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)

One thought on “The Politics of Developing the Aegis Combat System, Pt. 2”

  1. A blow-by-blow of the Exercise to Prove AEGIS after our first deployment would be quite the story. We could not go home until we requalified our combat system, and we did it better than anyone could.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.