Kill the Darlings and Pet Programs

Notes to the New CNO Topic Week

By Lieutenant Commander Ryan Hilger, USN

For all the talk of being in great power competition, the OPNAV staff is not acting like it. The Pentagon is famous for slow rolling any senior officer who tries to disrupt the status quo, endangers pet programs, or pushes community-threatening systems. The lower echelons have a strong belief that their pet programs are exactly what the Navy needs to win a war, regardless of how over-schedule, over-budget, or incapable the systems are. They use arguments about great power competition and lethality to defend budget packages, but not to deliver capabilities rapidly. The capability of our fleet still largely looks like it did two decades ago.

Meanwhile, our adversaries are outpacing us in many areas. China will likely deploy unmanned systems in greater numbers than the United States, and far sooner than we can. China, in another example of intellectual theft, has stated that their stealth drone program, the CH-7, is on track for its first flight in 2019 and will reach Initial Operating Capability in 2021. By comparison, glacial acquisition processes and entrenched cultural resistance to change have reduced the U.S. Navy’s MQ-25 program from an unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) to a humble refueling platform. MQ-25, whose X-47B predecessor conducted carrier flight operations in 2013, might reach the Fleet by 2024. The Chinese fleet of today is virtually unrecognizable from what it was two decades ago.

Should war break out, we must fight with the fleet we have, not the one we wish we had. In 1934, with global peace deteriorating, Congress passed the Vinson-Trammell Act to increase the Navy’s battle count to the London Naval Treaty limit—102 new ships in 8 years. This act provided the fleet that the Navy went to war with in 1941. Quantity matters. Under this act, the Pensacola-class cruisers were developed, optimized to the limits of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1920. 

The Navy had many Pensacolas in its inventory by 1941, but it had also continued iterating the platform, eventually arriving at the New Orleans-class. These two classes fought side-by-side in the Solomons. Yet the Navy would have been at a severe disadvantage early in the war had it waited to perfect a new large surface combatant in the 1930s. All ships were needed. A similar situation is playing out with the Large Surface Combatant program, and the Navy is making a mistake by waiting.

It is time to kill our darlings. We cannot deploy the Navy the nation needs with the many pet programs we have. Underperforming programs must go. Follow Secretary Esper’s lead and hold “Night Court” for the Navy—which freed $31 billion for major Army priorities. If the program manager could not articulate how his program supported the Army’s priorities, then funds were shifted elsewhere.

It is time to actually align our budget with our priorities, rather than allow dated legacy programs to dictate the conversation. CNO Gilday must sell Congress on his fresh priorities and make his signature on the Navy’s budget submission reflect them. The Navy and the nation desperately need it. 

Lieutenant Commander Ryan Hilger is an engineering duty officer with Strategic Systems Programs in Washington, DC. His views are his own and do not represent the Department of Defense. 

Featured Image: PHILIPPINE SEA (Sept. 17, 2018) The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) leads the Ronald Reagan Strike group, including the Ticonderoga-class missile cruisers USS Antietam (CG 54) and USS Chancellorsville (CG 62) and the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Benfold (DDG 65) and USS Milius (DDG 69), during a photo exercise for Valiant Shield 2018. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kaila Peters)

6 thoughts on “Kill the Darlings and Pet Programs”

  1. Both the recently retired CNO Richardson and the new CNO Guilday are fully on board with completely restructuring the naval fleet design, the plan for which is nearly ready for release … that FSA will provide for many fewer large surface combatants, many more small surface combatants, and far more unmanned vessels than the PLAN will have for many years to come.. Both have pushed hard to field new unmanned vessels, both surface and subsurface. The MQ-25 meets a very large unmet need – and is proceeding at rapid pace, so I don’t know why the author would choose to attack that program.

    Additional changes are needed – we need to stop building the Virginia class SSNs, which are overly large, bloated, focused on land attack instead of anti-shipping (both surface and subsurface), and way too expensive to build in the numbers we need. We need to get AEGIS warships out of the land BMD business, replaceing them with far cheaper to build and operate AEGIS Ashore installations. The savings from curtailing the DDG-51 program enabled by that change would pay for a lot more SSNs and small surface combatants, of which we have way too few to provide a credible escort for surface ships – both naval and merchant.

    Today’s naval leaders are turning the ship around … a decade from today the US Navy will bear little resemblance to today’s fleet.

    1. You have a serious axe to grind with the “land attack” design of the late-block Virginia-class SSNs, but you make no alternative analysis proving that other smaller submarines would actually be better at “anti-shipping (both surface and subsurface)” (unclear what you mean there).

      1) Would a small, torpedo-as-primary-weapon SSN actually be much cheaper than a large VA-class?

      The “N” in SSN isn’t cheap, while extra steel and even missile tubes probably aren’t that expensive. You can’t assume that a smaller but still nuclear-powered submarine is going to be categorically less expensive.

      2) Would a smaller SSN using torpedoes actually be better, or economically close enough, in anti-shipping performance?

      You need to define what you mean by “anti-shipping (both surface and subsurface)”, including whether it is one task or several, and consider how much imagination we are allowed.
      If we assume four sub-tasks–killing merchants alone, killing merchants in defended convoys, killing enemy surface warships, and killing enemy submarines, missiles are better solutions for the first three and the fourth may not be worth doing in many cases.
      As long as we are allowed to assume the development of a antiship missile that can be fired from existing TLAM tubes, which is simpler than assuming the development of whole new submarine classes, the VA-class SSNs probably come out ahead,

      I really don’t care that much about submarine design, but I do care about the details and asking all the questions, which we should all do before we assume the success of untested ideas.

      1. I have a serious ax to grind when the subs we build today do not contribute to the Navy’s primary mission of sea control and winning liittoral wars, and at the same time cost so much that the Navy simply cannot afford to build as many as we need for the missions the Navy must serve. Both of which are the case today because of poor decision making by naval leaders and Congress.

        Adding long range land attack capability contributes not at all to sea control or littoral warfare. Nothing.

        Making SSNs so expensive we cannot afford to build enough of them therefore actually DETRACTS from the submarine’s primary role of anti-shipping and the Navy’s primary roles of sea control and littoral warfare.

        Anti-ship missiles are easily fired from horizontal torpedo tubes – both Tomahawks and Harpoons, because that’s exactly what our SSNs did in the Cold War. Indeed, my 637 class submarine performed the very first submarine launch of a Harpoon back in 1978.

      2. You have it exactly backwards. Nuclear power plants are NOT expensive. But submarine hulls are by their very nature the most expensive of all ships, and every single ton and cubic foot added to them are extremely expensive.

        The cost of a Colombia class SSBN, at just over 20,000 tons, is now estimated (not hard dollar contracted) to cost at least $7.0B as part of a 12-ship block buy. That comes to $350K per ton.

        The cost of a Virginia Block 5 with VPM is $3.2B and climbing, for a ship that displaces approx. 10,000 tons. That comes to $320K per ton. We just ordered two more 100,000 ton Ford class CVNs at an average cost of $12B (these are firm fixed price contracts). That comes to $120K per ton. About 1/3 the cost per ton of a Colombia SSBN, and it is nuclear powered too.

  2. To get a program funded in today’s DOD, it either needs to sold as a continuation of an existing program and thus “low risk” or it needs to be inflated into the perfect end-all-be-all weapon system, making the PowerPoint concept too good to pass up. Many aircraft have followed the former route–AV-8B Harrier II, F-18E/F Super Hornet, E-2D Advanced Hawkeye–while shipbuilding programs seem to follow the latter–Seawolf SSNs, DD(X), LCS, etc. Both approaches lead to inefficient spending because they either constrain the design to resemble existing hardware or they make programs too big to fail.

    Most of our best systems were not clean-sheet wunderwaffen but systems which had been incrementally improved into penultimate variants.

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