Guest Post by Lieutenant Doug Robb, U.S. Navy and Lieutenant J.D. Kristenson, U.S. Navy
After more than a decade of asymmetric warfare, conventional security challenges are once again rising to the fore. This has resulted in heightened operational tempo, lengthened deployments, strained ships, and exhausted crews. Given the daunting tasks facing the maritime services, the Surface Navy cannot afford to remain “steady as she goes.” Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert’s article, “Payloads Over Platforms: Charting a New Course,” advocates a capabilities-based approach for future Navy combatants that emphasizes flexibility, adaptability, and longevity both to meet changing threats and address the materiel problems that have plagued the surface force for years. One solution is to create a Fleet comprised primarily of three different platforms based on existing designs. Interestingly enough, there is an organization—albeit a commercial enterprise—that may provide a useful model: Southwest Airlines.
While Southwest Airlines (SWA) and the Navy have divergent missions, there are notable similarities. Although SWA is a private-sector business operating in a highly competitive market, the Navy also provides a consumer (the combatant commander) with a product (warships) designed to execute the mission. Like Southwest, if the Navy does not deliver it risks “losing business” to the other services that are competing for new mission areas in a time of shrinking budget resources.
In recent years, the Navy’s adoption and implementation of business practices has often been clumsy and much of the criticism noting that the Navy is not akin to a private-sector entity is valid. Yet, when dealing with the financial realities of budgeting and procurement that will largely determine the underpinnings of the future Fleet, it is quite reasonable to look to the business practices of successful companies for guidance. Southwest Airlines provides an intriguing template for how the Navy can meet its objectives more efficiently and effectively.
Southwest’s success derives from its business model, which stresses simplicity, standardization, and efficiency. Since its inception, Southwest has operated one type of aircraft—the multipurpose Boeing 737-series—which has enabled the company to standardize pilot and technician training, predict flight time and fuel usage more accurately, pre-stage spare parts, and optimize maintenance hubs. Ultimately, this has allowed SWA to keep more planes in the air and maintain its competitive advantage even during the recent economic downturn.
Standardization in construction also creates an economy of scale for SWA and with some creative modifications, could be applied to the Navy’s needs, as well. Excluding aircraft carriers, the Surface Navy could cover a super-majority of its blue and brown water mission areas with a Fleet comprised solely of guided missile destroyers (DDG-51 class), amphibious transport dock ships (LPD-17s), and littoral combat ships (admittedly two classes right now). Traditionally, the surface force has been resistant to standardization because defending against both conventional and unconventional threats required employing unique platforms with differing capabilities. However, few could argue that 21st Century DDGs, LPDs, and LCSs do not cover nearly all warfare requirements that the Navy can be expected to meet in the coming decades.
For example, in much the same way that a legacy 737-200 commercial airliner differs slightly from the newer 737-800s, important variations exist among Destroyers that enable a single platform type to accomplish a varied array of mission sets. Some carry embarked helicopter detachments for surface surveillance and anti-submarine warfare, while others are configured with an active sonar “tail.” Some have combat systems configured for ballistic missile defense while others focus on high value unit air defense (a role traditionally held by guided-missile cruisers). Only the older variants have long-range surface-to-surface (Harpoon) weapons, yet all are capable of performing offensive precision strikes. New Flight III models will incorporate combat systems upgrades that will expand their sensor and strike capabilities even further. Like SWA, which can quickly replace one plane with another in order to meet its commitments, standardization will permit platform interchangeability—just as the Navy has done by swapping older, forward-deployed destroyers due for modernization overhauls with other available DDGs.
Other communities have found success in standardization. For example, the Virginia Payload Module (VPM) enables Virginia-class submarines to launch more precision-guided Tomahawk missiles and covertly deploy Special Operations Forces. Rather than replace the legacy EA-6B Prowler with a ground-up re-design, the aviation community utilized 90 percent of F/A-18 Super Hornet airframe components to build their next-generation carrier-capable electronic warfare platform, the E/A-18G Growler. Not coincidentally, the Navy’s most widely used ship defense weapon is called the “Standard” Missile—a program that has added new capabilities to an established system for over half a century. These adaptable platforms demonstrate that standardization and mission effectiveness no longer have to be competing priorities.
Additionally, the success of the Arleigh Burke program illustrates that two independently owned and operated shipyards can produce remarkably similar products using the same blueprint. It follows that focusing private sector construction efforts on only three platforms would increase production efficiency and decrease unit costs. As Admiral Greenert observed, charting such a course will “exploit the industrial learning curve while evolving our capabilities to keep our warfighting edge against improving adversaries.”
Admittedly, standardization carries with it legitimate concerns. What if the Navy commits to the wrong platforms—ones that provide the wrong capabilities or contain hidden costs (such as the contentious F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program)? What if threats change during the platform’s expected service life? Perhaps counter-intuitively, this is precisely how standardization gives the Navy a “competitive advantage” over its adversaries: altering payloads is both more responsive and more affordable than developing new platforms (though work remains). For example, in response to lingering doubts about the DDG-51’s ability to house the new Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR), Small Wars Journal editor Robert Haddick suggested that “Navy program managers should consider adapting the larger San Antonio class amphibious assault ship, both to accommodate the new radar and to host a much larger arsenal of interceptor missiles than the Burke destroyers can support.” Therefore, by carefully selecting the right long-lasting platforms, Fleet standardization will enable retrofitting last generation hulls with next generation technologies.
Though it is unreasonable to expect Congressional or Navy leadership to discontinue Zumwalt-class destroyers or America-class amphibious assault ships currently under construction, policymakers acknowledge that adaptability is necessary to meet emerging threats head on. Standardizing the future Fleet would accomplish many of Admiral Greenert’s prime objectives: It would render shore- and sea-based training more efficient, simplify logistics by prepositioning key maintenance parts (or ships) at U.S. bases and afloat forward staging platforms around the world, shorten maintenance and layup periods, and avoid a protracted acquisition cycle. This approach makes operational sense by delivering more uninterrupted capabilities to the combatant commanders and is prudent policy in an era of financial constraint.
Standardizing surface units will make the Navy a stronger—not weaker—fighting force without sacrificing core competencies. Focusing on exceptionally versatile platforms, such as DDGs, LCSs, and LPDs will enable the Surface Navy to achieve the CNO’s vision of modularity, flexibility, adaptability, and affordability by recognizing that payload and platform capabilities are not mutually exclusive. The blueprints for building an efficient and effective future Fleet are in place today, and one needs to look no farther than the nearest Southwest terminal to glimpse a better—and smarter—future for all of us.
Lieutenant Robb, a surface warfare officer and 2005 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, holds Master of Arts degrees in security studies from both Georgetown University and the U.S. Naval War College. His next assignment is Operations Officer in the USS William P. Lawrence (DDG-110) in San Diego, California.
Lieutenant Kristenson, a surface warfare officer and 2009 Olmsted Scholar, holds a Master of Arts degree in international development from Tsinghua University (Beijing, China). His next assignment is Operations Officer in the USS Forrest Sherman (DDG-98) in Norfolk, VA.
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