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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  • UltimaRatioReg


    Some very interesting points. (With the exception of calling LCS “flexible, adaptable, and affordable”) Not necessarily sold on the “module” concept, but that is a discussion for a different post.

    But yes, SWA has a massive advantage in using the 737 airframe, not least of which is leverage in purchase of end-items, parts, training, and logistical flexibility.

    The Navy could be quite similar, adding an “America-type” amphib to the mix, to take advantage of commonality of design, engineering layout, materials, processes, all that goes into ship construction. It has, in a number of areas in the past, with the Spruance/Tico hulls, the Cleveland/Independence/Fargo design as well.

  • JD Kristenson

    Well, we didn’t plan the article to time out with Southwest’s Quarterly Earnings Statement, but this does line up with todays WSJ article:

  • I read the CNO’s article just before going to bed and had the following running through my mind: Is the CNO advocating a tractor+trailor for our men-of-war? An ocean going tug pulling a weapons barge, maybe. No, something with an onboard weapons package. How about an “A” type ship with weapon packages loaded onboard. Thats it! A navalized freighter! That would be better than the PCS and cheaper! Oh well, the CNO probably thought of this and he knows best.

  • B.Smitty

    The breakdown with the SWA analogy comes when you realize SWA only takes on routes (missions) optimized for the platform they buy.

    The Navy has a broader set of mission requirements, which may mean more platform variety.

    However, I think we could get by with fewer types. Consolidate the 3+ amphibious ship types down to one: a mid-sized LHD like Juan Carlos. Buy enough for 4 per ESG (40).

    Perhaps develop ESG or mini-ESG profiles that use two or three ships, in addition to four, to free up LHDs for independent tasking.

  • Matt

    The 737 is a big plane. The LCS is smaller than the frigates we have at a time when the size of vessels matters most in having to drive across the entire planet to get where we need them. If Southwest Airlines knew they needed to get to the Persian Gulf or the South China Sea for 95% of probable missions they wouldn’t invest in even the 737 I would bet. A 5000 ton frigate makes a lot more sense and just as the 737 didn’t take rocket scientists to identify neither should this decision require much whiz bang types. Lean towards bigger every time as it is always better to have too much space rather than not enough. We’ve learned this lesson before but somehow LCS was allowed to deflate from the existing FFGs. Not acceptable. What is the Navy going to look like if China builds this larger pontoon looking super carrier? Bigger is better EVERY time. Double the size of LCS and look forward to doubling a Nimitz to stay well ahead of China. Or shrink from the fight on every level. Perceptions matter. One massive carrier meant for China and bigger than anything ever contemplated will do more for perceptions than any whiz bang diplomat. The man with the bigger gun has the best chance of not having to use that gun but he also has best chance of winning if it comes to that. I know I’m simplifying here, but simple is good these days.

  • Benjamin Walthrop

    The article by LT Robb is very good thinking. I’m not necessarily sold on sticking with current hull and combat systems designs in a USN move toward commonality. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t go quite far enough in getting the supply chain efficiencies since the HM&E distributed systems show very little commonalities across classes. You get some of the benefit within each class, but the golden ring for commonality will be enforcing it across ship classes. While this should be the goal, make no mistake, it will be VERY hard to achieve since some designs will have to be sub optimized and individual programs would have to invest in this initiative rather than taking short term efficiencies. It’s a daunting task on the HM&E side of things.

    A relatively high level of commonality in the combat systems of future ships is probably desirable moving forward. I believe we’ll see more and more modular ships as computing power improves.

    For these two reasons, I think the next commonality initiatives should be on new design ships rather than current fleet units. It’s a great idea, and one that OPNAV should build into the next set of KPPs for new build ships. I also think they should all be Integrated Electric Drive ships as well.


    I hate continuing the LCS debate, but you need to go look at the sizes compared to the FFGs in service. The Freedom variant compares favorably to the OHP, and the Independence variant is a behemoth.

    Also, while I’m sure it’s possible to build an aircraft carrier twice the size of a Nimitz it would be quite a challenging endeavor. Off the top of my head, I think you’d be realistically looking at a 10 year build cycle. I generally would agree with you that bigger is better, but in the case of the CVN we diverge. Doubling the size of an aircraft carrier is not something that requires simple analysis.

  • Matt


    The existing frigates are the Perry’s @ 4200 tons with range of 4500 nm. The Freedom is 3000 tons with range of 3500 nm and Independence is 2800 tons with 4300 nm range. The Aluminum in the LCS ships makes the weight comparison prevents apples to apples comparison but the range and armament is clearly less than the legacy. This is a departure for new class ships which are always bigger than the ones they replace. The San Antonio is bigger than the Austin the Nimitz is bigger than any other, the Virginias are bigger than the LAs and on and on.

    Somebody decided draft was more important as the LCS are 13′ drafts compared to 22 for the Perry. Well it looks like we took a big leap from a frigate towards a coastal patrol vessel. How do deep draft vessels compare to shallow draft in the open ocean? I though deep draft meant stability?

    Better get designing on that behemoth carrier because China is and no American wants to be #2. I was floored to see that picture of a super China carrier and at the same time disappointed we didn’t push the limits farther. A China carrier doesn’t need to have a limit on beam as no canals btw. West coast and China. You can bet your ass they will building this carrier specifically for us. We need to get on it now.

  • Benjamin Walthrop

    Like I said, I am reluctant to get into yet another LCS debate so I’ll leave you to your opinions.

    Also, you didn’t see a picture of a Chinese double wide carrier. You saw a rendering, and there probably nothing more dangerous to the USN than someone from OPNAV with a rendering. If the Chinese choose to do this, I wish them luck. I just don’t understand why anyone would think it’s a good idea. I suppose it could theoretically help sortie generation rates, but if that were the case why wouldn’t you just build two Ford’s. Seems like that approach would provide the opportunity for better strategic dispersion. I’ll pass on doing any designing for now.

  • TheMightyQ

    While standardization of platforms across the fleet is a wonderful concept, and should be pursued to its logical conclusion, let’s remember that it has a logical conclusion: cost. Even with the benefits of economies of scale that would (probably) be reaped with adherence to these concepts, I believe it is unlikely that we could fulfill the missions we are required to do with only those platforms without exorbitant cost. At a cost of about $1.85 BILLION dollars per DDG, it is not reasonable to assume that this is a realistic possibility. This is why a high-low mix of ships has always been the force structure of large navies. Mr. Walthrop makes a very good point in suggesting the Navy increase commonality across ship classes on combat systems and HM&E, where applicable. But why would we limit ourselves to missions that only these three platforms can accomplish? What happens when we need a dedicated ASW asset in the middle of the ocean? The LCS is incapable and DDGs have gotten rid of the tail. We could have greater communication between subs and surface ships (unlikely), or we could use the limited ASW assets of the new DDGs and hope they can accomplish the mission. Another option is that we maintain the concept of a high-low mix of ships, otherwise we risk turning into the High Seas Fleet, where our ships are too valuable to risk actually engaging the enemy, or too costly to waste using on missions of lower strategic importance.

  • Matt

    Benjamin why not just build two America class instead of one Ford? Because bigger vessels are more effecient that’s why. Bigger is better and everything is hard. Does the Navy have a problem meeting demands with the carriers we have or not? One massive carrier with no limits for the beam would serve multiple purposes. Like I said Americans aren’t going to be happy with #2.

    On the LCS I didn’t think I expressed an opinion just an observation of the size comparisons and historical practices. But I don’t care to debate either.

  • M. Ittleschmerz

    I’d settle for the simple…

    One drive train…or one main propulsor.
    One type of electrical generation prime mover and generator set.
    One type of shops control console.
    One type of engineering control console.
    One type of rudder hydraulics.
    One type of commode (or commercial standard)
    One type of dishwasher (or commercial standard)

    The stuff inside the hull, in other words, needs to be standardized. The we can modify the hull form as we move forward and limit the schools, training, and parts required.

  • WireguidedMarine

    While I think commonality is a laudable goal, it has its limits. In the last twenty years the Navy has necked down all classes to one or two in most types. Remember the Belknap, Leahy, Knox, and nuclear powered CG’s that were decommissioned after the Cold War? After Enterprise decommissions this year, the Navy will have ALL of its carriers from one class, a first in USN aviation. Which will match our CG, DDG, and FFG types. Ditto aviation with the numerical supremacy of the Super Hornet and MH-60 platforms.

    What the authors seem to propose to me is replacing the Perry with the LCS-1/2 (a retrograde step in standardization) and eliminating the Ticonderogas. Why? The Ticos have many years left if given modest improvements and not run aground. And the Flight III Burkes will be so transformed by AMDR that will actually be the worse of all worlds: A new class with an old hull and COGAG stretched to fit an outsized radar and the separate generators to power it. And no room whatsoever for growth in either size or power generation to handle lasers or other future weapons.

    I also think this idea of standardization long-term is unrealistic. The norm in naval history is a blend of old and new. Look at the fleet compositions in the Civil War, World Wars One and Two, and the Cold War. The only time you saw something approaching a homogenous fleet was after major drawdowns like in 1866, 1920, 1946, and 1992. And because naval budgets have been tight post-Cold War, it has been easier and cheaper to keep in service or build sister ships of the best designs in service circa 1992 like the Nimitz, Burke or Wasp. The only truly new designs in surface combatants OR amphibious ships since 1992 have been the LPD-17, Zumwalt, and LCS. And two out of those three have yet to see any operational deployments.

    I think the Southwest analogy breaks down when you compare mission taskings. They fly short haul economy passengers within CONUS for the most part. But if you tasked them to haul cargo, charter, or trans-pacific flights, they would lose their homogeneity. They might try to stick with Boeing products like the 747 or 777, but fleet-wide usage of the 737 would disappear. American Airlines or United is a better comparison with the USN. And they fly several types.

  • Byron

    The dumbest thing in the world was when the Navy decided to go with Rolls Royce gas turbines and Italian diesels in LCS instead of GE LM2500 and Cats. Instead of having the same supply line that the rest of the surface Navy has, they had to do new supply train. Not only that, but force the Navy into a buying new tools just for LCS…all metric you see.

  • Retired Now

    Byron, you’re describing the Coast Guards’ NSC Cutters:

    each has 1 GE LM2500, and 3 CATs for electrical generation. also have two MTU MPDE.

  • What the authors failed to grasp was that SWA platforms only have to be fairly good to be successful. They don’t have to be optimized. They only have to meet minimum requirements to be successful.

    Navy ships that are standardized will be fairly good at a variety of things but not optimized for anything. This is the old Perry FFG criticism – capable of everything, good at nothing. I wouldn’t want to take a fairly good ship into a combat situation – I’d want an optimized platform that is the best it can be at its mission. That’s how you survive and win in combat. If you’re going to fight Libya, you can afford to be sub-optimal but if you’re going to fight China you’d better be the best.

    Take ASW… The Spruance class was totally optimized for ASW and all its weapons and sensors were a tightly integrated package. The hull had internal engine mount quieting, Prairie/Masker, and other quieting technologies. That totally optimized, non-standardized package resulted in the best ASW ship produced. Current Burkes don’t come close.

    Take NSFS… Many Navy ships have a 5″ gun but none are optimized to provide precision fire support with a range of effects.

    I can go on with examples but you get the idea.

    Standardization is going to get a lot of peacetime Admirals promoted but is going to get a lot of ships sent to the bottom in combat. Standard basically means sub-optimal. You don’t want to go to war with sub-optimal as your first line of defense.

    The Navy is not a business and business models don’t apply. The idea of running the Navy like a business has been looked at repeatedly since the Viet Nam war and it has failed every time someone has tried to implement it. I hope the authors get a chance to go into combat on a standardized ship. They’ll quickly change their minds.


  • Paul

    Not getting into the whole LCS debate again– but I remember about the history of one of my favorite airplanes– the Corsair. Rather than making an airframe and then finding an engine for it, Chance-Vought got the engine and then redesigned the aircraft around it.

    What if the next time we strolled down this road, the weapons were designed first and then the ship built around it? Modular is good, but it never seems to work out right.

  • WireguidedMarine

    If the Navy is serious about getting back into the blue-water realm versus littoral then they need to reconstitute ASW and anti-ship assets on existing platforms. From what I have seen in news reports:

    SSNs do not have encapsulated Harpoon as an option anymore.
    Subroc was also taken off SSNs without the conventional Sea Lance replacing it.

    Flight IIA Burkes have “weight and space” for Harpoon to be installed. But none as of yet.

    Block IV Tomahawks need the upgrade to hit ships and not just land targets. USN Harpoons to my knowledge are mostly Block I with some Block IIs. What about the Block III?

    And not all DDGs have towed arrays, as they shoud.

    Every CIWS needs to brought up to 1B standard. And Mk-38 mod 2 mounts should be on more ships than just the few deploying to the Persian Gulf.

    All of this can be done now relatively cheaply compared to spending billions on ships we will not see for five or more years.