This week at the Navy Surface Association National Conference, the Honorable Bob Work gave one of his rare public presentations on the state of the Navy. These speeches of his, which usually come at the beginning of the year prior to the budget year debates, offer naval observers insights into the strategic direction of the Navy. At a forum like the SNA conference, the message can be counted upon to be tailored to the surface warfare community audience, but his speech did deliver as expected insights into the way the current civilian leadership in the Navy sees the future of surface warfare.

The Surface Navy Association has made available video from his presentation at this link, and I would encourage those who were unable to attend to check out the videos made available. The SNA video from the event is very well produced and includes the slides that the Undersecretary used during his presentation. Rather than focus on any specific comments made by Bob Work, what struck me after watching the video wasn’t so much the specifics of what was said, but the theme behind what is being nodded to, but unsaid publicly.

As the image above suggests, the surface warfare community is in the process of an evolutionary leap forward in the guided missile era, and that evolution forward is poised to take place at the expense of other elements of naval power that are no longer competitive in the delivery of guided missiles in a time of fiscal austerity. Over the past several decades, warfighting capabilities from surface combatants have continued to evolve with longer ranges, precision guidance, and have leveraged flexible delivery mechanisms like VLS to expand the number of payload options for theater commanders. The Tomahawk cruise missile may be seen in some circles as the million dollar guided bomb, but every single F/A-18 Super Hornet would need to deliver at least 50, and very likely many, many more guided bombs to a target over the service life of the aircraft in order to be fiscally competitive as a strike solution.

With over 500 Super Hornets built as of April of 2011, even at an estimated $50 million a piece – Super Hornets would need to have dropped well over 25,000 bombs to date to be financially competitive as a strike platform with the nations million dollar naval cruise missile. Considering the US Navy hasn’t even purchased that many bombs since building the first F/A-18 Super Hornet, the Tomahawk is winning going away in the debate that compares bang for buck.

The DDG-51 for the surface community and the SSGNs/SSNs for the submarine communities represent dynamic platforms prepared for the emerging ‘systems and payloads’ focus emerging in modern naval warfare and the US Navy today. These surface and subsurface combatant platforms have placed both communities in the right place at the right time when – during fiscal austerity for defense – the focus is shifting away from ultra modern platform designs and is focusing more towards the evolution of systems and payloads delivered from platforms.

At the same time however, the naval aviation community is struggling – if not outright drowning – from the costs to field their latest system (the F-35C) for the big deck aircraft carrier. I thought it was interesting how Bob Work described the big deck aircraft carrier as the extra large, flexible platform in his SNA presentation; which as a theory is an accurate description of the CVN in my opinion. However, the practical advantage of being a very large, flexible platform can be lost when the systems delivered by the platform become too unaffordable for capability delivered, and to some degree the flexibility of the platform is completely useless when that flexibility itself is not utilized to field affordable alternatives to systems that under-perform relative to their costs.

The Joint Strike Fighter program does not represent an affordable “system” under a flexible payload model for fleet constitution as described by Bob Work at SNA, because at best – the “system” will only deliver very marginal improvements in parameters like range and stealth over existing system alternatives for what is likely more than double the costs of the existing system alternatives. While it is a very compelling argument for Bob Work to suggest that platforms like big deck aircraft carriers have value in their flexibility, the flexibility argument becomes mute when the option to use the platforms flexibility for a better value investment is not exercised.

If the US Navy desires a fleet constitution in the 21st century that relies on flexible platforms, then it is the development of systems that will decide how effective that fleet will be. When one considers how the Navy has run into serious problems with virtually all major “systems” in the various communities lately, from new SEAL Delivery vehicles to the F-35C to unmanned mine hunting capabilities – the biggest challenge facing the US Navy in 2012 would not appear to be one of ships or even ship designs, rather the ability of the Navy to manage acquisition programs for the “systems” intend to be the primary capabilities of tomorrows fleet.

In two weeks, Bob Work and several other US Navy civilian and uniformed leaders will be attending USNI West in San Diego. It will be interesting to see what Bob has to say at that conference, because I suspect it will not be the same speech – as he historically has not given the same speech more than once at these type of events.

Posted by galrahn in Navy

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  • a naval aviator will have to frame the argument better but i must ask…how can you claim a bang for the buck when it comes to Tomahawk cruise missiles when compared to Super Hornets?

    the Tomahawk cannot provide close air support.

    the Tomahawk cannot provide fleet defense.

    the Tomahawk cannot interdict supply lines or perform shows of force etc…

    i am aware of your dislike of the F-35C but this was an unusual way of attacking that target. the Navy faces several challenges but to decide that carrier aviation and the Super Hornet in general and the F-35C in particular are not worthy of continued funding then i think you’re missing the mark.

    that large, flexible, multi-role platform that you disparaged is the same platform that you sung the praises of during the Haitian and Japanese relief efforts.

    the same platforms that sent a message to Iran during the recent dust ups. the flexibility of the carrier is one place where Work is right in being a happy warrior.

    a better target for a primer on the SNA conference would be to exam the requirements that led to the LCS…to determine whether or not unmanned surface vehicles have any practicality and to examine if the fight for the littorals going to be won at the expense of losing the war in blue water.

    i might be alone in my thinking on this but i believe that this post (the first in a looooong time by you Sir) misses the mark.

  • leesea

    on a tangent, the MLP is neither flexible nor modular

  • B.Smitty

    I agree with Sol. TLAMS provide a fraction of the capability of a manned fighter. Comparing direct costs makes no sense.

  • Derrick

    I would kindly suggest letting the public define the detailed requirement for the military first. Then it’s easier to know where to make cuts.

    If the public wants to maintain the US current overseas commitments, it’ll be very hard to make cuts in the US naval budget, because US naval presence is required to keep the logistics chain working. But then it’ll be very hard to make meaningful cuts, since ships are very costly.

    One alternative to consider is compulsory service: if US residents have to serve, that brings down salary costs, which are a huge component of the US military budget as far as I can remember.

  • B.Smitty


    The public wants everything but wants to pay for nothing.

    The President and (hopefully) Congress have to make adult choices. Some may be unpopular.

  • Rob McFall

    What was very interesting in Secretary Work’s presentation was that he wanted to shift the focus of the dialog from the number of platforms to the capabilities that those platforms give to our overall mission. His point was that we are doing more with the 285 ships today than we were doing with the 700 ships in the 50’s and we will continue to do more in the future with fewer ships than we have today. That is the nature of progress. With the advent of UAVs that can be in the air for 12 to 24 hours at a time, we have more situational awareness of the maritime environment than we could ever have had before. With the P-8s that are coming, that SA will only grow further. It was an intreguing view of what the future of the navy could look like.

  • UAV’s are a me-too system. has anyone crunched the numbers and did any real thinking about the type of environment that you’re considering sending these UAV’s into?

    i have a sneaky suspicion that it might be more cost effective to launch a constellation of sats to keep an eye on that vast expanse of ocean than it will be to launch, recover, maintain and make up for the inevitable losses of UAVs that the Navy is about to be saddled with.

    the idea of being cutting edge i fear is the motive, not to be effective at war fighting. as far as the push to do more with fewer ships…sounds good until you get out of the training and collaboration mission sets and start thinking about actual combat.

    and don’t be fooled. if the standard one on deployment, one returning from deployment and one heading out to deployment is the model then this 285 or fewer fantasy will soon crumble unless areas of responsibility are given up. additionally specialization makes sense. having pure fighters, pure attack and pure ASW airplanes was the model for a reason. it tends to make your systems great at the assigned task. multi-role fighters, like multi-role ships might be adequate for a given task but they won’t be as good as a specialized one.

    and that is the secret that the old timers remembered that seems to be forgotten today. the difference i fear is that they actually experienced combat at sea. i really believe that once a major sea war is fought you’ll see a return to that model.