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.