Thursday, February 26, 2015

Archers, Arrows, and Eyes

We’re all well aware of the conventional wisdom regarding Anti-Air Warfare,

It’s better to shoot archers than arrows.

For anyone who might not recognize this concept, the idea is that it’s easier and far more efficient to destroy a missile’s launch platform than to try to deal with the multitude of individual missiles after they’ve been launched.  An added benefit is that each launch platform that is destroyed is one less that’s available for future attacks.

Well, now there’s an amendment,

It’s better to shoot the archer’s eyes than the archer.

The world has quickly come up with very long range weapons that can cover many hundreds to thousands of miles.  However, as we’ve previously discussed, the ability to locate, identify, and precisely target objects at that range is an enormous challenge and is, essentially, non-existent today or in the foreseeable future.

Consider our own efforts at long range targeting.  Satellites have some utility for locating but, not being linked in real time to any weapon system, are unsuited for targeting.  AWACS assets are so valuable that they are held well back from any potential harm which means they have only very limited ability to provide long range targeting.  The P-8 is intended to be a front line ISR asset and could provide targeting but it is non-survivable in that it is not stealthy, fast, or maneuverable.  UAVs offer some possibility for long range targeting but, again, are only marginally survivable.

Note that we’re mainly talking about airborne sensors.  Ship’s sensors are just too limited in range.  Submarine sensors are also a serious threat but their presence and usefulness is a bit sporadic.  Their need to remain undetected tends to negate their value as real time targeting assets.

Note also that the relative number of targeting assets (the archer’s eyes) in any military are very limited compared to the number of available launch platforms.  Just as there are many more arrows than archers, so too there are many more archers than eyes.  The eyes are the weak link in the kill chain.  Destroying the few targeting assets can render the many launch platforms ineffective.

This should tell us something about the future of our own ISR targeting assets.  We need to develop very long range assets that have a reasonable degree of survivability, robust sensors (meaning long range), and strong communications (there’s no point collecting targeting data if you can’t transmit the information).  This sounds like an ideal mission for UAVs provided we can make them cheaply enough to use in large numbers because the enemy is going to find and kill many of them.  They need to be cheap enough to almost be considered one-way, throwaway aircraft.

All of this works both ways.  We need to focus on our enemy’s targeting assets and destroy them.  That requires a long distance ability to find and kill those platforms.  Given the long ranges of missiles and sensors, it is necessary to find and kill the targeting platforms as far away from their targets as possible.  We need a very long range air-to-air platform that is survivable and has sufficient electronics, both active and passive, to find the archer’s eyes and the ability to destroy them.  Some might suggest the F-35 but it is inadequate due to limited range.  In theory, if we knew precisely where an enemy targeting asset was and could provide tanking support, we could get an F-35 to the target and destroy it.  The reality is that we will not know where the targeting assets are – we’ll have to go looking for them which means we need very long range aircraft with significant loiter time.  It’s not enough to be able to make it out hundreds or thousands of miles – we have to stay there and conduct long searches with significant loiter times.  The F-35 can’t do this.  It would also be nice if such an aircraft were cheap enough to absorb losses.  An aircraft loitering for extended periods deep in enemy air space will eventually be found and killed.  Again, a good use for a focused function UAV – essentially a very long range, loitering cruise missile.

Of course, the best option is to destroy the targeting assets at their bases and, certainly, significant effort should be directed to that end.  Submarine launched Tomahawk missiles are well suited for that job and intermediate ballistic missiles can be effective against fixed bases.  However, we will still have to deal with airborne targeting assets.

We seem to not be on the right path regarding long range targeting, either offensively or defensively.  Our current ISR path is suited for peacetime patrolling but not war.  We need a survivable, long range targeting asset, probably a UAV.  On the other side of the coin, we need a survivable, very long range A2A killer to use against enemy targeting assets.

This is an example of the absolute necessity for having a comprehensive and coherent strategy, doctrine, and tactics and using those to drive procurement.  Instead, we’re allowing procurement to drive strategy and doctrine and the result is a collection of disparate, unrelated systems that do not support a common goal in a complementary fashion.  Worse, many of our random procurements are geared at peacetime operations and will be only marginally useful during combat.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Come Hell Or High Water

Consider ...

  • The Navy is looking seriously at early retirement of a carrier.

  • The Navy is attempting to lay up the Aegis cruisers.

  • The Navy left the Avenger class MCM vessels to rot pierside until it became painfully obvious that the LCS wouldn’t be ready for years to come.

  • The Navy early retired the entire Tarawa LHA amphibious class.

  • The Navy cancelled Tomahawk missile production with no successor in sight (though Congress restored some degree of production).

  • The Navy cancelled Fire Scout procurement (though, again, some degree of production has been restored, I think).

  • The Navy terminated the Seawolf SSN program after only three units.

  • The Navy did one of the most abrupt about-faces in naval history in terminating the Zumwalt DDG program after stating unequivocally the year before that it was the key to future naval combat. 

From the above historical listing it should be obvious that the Navy has no qualms about terminating, early retiring, or changing directions on major ship classes and programs.

Contrast that history of early retirements, terminations, and changes of direction with the LCS program.  The Navy is completely, totally, utterly committed to seeing the LCS program through to the full buy of 52 units.  Why?  Almost no one in or out of the Navy now believes that the LCS is, or will ever be, a successful platform.  Yet, in the face of severe budget constraints which have seen the Navy terminate and early retire many platforms, weapons, and systems, the LCS remains untouchable. 

Before you pound out a reply about the new LCS, no one considers the “new” LCS to be anything other than a public relations gimmick to continue building the same anemic LCS’s.

What makes the LCS untouchable when we’re perfectly willing to retire Aegis cruisers and carriers which are infinitely more valuable?  Is it just a case of institutional face saving?  I’m sure there’s a degree of that at work but the people who actually initiated the LCS program and might have the greatest stake in seeing it “succeed” are long gone.  Why would current Navy leadership care that much whether the LCS reaches the full 52 ship build?  ComNavOps has no answer.  The Navy’s position on this is truly baffling.

Setting aside the wisdom or doctrinal/tactical need for a small combatant, the logical path would be to terminate the LCS and initiate another small combatant program that incorporates the lessons learned rather than try to tweak an inherently flawed platform.  What’s the downside?  There isn’t one that I can see.  Worst case, we’d have a few less toothless, useless patrol boats for several years while the replacement vessel geared up.  Heck, if we wanted to build or buy one of the many excellent foreign design small combatants we wouldn’t even have to wait very long so the excuse of a gap in production isn’t even valid.

Shrink the fleet size so that we can continue building shiny new toys?  Yes, we’ll do that!

Drop a carrier so that we can continue building new Fords?  Yes, we’ll do that!

Early retire the most powerful cruisers in the world so that we can continue new construction?  Yes, we’ll do that!

Terminate or even reduce the procurement of a toothless, useless, short-legged, ship that has no valid mission?  Nope.  Come hell or high water, we’re going to build all 52 LCS.


Saturday, February 21, 2015

Service Life Value

Here’s a cursory look at the cost of some ship classes relative to their expected service lives.  I’ve tabulated the cost of the ship, the expected service life in years, and the calculated “value” expressed as the number of years of service that each billion dollars buys.  Hence, the greater the number, the more”valuable” the ship is in terms of service life.  Some of the cost numbers are highly debatable, the Nimitz class being an example because the class was spread over so many years and changed so much, but they serve to illustrate the concept.

Class    Cost, $B Yrs   Value (yrs/$1B)
LCS        0.6     20    33.3
Burke      2       30    15.0
Nimitz     6       45     7.5
America    6       35     5.8
Ford      13       50     3.8
Zumwalt    8       30     3.7

We see that the LCS far and away leads the pack.  It’s a good value for service life.  At the other end, the Zumwalt and Ford are the poorest values.  Is it coincidence that the newest construction represents the poorest value or is it telling us that our program costs are getting out of hand?  I think it’s clearly the latter.

Our programs are getting more expensive on a relative basis and I believe the two biggest reasons are overhead related to build numbers and concurrency.  We’ve covered this in previous posts (see, "Shipbuilding Costs - Impact of Low Volume" and "Concurrency - Building Without a Design!").

Now before you all start pounding out replies, this little analysis is only for service life.  It does not take into account operational value.  Thus, while the LCS represents great service life value, it has no operational value and is an overall major disappointment.  The Zumwalt, which is a poor service life value, may well turn out to have little operational value – a double negative value!  On the other end of the spectrum, the Ford, with a poor service life value, may turn out to have a very good operational life value – it remains to be seen.

Take this for what it is – a simple ranking with an interesting underlying concept.  Don’t get worked up about the actual numbers. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Department of Anti-Weapon Development

We just discussed the Navy’s tendency to believe that the enemy will cooperate in their own defeat (see, "Thanks for Co-operating Mr. Enemy") and that all of our weapon systems will work exactly as intended, unhindered by any disruptive activities from our enemies.  Of course, that’s sheer lunacy! 

You know what we need?  We need an anti-weapon system group!  That would be a group whose mission is to develop counters to our own weapon systems throughout their fielded service lives but especially as those systems are being conceptualized, designed, and initially built.

Concurrently developing a weapon system and its counter(s) would allow early incorporation of fixes, modifications, and counter-counters rather than fielding a system and only finding out years later, the hard way, that the enemy has an effective counter that we didn’t think of or, more likely, opted to ignore so as not to paint a negative picture of the system while funding was being solicited from Congress.

For example, we’re aggressively developing UAVs, to put it mildly.  However, there are a number of potential ways to counter UAVs including jamming the communications and control links, attacking communication relay platforms, disrupting GPS signals, cyber (hacking) attacks, overriding the control signals with a higher strength signal, injecting false signals into legitimate control signals, overheating the UAV via directed but diffuse microwave and laser broadcasts, and so on.  And that’s just what I, a non-UAV specialist can think of.  What other ideas could an expert come up with?  Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a group dedicated to theorizing possible counters so that we could incorporate protections into the UAV designs before they’re set in stone?

Not every counter needs to be high tech, nor does it need to be directed very narrowly at a specific technology.   For example, an entire carrier group could be halted in its tracks by a plane, sub, or remote UxV seeding hundreds of false periscope decoys (maybe with a simple noisemaker to mimic an enemy sub’s sounds?) in the group’s path.  Imagine the convulsions the carrier group would go through prosecuting each decoy against the chance that it isn’t a decoy.  That would be a simple counter to an entire carrier group.  What’s our counter-counter?

You can bet the Chinese, Russians, and others have people dedicated to coming up with counters to our weapon systems.  Wouldn’t it be nice if those counters weren’t a complete surprise to us?

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Wait, What Now?

Speaking at the WEST 2015 conference in San Diego, Adm. Michelle Howard, Vice Chief of Naval Operations had this to say about the cost of the Ohio replacement submarine, the SSBN(X) (1),

“We know we’re going to have to replace her and we know the cost for that is going to be on the order of $9 billion a platform."

Does she not know that the official Navy cost estimate is $5.4B with a target of $4.9B each per the Congressional Research Service July 2014 report?

Is she just totally uninformed or did a bit of truth accidentally leak out?

Now, this is not exactly earth shaking news.  The rest of the world has known all along that the SSBN(X) program would cost much, much more than the Navy estimated but to hear the Navy publicly admit it is kind of earth shaking given the line they’ve been trying to sell.

Here’s the scary part, though.  The Navy never even comes close to being right about their cost estimates.  They’re typically around 50% too low.  So, if the Navy is publicly admitting $9B per sub then you can be sure the real cost will be around $14B.  YIKES!

(1) USNI, "WEST: Sea Service Leaders Outline Challenges", John Cannon, February 13, 2015,

Don't Worry - Trust Us

Do you recall, many years ago, how the Navy assured Congress and the Marines that if they were allowed to retire the battleships they would provide an equivalent replacement for the shore gunfire mission?  And yet, here we are decades later with no replacement.  The Navy made promises they had no intention of keeping so that they could get the new construction they wanted.

Now, the Air Force, which has attempted to retire the A-10 so that they could buy more F-35s and has been strongly rebuffed by Congress, is suggesting that perhaps they’ll look at a direct A-10 replacement down the road if only they would be allowed to retire the A-10 now (1). 

Don’t fall for it, Congress.  This is a desperate AF saying anything to get the F-35s they want.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Guerrilla Warfare Ship

ComNavOps came across an old Proceedings article describing a littoral combatant vessel (1) and the proffered ship’s characteristics are fascinating to compare to the actual LCS that came out of the littoral combatant effort.  The littoral vessel was referred to as a Guerrilla Warfare Ship (GWS) and it had the following characteristics.

  • Semi-submersible to minimize radar and thermal signatures;  when submerged, only sensor arrays, guns, comms, and air intake louvers would be exposed
  • Subsurface exhausts to reduce thermal signature
  • Anechoic coating
  • Low speed propulsion pods for station keeping
  • Narrow beam UAV comm and satellite links
  • Modular
  • 60+ kt speed
  • Automatic launch of small UAVs from stowage cells (no flight deck)
  • Medium range (60 mile) anti-surface missiles
  • No exterior safety nets, lifelines, railings, masts, ladders, or hatch mechanisms to reduce radar signatures
  • Navigation aids for very near shore navigation and station keeping
  • Thermal, IR, and enhanced light optics for night operations
  • 105 mm low profile, stabilized main gun
  • 25-30 mm secondary gun(s)
  • Rocket launched depth charges to counter mini-subs and swimmers
  • 21 day endurance with vertical replenishment
  • 200 ft length, 47 ft beam, 600 tons
  • Built in sound dampening for acoustic signature reduction
  • Crew size = 20
  • Fit in an amphibious ship well deck (for transoceanic transport?)

While not explicitly spelled out, the concept of operations (CONOPS) for this vessel seemed to be one of loitering in key areas conducting very close surveillance in a semi-submerged, electromagnetically silent mode and then rising up to attack and run to the next location.  I like that the weapons and characteristics support the CONOPS rather than being a random collection of items that do not tie into the ship’s mission or are sub-optimal for the mission as is the case with the LCS and JSF.

Cover Illustration of Guerrilla Warfare Ship

It’s interesting to compare the ship’s characteristics to the LCS which is five times the displacement and almost 200 ft longer.  The GWS would have been an effective surveillance vessel and a nasty ambusher.  In fact, the GWS specs put the much larger LCS to shame. 

The idea of a small vessel without a flight deck but still capable of aerial surveillance operations via the encapsulated UAVs is fascinating.  ComNavOps believes that the Navy has gone too far in insisting on placing helos, flight decks, and hangars on every vessel larger than a rowboat.  The GWS offers an interesting and viable alternative although the recovery method for the UAVs is not spelled out.

This is one path the LCS could have gone and it would have been a much more effective one and useful one.  To be fair, though, almost any alternative to the LCS would have been more effective.  Still, what might have been … …

(1) USNI Proceedings, “A Combatant for the Littorals”, LCdr. Dave Weeks, USN(R), Nov 1999, p. 26

Monday, February 9, 2015

Taylor Grounding

Navy Times has obtained a copy of the Navy's report on the grounding of the frigate Taylor in February of 2014 while providing security for the winter Olympics (1).  Follow the link to read the details.  I won't bother repeating them.  Suffice it to say that the report is a case study of how not to navigate and what's wrong with the Navy.

ComNavOps harps on the need for, and lack of, tactical training but an even greater need is basic seamanship training at all levels of the ship's crew.  This was a woefully undertrained and ill-prepared crew and command.  We might be tempted to dismiss this as a one-time freak occurrence if the exact same thing had not happened to the Port Royal, an MCM vessel, and others.  There is an obvious and systemic lack of fundamental seamanship in the Navy.

The report also highlights equipment failure.  ComNavOps has repeatedly pointed out the lack of maintenance that is rampant in the fleet and which the Navy is ignoring.  We have a hollow fleet with respect to equipment readiness and yet the Navy continues to procure new ships while allowing the existing ones to rot.  For all the lip service that is paid to maintenance, there is no evidence that any progress is being made.  We continue to send ships to sea with malfunctioning equipment.

Finally, the report indicates an overdependence on GPS.  Again, ComNavOps has repeatedly stated that the Navy must wean itself off its addiction to GPS and routinely train in high jamming, GPS-less, ECM environments.

If we get into a serious war and lose our GPS, the entire fleet will be grounded within a day!

This is what happens when leadership is focused on new construction rather than maintenance, training, and readiness.

(1) Navy Times, "Report: Sloppy navigation caused 2014 frigate grounding", David Larter, 8-Feb-2015,


As reported by Navy Times website, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, listed his technology and developmental priorities while speaking at the Naval Future Force Science and Technology Expo (1).  Prominent among those priorities was,

“Getting off gun powder. Lasers and railguns will provide an incredibly deep magazine at remarkably low cost, he said.”

ComNavOps fully supports laser and railgun development efforts while, at the same time, recognizing the many technological challenges still to be overcome before those technologies can be applied on a practical basis.  Let’s set the technological challenges aside and look at some of the tactical and application issues that may not have been fully explored, yet.

Consider an arrow shot at a piece of paper.  The arrow will pass through the paper and leave a fairly large hole in the paper although the rest of the paper will be unaffected.  Fast forward on the technology scale and consider a bullet fired from a handgun at a piece of paper.  The bullet is much more advanced technology and much more powerful than an arrow so it should do much more damage, right?  Well, the bullet will pass through the paper and leave an even smaller hole than the arrow.  How can that be?!  The bullet is faster, more advanced, and more powerful.  The problem is that a bullet is an inappropriate weapon choice for a paper target. 

With that example in mind, let’s consider a railgun firing at a modern, small naval vessel.  You’ve probably seen the videos of test firings of railguns penetrating a foot of steel and the resulting destruction due to the kinetic effects.  However, as you know, modern small vessels such as corvettes and frigates are lightly built and thin skinned.  What will happen when a railgun projectile traveling at several times the speed of sound hits a modern vessel?  Well, the projectile is inert so there won’t be any fused explosion.  It has no unexpended fuel to disperse and ignite.  That leaves only kinetic effects but will the projectile encounter enough resistance to transfer its kinetic energy to the target, thereby causing damage or will the projectile pass through the thin skinned vessel without doing significant damage much like the bullet passing through the paper?  One could imagine a targeted vessel with a bunch of small, clean holes but otherwise largely undamaged after being engaged by a railgun.  I can’t answer this question and I may be completely off base but it’s at least a plausible scenario to ask about.

Now, let’s look at area effects.  One of the main uses for a naval gun has, historically, been to produce area explosive effects during land bombardment for area damage, suppressive fire, and similar uses.  Once again, consider how a railgun works.  The projectile is non-explosive and depends on the transfer of kinetic energy for its effect.  In short, it does not produce an area effect.  It is not really possible to provide area bombardment or suppressive fire from a railgun.  A railgun projectile hitting ground will kick up little dirt and bury itself. 

What about guidance?  Railguns are touted as shooting projectiles at such great speeds that they will strike before the target can move.  At close range, that may be true but railguns are being looked at as deep strike weapons hitting targets hundreds of miles away.  Do the math.  It still takes significant time to cover that distance.  Mobile targets, such as vehicles, will be well out of the path of a railgun projectile by the time it arrives.  Remember, with no explosive effect, a projectile must have a direct hit to be effective.  A miss of one foot is a total miss.  There is no area explosive effect to compensate for small misses.  Well, why don’t we add a guidance package to the railgun projectile?  Wouldn’t that solve the problem?  The answer is no, for two reasons.  First, we don’t have the technology to fit a guidance package into a projectile and have it survive the firing.  The stresses on the projectile are immense.  Second, if we start adding guidance packages (or ECM, or active radar, or whatever) we negate the main advantage of the railgun which is its cheap projectile cost.  Instead of shooting free rocks as projectiles, we’ll be right back to $50K+ projectiles like we have now.

Now let’s consider a railgun in an AAW/CIWS role.  Similar to a Phalanx CIWS, a railgun could be an effective AAW weapon especially given its very high speed and, thus, short travel time to the target.  Further, the low cost of projectiles makes it an economically viable counter to modern missiles.  The downside is that the great speed of the projectiles ensures a very long range which, if the projectile misses, makes it a potential friendly fire hazard for ships and aircraft much further downrange as opposed to the relatively very limited range of a Phalanx CIWS, for instance.

We see, then, that a railgun is akin to a sniper weapon.  It’s great for specific, fixed targets but suffers from significant limitations due to its non-explosive characteristic and inability to be guided.  A railgun could supplement and complement a conventional gun but it can’t totally replace it.

(1) Navy Times, "CNO wants more high-tech assets, delivered quickly", Lance M. Bacon, 4-Feb-2015,

Saturday, February 7, 2015

F-35, Next Gen Fighter, and ISR

Setting aside the many problems the F-35 has encountered during its development and is still struggling to overcome, there remains a key, central fact:  the aircraft is not a fighter plane.  Its aerial prowess was always predicated on its stealth and superior situational awareness through the 360 degree sensor fusion and magic helmet.  As such, the aircraft is less a fighter and more of an aerial sniper.  There’s nothing wrong with that as long as the enabling characteristics of stealth and sensor fusion remain effective.  Absent those, the aircraft is a mediocre air-to-air performer and would match up poorly with the Chinese aircraft currently under development.

Unfortunately, time is slowly rendering the stealth aspect less powerful.  When it was conceived, two decades ago, the degree of stealth the aircraft possesses would have been quite effective.  Now, that moderate level of stealth is becoming less and less effective as advances in radars, data processing, multi-node sensing, and alternate detection methods (EO, IR, etc.) have occurred and continue to advance.

And, of course, the sensor fusion and magic helmet have, so far, failed utterly.  This technology may or may not ever come to fruition.

The Navy’s F-35, the F-35C, is slated to achieve initial operating capability in a few years.  What will the Navy have at that point?  Well, barring a major breakthrough with the sensor fusion issue, they won’t have a world beating, aerial supremacy fighter.  Instead, they’ll have a somewhat stealthier version of the Hornet – nice, to be sure, but limited compared to the enemy aircraft that will be appearing at the same time.

Side note:  Have you ever considered what would happen if two perfect stealth aircraft engaged?  Neither could see the other on radar and neither could lock its weapons on the other.  They’d be reduced to a WWI, eyeballs only dogfight!  Does that suggest anything to us about design characteristics?  But, I digress …

So, what can the Navy do with a mediocre strike fighter especially when it looks like the Navy won’t get anywhere near the numbers it needs.  Of course, the Navy gives every appearance of not even wanting the F-35 so the lack of numbers may not be viewed as a problem by the Navy!  So, again, what does the Navy do with a relative handful of mediocre F-35s?

Well, what capability of the F-35 is the Navy actually touting?  It’s the sensors, situational awareness, and communications.  It appears that the Navy may be planning on using the F-35 not for its combat capabilities but for its ISR and command/control (C2) capabilities.  Whether its collecting and relaying sensor images to other ships and aircraft, controlling UAVs, acting as a mini-AWACS, providing communications relays, or designating targets for other shooters, the F-35’s value to the Navy may be as a non-combatant.  In fact, given the Navy’s budget woes and inherent lack of interest, this may be the best use the Navy can make of the F-35. 

In order to continue the discussion, let’s assume that this premise is correct.

Now, what makes the F-35 successful in the ISR/C2 role?  Well, sensors, obviously.  The plane has to have the ability to “see” things.  Beyond that, though, the answer is stealth.  In the postulated role, the advantage of the F-35 is that it can penetrate deeply into enemy air space, clandestinely collect data that other sensors could not due to lack of proximity, and transmit the data to other platforms.  Simply put, stealth enables the ISR.

We just discussed the next generation fighter which seems to be emphasizing ISR (the full spectrum dominance, assuming I’m correct about what CNO meant by that).  However, while CNO seems to be emphasizing ISR he is simultaneously de-emphasizing stealth.  That being the case, how can the next generation fighter collect its data if it isn’t stealthy enough to penetrate enemy air space?

Remember, there are only two ways to collect data deep in enemy air space:  either utilize stealth to penetrate the space and clandestinely collect the data or vastly increase the individual sensor ranges and collect the data from long standoff distances.  Short of creating massively larger aircraft to mount massively larger sensors on, we can’t significantly increase current sensor ranges too much more and certainly not by many hundreds of miles.  That leaves stealthy penetration and clandestine data collection.  That being the case, it’s reasonable to ask why the next generation fighter will de-emphasize stealth if it’s intended to conduct deep penetration ISR.  Of course, one answer is that it is not intended to do that – that it is truly just an air superiority fighter with a secondary strike role.  I think that’s unlikely but it’s certainly possible.  The F-35 is envisioned as a deep penetration ISR asset so why wouldn’t the next generation fighter have at least the same capability?

We previously touched on the cost of the next generation fighter.  It won’t be cheap!  When it’s ready for production we may remember the F-35 fondly for its “low cost”!  This means that the next generation fighter won’t be acquired in great numbers.  Again, as with the F-35, this points to a specialized ISR role rather than combat.    – so what aircraft will perform our combat?  But, I digress …

There’s an inconsistency in the logic of this.  If the Navy sees the next generation fighter as a pure air superiority plane then the requirements they listed don’t seem to fit.  If the requirements are what they want then how do they plan to get the aircraft into a deep penetration position to conduct its ISR work without significant stealth?  This sounds like yet another Navy project that is going to be started without an underlying, thoroughly gamed out concept of operations (CONOPS).

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Next Generation Fighter

CNO Greenert and RAdm. Winter, speaking at the Naval Future Force Science and Technology Expo, have provided a glimpse at the desired characteristics of the next generation fighter (1).

“Greenert said it must have manned and unmanned capabilities and carry a spectrum of weapons. Stealth and speed are not top priorities; in fact, ‘stealth may be overrated,’ he said.”

“The fighter must have full spectrum dominance, autonomous sensor and payload integration and next-generation advanced propulsion, Winter [Rear Adm. Mat Winter, the Navy's new chief of naval research] said. What is that? ‘We will let you know when we get it,’ he said."

That’s absolutely fascinating.  So, here’s the list of requirements, as they described them.

  • Manned and unmanned
  • Full spectrum dominance
  • Autonomous sensor and payload integration
  • Next-generation advanced propulsion
  • Speed and stealth

Optionally Manned.  Frankly, I don’t get this one.  The concept of an unmanned aircraft is that it will be cheaper (that’s a highly debatable assumption that I think is false), somewhat simpler, and dedicated to long endurance or very high risk missions.  Making an aircraft that is optionally manned guarantees the full cost of a manned aircraft plus the added cost of the unmanned requirements (probably not much of an incremental cost, to be fair). 

While the ability to take the pilot out of the cockpit for extremely hazardous missions would be nice in theory, I really can’t see risking our absolute top of the line next generation fighter on the kind of suicidal missions that would warrant unmanned aircraft.  That’s what a simpler, cheaper, more expendable unmanned aircraft would be for.

Full Spectrum Dominance.  I assume full spectrum dominance refers to electronic warfare (EW) and represents a desire to move away from dedicated EW aircraft such as the Prowler/Growler and towards each aircraft providing its own EW support.  In concept, this is wonderful.  It addresses two issues related to dedicated EW aircraft:

Availability – there are very few EW aircraft in the inventory and there never seem to be enough when needed and where needed.  If EW is integrated into the fighter, we will have an unlimited number of EW aircraft (well, limited to the number of fighter aircraft) and they will always be on scene whenever a fighter is on scene.

Cost Effectiveness – EW aircraft are not only expensive in their own right but each EW aircraft represents one less fighter from a zero-sum budget perspective.  Combining the EW function with the fighter function would be highly cost effective.  Essentially, the EW electronics are the only thing that need to be paid for – the airframe is free in the sense that fighter airframe will exist anyway.  One airframe, two functions – that’s a great concept.

I also assume that full spectrum dominance goes beyond the traditional electronic warfare realm and includes cyber and communications warfare capability as well as intel and surveillance functions.  A full spectrum aircraft will be a mini-AWACS, mini-Reaper, mini-JSTARS, and, well, mini-everything.

Autonomous Sensor and Payload Integration.  I’m not quite sure what this refers to.  I assume it encompasses the F-35 360 degree sensor fusion concept as a baseline.  I further assume it goes well beyond that to include the ability to interface with any sensor on any platform, anywhere, and to seamlessly interface those sensors with the aircraft’s weapons. 

I also assume the autonomous portion of this requirement refers to the stated desire for an optionally manned aircraft.  When the aircraft is operating in unmanned mode, the control software will be able to select and use any appropriate sensor to best utilize any available weapon.

Advanced Propulsion.  I really have no idea what this is referring to.  My best guess is that it involves the Air Force’s adaptive jet engine technology efforts which are an attempt to produce a single engine that can operate in multiple modes such as high speed, high efficiency, or high endurance.  Wouldn’t it be great to have a single engine that can provide enormous range or high fuel efficiency or high speed, as desired? 

Speed and Stealth.  I find it fascinating that Greenert specifically addresses speed and stealth in the negative, in a sense.  It’s not surprising given his previous statements about stealth but to see it “codified” as a lesser requirement is, frankly, stunning given our obsession with stealth over the last few decades and the incredibly high value placed on the F-35’s stealth as the means to allow it to utilize its other magic capabilities.

OK, we’ve looked at the positives but what about the realities?

All of these capabilities are, essentially, non-existent.  We’ve seen what happens when we commit to production of non-existent technology – we get the LCS and F-35.  The lesson that the Navy should have learned is to pursue non-existent technologies as research projects, not as production programs.  If we repeat the mistakes of concurrent research and production we’ll wind up with a next generation fighter whose costs and delays will dwarf those of the F-35 or LCS.  It greatly troubles me that no one is discussing an interim, achievable, capable fighter to fill the gap until the next generation technologies are fully developed and ready for production.  We appear to be intent on repeating the F-35 and LCS fiascos.  I see another too-big-to-fail, no-other-option, fantasy aircraft program in the making.

Consider the desire to cram so many capabilities into a single airframe.  Expecting a fighter to be a fully functioning EW aircraft is analogous to wanting every infantryman to be his own artillery battery.  It’s a great concept but it’s just not practical with any technology we have or can foresee.  Further, unless the EW functions are completely automated, it’s asking too much of a single pilot to be an expert at air-to-air combat and an expert at EW, to say nothing of having to attempt to split time and attention in the middle of combat.

Finally, consider the cost of this aircraft.  Those fantasy technologies aren’t going to come cheaply, if at all.  We’re looking at a half a billion dollars per aircraft in today’s dollars.  What that means is that the numbers procured will be very small.  The last aircraft that cost that kind of money was truncated at around 20 units.  We’ve harped on this point repeatedly.  Numbers matter.  The logical extension of the path we’re on has us heading towards airwings consisting of one aircraft.  This path is a mistake. 

To sum up, there are some potentially good concepts associated with this next generation fighter but it depends almost exclusively on non-existent technology.  If we approach this as a research effort while fielding interim, capable aircraft, we’ll do fine.  If we turn this into another all-or-nothing production program before any of the technology is proven, we’ll produce yet another disaster.  It really is that simple.

(1) Navy Times, "CNO wants more high-tech assets, delivered quickly", Lance M. Bacon, 4-Feb-2015,

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Ford Costs, Accounting, and Construction

Note:  Thanks to reader Nick for pointing out this subject in one of his comments.

One of the things that has made comparing historical ship construction costs difficult is that the Navy has radically changed its accounting, funding, and construction practices over the last few decades and, in particular, engaged in some highly creative accounting practices in the last several years. 

The funding and construction of a ship used to be relatively straightforward:  a contract was awarded and the ship was built to completion and then delivered.  There was a post-delivery maintenance period but it was minor compared to the construction effort and was a separate budget item. 

Today, however, the Navy engages in creative funding, highly questionable accounting practices, and is accepting ships that have significant degrees of incomplete work and large portions of unfinished compartments.  The LPD-17 program saw the Navy accept LPD-17 with 1.1M man-hours of incomplete work, LPD-17 with 400K man-hours of incomplete work, and so on.  The ships were delivered unfinished and by a significant amount!  Similarly, the LCSs have been accepted unfinished.  The Navy is now looking to push further into this realm with the Ford class.  The GAO report sums it up (1).

"The extent to which the lead Ford-class ship, CVN 78, will be delivered by its current March 2016 delivery date and within the Navy’s $12.9 billion estimate is dependent on the Navy’s plan to defer work and costs to the post-delivery period.  … With the shipbuilder embarking on one of the most complex phases of construction with the greatest likelihood for cost growth, cost increases beyond the current $12.9 billion cost cap appear likely. In response, the Navy is deferring some work until after ship delivery to create a funding reserve to pay for any additional cost growth stemming from remaining construction risks. This strategy will result in the need for additional funding later, which the Navy plans to request through its post-delivery and outfitting budget account. However, this approach obscures visibility into the true cost of the ship and results in delivering a ship that is less complete than initially planned." [emphasis added]

The Navy is intentionally planning to accept an incomplete ship in order to get around the Congressionally mandated cost cap.  This practice is irresponsible, at best, certainly unethical in that it violates the intent of Congress and the spirit of the law, and borders on (or actually is) fraud.

Given that the post-delivery work is paid from a separate budget line item, it also hides the true cost of the ship, as pointed out in the report.

Congress is complicit in this, as well.  As a bit of background, Congress established a cost cap for the Ford of $10.5B in FY2007.  The cap has subsequently been raised by various means to the current cap of $12.9B.  A cap that is repeatedly raised to accommodate runaway costs is not really a cap, is it? 

The second Ford class, CVN-79, also has a cost cap of $11.5B.

"...the Navy continues to revise its acquisition strategy for CVN 79 in an effort to ensure that costs do not exceed the cost cap, by postponing installation of some systems until after ship delivery, and deferring an estimated $200 million - $250 million in previously planned capability upgrades of the ship’s combat systems to be completed well after the ship is operational. Further, if CVN 79 construction costs should grow above the legislated cost cap, the Navy may choose to use funding intended for work to complete the ship after delivery to cover construction cost increases. As with CVN 78, the Navy could choose to request additional funding through post-delivery budget accounts not included in calculating the ship’s end cost. Navy officials view this as an approach to managing the cost cap. However, doing so impairs accountability for actual ship costs."

It’s obvious that the final construction cost for the Ford will exceed $12.9B by a significant margin.  How much of that cost will be captured and reported as construction costs remains to be seen.  My estimate is that the final cost will be in the $15B-$17B range.

Let’s be clear about this.  The Navy has instituted an intentional practice of deferring work from construction to post-delivery, thereby accepting substantially incomplete ships, in an effort to obfuscate costs and bypass Congressional cost control efforts.  As with other recent questionable Navy practices, this is intended to accomplish by fraud what the Navy could not accomplish legitimately. 

Faced with runaway acquisition costs, the Navy has opted for deceit rather than rigorous program management. 

The Navy’s ability to execute an acquisition program and control costs is almost non-existent.  Worse, the games that the Navy is playing to get around cost caps and hide actual costs are costing them credibility with Congress.  Congress is the source of funding.  Losing credibility with Congress is not a viable long term path to success and we’re already seeing pushback from Congress on a variety of Navy issues. 

(1) United States Government Accountability Office, “Ford-Class Aircraft Carrier”, GAO-15-22, November 2014