413IDUTnaWL._SX355_As we work our nogg’n’s to find a reasonable path to a realistic and sustainable fleet of 350 ships – do we need to look at the challenge a bit differently than our habit of throwing bags of IOU’s in our children’s name at it?

Matt Cavanaugh over at MWI has a fun bit about of all things, men’s shaving kit and what it can tell us about Russia vs. the USA – and how we buy the ability to force our will on others.

A sample. Stick with it;

In America, the most commonly used instrument is a plastic-handled, multi-bladed cartridge (usually three to five blades lashed together), which typically costs $3-5 per cartridge (though some lower-cost options are emerging—Harry’s, for example, are $2 each). The estimated lifetime cost of a daily shave for multi-bladed cartridges ranges from $7,000 for a Gillette Sensor3 to $22,000 for a Gillette Fusion ProShield (not including shaving cream!).

Russians and eastern Europeans, on the other hand, shave differently. In that part of the world, common usage is a steel-handled safety razor, designed to lock a single blade with two sides/edges into place—which is about a dime per blade. Estimated lifetime cost: $400.

Embarrassing, but enlightening. In this context, what a waste of capital – and are we really that much more smoothly shaved?

What would it be like to retrograde? What can a simple shave tell us about how we build our fleet of Sailors and ships?

So I bought a safety razor and have used it for the past six months … My observations: it’s not quite as good as a four- or five-bladed cartridge, and I did get a little bloody in transition, mostly owing to adjusting from a movable head to an inflexible steel variant. But the safety razor is at least 90 percent as good at 2–5 percent of the price. Put another way, I dropped 10 percent in performance to save 95–98 percent of the cost. That’s quite a bargain.

Let that set in. Now, think about what you have read about Russia’s economy, her military, her capability. Now, think again about shaving.

How does this translate?

…the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (48 percent over budget on a program already planned to cost hundreds of billions of dollars), the DDG-51 guided missile destroyer (619 percent over on a hundred-billion-dollar-plus program), and the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft (44 percent over on a roughly sixty-billion-dollar program). [Note: figures cited in print and not digital edition.] But also recently, the New York Times published a massive cover story on Russian cyber efforts, calling it a “low-cost, high-impact weapon. … For Russia, with an enfeebled economy and a nuclear arsenal it cannot use short of an all-out war, cyberpower proved to be the perfect weapon: cheap, hard to see coming, hard to trace.” Even if contrasting these capabilities is apples to giraffes—the American/Russian strategic spending gap is noteworthy.

For each billion dollars increase in the Russian defense budget – how much more bang do they get compared to each billion of US defense spending?

Do you like the performance of the Russian corvettes in the Caspian and Mediterranean Seas? Do you, like me, sigh with longing at the SU-34?

As our good friend Jerry put it many moons ago; should we “Buy Fords, Not Ferraris?”

As Matt ended his article;

And as war inputs do not necessarily equal outputs, high investments will not guarantee optimal outcomes. From time to time, particularly in conflicts that appear to feature longer time frames, Americans could seek out simpler, less expensive options for strategic sustainability’s sake.

As with the Merkur handle, there is a shiny, silver-plated lining to this culture contrast: Americans willing to fight through the weight of cultural bias might acquire new tools for strategic success by appreciating the virtues of value and waging war on the cheap.


Posted by CDRSalamander in Policy, Strategy

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  • FractureLine

    Nothing really new about the quantity vs. quality argument…and the challenge with regard to “efficient” military spending has existed forever.

    If forced into a conflict, we don’t just want to win, we want to win without any losses. How many times have you heard some flag or general officer tell the Congress that we aren’t looking for a “fair-fight?” The implications of this type of logic somehow always necessitates that we seek tactical “domination” of our adversaries – something we apparently believe will be provided by a few, highly capable platforms.

    Domination has always been a ridiculous objective in the context of a long-term geo-political competition with more than one peer (or near peer). However, because our political and military leaders are very hesitant to explain the necessity to take risk, we continue to write huge checks for a few exquisite platforms. The problem is that their capability to actually reduce tactical risk has been vastly oversold (like the five-bladed razor). I would even go so far as to suggest that the result of this trend is that we have actually taken on much more strategic risk than we understand based on a huge mismatch between the technological capabilities we say we “require” and the cost of maintaining adequate numbers of them over the long-term. In essence, the insistence on creating decisive technological advantage at the tactical level is making us a great sprinter, unfortunately we are in a strategic marathon.

    The challenge of efficiently deciding “how much is enough” is impossible without understanding our desired national strategy – something no POTUS has established for quite a while. Ideally, strategies help you to identify opportunity and risk, and force you to make choices about where to best employ your {limited!} resources in order to achieve your intended objectives. Today the US military is spread around the globe expending vast amounts of money/time/effort with zero apparent connection to any desired strategic outcome. It is clear that the gap between what we want to do and what we need to do cannot be mitigated with smaller numbers of exquisite capabilities – this means we need to make some difficult choices between capability and capacity. For example, an air wing with 60 advanced 4+ gen fighters may be much more useful – over the long run – than one with only 16 gen 5 fighters and a dozen overused 4 gen workhorses.

    Anyway, the core of the challenge is identified in a quote from your post; “…it’s not quite as good as a four- or five-bladed cartridge, and I did get a little bloody in transition.” Ultimately, we could certainly survive with a more efficient/economical capability set, as long as we accept the risk of doing so and understand that we could “get a little bloody in transition…”

    • Hundycougar

      But it doesn’t have to be bloody if it is done smartly. Something as simple as not giving a contract for a single ship to two shipbuilders with different plans would be a start. Thinking before we spend. Recognizing that quantity, done right, has a quality all on it’s own. These are thing that draw us closer to the cheaper razor.
      As the CDR keeps saying, evolutionary not revolutionary.

      • CAPT Mongo

        Speaking of razors, our procurement process could use Occam’s.

      • NavseaRetired

        How about our UN-procurement process ?? Why did the Navy just de-commission USNS Rainier T-AOE-7 ? It was West coast based and fast enough to keep up with CVN battle groups in the vast Pacific Ocean. Now, the USN has only two remaining gas turbine powered T-AOE’s, both based in Norfolk. BTW, USS Rainier was commissioned in 1995, making her barely 21 years old. Do we now have a surplus of United States Naval tankers / oilers ?

      • NEC338x

        Looking at the most recent National Defense Reserve Fleet inventory, the remains are mighty thin.Not much to UN-procure.

        Send everything to SInkEx as soon as possible. This is known in Modor on the Potomac as the Montejo Strategy of 1527, used to “incentivize” congresscritters to keep writing checks for new hulls.

      • CAPT Mongo

        Yep. Stupid strategically. Probably the same genius that decided to scrap all the Tenders.

      • Graham Strouse

        +10 Internets for you, Capt.!

  • CAPT Mongo

    I suspect that remains of all of the ships in which I served (Exception: USS Laffey (DD-724) ) are now making the subject of this post. Somewhat depressing that!
    More seriously, this is a meaningful issue. I agree with Fracture Line’s post below, and would add that our difficulty is not only the mind set that procures “Super stuff” but also the convoluted process by which we actually do that procurement.

    • I have always suspected that the procurement process has been penetrated by the “enemy within” and it has been subverted – used as a weapon against us to maximize costs and minimize readiness. This can also be done at the personnel level as well (how many PC Zampolits does it take?) – how are the costs of diversity justified in improved combat effectiveness?

      Perfect is the enemy of good enough; and good enough is the level to which our enemies build (they can always steal better from us later on).

      The lesson of putting too many eggs in one basket seems to have been lost in the later quarter of the last century.

    • RightCowLeftCoast

      We’ve forgotten the high/low-mix with changing budget priorities, have focused on the high end, but the low end have become high end somehow as well.

  • Lazarus

    The path to a 350 ship (or any other increased) fleet must start with a new, global naval strategy. Any capability-based analysis will inevitably suffer a death by a thousand small cuts. As to ‘quality’, how does a purpose-built Russian missile corvette at sea in Russia’s version of Lake Michigan constitute a significant capability? The Russians (and other authoritarian states) do not release any negative data on their ships. Is there a ‘Comrade Salamander or Confucius Salamander’ that performs a critical role?

    • Neil

      Yes, this. Development flows from capabilities flows from strategy. And beware Russian FUD.

  • Neil

    The engineer’s answer, as always, is “it depends”.

    The U.S. infantry, in particular, have often demonstrated battle-winning competence while using inferior small arms. But in air combat and naval combat, that extra 10% functionality often determines whether the unit returns home or is destroyed.

    The problem is that it’s hard to know which feature is actually the battle-winning one. The Imperial Japanese Navy thought they had a battle-winning feature in the speed, armament, and rate of climb of the Zero fighter. It turned out that the radar-equipped CIC was the actual battle-winning high technology, even with the inferior Grumman Wildcat.
    The German PzKpfw V Panther famously outperformed the Sherman, which needed five-to-one odds (IIRC) in order to win. But it was the Dodge deuce-and-a-half that was the battle-winning technology, delivering the consumables to keep the Shermans in the field while the Panthers became sitting ducks from lack of fuel and repairs.

    We can spend an extra 10% on miraculous engineering and people like me will happily deliver, but it’s for naught if we don’t do the thinking and wargaming to figure out which features are worth having.

    • Quartermaster

      Alas, you usually don’t know what’s worthwhile until you’ve killed a few people. Combat is the real test of a weapon and often the philosophers that think they know, don’t.

      • Neil

        The CIC and the specifications for the Wildcat came out of the Fleet Problems of the 1920’s and 30’s. Close enough for gummint work.

      • Graham Strouse

        That’s exactly what I told the cops! But did they listen? No! At least they never found the bodies…

    • LT Rusty

      It depends. That is ALWAYS my answer when my boss asks me what I can deliver, in terms of design functionality and features.

      Can I have an extra week to work on it? An extra month? Can I have an extra fifty thousand per unit to give you all the golly-gee-whiz magic you want? Will you let me spend another twenty thousand in tools to make the prototypes so that we can see how it will perform?


      But that last one, that’s the key. Build a little, test a lot, learn even more. THEN you can see what’s possible. Whether it’s the machinery I design or the warships and missiles and planes that we’re going to send our kids to fight… it still counts.

  • HMSLion

    It doesn’t help that we wind up using systems far too long. The B-52 effect…keep a system in front-linw use for 40 or 50 years, and its’ replacement will have to feature bleeding-edge (i.e. expensive) technology…because IT will be front-line kit for four or five decades. It’s as if we expected to fight World War II with the replacement for the Sopwith Camel.

    • Silent Hunter

      The Russians are still using Tu-95s; the newest of those are closing on 40.

  • Quartermaster

    I still use a double edged razor of the same sort I did when I went in back in ’72.

    • Silent Hunter

      I use an electric shaver myself…

      • CAPT Mongo

        Speaking of which, the sound of certain brands of electric shaver, when held next to a UQC microphone, apparently resembles the noise a torpedo makes. Not saying how I know this.

      • Quartermaster

        Barbarian. I bet you were the one that discovered that certain brand of electric shaver that when held up to a UQC mic sounds like a torpedo and have made life hard for poor Sonarmen the world over. You probably conspired with Capt. Mongo, I bet!

  • When pondering the big questions, it can be useful to step back. The basics we all think we know are in fact shortcuts. Good for getting places. Not so good for finding new paths or viewing new vistas.

    The military industry in USA is fully privatized. The military can only influence corporate entities – by granting, expanding and canceling contracts. The employees and decision makers in the industry are insulated from direct influence.

    Granting the contracts is simple enough. It is done on the basis of promised capability vs cost. Especially when multiple alternatives are offered.

    But the decision between expanding or canceling is NOT simply decided by specified deliverables on time and at cost. Time and money are only a part.
    In addition to them, the odds on whether a given contract will be expanded or canceled also scale with:
    – size of the contract
    – the resources already spent on the contract
    – the number and influence of patrons in Congress
    – the perceived importance of the item being contracted

    Of course the above factors are cumulative. And they can be very powerful. A large contract with many backers can continue even if it doubles (or more) its budget and the planned deliverable has become obsolete to the strategic situation.

    But the factors can work in both directions – a small contracts without a Congressional patron can be canceled even if it IS on time, within specs and budget.

    So from the above, the military-industrial complex receives incentives to:
    – combine as many technologies and items as possible into a single contract, to raise its size and perceived importance
    – delay and deny awareness of problems to increase the amounts spent before the time a decision is made
    – spread the manufacturing chain, costs in overhead and risk are more than balanced by wider Congressional interest
    – under-resource and slow-walk improvements to existing equipment, to raise the perceived importance of its successor
    – underestimate costs at initial bid and make them back in overruns – if the above factors are on their side the odds are very good. To the point that realistic bids can become uncompetitive

    In the past there was one more incentive: provide good enough equipment that your country (and its budget) will not be destroyed by an enemy. But that went away with the end of the cold war.

    So gold plated weapons systems are not the result of errors or corruption but inevitable.consequences of the military-industrial “ecosystem”.