Archive for the 'Tactics' Category

Watts-Blue Ridge

U.S. Navy – The USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19), flagship of the 7th Fleet, patrols the South China Sea in March. Forward presence remains a conventional-wisdom cornerstone of U.S. strategy.

It is disconcerting to read that the U.S. Navy is making itself into “an unsustainable liability” in the pages of PROCEEDINGS. This is the argument made by Captain R. B. Watts, USCG (Retired) in his essay, “Advocating Naval Heresy” in the June 2015 issue of this magazine. Captain Watts writes that since irregular warfare is the most pervasive form of warfare confronting the United States now and into the future, the U.S. Navy should have a “small combatant that can deal with the complexities of irregular warfare.” However, he continues that because the Navy is a traditionalist organization, unthinkingly wedded to a Mahanian principle that capital ships remain the primary instruments of seapower, this need for a small combatant will go unmet as the Navy continues to focus on the aircraft carrier as its primary capital ship.

The Navy does not define seapower in terms of capital ships such as the aircraft carrier. Seapower is the enduring ability to project influence through the control and exploitation of the maritime domain to include the maritime littorals and the air above it to achieve strategic, operational, or tactical objectives. Seapower gives the United States the ability to convert the world’s oceans—a global commons that covers more than 2/3’s of the planet’s surface into a medium of maneuver and operations for projecting U.S. power ashore and defending U.S. interests around the world. The ability to use the world’s oceans in this manner—and to deny other countries the use of the world’s oceans for taking actions against U.S. interests—constitutes an immense asymmetric advantage for the United States, one so ubiquitous and longstanding that it can be easy to overlook or taken for granted. Projecting seapower is independent of a capital ship, and relies, instead, upon numerous ship types to include, surface combatants, amphibious ships and attack, cruise-missile, ballistic missile submarines, and aircraft carriers—along with underway replenishment ships for logistic support.

Furthermore the Navy bases its need for the type of ships it operates on enduring geopolitical realities and not Mahanian theory. First the United States exists as an island nation between two great oceans. Second the United States is and will remain a global leader with world-wide interests and responsibilities. Third most of the world’s people, resources, and economic activity are located not in the Western Hemisphere, but in other hemispheres, particularly Eurasia.

In response to these realities the United States has designed its Navy to cross broad expanses of ocean to protect America’s global interests, and if required, conduct sustained, large-scale operations upon arrival. Countries in other hemispheres do not design their navies to do this for the very basic reason that they exist in that hemisphere, where the action is, and consequently do not confront the “tyranny of distance” or the conduct of operations without shore bases. Far from home base and operating in distant waters, the Navy uses the sea itself as its base to conduct the full range of military operations. Although bases on foreign soil can be valuable, they are not a requirement for the Navy, as they are for land-based ground and air forces. The Navy can position its forces near potential trouble spots without the political entanglement associated with the employment of land-based forces. Moreover Navy ships are integral units that carry much of their own support, and mobile logistics support can maintain them on forward stations for long periods of time. The United States needs a Navy with ships that have the range, mobility, endurance, speed, resiliency, multi-mission capability, survivability, and most importantly, lethality for global operations. This is the principal reason why the Navy has large, blue-water, ocean-going ships.

According to Captain Watts, the Navy continues to “assume that a modern Jutland” will be its future and builds capital ships such as the aircraft carrier that are no longer relevant to today’s threat environment—especially against the irregular threat. The aircraft carrier with its embarked air wing executes the full range of military operations—from deterrence, to humanitarian assistance, to large-scale combat operations, and to irregular warfare—to protect our national interests. Indeed history has shown time and time again that when our national interests are at risk, the aircraft carrier will be the first to answer the call.

There is no greater proof of the tangible effects of a carrier on global events than the initial U.S. military response to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in early 2015 during an irregular warfare scenario no less—the very form of warfare that Captain Watts states is irrelevant to the carrier. The USS GEORGE H.W. BUSH with its embarked airwing, provided for 54 days the only armed response option for the Nation to blunt ISIL’s advance with air strikes and numerous related maritime-based effects. During Operation Iraqi Freedom from March to April 2003, because of regional basing restrictions, five carriers provided very different roles. For Northern Iraq two carriers provided eight aircraft “24/7” for on-call, close air support for small, independent ground units, keeping Iraqi Army divisions tied down. For Southern Iraq, three carriers exercised the full range of airpower missions from electronic warfare, reconnaissance, airborne early warning, to strike and interdiction. Again because of basing and overflight restrictions, carriers provided majority of air support to special operations forces in the fall of 2001 for Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) that resulted in toppling the Taliban regime. They were the only viable option.

Without question many recent operations would not have been as effective or even possible absent carriers—they are an indispensable tool for national security. Studies have consistently shown the aircraft carrier provides the best combination of sustained on-station time, sortie-generation capability, sea-keeping, and defensive ability at the most reasonable value for the defense dollar. The aircraft carrier remains relevant despite technological advances among our adversaries that make access to the battlespace more challenging due to their flexibility, adaptability and lethality. While anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) threats are increasing in complexity, the Navy is evolving to address these challenges and outpace the threats through its Air Sea Battle concept. Looking more broadly at how a carrier operates with an integrated network of aircraft, sensors, and weapons, the carrier remains a viable and credible threat to any adversary. The aircraft carrier provides the Nation with an unequaled hard, soft, and smart power advantage in a single, responsive, flexible, and mobile package, unfettered by geopolitical constraints.

Captain Watts asserts in broad-brush statements that, “we need a small combatant that can deal with the complexities of irregular warfare and missions that move beyond our traditional paradigm.” Regrettably he does not describe what these irregular warfare complexities are beyond generalizing about the need for “developing a small, capable combatant to deal with the lower ends of conflict.” Offering no requirements for why the Navy needs a smaller ship, he opines that the Navy simply “hates small” despite the growing numbers of Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) in the Navy’s Battle Fleet Inventory and a recently announced program to upgrade their weapons and sensors. Not surprisingly he condemns the Navy over the LCS as ships that were “never wanted” and that will likely be replaced by “new and larger combatants.” Yet on numerous occasions the Chief of Naval Operations has publicly promoted LCS with its associated adaptive force package concept as a prime means for the Navy to respond to the entire spectrum of military operations to include irregular warfare.

Captain Watts considers the rise of the China’s Navy as a non-threat that is “at best, a public-relations event for the United States.” Seen in this light the rise of the China’s Navy must also be of little concern to Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, and Thailand. Many security analysts agree that China is and will remain the most significant competitor to the United States for decades to come. China continues to pursue a long-term, comprehensive military modernization program designed to improve its armed forces’ capacity to fight short-duration, high-intensity regional conflicts. Additionally, its military modernization program has become progressively more focused on investments for a range of missions beyond China’s periphery, including power projection, sea lane security, counter-piracy, peacekeeping, and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief. For these reasons the Navy assesses China to represent both an opportunity and a security challenge.

The premises Captain Watts offers in his argument do not support his conclusion to the needed degree. The Navy does not have an animus to small ships such as the LCS. Additionally the Navy is an innovative, forward thinking organization as witnessed by its numerous efforts: (1) to leverage new technologies such as bio-fuels, directed energy weapons, rail gun, and unmanned vehicles in the air, on the surface and below the surface; (2) to develop new operational concepts such as Sea Basing, Distributed Lethality, and All Domain Access; and (3) to employ its ships such as the Joint High Speed Vessel and Mobile Landing Platform in alternative roles. Moreover the Navy understands seapower and comprehends that seapower’s effort must be directed at an effect ashore. The Navy fully recognizes that the United States must be a seapower nation if the United States is to influence global security conditions. Freedom to use the oceans is absolutely essential for any United States defense policy to insure the security of the United States and our allies and partners. The current fleet of Navy ships—to include the aircraft carrier—with their unique combination of combat power, mobility, sustainment, and multi-mission flexibility are well suited to operations in a global security environment in which threats cannot be anticipated and prepared for long in advance. The Navy’s fleet of ships provides the United States with the ability to use the sea for whatever purposes are necessary to the Nation.

Captain Watts concludes his argument by calling for a “time for heresy.” The Navy welcomes his call to examine contrary opinions but that examination must be based on facts and underwritten by critical thinking that is fair and objective.

JohnBoyd_PilotColonel John Boyd (USAF) developed a decision cycle concept called the OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide and Act) Loop. He applied the concept at the strategic level in military operations, but it can also be applied to our current and future warfighting efforts, what we design, build, budget for, and use in pursuit of our national objectives – today and in the future. If we consider Col. Boyd’s concept in relation to those warfighting efforts, then today we must begrudgingly admit that our adversary’s decision cycle operates more quickly than our own OODA Loop. Technology, particularly use of information technology systems (including the internet), has moved so quickly the past few decades that our enemies can design, steal or borrow new ideas for weapons or equipment, share information and quickly move out well in advance of our ability to counter those ideas. Yet we remain mired in the same processes used to design, build, budget and produce those items our military needs, more or less unchanged, since the 1960s.

Today to provide the warfighter a new weapon, ship, or airplane, we begin inside a bureaucratic process that requires an analysis of the gaps, alternatives, various capability documents, review upon review by a number of well-meaning organizations, etc… That is just to come to an agreement on what must go out to industry for their ideas, proposals and estimates. Items must be competed – sometimes even when it is already known what company can build to the need quickest and at the best price. And then there’s the funding question.

Creating a finished budget literally takes two years or more. Once the decision is made that we need to buy item X at price Y, it has to be put into the Department’s Budget. It takes almost a year for a service to build a budget, allow senior leaders the opportunity to review, debate and determine priority, and ultimately, decide if an item should be funded or not. Then begins the process of defending the service’s priorities starting inside the Pentagon and ending on Capitol Hill a year (or so) later. If approved inside the National Defense Authorization, and Defense Appropriation Acts (it is worth noting that today, a non-decisional Continuing Resolution is the norm), then we can finally spend money on a contract for a new warfighting capability. In summary, if we decide we need to produce a new, non-complex weapon, it takes a minimum of three or four years to actually deliver that weapon to the field.

We have begun to change – small but necessary steps, are being made. There is an Urgent Operational Needs process that allows the warfighter to quickly request a new capability, if the request meets certain policy criteria. A group of senior decision makers meets every two weeks to ensure urgent warfighter needs are being met as quickly as possible. They work together to push through the bureaucracy, even working outside the Department of Defense – with the Department of State and leadership on Capitol Hill. There have been successes. However, at the same time we make these small but important steps towards flexibility, we continue to struggle with new policy constraints or modifications to current requirements in existing systems.

If we are to remain the preeminent military force in the world we must continue to change. We must build a process that results in capability fielded quickly, vice capability fielded much slower – with minimal risk. Rather than have a series of consecutive leadership reviews on proposals (and the capability and/or funding required), each of which takes many months and can only move forward to the next step sequentially after each leader approves, we need to have single meetings of the right leaders to take in information, ask questions and make decisions – in a timely manner. We need the ability to spend money on new efforts today – not two years from now after we’ve built a budget, reviewed and defended it against any one of hundreds of reviewers who might disagree. We need flexibility to change programs as they move forward – when they hit a snag we must be able to quickly modify our plans, or if required – terminate our efforts and re-allocate the monies towards other needs. Naysayers will say a new process with speed in mind will lead to waste. The reality is that without a new process with speed in mind, we will fall further behind our growing number of challengers.

Do not misunderstand this to be a criticism of those that run or are involved in these current processes. Everyday there are tens of thousands of great Americans that work towards building the best and most capable Navy of the future. They toil under policies and laws currently in place and they do outstanding work. But we have to change the way we are doing the Navy’s business if we hope to continue to be the best. We have to tighten our own OODA Loop to decide and act far more quickly so that the enemy can’t get inside it, cannot work around it – or use our own process against us. Bottom line – we must change.

Cleared by comnvacent/5th fleet, CDR BRASWELLThe following essay was submitted to the 2015 Capstone Essay Contest by MIDN (now ENS) T. Holland McCabe and is published as submitted. This is the second of several essay contest submissions that will be published in the coming weeks.

In line with Vice Admiral Rowden’s model of distributed lethality for the surface navy, today’s changing maritime security environment will require a shift in the core focus of the composition of our fleet. Distributed lethality demands that “if it floats, it fights,” according to N96 Director Rear Admiral Peter Fanta.[1] To adequately meet modern challenges, the Navy must invest in a more robust fleet composed of a larger number of small surface combatants (SSCs), in addition to the traditional capital ships. Over 50 years ago, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt first made the same argument in respect to the role of destroyers in the 1960’s Navy. In a 1962 Proceedings article, then-Captain Zumwalt argued for a mix of “complex” and “simplified” mainstream surface combatant designs.[2] Later as Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Zumwalt continued to implement his vision of what has since been called the “high-low” mix of a variety of platforms intended to keep the Navy equally capable in the high-intensity environment of full-scale war, and in the low-intensity peacetime operations of maritime security and partnership building. For a variety of reasons, today’s surface navy remains composed mainly of the “complex” mainstream Zumwalt described as, “the exotic upper spectrum destroyers, which make the heart of every true destroyermen skip a beat.”[3] In 2015, a variety of traditional and non-traditional threats faces the surface navy, and a more diverse surface fleet is needed to meet these challenges.

SSCs may not have the firepower or survivability of the fleet’s larger assets, but they provide a fiscally-responsible solution to a wide spectrum of modern threats and missions. Many day-to-day naval operations fall within the “simplified” spectrum of operations Zumwalt described, and increasingly the constant presence of forward-deployed naval forces is becoming more important to building and maintaining international partnerships. SSCs such as Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), Patrol Coastal ships (PC), and inexpensive, low-tech platforms like Joint High Speed Vehicle (JHSV) and Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB) are perfect candidates to be the primary assets in the Navy’s “simplified” mainstream.[4] In times of peace they can provide a persistent, forward maritime presence without the large political footprint of traditional capital ships. In modern asymmetrical engagements they can operate in confined areas commanders may be unable to send larger platforms, or perform missions commanders may be reluctant to dedicate to a more expensive capital ship. Across the range of military operations, distributed lethality can only be administered by including SSCs in the high-low mix of distributed capability.

The message of distributed lethality – that the surface navy is once again on the offensive in a leading role – is a welcome message to a prospective division officer.[5] That being said, the Navy’s acquisition budget will be severely constrained in coming years by programs like the Ford-class carrier, the carrier-based F-35C strike fighter, Flight III of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, and the monumental Ohio-replacement. Debate and discussion has focused largely on how the Navy will overcome the budgetary challenges of these projects, all of which are high-end, high-cost assets. Relatively little discussion has focused on how the Navy will continue to meet the variety of low-end missions it faces day to day, the solution to which the author believes to be low-cost SSCs. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert recently acknowledged that the Navy is facing extreme budgetary constraints in the coming decades, and “repurposing and reusing existing capabilities” will be the way forward to keep the Navy capable of meeting operational demands.[6]

More than changing mentalities and repurposing existing assets, new platforms and force structures must be developed to keep capabilities distributed across the surface fleet to meet the full potential of the distributed lethality concept. SSCs must continue to have a prioritized place in the future ship building budget in order for the Navy to maintain its forward presence and alleviate the burden of low-intensity peacetime maritime security operations from high-end surface ships. LCS has fixed its importance with the recent re-designation of later hull numbers to an up-gunned Fast Frigate (FF) configuration, as well as its innovative mission modules. However innovation inevitably comes with the price of delays, cost overruns, and growing pains as design flaws are corrected. To this end, programs like JHSV, AFSB, and a renewed PC fleet using proven, current designs can produce excellent returns on the initial investment. SSCs represent the best intersection between capability and cost in the current maritime environment. In a quick comparison, the recent Proceedings article, “Nobody Asked Me, But … – PCs are Small Ships with a ‘Big Navy’ Wake,” highlighted that a fleet of PCs is roughly comparable in size to the crew of a current DDG, operates at a cheaper cost, and requires less port infrastructure to operate.[7] If current geopolitical trends are anything to go by, the littorals represent the most-likely location of any future maritime conflict. Large carrier and expeditionary strike groups are still vital to the core capabilities of the Navy, but too often assets from these high-value units are relegated to tasking that could more efficiently carried out by smaller craft at a significantly reduced cost.

Platforms like JHSV and AFSB have avoided most of the costs of innovation by simply not being terribly innovative in the individual systems they utilize. What they do present is a cheap platform that can mount a variety of weapon systems and equipment. Everything from electromagnetic railguns, to mine warfare drones and aircraft, to small Marine detachments can be embarked aboard JHSV or AFSB. Additionally, a variety of platforms exist that could be acquired to augment or replace the existing PC fleet. Corvette-type vessels are a favorite among many navies around the world, and an excellent candidate to augment the PC fleet has already been developed and produced in the U.S. under the Foreign Military Sales Program. The Egyptian Navy Ambassador IV-class patrol craft was developed and produced in Mississippi by VT Halter Marine, and uses existing sensors and weapon systems to produce a powerful small combatant. Indeed, this article is not the first to advocate for the acquisition of the Ambassador-IV, or some other corvette-equivalent to augment the U.S. Navy’s littoral operations, but it is worth mentioning again.[8] The Ambassador-IV possesses up to eight Harpoon anti-ship missiles, a large 76mm cannon, rolling airframe missiles, and a Phalanx close-in weapon system. While this vessel actually outguns the LCS while remaining smaller and cheaper, it is again not the perfect solution for the Navy’s low-intensity missions. Keeping distributed capability in mind, a mix of vessels can provide a wide, cheap baseline across a variety of missions that LCS’s modularity can augment depending on emerging threats. A future forward deployed task group composed of JHSVs carrying Marine raider units, AFSBs engaging in mine countermeasures, PCs conducting maritime security operations, and LCSs capable of supporting any one of these missions could be an incredibly capable force for a significantly reduced cost compared to a traditional carrier or expeditionary strike group.

Many senior Navy leaders recognize the importance of building partnerships and engaging regional powers to advance American interests. To this end, a number of current Navy operations are centered on conducting bilateral and multilateral training with foreign partners. The first rotational deployments of LCS to Singapore have already demonstrated the capability of SSCs to be highly effective tools of U.S. foreign policy, participating in a number of Combined Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercises in 2013, with more planned in the coming year. Increasing the number of forward deployed LCS to four in Singapore and four in the Persian Gulf in the coming years will be a step in the right direction, but more platforms creates a more persistent presence. Despite modular mission packages, the planned flexibility of LCS seems like a much more remote reality. Each LCS hull remains limited to conducting a single mission at any given time, and must return to port to exchange modules. The nature of mission modules themselves makes them less than optimal as the sole solution to low-end operations, as each module requires dedicated manning and training that goes unused when the module is not deployed, and each crew must undergo work-up training to integrate a new mission module. 3-2-1 manning somewhat mitigates this drawback, but LCS’s flexibility is increasingly looking like a slower-adapting, strategic advantage capable of responding to theater-wide trends, rather than a fine-tuned tactical advantage. LCS can remain the premier, scalable asset for low-intensity operations, but other platforms like a new PC, JHSV, and AFSB have the potential to fill gaps in LCS’s mission coverage.

Forward-deployed minesweepers (MCM) and PCs have provided similar international engagement and maritime presence abroad in other parts of the world. For several years MCMs have been operating closely with foreign nations in the Persian Gulf and in the waters off East Asia. In the past months, several large mine countermeasures exercises concluded in Bahrain, Korea, and Japan. In Bahrain, the 2014 International Mine Countermeasures Exercise was the largest mine warfare exercise in the world and was hosted by U.S. Fifth Fleet. MCMs were in a leading role building partnerships for all of these exercises. In a recent Proceedings article, several officers who have served in the PC community highlighted the advantages of SSCs for building international trust and cooperation as “an unobtrusive and complementary member of the local civilian and maritime community.”[9] Capital ships carrying large caliber guns and dozens of missiles, or fleets of amphibious assault vehicles and hundreds of marines, can be an intimidating presence the U.S. may not always want to project. The same article points to the vital maritime security operations the PC fleet is currently conducting among the oil fields and merchant traffic in the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf. Southeast Asian archipelagoes and sea lanes present another environment ideal for SSC operations. Roughly 40% of world trade passes transits the Malacca Straits alone each year. Local navies are rapidly expanding, mainly with SSCs of their own, to police this lucrative trade and assert the bewildering number of competing maritime claims in the region. As China asserts greater power in the region, so too should the U.S. make its presence felt with more than four rotationally-deployed LCSs and several larger ships.

Lastly, and closer to the author’s concerns as one of the newest junior officers in the Navy, SSCs provide great leadership responsibilities on junior sailors who are pushed to step into roles generally above their pay-grades. Again, this point has been raised in Proceedings by other officers, but it is worth mentioning again.[10] From enlisted sailors pushed to take on the responsibilities of non-traditional positions, such as standing officer of the deck, to junior officers placed in command, SSCs provide invaluable experience to upcoming generations of Naval leadership. Early Command has been one of the hallmarks of the surface navy – no other designator provides so much responsibility so early in an officer’s career – and this opportunity should be given to more officers who seek it.

As the Navy moves forward into an increasingly complex political and fiscal environment, the service as a whole should do well to remember 50-year-old advice from a former service chief. Admiral Zumwalt’s high-low mix of distributed capabilities must be considered to bring the new doctrine of distributed lethality to its fullest potential. While this article advocates for the place of SSCs in budgetary and strategic discussions, do not mistake that the author seeks to discount the “complex” portion of distributed capability at all, simply that they not be the sole focus. Both sides must exist in a balance for the Navy to operate effectively against the wide range of modern challenges.

[1] Sydney Freedberg, “’If It Floats, It Fights’: Navy Seeks ‘Distributed Lethality,’” Breaking Defense, 14 January 2015, accessed 13 April 2015,

[2] CAPT Zumwalt, “A Course for Destroyers,” Proceedings 88 (November 1962).

[3] Ibid.

[4] While not necessarily combatant vessels, for the purposes of brevity this article will generally combine all “low-end” assets like JHSV and AFSB with references to dedicated small combatants when referring to “SSCs.”

[5] VADM Rowden, RADM Gumataotao, RADM Fanta, “Distributed Lethality,” Proceedings 141 (January 2015).

[6] ADM Greenert, “Service Chiefs’ Update Panel,” 2015 Sea Air Space Exposition, National Harbor, MD, 13 April 2015.

[7] LT Hipple, LCDR Follet, and LCDR Davenport, “Nobody Asked Me, But … – PCs are Small Ships with a ‘Big Navy’ Wake,” Proceedings 141 (April 2015).

[8] Luke Tarbi, “US Navy Needs Fast Missile Craft – And LCS – in Persian Gulf,” Breaking Defense, 14 April 2014, accessed 16 April 2015,

[9] LT Hipple, LCDR Follet, and LCDR Davenport, “Nobody Asked Me, But … – PCs are Small Ships with a ‘Big Navy’ Wake,” Proceedings 141 (April 2015).

[10] Ibid.

Please join us at 5pm (EDT), 2 August 2015 for Midrats Episode 291: Nashville, Omar, Nigeria and Kurdistan, Long War Hour w/ Bill Roggio

This summer, the terrain shifted in the long war that we thought we needed to bring back one of our regular guests, Bill Roggio, to discuss in detail for the full hour.

Bill is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Bill is also the President of Public Multimedia Inc, a non-profit news organization; and the founder and Editor of The Long War Journal, a news site devoted to covering the war on terror. He has embedded with the US and the Iraqi military six times from 2005-08, and with the Canadian Army in Afghanistan in 2006. Bill served in the US Army and New Jersey National Guard from 1991-97.

Join us live or pick the show up later by clicking here. Or you can get the show later from our iTunes page.


VLS At-sea Reloading

July 2015


picture 1

Figure 1: The Donghaidao is the PLAN’s new MLP-like vessel

Last month, the People’s Liberation Army Navy held its first drill simulating the resupply of missiles in a combat environment. Live-fire exercises featured the firing of missiles and torpedoes, followed by maritime missile combat resupply[1]. In addition to developing advanced new anti-ship missiles, the PLAN has also commissioned a new maritime logistics vessel[2]. The PLAN is equipping its forces, and now rehearsing, for complex logistical coordination for sustained combat operations. At-sea replenishment of stores and fuel is routine for the United States. However, for all of its power projection capability, the Navy does not practice ordnance resupply. Given the increasing capabilities of the PLAN, and the imperative of Sea Basing, the US Navy must replenish this skillset.

Distributed Lethality calls for the surface fleet to go on the offensive.[3] Ships and Surface Action Groups (SAG) should operate forward, seize the initiative, confuse the adversary through battlespace complexity, and strike targets both at sea and ashore. But to carry out this strategy, surface ships face a critical limitation: munitions capacity. The primary weapons of large surface combatants like the ARLEIGH BURKE Class DDG and the TICONDEROGA Class Cruiser include the STANDARD missile, Tomahawk, Vertically Launched Anti-Submarine Rocket (VLA), and the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM). Those missiles are launched from the Vertical Launching System (VLS). Cruisers have 122 cells, Flight I and II DDGs have 90, and Flight IIA DDG have 96.

The specific quantities of each weapon loaded into VLS cells vary depending on mission and combat system configuration. Fully loaded, the large surface combatants pack quite a wallop, and are capable of destroying a broad array of aircraft, missiles, defended land targets and enemy warships. What they lack is magazine depth. 90 to 122 VLS cells is not enough. In the face of the sophisticated weapons that the PLAN has deployed to execute it anti-access strategy, one could easily conceive of scenarios where both the strike and defensive weapons’ cells on USN ships are quickly depleted. A day or two of combat operations may require several anti-aircraft weapons to be used against anti-ship cruise missiles and Tomahawks to be fired at targets ashore. After such operations, U.S. ships would have to travel hundreds, or possibly even thousands, of miles to a facility with weapons, equipment and people to re-arm. This takes our large surface combatants out of the fight for days, thus forcing the CSG and SAG to pull back, out of range of land-based opposing forces. That spells tactical victory for anti-access strategy.

Defeating the anti-access strategy may not require breaking into the defended bastion, destroying opposing forces, and commanding the seas right up to their shores. It could mean defending a regional status quo by preventing an anti-access actor from disrupting shipping, making claims on disputed territory, or invading another sovereign state. In many cases, the United States is the anti-access state. Today, credible military capability and capacity to impose localized sea control could make an aggressive violation of status quo undesirable[4]. Maintaining credible presence is a multi-faceted problem that touches everything: procurement, maintenance, manpower, and supply-chain. In order to counter these anti-access strategies, we must keep our major surface combatants on station with full combat capability through forward replenishment of weapons.

Unloading spent canisters, loading new weapons, and unloading weapons from damaged units will be critical to maintaining presence and keeping the pressure on adversaries in their anti-access bastions. Unfortunately, reloading VLS at-sea isn’t incorporated into the Navy’s logistical DNA in the same way refueling is. Reloading VLS cells in today’s status quo demands an industrially robust port facility with heavy equipment, trained rigging crews, and a large munitions storage facility. It is not uncommon to damage equipment, and people have been seriously injured during VLS loading and unloading evolutions. Experts at the Naval Weapons Stations and some Naval Support Facilities use cranes to unload spent canisters, move gas management system equipment, and place loaded canisters in cells. Can the Navy achieve similar results, sending ships back into action with fresh ammo, from more forward but less capable locations?

Figure 2USS FORD coming alongside USNS CARL BRASHEAR for RAS

Figure 2 USS FORD coming alongside USNS CARL BRASHEAR for RAS

To begin with, “at-sea reloading” is a misleading term. Swinging VLS canisters over the lifelines in comparable fashion to how it is accomplished at Seal Beach Weapons Station is not acceptable for Replenishment at Sea (RAS) at 13 knots. Since reloading during RAS is unachievable, I propose “forward” reloading, in a protected lagoon or calm harbor closer to the action. While out of the way locations may lack modern industrial equipment, many locations, with additional mobile support, could be used to reload magazines closer to the action.

A great deal of research and planning went into supporting supply chain management like this from 1897-1945, when Officers at Naval War College and OPNAV examined how to sail to victory against the Japanese Navy. Possible base locations were evaluated based on criteria such as ship capacity, number of entry passes, entry draft, and submarine protection to support operations in the Pacific Theater. Key requirements such as having a large lagoon and deep drafts were easily met.[5] The Navy may be able to use islands and atolls that failed to satisfy the early 20th Century requirements for forward operating for VLS reloading. Availability of numerous forward locations prevents bottlenecks, and reduces the vulnerability to enemy disruption. It is important to explore the feasibility of forward locations for VLS reloading. Crisis or time of war makes rapid munitions replenishment critical. A strategy that accepts greater risk will need to be employed. A pier that lacks every convenience except navigational draft, a calm anchorage, or even the lee of a volcanic formation far out at sea may be sufficient for VLS reloading. We should plan for using these feasible locations for VLS reloading before a crisis emerges.

Tomahawks, SM-3 and SM-6 missile canisters are over 20 feet long, weigh thousands of pounds, and are filled with fuel and explosives. They’re hard to pick up, and you certainly can’t risk dropping them. What will ships need to do to execute a transfer away from the robust facilities that normally conduct these operations?

Cruisers and Flight I and II Destroyers previously used a VLS strike-down crane that occupied space for 3 VLS cells. These had been certified to reload SM-2 missiles and Vertically Launched Anti-Submarine Rockets (VLA). Maintenance burden and crew training requirements, combined with the inability to reload some of the larger weapons in the inventory, led to the strike-down crane’s exclusion from Flight IIA Destroyers. The cranes have since been permanently laid up or completely removed from VLS systems.[i] Simply replacing those cranes is not a solution since they would require extensive redesign and engineering to load Tomahawk, SM-3, and SM-6 missiles. Rather than adding equipment to the CG and DDGs, the Navy could explore options to deliver the necessary equipment to the ship in conjunction with the missile transfer.

The size of the missiles and the distances replenishing units must cover preclude airborne delivery. The existing fleet of replenishment ships is a natural options for VLS rearming. For instance, The Mobile Landing Platform (MLP) has an open deck with ample room for containers and handling gear. Combined with low freeboard, and excellent low-speed maneuvering characteristics, it appears to be a useful platform for skin-to-skin mooring and weapons transfer. The MLP lacks dedicated magazine space and ordnance handling equipment, so development of ordnance storage containers and associated safety equipment would be necessary.

The T-AKE dry cargo and ammunition ship has ample ordnance storage capacity, however a high freeboard and large midship superstructure increases the risk of damaging mast electronics on the receiving ship during transfer operations. Moreover, though the T-AKE does have a crane, neither it nor the receiving ship has a crane capable of safely swinging VLS canisters across to set into VLS cells.

VLS reloading in sea states 1-2 is a critical requirement. During a routine RAS evolution, relative motion can exceed several feet, but during VLS reloading, the relative motion between delivery and receiving ships cannot exceed 6 inches. It will be necessary to maintain complete control of the missiles during transfer, not simply gauge the motion and use judgment to set it into place safely. Current research indicates that a specialized crane with a stabilizing system would be the best way to not only transfer missiles from one ship to the other, but to prepare the cells for ordnance. A crane with a stabilization system is the only way to ensure gas management equipment can be safely and securely placed, and that damage to cell openings and door mechanisms can be avoided while inserting loaded missile canisters into VLS cells.

While the stabilized crane helps, the best way to ensure the weapons are safely lowered into place is with a positive-control system, secured to the ship. Navies that operate the MK 41 system have experimented with developmental systems to perform this task. Prior to lifting canisters, the delivering ship would hoist a loading device and set it atop the launcher. This device would be used to pull canisters up from the cells, then lay them flat, parallel to the deck. The missiles would be secured to the crane and released from the loading device for transfer to the replenishment ship. Then, replacement missiles would be craned back to the CG or DDG, secured in place on the loading mechanism, then raised vertically for loading into the VLS.

The use of a stabilized crane and secure loading system would ensure the careful control and transfer of missiles between ships, and is essential for VLS reloading in forward areas.

A final key consideration for VLS reloading that could consume another paper by itself is ensuring enough ordnance is on hand to support ongoing operations. Requirements emerge from data models, and missiles are procured and maintained based on assumptions of potential combat regions and the threats that could be encountered there. As a conflict evolves, ships will request the missiles they need based on their combat usage, or the missions to which they’ll next be assigned. Careful tracking of what is being fired and what is being reloaded will be necessary to ensure Combatant Commanders know their inventories so that they may transfer ordnance or ships from one region to another to support combat requirements.

The speed that ordnance information must travel will increase dramatically relative to the current peacetime information deliver rate. Exercises and war gaming of these scenarios will undoubtedly prepare for the people and ordnance tracking systems for wartime speed and complexity. Weapons stations will be issuing weapons to replenishment ships, DDGs and CGs will be demanding reload, damaged vessels will need to transfer weapons to combat ready ships, and the entire system must be tuned to put the right missiles on the right ships and in the correct cells. In total, it will be a fast-paced, hectic process likely involving significant improvisation. Keeping count, maintaining order, and reloading VLS cells must be practiced, and there is more to the weapons supply chain than just cranes and rigging gear. The difference between the right munitions at the right time and a miscalculation or misplacement could be a crew watching the screen helplessly for a couple of terrifying minutes until an anti-ship missile reaches CIWS range because STANDARD missiles were not available for reload.

Forward VLS reloading: It can be done

Technologies to facilitate forward reloading of VLS are mature, but the Navy has no stated requirement for integration, testing, and certification of specific equipment needed to support it. Funding for further development of the at-sea (or forward) reloading capability will be a hard sell in the current budget environment, and because the current peacetime status quo is satisfactory.

The proliferation of guided anti-ship weapons, and the rise of PLAN anti-access strategy have driven the US Surface Navy to adopt a Distributed Lethality mindset. To keep more warships on station for as long as possible, losing a DDG in the midst of combat to conduct a multi-day transit just for rearming is not acceptable. To paraphrase Eisenhower: plans are worthless, but planning is everything. Funding for final implementation of forward reloading systems may not seem worth the expense today, but it is critical to supporting Distributed Lethality warfighting. Forward reloading of VLS cells is a technical, operational, and supply chain challenge, and it must remain a priority for research & development, war gaming, and strategic planning processes for it to ever be employed successfully in wartime.

[1] Ben Blanchard, “China Navy Holds First Missile Combat Resupply Drill,” Reuters, July 2, 2015,

[2] Mike Yeo, “China Commissions First MLP-Like Logistics Ship, Headed for South Sea Fleet” USNI News, July 14, 2015,

[3] Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden, Rear Admiral Peter Gumataotao, Rear Admiral Peter Fanta, “Distributed Lethality,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings (1/2015),

[4] Rowden, Gumataotao, and Fanta.

[5] Miller, Edward S. War Plan Orange: The U.S. Strategy to Defeat Japan, 1897-1945. Naval Institute Press, 1991.

[i] Before decrying the removal of the knuckle crane for criminal shortsightedness, consider the implications of keeping those cranes in place. Cranes, like pallet conveyers and elevators, require considerable effort for upkeep. They also require manning consideration to include operation and maintenance classroom training for sailors, not to mention repetition of use to ensure that crews keep perishable skills sharp. It’s also ordnance handling equipment, which involves another level of inspections and certification. These are matters of personnel safety, where errors can cost lives. We can’t simply ditch the inspections and certifications of gear and the training and qualification of people because they sound like extra red tape. Rules that govern the operation and upkeep of these systems are written in blood. Occasionally, we are reminded that life at sea is dangerous, and we do not like to be reminded in peace time. Pile that onto manpower reductions, in-rate and professional training, and watch standing, and you may notice that sailors on afloat units are busy. In an era of fiscal austerity and manpower reduction, maintaining expensive gear and skills fell off the table. Something had to lose. This lost.


Please join us on 12 July 2015 at 5pm (EDT, U.S.) for Midrats Episode 288: “The Between the Ears Challenge”:

Are the growing feelings of crisis, confusion and strategic drift in the national security arena not so much the result of external challenges, but the result of poor thinking and intellectual habits on our part?

Using his article in The National Interest, “The Real Problem with the American Military” as a starting point, our guest for the full hour will be Dakota Wood, Senior Research Fellow on Defense Programs at The Heritage Foundation.

Dakota L. Wood, LtCol USMC (Ret.), Senior Research Fellow for Defense Programs at The Heritage Foundation.

Dakota served two decades in the U.S. Marine Corps. Following retirement, Mr. Wood served as a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Most recently, Mr. Wood served as the Strategist for the U.S. Marine Corps’ Special Operations Command.

Mr. Wood holds a Bachelor of Science in Oceanography from the U.S. Naval Academy; a Master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the College of Naval Command and Staff, U.S. Naval War College.

Join the show live if you can or pick it up later by clicking here. You will also be able to find the show later at our iTunes page here.

Slide2-e1435085398953-1024x688The future battlespace is looking a lot like the battlespace of MIDN Salamander.

At the height of the Cold War there were a few assumptions; the electronic spectrum would be contested; to project power ashore, you needed long range strike packages that could fight their way in and still accomplish the mission with losses; you will have multiple threats from the ground and the air with peer to near-peer capabilities.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union we have in some respects become complacent, hedging, and forgetful.

In a slightly different context with different platforms, does this sound familiar?

A staggering 96 percent of the precision weapons the Pentagon has bought since 9/11 have been “direct attack” munitions. These weapons are relatively short-ranged. For example, the new Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) II has wings to glide up to 40 nautical miles from the aircraft that launches it. The older and larger Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) can glide just 13 nm.

Against a low-tech adversary like the Islamic State, a US aircraft 13 miles away might as well be on the moon. Against an adversary with modern anti-aircraft weapons, however, a US aircraft that comes within 13 or even 40 miles is begging to be shot down.

In brief, we’ve not bought enough smart weapons for a major war — and the ones we have bought are mostly the wrong kind.

Conversely, we have far too few long-range weapons such as cruise missiles, which can be fired from outside enemy air defenses’ range, and the ones we do have are far too expensive to buy in bulk. The average direct-attack bomb bought since 2001 costs $55,500; the average long-range precision-guided weapon costs $1.1 million, twenty times as much.

Replaying the 2003 invasion of Iraq with long-range weapons in place of all the direct-attack ones, Gunzinger and Clark write, “would cost $22 billion for the PGMs alone.” Even if we wrote a blank check in a crisis, they say, the industrial base probably couldn’t ramp up fast enough. Whatever we do about the smart bomb problem, we need to start working on it now.

While the CBSA study focuses of standoff weapons (again, not a new topic) – the reason is the same – reaching deep in to the enemy’s territory.

They have some ideas;

In the near term, there are modest modifications we can make to our existing direct-attack weapons, like adding wings and even small turbojets that boost their range dramatically. New explosive materials can make lighter weapons hit harder.

In the longer term, we can build new types of intermediate-range weapons in what Gunzinger and Clark call the “sweet spot” between cheap direct-attack munitions and expensive long-range ones. The vast majority of existing US weapons have ranges either less than 50 nautical miles or more than 400, they write, but weapons in the 50-400 band should be far more affordable than cruise missiles yet far more capable of penetrating advanced air defenses than unpowered gliding bombs. (The 200-nm-range JASSM, or Joint Air-To-Surface Standoff Missile, is one of the few weapons in this “sweet spot” currently).

While we are talking about distributed lethality – let’s also discuss distributed risk; program risk, tactical risk, technology risk. How has the world’s only maritime superpower found itself in this position?

One slow, late-20th Century ASCM that is only carried by a few capital ships? A deck full of short-range light strike fighters? A single, large, rather slow land attack cruise missile? No organic tanking (buddy tanking does not count)? Single main-mounts per ship? Limited self-repair and fragile forward-deployed repair facilities? One exquisitely priced, over-compromised jack of all trades aircraft? Glass-jawed, thinly armed, and undermanned ships?

Some think yet to be fleshed out drones are the answer – not so fast. From ROE to situational awareness, a limited platform gets more limited – part of the solution perhaps – but not the full answer or the easy answer.

What we do need are ideas and actions. The challenge is changing – the easy days are coming to a close. The shot term ideas offered in the study are good – nice payload ideas – but platforms still matter.

There is the rub – the medium and longer term. Are we changing out mindsets and habits? How do we build off of the capabilities of new payloads with platforms that enhance them?

The answer to the platforms is the same as the authors came up with for the payloads – range. Start there, and then let the engineers work the details – and don’t think that one can do it all.

That only works for accountants.

As a Junior Officer, it was very enjoyable to drive for an Underway Replenishment (UNREP) – with the sole exception, that is, of trying to make sense of the Radian Rule. I have strong memories of my attempts to internalize the relationship between the bearings and ranges. There always seemed to be one, but I never quite made it to a coherent understanding until much later in sea duty years. As an XO and CO recently, I finally had a more mature understanding of this important ship driving principle as well as numerous opportunities to train and coach Midshipmen and Junior Officers during UNREP events. In this article, I’d like to share a few approaches that take advantage of a more nuanced understanding of this well-known guidance.

The Radian Rule Equation and Its Uses

The rule of thumb that’s encoded in every table of Radian Rule values is laid out below. There are several ways to capitalize on this understanding as the team is either preparing for or executing an UNREP approach. I’ll start with a couple of the more common ones and then introduce three favored approaches to the problem. As a baseline assumption, the goal distance I’ll use for alongside separation is 180 ft. I think you’ll see soon, however, that they work equally well for any alongside separation distance.

Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 6.35.01 PM

Common Techniques

Technique #1: Make a List

 Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 6.34.24 PMFrom a new Conning Officer’s point of view, this was a fairly common approach to the problem of understanding and using the Radian Rule. Many Junior Officers arrived for both the brief and the evolution with a list of bearings and ranges that would indicate the ship was on track for the desired separation. Such a list might look like this:

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This technique works well if the team is able to verify bearing to the oiler at each of the yardage milestones on the list, since a single data point is seldom as valuable as a series of consecutive observations. This method is less useful if the range for a given observation isn’t one of the milestones, or if the team misses a milestone.

Technique #2: Use a Radian Rule Table to Determine Separation Distance

This technique is by far the most common, and involves a third party (typically a Quartermaster) looking up each bearing and range combination in a table similar to the excerpt shown below. While it ensures that each data point is useful in determining the overall trend of the ship’s relative motion with respect to the oiler, this method – in my opinion – doesn’t help substantially to develop the Conning Officer’s understanding of that motion. Stated differently, the difference between a good and a great Conning Officer is the ability to add his/her own evaluation of a situation to the input they get from the rest of the bridge team. I believe there are more effective ways (discussed further below) to build this capability in our Junior Officers.

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A Note on Advanced Techniques

Techniques #3 – #5 have one prominent feature in common – they all depend on mental math. While this may present a challenge, there are several advantages to these methods. First, mental math promotes independent judgment by the Conning Officer and/or coach for each observation throughout the approach evolution. Second, the mental math in these methods requires that the Conning Officer and/or coach build a mental model of the relative motion and internalize the relationships among bearing, range, and lateral separation. Third, from the Conning Officer’s point of view, these techniques offer a different way to learn the evolution and may appeal more intuitively to certain Officers. Finally, from the coach’s point of view, these techniques offer yet another mental tool for dispassionately evaluating the sight picture and ensuring the bridge team is appropriately focused on providing good inputs to the Conning Officer.

With these points in mind, I’ll introduce three non-traditional techniques. Each of these relies on the Conning Officer’s and coach’s ability to mentally exploit various forms of the baseline Radian Rule equation.

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Advanced Techniques

Technique #3: “The Rule of 3600”

This technique works well in concert with either Approach #1 or #2 above. Since the separation distance for which we’re aiming is a constant (180 ft in this case), the right side of the equation becomes a constant:

Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 6.35.25 PM

Click to view full size image

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Simplifying the Radian Rule equation, then, we get the following:

Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 6.54.42 PM

For any combination of bearing and range, we can multiply them and compare them to 3600. If the product is less than 3600, the ship is approaching the oiler at something less than 180 ft of separation. If the product is greater than 3600, the ship will approach the oiler wide of 180 ft separation. A few examples below illustrate this principle.


Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 6.54.50 PM

While it’s an imperfect measure, this technique allows the Conning Officer to corroborate his or her visual judgment with a quick check of the math, and then to combine those judgments with either of the first two approaches to refine the solution. This technique is very flexible with respect to desired separation distance, as well. If the goal is 200 ft, for instance, then the constant becomes 4000. Finally, this technique provides a good gateway to the next two approaches.

Technique #4: “Where Should You Be Right Now”

With range as an input, the Conning Officer works out the bearing he or she expects to see and then compares that prediction to reality (measured bearing separation). Direction and magnitude of any required course corrections follow relatively easily. The baseline equation, solved for bearing, follows.

Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 6.35.38 PM

This technique is a modification of technique #1, and it has two principal benefits. First, it helps the Conning Officer avoid the persistent need to divert attention from the approach to consult a list of bearings and ranges. Second, it helps to build the Conning Officer’s and/or coach’s comfort with mental math.

Technique #5: “Predict the Separation”

This technique is a modification of technique #3 and an extension of technique #4, using a different arrangement of the equation to anticipate the estimated separation for each bearing and range combination. Solving the Radian Rule equation for separation, the expression becomes:

Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 6.35.45 PM

Once the Conning Officer is adept at the mental math of multiplying the bearing and range, the only remaining step is to divide by 20. The simplest way to do this is to remove a zero and divide by two. A sample is shown below.

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This is a mental math version of Approach #2. While this is more difficult than any of the four previous techniques, the principal benefit to this approach is that it gives the Conning Officer and/or coach convenient tools to mentally evaluate the geometry they are seeing on the bow. For the Conning Officer, the nuanced context available from each observation constructively builds the spatial judgment and physical intuition we call Seaman’s Eye. This technique allows the Conning Officer to take maximum advantage of sometimes-scarce evolutions and reinforces a more subtle understanding of the relative motion between ships that sometimes eludes the most seasoned veterans. I found it to be tougher than the other techniques to teach and use, at least at first, but it was infinitely more rewarding when the Conning Officer understood it and was able to use it.


It takes time and effort to learn how to safely conn the ship alongside. Proven techniques that have propelled ships alongside safely for decades are available to those who will take the time to learn and use them, and they can be improved with a small investment in systematic thinking about the geometry built into the evolution. Techniques #3 – #5 suggest ways to exploit the mathematical relationships inherent to the Radian Rule that offer two significant benefits. First, they build confidence in coaches by encouraging a more intuitive understanding of the relative motion throughout the UNREP approach. Second, they help build Seaman’s Eye in our Junior Officers by sharing those insights with the fertile minds of the Officers who drive the ship most frequently, and who are most apt to exploit them effectively.

As reported by the Washington Post on June 4th – “Hackers working for the Chinese state breached the computer system of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in December, US officials said Thursday, and the agency will notify about 4 million current and former federal employees that their personal data may have been compromised.”

ig_logoWhat is OPM? The organization that collects, collates and manages all the security clearance information for US personnel. That includes biographical details about the people in the US government who hold security clearances.

This is the single biggest US security breach since at least the Cold War, although I am personally struggling to think of anything directed against the US that approaches this scale. You can change access codes, passwords and encryption standards in a compromised computer system fairly easily but once the names and biographical details of everyone who holds a clearance are stolen by a rival nation for nefarious purposes … that’s a whole different ballgame.

The identity of the Watchers at NSA, CIA and the Pentagon are now likely known to the Chinese military. Some of these individuals will be the target of Chinese surveillance operations ranging from spear phishing emails to physical shadowing. In war time they may actually become targets for kinetic operations. American spies used to be able
to watch the Iranians, Chinese and Russians secure in the knowledge that they could observe without putting themselves at risk of detection. That era – the era of the American Panopticon – is over.

Update June 25th, 2015: Its possible that the number of affected could be as high as 18 million.


IMG_0250Innovation is the buzzword of the day in naval circles. On the heels of Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus’ “Task Force Innovation,” even Senator John McCain is calling out for innovation in the armed forces. The latter recently signaled the alarm bell in Wired magazine, paraphrasing a famous campaign line by stating, “the Pentagon confronts an emerging innovation gap.”

These leaders often cite the example of Silicon Valley, the mecca of small start-up companies and modern American entrepreneurism. The thinking goes that, if only our services could exude more “disruptive thinking,” or acquire systems faster, or flatten organizational structures—then we will achieve success.

Yet the US Navy is not a small start-up. And while many of our Sailors and Marines have great ideas that will impact technology and Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTP) across the range of military operations, there is an insidious creep arising amid the growing “innovation gap:” central planning.

Successful innovation in the Navy has no program office, no resource sponsor. Yet as Congress and leaders begin to demand or expect it, we are in danger of morphing the ingenuity of individuals into “capital-I Innovation.” One can imagine a fate not too dissimilar to that of acquisition versus Acquisition.

Since his speech at the Sea Air Space conference in April, SECNAV has been regularly posting memoranda on his website. Each document contains background information on a particular area—robotics, for example—and then a list of “shall” accomplish requirements for the Chief of Naval Operations and Commandant of the Marine Corps, all to be completed by a specified date.

Make no mistake: this is an important advancement for our Navy. Introducing an element of outside-the-box thinking from on high is part of what our service needs.

But “shall” actions with a defined deadline miss the point of innovation. In fact, the concept of innovation itself stands at odds with the increasingly managerial, assembly-line service we live in. True innovation has no timeline; good ideas and products are tied to neither the Fleet Readiness Training Plan (FRTP) nor the Joint Capabilities Integration Development System (JCIDS). Few people, if any, whether they were in Silicon Valley or their parents’ garage, ever woke up and said, “By tomorrow, I am going to come up with a revolutionary idea.”

Instead of attempting to mandate innovation with deadlines and taskers, Senator McCain and Secretary Mabus should be leading discussions in three important areas:

First, how does the Navy deal with questions? SECNAV is already talking about this, but it is important to have a larger discussion on the topic. Failure to attain qualifications and expertise in rate or platform can still be unacceptable, but what about the few who show up to quarters with ideas on how to make their small corner of the Navy better, more efficient? What about the folks who constructively ask, “Why are we doing it this way?” We should expect excellence in systems and tactics, while also having the capacity to challenge our people to suggest and implement improvements in those systems and tactics. Connecting like-minded service members and making more centers for experimentation available are part of the solution, but so is leadership—from the LPO and Department Head level and beyond— that looks at its “quirky” sailors less as nuisances and more as potential assets.

Second, how does the Navy deal with failure? Operational Risk Management, or ORM, is championed around the Fleet and seems to be a mainstay in everything from work center training to holiday safety briefs. But what do we do with officers or enlisted sailors who have the right intentions and either attempt to push their platforms too far or have a momentary lapse in judgment? Our current zero-defect mentality belies our naval history: Admiral Nimitz, one of our most storied heroes of WWII, ran his first ship aground as a young lieutenant. He was allowed to continue his service, and a court-martial declared that “he is a good officer and will probably take more care in the future.” Have our platforms become so expensive, and has our fear of public relations become so pervasive, that we would fire today’s sailors in a similar predicament? What does that say about the leadership we are actually cultivating? Not all failure is catastrophic or should be treated as such.

Third, what do we do with innovative service members? Can a tinker-sailor-leader-innovator become a commanding officer of a ship, submarine, or aviation squadron if she accepts shore tour orders to a billet in ONR or the Pentagon? What if she delivers benefits to Navy platforms or TTPs while she is in this “non-production billet?” This will speak more to interested sailors—and to coaxing a groundswell of innovation—than dictates from above.

Senator McCain is right in his op-ed: our services need acquisition reform. This is a large part of the solution towards adapting to the pace of technological change.

But the greatest advancement that the Senator or Secretary Mabus could make is to view the current innovation movement not as a program of record or urgent operational need (UON), but rather as a core operating concept. We want a service that is more lethal, agile, and responsive without shelling over outrageous sums to defense contractors. Sailors and civilians, whether they are in the Fleet or in the Pentagon, are capable of outstanding innovation to that end. They need the inspiration to try, make mistakes, and carry on without fear for their jobs or their fitness reports.

This requires no act of Congress and should not be passed down through memoranda. Rather, it is a discussion to have and a change in thinking required both in the halls of the Capitol Building and throughout the Fleet. We must move from a service dictated by metrics and managers to a team inspired by leaders. This is the paradigm shift required for our Navy to move forward in this century.

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