Naval technology development processes were tuned finely over the past 170 years to deliver increasingly effective weapons to meet clearly defined, threat-based technology requirements. Now they must change focus. Successful technology development in the future will depend on the Navy's ability to manage the differences between external and internal technology "drivers." External drivers—the primary impetus for naval development since the 1830s—are initiated and moderated by real opponents with real physical, scientific, political, and financial constraints. External technology goals usually are realistic, long-term, and generally achievable—albeit with great effort.
National and naval leaders set internal technology goals. Although well intentioned, they are not necessarily achievable or consistent. "Cut costs by 20%," "use one hardware technology for all platforms," and "be more joint/commercial" are examples of current internal technology goal statements. As long as clear, substantive external technology drivers existed, internal technology goals usually were supportive of—or at least subservient to—more important external requirements.
But without a technical competitor, such as the Soviet Union, to set external goals, U.S. internal technology goals have become preeminent. Unrestrained by external drivers, they often are not consistent in the long term, and they change radically and quickly as political and military leaders come and go. Consequently, naval technology development processes that formerly developed responsive weapon systems to meet largely external goals have proved to be wasteful at best (and failures at worst) in striving to meet ever-changing, internally established objectives.
Consider the Aegis shipbuilding program in comparison to the battlespace dominance ships (Surface Combatant [SC]-21/DD-21/DDX) program. Aegis started in 1968 in response to an external technology requirement: fleet air defense. The first ship was procured in 1978 and delivered in 1983. Total development time required 10 years, and first-unit fielding took 15 years. Aegis's core mission never was revised; nor was the program restructured, despite major turnovers in defense and naval leadership from 1968 to 1983. The SC-21 program began in 1994 as a family of ships designed to meet a new internally developed naval requirement that called for enhanced surface combatant participation in littoral and land operations. After transitioning from SC-21 to DD-21 and then to the Zumwalt DD-21 concept using electric drive, the current DDX/littoral combat ship family of ships schedule procures the first DDX in 2005 and delivers it to the fleet in 2011. Thus, development will take 11 years to complete and the program's first ship will be delivered in 17 years. The program experienced major redirections and restructures with every change in defense and naval leadership since 1994.
Consider also the arsenal ship and nuclear-powered cruise-missile submarine (SSGN) programs. The arsenal ship was initiated in 1996 as a joint shipbuilding program designed to meet a radically new, internally defined combat mission. The first ship was slated to join the fleet in 2001. Twenty months after the program started, development was canceled following a change in Navy leadership. In 2001, following a change in national leadership, the Navy initiated the SSGN program, which had been under study for several years. The SSGN is another approach to the same internally defined combat mission envisioned for the arsenal ship. The first SSGN will reach the fleet in 2007—six years after the first arsenal ship was to have been commissioned.
Because of the mismatch between technology processes and technology objectives, the Navy is not fielding new systems and new ideas any faster, despite its best efforts. And slow or inconsistent development almost always drives up costs.
With the exception of three major external technology drivers—ballistic-missile defense, antiterrorism and force protection, and countering weapons of mass destruction—all foreseeable future naval technology drivers likely will be internal in nature. Because the few remaining external drivers are primarily national rather than naval, the level of Navy participation will be limited and determined by internal decisions.
Successful future naval technology development must be dominated by the Navy's ability to define and sustain realistic, long-term goals that are driven internally and can transcend leadership changes. "Sea Power 21" defines such an effort. At the same time, the Navy must accelerate its core technology development processes to make them responsive to the shorter cycle times and greater demands of growing internal technology requirements.
Captain Lewis is the Aegis shipbuilding program manager at the Program Executive Office for Ships in Washington, D.C.