary of Defense did.
If we’re not at war, we need to find a way to balance our need to be forward with our need to take care of our equipment and our sailors. If we don’t, we’re going to find that when the crisis comes we’re not going to have as much readiness as we need. And won’t the country be disappointed.
The Royal We
The U.S. and Royal navies are signing a compact to develop technologically as a unit, working toward the standard of not just interoperability but interchangeability. That was the talking point this week, anyway, and it has increasingly been the message from the services.
Two things stood out to me in the Statement of Intent: The sub-heading “Digital Transformation” and “Assured C2 and Integrated Fires.”
From those respective sub-heds, a couple excerpts.
Excerpt: From the strategic level to the tactical-level of sharing application interfaces, cooperation on digitization is essential for the desired interchangeability of our increasingly data-centric platforms and systems.
Excerpt: Resilient and assured C2 capabilities designed to communicate between our navies are critical enablers for future interchangeability. these efforts include ... non-SATCOM bearers and solutions to the challenges of operating in a denied and contested environment.
If you’ll recall last week’s “The Dark Tower” discussion, you’ll recall that what the Navy’s trying to do requires some cutting-edge technology such as edge processing and artificial intelligence to make this work. And on top of that, what the Navy and Royal Navy are discussing probably requires both navies to share a common data architecture.
Last year I had the privilege of sitting in with BAE in a discussion of a move the Royal Navy was making away from a hardware defined combat system and toward a software defined system. What does that mean? Well, that means that when you buy a combat system, really you are buying software that can run it on any computer with the specs to run it. Back in the old days, you’d buy “Aegis,” for example, and you’d buy not just the SPY-1 radar, but the old-school computers, the wave guides, the consoles, the displays: the whole nine yards. Most of the new stuff runs on commercial, off-the-shelf tech that is much cheaper. And the software, well that used to be kind of an extra that came with the equipment to tie it all together. Anymore, the software is the crown jewels.
The issue is that upends the model that BAE and Lockheed and Raytheon have made money on for years: making their margins on the hardware. Now they’re going to have to convince the services that the software is worth what the hardware once cost.
Anyway, I wrote about this in an article in January 2019 for Surface Navy Association. Check it out:
The future of the US surface fleet: One combat system to rule them all
If the RN and USN want to be “interchangeable,” they are going to have to consider going to a common combat system. That may not be as far-fetched as it once appeared, not that things are more software defined than hardware defined. But it would be a remarkable shift.
And that’s our show! On to The Hotwash.
Hudson Institute crack analysts Tim Walton and Bryan Clark followed up their future naval force study, done at the behest of the Defense Department as part of Mark Esper’s Battle Force 2045, with a commentary in Defense News today. I think it is worth your time to check it out.
The basic premise? The Navy will need to step up its game and control its appetites if it wants the kind of fleet it thinks it needs to counter China.
Excerpt: U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper is sprinting. With less than four months left in the administration’s term, he unveiled a new vision for the Navy that would grow the fleet to more than 500 manned and unmanned vessels from today’s 296 ships. Although some dismiss Esper’s Battle Force 2045 concept as a political ploy shortly before an election, it could lead to a more effective and affordable future fleet — as long as Navy and Department of Defense leaders can avoid loading it down with expensive options.
Read the rest here: Battle Force 2045 could work — if defense leaders show some discipline
Elta Systems, Hensoldt partner on system to consolidate submarine capabilities
Referenced Earlier: US and UK navies prepare to sign agreement to merge future tech work
US pitches Greece on a frigate co-production deal
Love is in the Air: Russian Navy Seen Escorting Iranian Tankers Bound for Syria
Watch a Navy drone resupply a ballistic missile submarine at sea
US, Japan, Australia team up for naval exercises in South China Sea
Marine Corps, Navy Ready to Hone Naval Integration in 2021 Joint Force Exercise