Category Archives: capability development

The Expeditionary Sea Base as a Nucleus for Regional Maritime Security Learning and Cooperation

By Commander Daniel T. Murphy, U.S. Navy

Knowing How to Coalesce

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence Annual Threat Assessment has yet again predicted an increasingly complex global security environment and recommends that U.S. military services collaborate more with regional allies.1 In recent years, U.S. forces conducted additional and more extensive bilateral and multilateral joint training, exercises, and operations across all geographic combatant commands, especially in the maritime domain. As a result, the world’s waterways remained relatively safe. When threats did emerge or increase in specific localities (as now in the Red Sea), regional coalition navies, already regularly training and exercising together, responded with scaled-up operations, adjusted their tactics as necessary, and imposed a settling of the security situation. Sometimes, we (U.S. forces) take a leading role, and other times, we do not. Either way, the world’s maritime services seem to intuitively know how to coalesce. This is good news because the ability to coalesce can be built upon, especially in the problematic regions of the world. So, what enables that coalescence?

Expeditionary Sea Bases as an Organizational Learning Nucleus

A 2019 study explored how organizational learning within the U.S. maritime services (both Navy and Coast Guard) and with partner countries is partly the reason for that coalescence. Organizational learning is a theory, a body of frameworks and methods by which organizations or groups of larger enterprise-level organizations learn and improve over time. The study presented evidence that organizational learning in the maritime security domain evolves in stages, and the evolution can be accelerated through purposefully dedicated organizational learning elements or “nuclei.” Over time, “nuclei” inject and normalize organizational learning principles and methods into an organization’s day-to-day routines. Some examples are the Navy’s various schoolhouses dedicated to specific mission areas and jobs (rates), the Naval War College, and afloat training groups.2 The study suggests more can be accomplished by placing organizational learning centers in multiple geographic regions.

The Navy’s expeditionary sea base (ESB) is exactly the right platform to serve as an organizational learning nucleus in each regional combatant command. The 90,000-ton ESB has an overall length of 785 feet, a 164-foot beam, a 40-foot draft, a 15-knot speed, and a range of 9,500 nautical miles. According to Navy documents, the ESB serves as a sea-based platform for airborne mine countermeasures, special operations forces staging, and a “transfer vessel,” or “lily pad,” for moving equipment and cargo between ships and shore when a land base is unavailable.3

The ESB has one of the largest flight decks in the Navy, with four rotary-wing landing spots. Beneath the flight deck is a mission deck that can accommodate a multitude of special, coastal, and mine warfare vessels. The mission deck provides 25,000 square feet for containerized “plug-and-play” modules like command and control or battle management, living quarters, medical facilities, and weapons. Weapon modules could include the venerable high-mobility artillery rocket system. Other potential payloads include heavy equipment and supplies.

An ESB is crewed by civilians from Military Sealift Command and military personnel commanded by a Navy Captain. The ESB’s aft superstructure includes workspaces and berthing for 44 civilian mariners responsible for the ship’s navigation, deck operations, maintenance, and damage control. The ship’s forward superstructure houses 100 Navy officers and sailors, accommodations for 250 embarked personnel, multiple networked workspaces, a large helicopter hangar, and several sizeable armories and magazines. The Navy crew and embarked personnel are responsible for all operational command and control, air operations, weapons handling and management, mission deck operations, and force protection. Four ESBs have been delivered to the Navy thus far, with the fifth, the USS Robert E. Siamnek (ESB-7), currently under construction.4

The Expeditionary Sea Base USS Hershel “Woody” Williams (ESB 4) sails in the Atlantic Ocean, Oct. 17, 2020. (U.S. Navy photo)

The ship’s ability to carry embarked personnel and its large flight and mission deck make the ESB a potentially significant organizational learning nucleus. The following vignette will provide an example use case in the U.S. Southern Command area of operations. The ESB can accommodate more than twice the number of partner country liaison personnel that typically come together yearly to participate in regional exercises such as Panamax. With its numerous workspaces, the ESB would accommodate all joint staff and partner country liaison elements. The flight deck would serve every rotary wing aircraft type flown by partner nations. These capabilities are demonstrated. During its 2020 deployment in the Arabian Gulf and Indian Ocean, USS Lewis B. Puller (ESB-3) operated nine different types of aircraft and unmanned systems from multiple joint and coalition partners. By deployment’s end, more than 1,200 launches and recoveries were executed.5

Similarly, the ESB’s mission deck would provide a rafting and support platform for virtually every coalition partner patrol vessel in Southern Command. For example, Colombia’s new fourth-generation Patrullera de Apoyo Fluvial riverine vessel and Mexico’s Tenochtitlan and Interceptor-class coastal patrol vessels. Partner navies could potentially develop dedicated containerized mission support centers and berthing compounds to integrate with the ESB’s mission deck. Recent ESB deployments in Central Command and European Command demonstrated the ship’s ability to raft and support various patrol craft-sized vessels.

New Platform + Paradigm Shift = Force Multiplier

The ESB is uniquely qualified for the role proposed in this article; however, the author would like to emphasize that the recommendation is not only the repurposing or reorienting of a type of ship. The idea is to use the ESB as a nucleus for something new and transformational. To begin with, the vessel would become the centerpiece of most annual large-scale exercises like Panamax. Between exercises, the ESB would visit partner nations and participate in regular day-to-day operations, potentially helping those countries extend the range, endurance, and capabilities of their patrol vessels and aircraft (including unmanned systems) for enforcement activities like combatting piracy, drug smuggling, and illegal fishing. While these enforcement activities seem a low priority for U.S. naval assets, such activities enforce sovereignty, elevate the legitimacy of local governments, and provide area stabilization with increased maritime domain awareness.

From a personnel standpoint, the ESB should carry a permanently embarked multi-national organizational learning team of three to four members to provide a battle-rhythmic, regionally focused lessons-learned capability. The team would observe daily operations, facilitate assessment and reflective sessions, and develop and disseminate refined tactics, techniques, and procedures to all coalition partners. The goal is to significantly sharpen interoperability. While the team might include a combatant command’s knowledge manager or a Joint Lessons Learned Information System operator, the group would be led by a senior naval officer. This naval officer must understand the idea of the ESB mission as something big, new, and transformational. The team leader role could rotate between countries, as does leadership with other combined commands, such as Combined Task Force 153. Reservists could also play a significant role in reducing the burden on already stretched active-duty crews.

PACIFIC OCEAN (Aug. 19, 2021) Sailors assigned to expeditionary sea base USS Miguel Keith (ESB 5) stand in formation on the flight deck as the ship sails in the Pacific Ocean. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Hector Carrera)

Imagine a Scenario

Imagine a 2004 large-scale natural disaster, like a Tsunami, somewhere in the developing world. The disaster devastated multiple countries, with hundreds of thousands of people missing, displaced, starving, and in need of medical assistance. A prepositioned ESB becomes the disaster response’s central command and control node. Liaison elements from each affected country fly directly to the ESB using their and U.S. aircraft. Dedicated containerized command and control modules and berthing areas, some either developed by or jointly with the affected partner nations, are already on the mission deck. Because of past exercises with the ESB, fly-on partner teams are already familiar and seamlessly integrated. Liaison elements arrive from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Red Cross, and other non-governmental organizations. The United Nations 11 Global Cluster Coordinators arrive to coordinate food security, health, nutrition, shelter, and other disaster essentials. United Nation’s coordinators, too, stand up the workspaces with which they are already familiar.

Search and rescue aircraft, surface vessels from the affected countries, and assisting countries begin arriving and departing around the clock. Coast guard, navy, and law enforcement agency vessels from multiple countries raft up nightly to the ESB for rest, stores replenishment, and refueling from the nearly half-million gallons of ESB reserve fuel storage. This allows lower-endurance coastal vessels to remain on or near the station without returning to port. The ESB’s capability as a logistics node (aka “lily pad”) is displayed as food, water, and medicine move through complex supply chains from global sources to delivery points ashore. The security detachment aboard maintains force protection of the vessel during the entire evolution, a necessary detail if in waters contested by militias or pirates.

Now, with multiple partner country liaison elements working alongside one another in the ESB’s workspaces and mission deck, imagine that Country A needs something specific from Country B. Perhaps they need to request urban search and rescue (USAR) assistance for a collapsed building. They would not need to waste time struggling to establish phone connections on land-based networks that may be overloaded or damaged by the event. Instead, Country A’s liaison officer simply walks across the mission deck to Country B’s “compound,” knocks on the container door, and says, “We need some help from your USAR guys.” This is essentially the vision for how the United Nation’s 11 Cluster System and the U.S.’s emergency response framework system are intended to work in a traditional onshore construct like the Federal Emergency Management Agency operations center. In many austere or semi-permissive environments, the challenge in responding to disaster is getting the command-and-control personnel in place quickly, housed, fed, and connected. To that end:

  • The ESB is a heliport, allowing liaison elements to quickly fly aboard using diverse military or civilian-type rotary-wing aircraft.
  • The ESB contains ready networks and information technology infrastructure, allowing liaison elements to quickly establish connectivity between embarked parties, home agencies ashore, and overseas.
  • The ESB provides substantial messing and berthing, allowing long-term sustained support for deployed personnel.
  • ESB would provide familiarity. It would be the platform on which we regularly exercise and learn together and the platform where we coalesce in times of crisis. Thus, responders would know where to go and what to do when they get there.

Often, the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard operate in concert with partners in areas of the world that possess less sophisticated platform capabilities. These platforms are optimized for their local, littoral battlespaces and possess less capable weapons and sensors. This creates integration issues due to endurance and classification. U.S. destroyers, littoral combat ships, and national security cutters are overqualified for such missions; their robust sensor suites and classified networks limit efficacy in these engagements. Considering that alliances are the true generation of power projection for the U.S. military, this is where the ESB can unburden U.S. tier-one combatants while providing more meaningful integration opportunities to less capable navies and coast guards.

Final Thought – Marketing Matters

In recent years, the world’s waterways have remained relatively safe from conflict. One of the reasons for that safety is that global maritime services seem to intuitively know how to coalesce as regional maritime security enterprises. Organizational learning is a significant enabler of that coalescence, and purposefully dedicated organizational elements (nuclei) help accelerate organizational learning. The ESB is the perfect platform to be a regional nucleus for the U.S. Navy and partner country military entities and coast guards. We just need to reposition the ESBs to the right locations, “market” them appropriately to military decision-makers, and use them in bigger and more creative ways.

Commander Daniel T. Murphy is the Senior Intelligence Officer at the U.S. Navy Fourth Fleet Reserve, an Adjunct Professor of National Security and Intelligence Studies at Northeastern University, and a scholar on how organizational learning enables maritime security.


1. Annual threat assessment of the U.S. intelligence community. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 2023.

2. Daniel T. Murphy. “How Combined Navies and Coast Guards Coalesce: A Maritime Forces Learning Model,” Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), April 10th, 2019. The 2019 study built on 80+ years of organizational learning by a multitude of researchers, including Dewey (1938), Lewin and Lewin (1948); Schon (1983); Argyris and Schon (1978, 1996); Argyris, Putnam, and Smith (1985); Revans (1980, 1982); Senge (1990); and Watkins and Marsick (1993, 1999). While scholars have not sufficiently studied ATG’s organizational learning role in the Navy, the Army’s Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL) has been studied by numerous scholars, including Margaret and Wheatley (1994), Gerras (2002), Williams (2007), and DiBella (2010).

3. U.S. Navy. Expeditionary Sea Base Required Operational Capabilities and Projected Operational Environment, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 2015.

4. General Dynamics National Steel and Shipbuilding Company (NASSCO). ESB Program, 2021.

5. Daryle Cardone, Ben Coyle, & Daniel Murphy. “Assessing the Expeditionary Sea Base,” USNI Proceedings, January 2023. Pg. 149, 439.

Featured Image: U.S. Marines aboard rigid hull, inflatable boats prepare to deploy a team onto the expeditionary sea base USS Miguel Keith (ESB-5) during a visit board search and seizure exercise in the Philippine Sea, Aug. 17, 2022. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Christopher W. England

The Politics of Developing the Aegis Combat System, Pt. 2

The following republication is adapted from a chapter from The Politics of Naval Innovation, a paper sponsored by the Office of Net Assessment and conducted by the Strategic Research Department of the U.S. Naval War College’s Center for Naval Warfare Studies. Read it in its original form here, read Part One of this republication here.

By Thomas C. Hone, Douglas V. Smith, and Roger C. Easton, Jr.

Rear Admiral Wayne Meyer: Manager And Entrepreneur

According to one of RADM Meyer’s former deputies, “Without Rickover, the Navy would have gotten nuclear power in submarines. There would have been no Aegis ship in the Fleet, however, without Meyer.” A former PMS-400 analyst, with over two decades experience in AAW development, noted that Meyer brought to the Navy its best example of integrated systems project management.

But it wasn’t easy for the Admiral. When he was appointed Manager of the Aegis Shipbuilding Project, he had to (1) organize his staff, (2) prepare designs for contractors, (3) develop a working relationship with his sponsor in OPNAV, (4) make sure Aegis ships met Fleet needs, and (5) keep Aegis afloat in Congress. The last task was threatened by the growing cost of ships and the Navy’s demand for large numbers of them. Converting Long Beach, for example, was estimated to cost nearly $800 million, more than the estimated price of a new conventionally-powered Aegis ship. But the Authorization Committees were dominated by advocates of nuclear power, so the pressure to convert Long Beach was strong….

…RADM Meyer was also able to get the Chief, NAVSEA, to support a charter for PMS-400-a charter which Meyer himself wrote. The charter (1) made Meyer responsible directly to the Chief, NAVSEA, (2) authorized Meyer “to act on his own initiative in [any] matter affecting the project,” (3) named Meyer the delegated authority of the Chief of Naval Material, (4) centralized control over Aegis ship procurement and Aegis system development in PMS-400, (5) made Meyer fully accountable for Aegis ship acquisition, (6) gave Meyer responsibility for preparing and signing the fitness reports and performance ratings of all military and civilian personnel assigned to PMS-400, (7) made Meyer responsible for “total ship system engineering integration,” and (8) gave PMS-400 the duty of integrating all the logistics requirements for Aegis ships. It was a major grant of authority. Developing force-level requirements, operational concepts, ship characteristics and doctrines was the duty of OP-03 (DCNO for Surface Warfare). There, Meyer had the support of VADM Doyle and his deputy, RADM Rowden (OP-35).30

After 1977, the Navy had problems with OSD and President Carter. In May 1977, for example, the President announced that his Administration would request Congress to authorize 160 new ships for the Navy over the next five years; one year later, Carter reduced that figure by half. Carter changed his mind about the Navy’s shipbuilding program because of studies in OSD which suggested that a major shipbuilding program would draw funds from the Army and Air Force, and that aircraft carrier survivability was much reduced in areas like the Mediterranean and Norwegian Seas. Defense Secretary Harold Brown was not convinced that the Navy needed 15 or even 12 Carrier Battle Groups, and his position carried the President.

The Navy, however, strongly disagreed. In 1977, the CNO authorized the Naval War College to begin a study of future force needs; parts of the study (Sea Plan 2000) made public in March 1978 directly contradicted the views of Defense Secretary Brown. The Associate Director of the Office of Management and Budget accused the Navy of releasing parts of Sea Plan 2000 just to get Congressional attention and support. The Vice Chief of Naval Operations responded that, “We must avoid paralysis by analysis – a situation in which we talk about our Navy while our potential enemy is building his…”‘

…ADM Thomas Hayward, the new CNO, testified to Congress that, without Aegis, existing Carrier Battle Groups would be at great risk in the 1980s. ADM Hayward felt that the Carter Administration did not comprehend the strategic value of the Navy’s carrier forces and he initiated a series of studies to analyze the Navy’s contribution to a European war. He also supported Aegis. As a result of Hayward’s support, Congressional opposition to President Carter’s reductions in defense spending, and RADM Meyer’s ability to convince members of the House and Senate Defense Authorization Subcommittees that Aegis would work, FY 78 money was authorized for the lead Aegis destroyer (later to be classified as a cruiser).

Meyer’s Approach To The Navy And OSD 

To win support within the Navy, Meyer brought representatives from many Navy shore activities into PMS-400 by “double-hatting” them (that is, by giving them positions of responsibility within PMS-400 in addition to their regular jobs). The stratagem not only created teams of Aegis advocates in the Navy’s shore-based support organizations and within OPNAV, it also fed valuable experience into the Aegis technical group….

…One former aide said Meyer often used DSARC reviews to discipline his major contractors, RCA and Litton Industries (owner of Ingalls Shipbuilding). Another said Meyer felt that the DSARC process forced PMS-400 to be constantly alert, constantly tracking the progress of the Aegis system and its destroyer platform to head off any major delays or cost overruns. By meeting DSARC deadlines, PMS-400 could – and did – satisfy two important audiences: OSD and Congress.

…With money and Congressional support in hand, Meyer focused on satisfying OSD imposed deadlines and on supervising contracts. As the Admiral noted:

“At its peak, that project (PMS-400) never exceeded 120 people; most years, the project had only 70 people in it. I kept harping and harping on them about amplification. You can’t ever forget that you’re only one man-year, so if you’re going to get anything done, you have to find a way to amplify, and the only way you can amplify is through people. The Aegis effort in the end was an amplification into thousands of man-years.”

“Amplification” meant the following:

1. Making PMS-400 field representatives defacto Deputy Program Managers, so that contractors dealt regularly with an office possessing real authority.

2. Travel, with frequent on-site inspections and reviews. According to one witness, Meyer could be “ferocious” in these reviews, particularly at RCA and Ingalls. But his goal was to make adhering to production schedules a matter of pride. As one former staffer in PMS-400 said, “Meyer loved to kick the tires.” That meant lots of visits, even to subcontractors. RCA, for example, used PMS-400 to discipline Raytheon, one of its major subcontractors. And Meyer traveled regularly to smaller subcontractors, handing out efficiency awards and exhorting quality work.

3. Testing in parallel with production. PMS-400 “tested the hell out of the system,” according to a former Operations Division Director, because Meyer didn’t want any surprises. His goal, after all, was to produce a revolution in naval weaponry, and he was determined to turn his vision of warfare into a working reality.

4. Not allowing PMS-400 to become captive to routine. All the former staffers of PMS-400 interviewed for this study said RADM Meyer was a very demanding manager. Yet all respected him. They admired his fierce concern for excellence. As he himself admitted, “I harped on that and harped on that from day one.” They also admired his willingness to listen. One noted that Meyer was often not sure how to translate his “visions” into reality, so that senior contractor personnel wasted lots of time on ideas which didn’t pan out. But work was never dull. Meyer tapped key PMS-400 junior staff to answer Congressional questions and write speeches, and senior staff to hand out “Aegis Excellence Awards.” About every six weeks, the Admiral called a halt to travel, stuffed all of PMS-400 into a conference room, and reviewed the project’s status. He also gave out awards and “fired up the crowd.” Then it was back to travel and meetings.

5. Getting practical control of much of his contractors’ organizations. Meyer reached around RCA and Litton management to communicate with the people doing the work. Meyer also used the Applied Physics Laboratory and a number of independent consultants to review both technical and managerial practices employed by his major contractors. His goal was to create a community of Aegis supporters and experts. As one of Meyer’s former Deputies put it, “Meyer built a national organization through his prime contractors.”

6. Keeping fleet organizations informed with briefings, newsletters, films, and demonstrations. The Combat Systems Engineering Development Site (CSEDS) was used to show high-ranking Navy officers and influential members of Congress what Aegis could do, but it was also turned into a training station for AAW software development. To Meyer, Aegis was not a static system, and the heart of its “evolution” was its software. CSEDS both modified the software and showed it off. PMS-400 also planned programs to maintain and modernize Aegis ships.

7. Justifying Aegis to keep potential opponents quiet. Again, all responsible personnel in PMS-400 were tasked to defend Aegis against criticism. In the process, they often anticipated real problems and potential criticisms; the justification process was itself a planning tool…

….RADM Meyer’s real goal was not to field an improved AAW system; it was, instead, to revolutionize surface battle tactics of the Navy by the introduction of Aegis command and control systems. He had to play a game with the Navy and with Congress; pretend his system of battle management was conceptually developed when, in fact, it was still evolving. To keep it developing, Meyer needed to hoard money for contingencies; he also needed a sole-source relationship with RCA. Meyer also favored sole-source contracts in systems acquisitions and ship construction because PMS-400 would never have enough staff to manage second sources. As one former PMS-400 staffer said, “It was competition vs. control. We couldn’t have both.” Meyer wasn’t insensitive to cost; he was incensed when costs exceeded reasonable estimates. But he believed that PMS-400 would lose control of the situation if too many contractors were involved….

…Before John Lehman became Navy Secretary, the Navy rarely went to Congress with a clear, long-range strategy, and important Project Managers were given the freedom to develop their own relationships with members and staffers in Congress. Lehman changed all that. By 1982, the Secretary was acting on the basis of a planned, comprehensive legislative strategy, with clear goals and priorities set and enforced by his office. As one member of Lehman’s staff observed, “the mouthpiece has become the decision-maker.” An inevitable consequence of Lehman’s assertiveness was a clash of his perspective (with its emphasis upon building numbers of ships) with Meyer’s (with its bias toward changing the quality of battle management). Several serving Navy officers claimed in off-the-record talks that this conflict was behind Meyer’s failure to win a third star and advance to the position of Chief, NAVSEA…

…In 1983, the newspaper headline war heated up again. CG-47 was put through qualifications trials that April. That summer, Representative Denny Smith (R-Oregon), a frequent critic of high-cost military procurement programs, alleged that CG-47’s Aegis combat system had failed operational evaluation. His criticisms were echoed in the Senate by Gary Hart of Colorado, a candidate for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President. As Senator Hart told The Wall Street Journal, “Do we have a testing and reporting system that is fundamentally dishonest?” To head off speculation, the CNO acknowledged that there had indeed been software system failures in the April trials and he pledged further tests in September.

After the September 1983 tests, both Watkins and Secretary Lehman wrote to Representative Smith, assuring him (as Lehman did on 11 October) that “Aegis is the most carefully tested combat system ever built.” But Smith did not stop his criticism of Aegis. That winter, he found an ally in Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. In February 1984, Grassley grilled Secretary Lehman and CNO Watkins on CG-47’s performance. The Navy Secretary accused Grassley of “grandstanding” and said that CG-47 was performing splendidly off the Lebanese coast in her first tour overseas. One week later, unnamed Pentagon and Congressional sources told The Washington Post that the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering had informed the Secretary of Defense that Aegis had serious design problems, and the Secretary of the Navy admitted to reporters that “actual missile kills … have not been that impressive.” At the same time, Secretary Lehman officially (and privately) directed PMS-400 to supervise “a fully challenging test series,” which it did with CG-47, April 23-29, 1984, near Puerto Rico.

ADM Watkins praised the results of the trials at a public press conference, and the May 1985 Naval Institute Proceedings carried a glowing description of the Aegis system and also praised the performance of CG-47 during the ship’s tour of duty off of the Lebanese coast the previous fall. A later issue of the same journal, however, carried a long letter from an officer who claimed that the ability of CG-47’s radar to monitor contacts against the backdrop of the Lebanese coast had been exaggerated. The ship had been approached by a light plane while patrolling near Beirut’s harbor, and, by his account, CG-47 never detected it. The question of Aegis’ operational performance was therefore left somewhat unresolved.

RADM Meyer left PMS-400 in August 1983 and became NAVSEA Deputy Commander for Combat Systems (NAVSEA-06). He was replaced by his protege and former Deputy, RADM D.P. Roane…

Revisiting The Issues 

…To bring Aegis from its conceptual stages to fleet service, ADM Meyer had to overcome enormous problems. Foremost among them were:

  • Convincing Congress, OSD, and the CNO that Aegis was necessary, technologically feasible, and affordable and then maintaining program credibility to ensure system survival over the twenty-odd years from system definition to fleet entry.
  • Overcoming aviation community recalcitrance to support a new capability which they believed would downgrade or eliminate their traditional mission of Battle Group protection.
  • Weathering the heated debate between nuclear power advocates and supporters of a high-low ship mix centered on hull design and ship propulsion which threatened to terminate the Aegis program altogether.
  • Overcoming organizational problems over control of Aegis including shipboard weapons systems requirements and ship class and hull design that were initially under separate and competing offices.
  • Maintaining continuity in contractor technical, analytical, and production support in an environment increasingly calling for competitive contracting so that system requirements could remain based on operational performance goals and contractors could be disciplined with respect to attaining project milestones.
  • Selling Aegis as a counter for the intermediate-range AAW threat, particularly in terms of its cost, when RADM Meyer envisioned Aegis from the outset as primarily a battle force integration system.

While other obstacles also had to be overcome, these impediments were both formidable in nature and exacerbated by a strategic culture within the Navy that remains inimical to revolutionary change. Admiral Meyer recognized that the only way to achieve integrated Battle Group AAW defense was with a system which inherently possessed the reaction time to effectively deal with the saturation, high speed, low-flyer threat complemented by a battle management architecture which would permit the operator to exploit the system’s capabilities. Battle management automation was key because without it the Aegis systems engineering success could never be utilized to its potential. However, such a revolutionary change in the way the Navy fights could not be “sold” in the early days and Admiral Meyer brilliantly camouflaged his true objectives under the umbrella of an intermediate AAW defense system for which a clear requirement had been established.

While Admiral Meyer’s ability to promote Aegis as a counter to the Battle Group intermediate-range AAW threat (rather than as a battle force integration capability) helped decrease intraorganizational hostility from the TACAIR community, aviators eventually recognized that the surface community would inevitably impinge on their roles and missions through a combination of battlespace management capabilities and improved surface-to-air and new land-attack cruise missiles. Meyer’s ability ultimately to persuade that community that its role in battle force protection would actually be revitalized by Aegis technology proved critical to the program’s overall success.

Similarly, maintaining credibility in Congress for roughly 20 years was no small undertaking. Debates over whether Aegis should only be incorporated on nuclear-powered ships, and over a high-low ship mix destabilized the Aegis system program in that it focused on considerations not relating to its necessary function and technological feasibility. Thus the Program Manager raised the program above internal Navy politics in order to maintain a constituency in Congress independent of other major fiscal concerns relating to naval issues in Washington.

Featured Image: An aerial starboard bow view of the Aegis guided missile cruiser TICONDEROGA (CG-47) underway during sea trials. (Photo via U.S. National Archives)

The Politics of Developing the Aegis Combat System, Pt. 1

The following republication is adapted from a chapter from The Politics of Naval Innovation, a paper sponsored by the Office of Net Assessment and conducted by the Strategic Research Department of the U.S. Naval War College’s Center for Naval Warfare Studies. Read it in its original form here.

By Thomas C. Hone, Douglas V. Smith, and Roger C. Easton, Jr.

By 1975, the extremely capable TU- 22M Backfire bomber, which could carry the AS-4 as well as more capable AS-6 and AS-9 missiles, had entered service with Soviet Naval Aviation…the impact of the rapidly evolving Soviet aviation threat to naval units was assessed during the 1960s and firmly established in the Center for Naval Analyses “Countering the Anti-Ship Missile” (or CAMS) Study. Much of the analytical work had already been done as early as 1958 by Richard Hunt of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) who used a series of carefully defined threat models to determine the possible future threat environment that would have to be countered by U.S. naval forces. In this case, the United States found itself responding to offensive, although expected, innovation on the part of its major adversary that had profound implications for the survivability of naval forces at sea.

The Politics Of Aegis Development

Having established the threat-based context within which the Aegis development team was required to operate, let us now turn to the relevant political circumstances which helped or hindered their attempts to adapt technology to meet emerging threats.

In January 1983, the Navy commissioned USS Ticonderoga (CG-47), the first of a new and expensive generation of missile cruisers. The heart of Ticonderoga was its Aegis weapon system, consisting of a phased array radar (SPY-1), a tactical weapon system (to monitor the radar and direct the ship’s antiaircraft missiles) and a battery of surface-to-air missiles. Aegis anti-air warfare (AAW) systems were designed to track, target and engage high numbers of incoming aircraft and cruise missiles. The purpose of the system was to protect Carrier Battle Groups from saturation missile attacks staged by Soviet aircraft and submarines.

However, CG-47 carried more than just an AAW system. Linked to computers which monitored and directed AAW missiles were anti-submarine and surface target sensors and weapons, such as the LAMPS antisubmarine helicopter and the Harpoon cruise missile. With this variety of sensors, weapons and sophisticated tactical displays, CG-47 class ships formed the core of the Navy’s Carrier Battle Group surface defense screen…The essence of the system is its ability to screen and monitor, then track and attack, large numbers of radar contacts simultaneously….

May 2, 1982 – An aerial port bow view of the Aegis guided missile cruiser USS TICONDEROGA (CG-47) underway during sea trials. (Photo via U.S. National Archives)

…The Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance had already developed several varieties of ship-launched air defense missiles, but no one had yet created the kind of radar and missile system that could deal with the threats forecasted by the Applied Physics Laboratory. Work on such a system began in the Bureau of Ordnance in 1959. Dubbed TYPHON…the new system was designed to track as many as 20 radar contacts simultaneously. But the new system’s radars were heavy, bulky, unreliable, and used enormous amounts of electrical power. As a result, the Secretary of Defense cancelled the project in 1963. The Navy was already having trouble successfully operating its deployed anti-aircraft missile and radar systems, and in September 1962 the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) declared a moratorium on further development in order to “establish an orderly Long Term Plan which takes into account the logistic, maintenance, and training problems of the Fleet as well as the technical opportunities presented by scientific progress.”

Priority was given to a program to make existing anti-aircraft missile systems meet their design goals in operations at sea. The Surface Missile Systems (SMS) Project in the recently created Bureau of Naval Weapons (following the merger of the bureaus of Aeronautics and Ordnance) was assigned this task. After TYPHON was cancelled, the CNO ordered SMS to create a new development office, later given the title Advanced Surface Missile System Project or ASMS. The task of ASMS was to find technological solutions to the problems which had made TYPHON so unwieldy and unreliable.

The basic engineering problem was to develop a radar which did not need a mechanically-aimed antenna. The standard tactic in 1963 was to assign one fire control radar antenna (or “illuminator”) to each target, having already used a separate air search radar to identify contacts. The fire control radars were used to guide anti-aircraft missiles to targets within range. When numerous, high-speed simultaneous targets were approaching, mechanically-aimed radars were easily overwhelmed.

The solution, then being developed, was an electronically-aimed, or “phased array” radar, which could move from one target to another almost instantaneously so as to properly distribute radar beams and defensive missiles among a host of targets. As the orders to ASMS from the CNO put it, the Navy needed “more flexible and standardized fire control systems for SAM ships” built around three-dimensional radars and “multipurpose digital computers and digital data transmission.” The mission of the ASMS office was to work with the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Surface Warfare to prepare general and specific “operational requirements” to guide civilian contractors in their efforts to design and build the new equipment…

…In 1969, the Office of the Secretary of Defense made the second change: establishing the Defense Systems Acquisition Review Council (DSARC). DSARC was created to review major development and procurement efforts at three critical stages (project start, engineering development, and production) in their progression from exploratory development to full-scale production. The goal of this administrative innovation was to decentralize authority and responsibility for major acquisition programs to specially chosen project managers while keeping essential control over procurement in the hands of the Secretary of Defense. Both changes worked to the advantage of ASMS. The first gave the project more resources; the second gave the project the periodic opportunity to demonstrate its progress and thus ensure even more resources in the future…

…In 1970, Navy Captain Wayne Meyer, former head of engineering at the Naval Ship Weapon Systems Engineering Station (Port Hueneme, California), was transferred to the Naval Ordnance Systems Command (NAVORD). Appointed manager of the Aegis project, he almost immediately faced problems from outside his office.

The Deputy Chief of Naval Material for Development recommended against further development of RCA’s Aegis radar on the grounds that the cost would not be justified by the potential anti-air warfare benefits. Chief, NAVMAT, did not agree, however, so his Deputy for Development appealed to the OPNAV staff. That there was a need for a new generation of AAW surface escort ships was generally agreed. What was not clear was whether RCA’s solution to radar tracking and targeting problems was cost effective.

The “showdown” in OPNAV set the Deputy Chief for Development (NAVMAT) and his ally, the CNO’s Director of Research, Development, Testing, and Engineering, against the Navy’s Director of Tactical Electromagnetic Programs, the Director of Navy Program Planning, and the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (DCNO) for Surface Warfare, whose offices sponsored the Aegis project and the offices which would procure the Aegis ships. The DCNO for Surface Warfare argued that the Aegis project office had drastically reduced the phased array radar’s weight, power requirements and cost, and that even greater reductions were likely in the near future as the radar system matured. The Director of Navy Program Planning defended the project office’s management of Aegis development and stressed the need to move the new system into the fleet.

The CNO, ADM Elmo Zumwalt, Jr., was left with the decision. His dilemma was that technical specialists in the Aegis project office (supported by their NAVORD and NAVMAT chiefs) and their warfare sponsors in OPNAV (OP-03, the DCNO for Surface Warfare) believed that Aegis was too important to abandon whereas critics noted the cost of fielding Aegis was consuming much of the Navy’s budget for engineering development. At the same time, ADM Zumwalt was committed to replacing the Navy’s World War II-era surface escorts which were still in service. To make this escort replacement program affordable, ADM Zumwalt planned to asked Congress to fund a “high-low” mix of ships, which featured low capability, less expensive escorts for convoy protection and high capability, higher speed escorts for work with carriers. The projected high cost of Aegis made ADM Zumwalt’s task of obtaining funds for large numbers of both “high” and “low” capability ships just that much more difficult.

His first inclination, therefore, was to try to reduce the cost of Aegis. In December 1971, ADM Zumwalt asked the DCNO for Surface Warfare if the Aegis system could be scaled down and procured at a lower cost. The request was passed to CAPT Meyer, who noted that his office had already considered that option in September and rejected it. The position of the Aegis project office was that the original system had to be developed. The Chief, NAVMAT, also believed a scaled-down Aegis was a waste of money.

At that stage ADM Zumwalt considered cancelling the whole project. He was angry because there was no AAW development plan to integrate the various ongoing AAW projects, and he correctly anticipated that Congress would resist funding sufficient numbers of an expensive, nuclear-powered Aegis ship. But cancelling Aegis would leave the Navy without any medium-range air defense and might threaten the future “high” capability surface escort program, which was then in the concept formulation and design stage.

Moreover, the Aegis project could not be faulted on grounds of inefficiency. At the CNO’s direction, the Naval Audit Service had investigated the management of Aegis development. In its March 1972 report, the Audit Service commended the Project Office’s management methodology. Eventually, powered flights of the Navy’s own anti-ship missile (Harpoon) were conducted in July 1972, demonstrating the growing sophistication and potential of anti-ship cruise missiles. This threat could not be ignored and it pressured the CNO into making a decision in favor of Aegis, the only medium-range system which could knock cruise missiles down.

Thus in November 1972, the CNO finally approved a production schedule for the Aegis radar and control system, giving Meyer’s office secure funding, providing the Navy and Congress could agree on a platform to carry the new system.

Over the next four years, however, debates over the proper ship platform for Aegis almost killed the system altogether. Aegis engineers faced a difficult problem: design a system which would fit a range of platforms (large or small, nuclear- or conventionally-powered, destroyers and cruisers), field test it with the Standard Missile (SM-2), and then have RCA produce it in time to match whatever platform the Navy and Congress finally agreed upon.

The challenge for CAPT Meyer was that the platform issue was to a large degree out of his hands. The Navy had begun work on a new surface escort design in 1966. The approaching block obsolescence of the hundreds of destroyers built during World War II required large numbers of replacement ships; advances in threat technology and tactics required increasingly sophisticated (and hence more expensive) ships. The potential conflict between numbers and individual ship capability was laid out in the Major Fleet Escort Study of 1967, written in OPNAV’s Division of Systems Analysis while (then) RADM Zumwalt was its director. As CNO, Zumwalt attempted to act on the conclusions of the study even though he well understood how hard it would be to persuade Congress to fund the construction of large numbers of expensive (and more capable) fleet escorts.

Zumwalt also lacked complete control of shipbuilding. The real boss of ship construction in 1972 was ADM Isaac Kidd, the Chief of NAVMAT, and Kidd had immediate authority over the surface escort program. After a long exchange of memos in 1973, Zumwalt persuaded Kidd not to accelerate the design and production of the anticipated conventionally-powered missile-firing escort so that ship and Aegis development could progress together. Zumwalt hoped to mount Aegis on a conventionally-powered escort; nuclear surface ships were too costly to get in satisfactory numbers, and Zumwalt wanted to guarantee sufficient production to maintain Aegis development and manufacture. The first engineering development model of the Aegis radar had already been tested ashore, and Zumwalt wanted to pace Aegis development to match that of a conventionally-powered platform.

In 1972, CAPT Meyer was assigned to Chief of the Surface Missile Systems Office in NAVORD. He also retained his position as head of the Aegis Project and this expanded assignment signified the degree to which Aegis development dominated surface-based AAW systems.

In 1974, the Naval Ship Systems Command merged with NAVORD to become the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA). The Aegis Project Office became the Aegis Weapon System Office (PMS-403), and CAPT Meyer was promoted to Rear Admiral and made head of PMS-403 as well as Director of NAVSEA’s Surface Combat Systems Division.

May 1983 – Rear Admiral Wayne E. Meyer, USN.

This organizational change was important to Meyer. For the first time, he had access to and control over ship design offices and direct, authorized contact with the sponsors in OPNAV. Before the reorganization, Meyer had headed a weapons system office. After 1974, he directed that office plus two others, including one responsible for the design of a destroyer-size Aegis ship, the other for an Aegis cruiser. After the creation of NAVSEA, Meyer had three sponsoring offices instead of one, and the opportunities for him to act as an organizational entrepreneur increased.

Unfortunately, the struggle over the “proper” Aegis platform was just heating up about the same time the Aegis system itself was changing from just an AAW sensor/weapon system to one which could direct all AAW weapons and sensors for an entire Carrier Battle Group. This modification of Aegis system goals was made, not to build a PMS-403 empire, but because it became technically feasible. The Navy had originally developed digital communication links for carriers and their escorts in order to allow one ship to coordinate and control the massed AAW firepower of a whole group believing that capability eventually would be developed.

RADM Meyer believed that Aegis computers and software could revolutionize the conduct of Carrier Battle Group defensive operations. He saw the Aegis ship as mainly a command center, and only secondarily as an AAW escort. Through 1974, he made his point to his superiors in NAVSEA and NAVMAT and to a variety of offices in OPNAV. By December 1974, Meyer had persuaded the Chief of NAVMAT to consider a redefinition of the Aegis combat system, and it seemed that the Aegis program had entered a new (but logical) stage of development.

PMS-403 ran into two problems however. The first was a debate between the Navy and OSD about the proper design of the Aegis platform. The new CNO, ADM James Holloway, favored a nuclear-powered ship. OSD was opposed to the nuclear-powered alternative on the grounds of cost and numbers: too few ships at too high ($600 million, projected) a cost. OSD also criticized the nuclear-powered escorts (California-class) then being completed as “loaded from stem to stern with technically achievable, but not very practical, systems and subsystems.” As Vice Admiral E.T. Reich, then working in the Office of the Deputy Secretary of Defense, noted in February 1975, “the Navy had done an inadequate job of specifying overall ship system integration design…systems engineering and total ship design integration have been seriously lacking in post-World War II surface ship acquisitions.” This concern was shared by Meyer, and he argued that the rational solution was to give the combat systems office (PMS-403) authority over the design of the ship – control, not merely the right to negotiate or coordinate. Meyer’s proposed solution was novel but it was not unreasonable.

Unfortunately, Congress intervened and the issue over the proper Aegis platform rapidly became politically controversial, placing several key decisions beyond Meyer’s effective influence. The conference committee report on the FY 1975 Defense Authorization Bill stated that future authorizations for Aegis would be withheld unless the Aegis AAW system was tested successfully under operational conditions and then maintained at sea by “shipboard personnel only.”

The report also demanded that the Navy and OSD agree on the design of the Aegis platform and that the Navy produce a “cohesive integration plan specifying the interface of Aegis with the platform(s) and other weapon and command/control systems.” In July 1974, Congress approved Section 804 of Title VIII of Public Law 93-365 (“The Nuclear Powered Navy”), which stated:

“All requests for authorization or appropriations from Congress for major combatant vessels for the strike forces of the United States Navy shall be for construction of nuclear powered…vessels…”

…To satisfy Congressional demands that Aegis be tested and maintained at sea, RADM Meyer had the land-based prototype systems (radars and computers) moved from the RCA plant in New Jersey to the test ship USS Norton Sound. In just over three months in the summer of 1974, Norton Sound was converted into an AAW ship complete with radars and missiles. By December, Norton Sound’s AAW tracking and fire control capability had been proven superior to that of any other Navy AAW ship, and actual test firings against a variety of targets in January 1975 were a success.

USS Norton Sound (AVM-1) at sea, circa 1980. Ship shown after the SPY-1A Aegis combat system was installed. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

The results were impressive enough to convince the Secretary of the Navy to release money that had been withheld pending the outcome of the sea trials. Even so, Meyer could not resolve the dispute between the Navy and OSD about the Aegis ship design. He favored a mix of both nuclear and conventionally-powered ships, but the procurement costs associated with nuclear propulsion (estimated at 4 to 1 over a conventionally- powered ship) were more than OSD could accept. In January 1975, OSD decided not to ask Congress for any FY 76 funds for Aegis ship construction or conversion. RADM Meyer termed the decision “unacceptable for a stable program in Congress…”‘

…In May 1975, the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee fired another salvo against OSD: “the committee tied the use of RDT&E funds for Aegis to your provision of a plan for a nuclear platform for Aegis… As a start we expect to have Aegis installed promptly on the USS Long Beach” (the first nuclear-powered cruiser, launched in 1961). That same month, the CNO told the Secretary of Defense that Congress would eliminate all Aegis funding if OSD did not stand firmly behind some Aegis platform. The Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee also wrote to President Gerald Ford arguing that major surface combatants should be nuclear-powered and denouncing the influence of “systems analysts” in OSD….

…Behind the scenes, however, the Navy and OSD had been considering an Aegis destroyer powered by gas turbines as a companion to the nuclear-powered Aegis cruiser.

Aegis was finally saved in a House-Senate Conference Committee meeting in September 1975. President Ford greatly influenced this decision by promising to justify in writing the need for a gas turbine Aegis ship. OPNAV also strongly supported Aegis. VADM James Doyle, the Deputy CNO for Surface Warfare (OP-03), was a strong Aegis supporter and he persuaded ADM Holloway to support the proposal to place Aegis in an existing gas turbine-powered destroyer design (the Spruance-class)…

…Meyer was another reason Aegis survived. Trained as a engineer (at University of Kansas, MIT, and at the Naval Postgraduate School), Meyer gradually and deliberately gained the respect of Congressional staff aides and members of Congress. According to one of his civilian assistants, Meyer established his legitimacy as a systems engineer both in the Navy and in Congress in 1975. His argument that Aegis should not fall victim to a dispute over its platform apparently had some effect.

The most important event in 1976, however, was the establishment of the Aegis Shipbuilding Project (PMS-400) that October, with Meyer as Project Manager. PMS-400 was created by combining PMS-403, PMS-389 and PMS-378 into one NAVSEA office. OPNAV sponsors were also combined into one unit, OP-355. PMS-400 was given responsibility for developing and producing the Aegis combat system. It was the first “hardware” organization given authority over shipbuilding, but that was just what RADM Meyer wanted.

He had criticized recent nuclear cruisers on the grounds that their sensor and weapons systems were poorly integrated, and that they lacked the capability to manage Battle Group anti-air and anti-submarine information and weapons in major engagements. His criticisms were supported by officials in OSD and accepted by Congress. The order creating PMS-400 was the Navy’s solution to the systems integration obstacle.

Read Part Two.

Featured Image: An aerial port bow view of the Aegis guided missile cruiser USS TICONDEROGA (CG-47) underway during sea trials. (Photo via U.S. National Archives)