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)

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