Factors such as standard weapon sizes, computer-aided design and machining, modular shipbuilding, better steel, new materials, and quality control have made modern industry more capable of rapidly designing and building a superior product than at any other time in history. But current commercial hull, propulsion, and electrical systems are generations ahead of even the most ambitious military designs. If U.S. Navy personnel had the freedom and ability to apply contemporary technology and organizational thought, the resulting culture of innovation would allow the service to rapidly outpace any competitor.
Everything the U.S. Navy needs to not only maintain but significantly improve its competitive advantage is literally at the fingertips of its personnel. Books such as Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions and Clayton M. Christenson’s The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way You Do Business propose novel courses of action that could be applied to shipbuilding and acquisition. As Tom Kelly, the founder of the design and innovation firm Ideo, has said: “All good working definitions of innovation pair ideas with action.”1 But for a cycle of innovation to begin, those attempting to be inventive must receive feedback on the actions they take.
Enhancing Existing Designs
I highly recommend shopping for a car online, even if you don’t ultimately purchase it. Starting with a basic model, customers can add everything from the type of engine to interior fabric, so they not only maximize their budget but feel personal ownership of the final product. At the Nissan plant near the Yokosuka Naval Station, I saw the factory side of this process: Different models and various packages for the same model flowed down the line, each with its own list of accessories to be added to the common frame. While there were enough options to make every car unique and satisfy each customer, there was also enough commonality to make production profitable and quality repeatable.
The U.S. Navy could apply this concept to ships. I spent 27 months and four deployments as the executive officer of the high-speed catamaran HSV-2 Swift, an excellent example of how money can be saved by using a sea frame. The concept itself is similar to several cars sharing a common frame and power train in that the basic hull, propulsion, and electrical system can be shared and the superstructures modified to produce the required capabilities.2 To build the Swift, the Incat shipyard used its standard 322-foot catamaran sea frame as well as its standard equipment, which can be supported worldwide and included hulls, engines, water jets, generators, air conditioners, a vehicle ramp and deck, refrigeration, a galley, mess deck, forward seating, and heads, as well as all of the maneuvering, navigation, and engineering controls in the pilothouse. The only custom items necessary were the flight deck, hangar for two MH-60–sized helicopters, flight-deck firefighting equipment, and helicopter control tower, which replaced the aft end of what would have been passenger seating.
An industry-standard crane capable of launching and recovering 36-foot rigid-hull inflatable boats, SEAL delivery vehicles, and the autonomous mission packages planned for the littoral combat ship (LCS) was added on the stern. Five stations to support LCS mission modules were added in the mission bay/vehicle deck. The midships passenger seating area was reconfigured for a secure video teleconference room, crew berthing, troop berthing, a SIPR/NIPR/CENTRIX room, and secure information-technology spaces for the customer-provided communications gear, Tactical Air Navigation System, and 400 hz for helicopter-embarkation support. Various .50-caliber machine-gun mounts were added for overlapping 360-degree coverage, and a forward weapon station mounted a 25-mm cannon and 40-mm automatic grenade launcher similar to the setup on Cyclone-class coastal patrol ships. (If it had been legal to purchase the Swift, the Navy could have done so for not much more than the $50 million it spent to lease it for the initial five years.)
Incat also offers a short-takeoff and vertical-landing version of its 367-foot, 1,400 deadweight-ton car ferry, which is the next size up from the Swift. Incat’s joint high-speed vessel (JHSV) proposal was essentially a 367-foot version of the Swift that increased her deadweight capacity from 630 to 1,400 tons while retaining all of her other capabilities.3 One of the best features of the sea-frame concept is that custom items such as a flight deck only add months to the production time line of a proven and worldwide supportable system—compare that to the almost two decades it requires to take a regular warship, even an amphib such as the USS San Antonio (LPD-17), from concept to first deployment. (Meanwhile, the Swift was under way for U.S. Central Command at 36 knots the first day of her lease.)
Deadweight is the total carrying capacity of a vessel, found by subtracting the displacement of the empty ship from the displacement at maximum designed draft. A full load of fuel, F-76 and J-P5, for an FFG or JHSV is approximately 150,000 gallons, or 500 tons. The winner of the JHSV contract, the Austal 334-foot boat, has a similar deadweight capacity to the Swift. While a CH-53E Super Stallion can land and take off from the JHSV, the latter lacks the hangar and support facilities to support the embarkation of an aviation detachment. Both the Swift and JHSV allow vehicles as heavy as the 70-ton M1A2 Abrams tank to roll on and off the vehicle ramp. However, it would have been nice if the JHSV, benefiting from ten years of experience with the Swift, could have had a ramp capable of launching amphibious assault vehicles. This could have helped to solve the U.S. Marine Corps’ lift shortage, as six JHSVs cost the same amount as one LPD-17.
If the U.S. Navy embraced innovative concepts, it could save significant money on new vessels. For example, the opulent transatlantic ocean liner RMS Queen Mary 2 is larger and more seaworthy than an aircraft carrier and has a more sophisticated engineering plant than the Zumwalt-class destroyer does. The luxury liner was designed, built, delivered, and able to transport customers within two years of the signing of her $780 million contract. Thus it seems fair to assume that the U.S. Navy could obtain a troop ship one-third the size of the Queen Mary 2 that holds one-quarter the amount of passengers—and lacks sophisticated combat systems—at a similar price or even significantly cheaper.4 The mobile landing platform, now referred to as an ESD, was estimated to cost $1.3 billion, but was delivered by General Dynamics National Steel and Shipbuilding Company (NASSCO) for $496 million in 2013.5 NASSCO achieved this by modifying one of its existing designs, a 185,000–deadweight ton double-hulled crude-oil tanker delivered in 2006 for $210 million.6 As NASSCO has the afloat forward staging base (ESB) and at-sea cargo transfer (ESD) ship designs of this hull, we can consider the ESD and ESB ships to come from a common sea frame.
According to Clayton Christenson, “Middle managers—acting in both their own and the company’s interest—tend to back those projects for which market demand seems most assured. They then work to package the proposals for their chosen projects in ways geared to win senior management approval.”7 Feedback and applying lessons learned to the next iteration of the prototyping process is crucial to innovation.8 However, these opportunities are often overlooked.
Halfway through the Swift’s first five-year lease, for example, an analyst from the LCS Program Office came aboard to watch us launch and recover 23-foot RHIBs in the Southern Philippines. She witnessed some of the 30 embarked U.S. Marines conduct an exercise takedown of the Swift’s RHIB from RHIBs operated by an embarked mobile-security detachment and aided by the embarked SH-60 detachment of 25 personnel. When I pointed out that all of these people when combined with the core crew would exceed the berthing on board the LCS, and that maritime interception was to be one of LCS’ capabilities, she replied that her assignment was to observe boat operations only. On another occasion when two former Marines from the JHSV Program Office visited, I explained how the Swift and JHSV could be used as an arsenal ship capable of firing hundreds of Tomahawk land-attack missiles or Army Tactical Missiles. However, they said they were only there to see the mission bay/vehicle deck and promptly departed.
I also discovered that the Swift’s car ferry mess deck and adjoining seating areas worked quite well for the standard 100-guest shipboard receptions, which saved tens of thousands of dollars in tent rental and catering fees. Her messing and berthing arrangements, along with her ability to embark a helicopter detachment, easily could have been part of the JHSV. These were not disruptive technologies, but common sense requirements that would have significantly increased platform utility and return on investment. The exclusion of all or some of these in the JHSV and LCS further indicate that our current development cycle is an open instead of closed-loop process.
The Swift and JHSV could act as ballistic-missile defense or strike platforms, freeing the much more expensive and less sustainable cruisers and destroyers to support the carrier strike group. NASA personnel visiting the Swift in Port Canaveral once came aboard with tape measures and electrical load requirements to see if she could support their shuttle-tracking radar. This would have worked, as their radar was portable and could have been moved to the flight deck with the catamaran’s crane. Only the return of NASA’s tracking ship to full mission capability prevented the Swift from conducting the mission. With the JHSV, we have an inexpensive ship with a small crew capable of using its organic crane to embark radar capable of tracking space objects and firing SM-3 or greater-sized missiles. It has generous topside space for additional communications antennae and a huge mission bay optimized for containerized mission packages. It burns less than 1 percent of its fuel a day while loitering, can embark chilled and frozen shipping containers to support months on station, and is difficult to hit with torpedoes.
Solving The Innovator’s Dilemma
According to The Innovator’s Dilemma, the most successful methodology for bringing a disruptive technology to market is to create a small organization just for that technology instead of trying to integrate it into a larger organization.9 With this construct in mind, the best way to leverage the JHSV as a combatant would be to empower a destroyer squadron to be innovative with both development and employment. Using the JHSV as a frigate would require crewing it with Navy personnel instead of civilians. Once the innovation started, the Navy crew and commissioned-ship status would significantly broaden the combat roles for the ship. Using a regular Navy crew would also remove several of the contract limitations that hinder the JHSV’s noncombat roles.
In the spirit of competition, an amphibious squadron should also be allowed to go beyond the traditional procurement path to provide the amphibious capability required by Marine Corps Order 3120.9C and traditionally lifted by the combination of a landing helicopter dock (LHD), landing platform dock (LPD), and landing ship dock (LSD). The latest LHD, LPD, and projected LSD replacement cost a combined $10 billion. The aircraft carrier–sized Queen Mary 2 has a more sophisticated engineering plant than the Zumwalt and was designed and built for less than $800 million. The new mobile landing platform displaces 90 percent of an aircraft carrier and is less than $500 million. High-speed car ferries that have a capacity of 1,400 deadweight tons can be purchased new for less than $100 million. Will the LSD replacement, LX(R), benefit from new technology and new thinking to meet operational requirements for less? According to USNI News, “The range of options in the LX(R) [Analysis of Alternatives] include an entirely new ship, a variant of the existing LPD-17 design and foreign amphibious ships.”10
Industry players that control many of the items required for final-production warships as well as strike and amphibious groups could significantly shorten the development cycle by keeping the process in-house. According to Richard Whittle, the development process of the V-22 Osprey was hampered by friction among Bell, Boeing, and the program office.11 Bell wanted to build the AW-609 (which can now be purchased from AgustaWestland), but Marines feared that a 12-passenger tilt-rotor, despite having double the range and speed of the Blackhawk, would not justify the expected 50-percent price increase, so they stipulated that the V-22 would have to carry two squads. As a tilt-rotor can lift significantly more with a rolling start, the aircraft would have had to be able to conduct those from the deck of an LHA/D. The imposed width limitations resulted in wing and rotor loading significantly greater than Bell envisioned. Additionally, being forced to use engines heavier and less fuel-efficient than those preferred by the designers led to a significant increase in development time and unit cost while narrowing the margin of safety. This could have been avoided if the decision makers and lead designers had worked together instead of in parallel stovepipes.
Because it would be politically impossible and undesirable to give an entire shipbuilding program to one company, I suggest implementing “the NASCAR approach.” Racing teams constantly improve their products and generate tremendous loyalty. If each of the defense conglomerates had a carrier and expeditionary strike group, including the squadrons operating JHSVs, other sea-frame ships, and logistics forces, the Navy could look like the starting grid of a race with a handful of highly competitive team players and hopefully an even bigger fan base.
Like racing, certain things would be standardized such as fuel, launcher, and communications compatibility. Everything else would be open to innovation, with battle-group competitions validating what works the best, what works well enough at the best price, and what doesn’t work. As company reputation and unit pride would be on the line, and groups would have the latitude to change and improve within a set budget, I am confident that many solutions would be reached more quickly than they currently are. Standard sizes and open architecture would also allow new companies to design products and weapons without having to start from scratch, saving time and money. The ability of both operators and designers to take action on new ideas or to correct mistakes would cement the innovation cycle.
1. Tom Kelley and Jonathan Littman, The Ten Faces of Innovation: IDEO’s Strategies for Beating the Devil’s Advocate & Driving Creativity throughout Your Organization (New York: Currency/Doubleday, 2005), 6.
2. Conrad Waters, Seaforth World Naval Review 2015 (Yorkshire, UK: Seaforth, 2014), 150.
3.“Incat Sea Frame,” 1 July 2014, www.incat.com.au/domino/incat/incatweb.nsf/v-title/Seaframe?OpenDocument.
4. Philip Plisson, Guillaume Plisson, Gwen-Haël Denigot, and Eric Flounders, Queen Mary 2: The Birth of a Legend (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2004) 9.
5. Conrad Waters, Seaforth World Naval Review 2015 (Yorkshire, UK: Seaforth, 2014), 152.
6. “Incat 112 Meter,” 1 July 2014, www.incat.com.au/domino/incat/incatweb.nsf/0/A283856779A561B4CA2571AF0019EDE5?OpenDocument.
7. Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma (New York: Harper-Collins, 2006), 95.
8. Kelley and Littman, The Art of Innovation, 6–7.
9. Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma, 113–14.
10. Sam LaGrone, “Cost Continues To Drive Quest For Next Amphib,” USNI News, 29 July 2014, http://news.usni.org/2014/07/28/cost-continues-drive-quest-next-amphib?utm_source=US.
11. Richard Whittle, The Dream Machine: The Untold History of the Notorious V-22 Osprey (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010).
Commander Brodie is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and Naval Postgraduate School. He is a career surface warfare officer who has served on board a wide range of combatants, including the HSV-2 Swift, and has deployed to every fleet area of operations.