In June 2019, the Navy released the request for proposals for the design and construction of the next-generation guided-missile frigate (FFG[X]). Its objectives are ambitious: “FFG(X) will have multi-mission capability to conduct air warfare, anti-submarine warfare, surface warfare, electronic warfare and information operations.” The acquisition strategy is equally daunting: “Offerors . . . must propose an FFG(X) design based on a parent ship design that has been through production and demonstrated in full scale at sea” (emphasis added). The plan envisions an award in fiscal year 2020 for one lead ship, with an option for nine additional ships.1
Pressure to restore force structure and the “business imperatives” of maintaining shipbuilding facilities and preserving the workforce will make exercising the option nearly irresistible, begging the question of how many ships will be on the building ways before it is known if the broad range of systems and capabilities envisioned in the solicitation can be effectively integrated into a hull whose size is already determined?
The near-inevitability of this scenario indicates the surface Navy is still locked in a post–Cold War pattern of committing to entire classes of combatants without first understanding what those ships can accomplish. Allowing itself to be stampeded into premature serial production has now brought the Navy to the plate to strike out three straight times. Will FFG(X) be the next acquisition failure, with more embarrassing headlines, and for which the Government Accountability Office (GAO) will again take the Navy to task?
“[T]he government must take control of our warfighting capability . . . abrogated when we restructured our defense industrial base at the end of the Cold War.”2 Well-intentioned but shortsighted efforts, resulting in mismanagement of the acquisition workforce (AWF) by both the Department of Defense and the Navy itself, have crippled the nation’s ability to properly build warships. Without the expertise and corporate memory of a competent AWF, the service is rudderless and at the mercy of the myriad external pressures that force mistakes—here, commitment to entire classes of ships before it understands what it is buying.
Dismantling the AWF actually began before the Cold War ended: “The 2010 DoD Strategic Human Capital Plan Update acknowledged that due to efforts to reduce Government and outsource tasks to civilian contractors, the . . . AWF decreased substantially (56 percent) between 1987 and 2004.”3 The Defense Department’s overzealous adherence to the mandate of “noncompetition” with the private sector pushed many contractors, now the Navy’s de facto business corporate memory, too close to the line that defines the “exercise of government function.”4 More to the point, through decades of a seemingly endless, perhaps quixotic quest for “acquisition reform,” recent shipbuilding debacles suggest the service has yet to fully develop the body of naval officers who are the public face and, with their civil service counterparts, the bedrock of effective procurement. Despite well-intentioned initiatives—the weapon system acquisition manager, matériel professional, and now the acquisition corps—this core competency remains elusive. The fundamental problem is that uniformed acquisition professionals, qualified through education and experience, also must remain competitive for promotion as unrestricted line officers.5 There rarely is enough time in an “up-or-out” career to achieve both.
There Was a Time
Faced with uncertainty, the Navy once turned to “one-offs”—prototypes or technology demonstrators—to evaluate capabilities and investigate operational concepts. Many achieved their objectives, while others—no less importantly—did not. Regardless, the lessons learned were essential to understanding what ultimately should be built. The practice originated more than a century ago at the birth of a new steel Navy and matured during the Cold War, sustaining progress in ship development throughout that period of great power competition.
This ability to prototype was possible largely because that Navy had greater “control” over shipbuilding decisions and therefore its warfighting capability. First and foremost, Navy engineers were engineers, not contract managers. Interbureau rivalries notwithstanding, the General Board, and later the Ship Characteristics Board (SCB), used the Navy’s well-established preliminary design capability to develop configuration studies and evaluate trade-offs. The Navy then could contract with independent firms (e.g., Gibbs & Cox) to prepare detailed designs for use by industry. The option to build prototypes in naval shipyards was available as leverage to induce private yards to participate.
Those advantages are mostly gone, and modern-day acquisition managers operate in a cost-constrained, risk-averse environment. The rise in innovation, best exemplified by the evolving role of unmanned platforms, further complicates the job. The rate of technological advancement might be matched only by the rate of imposition of “processes du jour,” through which acquisition now must be managed. In the absence of expertise, has process compliance become the measure of acquisition effectiveness? As noted, some prototypes did not achieve their stated objectives. Today, these results would generate immense negative publicity. Has the Navy been conditioned to avoid risk because it chooses not to defend a perceived “failure”?
The service can learn from past experience. Between 1885 and 1889, the Navy commissioned four new steel ships: the protected cruisers Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago and the dispatch vessel Dolphin. That these “transformational” prototypes—the ABCDs—operated in a “Squadron of Evolution” was clear acknowledgment that the Navy was charting a new course; within a few years the Spanish-American War and the Great White Fleet would demonstrate that the United States was now a world-class naval power.6 The period following World War I brought both challenges and opportunities, largely driven by the revolution in naval aviation. The Navy quickly converted a collier and two incomplete battlecruisers to carriers and built a fourth from the keel up. The annual Fleet Problems revealed how to realize their potential, showing what future carrier designs should—or should not—incorporate, leading, via Yorktown, to Essex.7 Years of destroyer and submarine evolution produced the Fletcher and Gato classes; with the Essex, these were the “mobilization-ready” designs that won World War II.
During the subsequent Cold War, the Navy inarguably made its best use of prototyping. Lessons learned in combat, wartime scientific discoveries, and the Soviet threat combined to yield a period of great innovation and many significant one-offs. The best known was the USS Nautilus (SSN-571, 1954); though experimental, she served 26 years in the fleet. The National Academy of Sciences proposed an experiment to explore control problems expected in future high-speed submarines, and designers were given a “free hand to pursue speed . . . though it might be entirely unsuited to operational service.” The resulting USS Albacore (SS-569, 1953) provided the hull form that, when married with nuclear power and the spherical bow sonar demonstrated in another prototype (the USS Tullibee [SSN-597, 1960]), established the configuration for all future fast-attack subs.8
The submariners were not alone. The USS Long Beach (CGN-9, 1961) was the first guided-missile cruiser built from the keel up. The USS Norfolk (CLK-1, 1953) was an antisubmarine warfare (ASW) “killer” and ASW system test bed.9 Though the Norfolk, like the Long Beach, proved too large and expensive to repeat, she nonetheless provided valuable insights. The USS Enterprise (CVAN-65, 1961) prototyped the nuclear carrier; while it would be 14 years before the next would commission, the result would be the successful Nimitz class.
Conversions answered more questions. The Gearing-class destroyer USS Timmerman (DD-828) tested high-pressure and -temperature steam plants that powered succeeding generations of combatants. Conversion of her sister, the USS Gyatt (DD-712), into the first guided-missile destroyer revealed the limitations of existing hulls for the “G-ship” role, leaving them available for the critical ASW mission. Numerous ASW modifications were evaluated for the postwar escort fleet, coalescing in time to the Fleet Rehabilitation and Modernization (FRAM) program for the Gearing- and Alan M. Sumner-class destroyers.10 For nearly 40 years, the USS Norton Sound (AVM-11) served as the primary test platform for missile programs such as Terrier and Tartar. She received the first shipboard installations of the Aegis and vertical launch systems and was the only seagoing test platform required for the Aegis program. Before committing to the sea control ship (SCS), a key element of Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo Zumwalt’s “hi-low” mix, the USS Guam (LPH-9) was configured as an interim SCS. Rigorous trials failed to prove the concept, and the SCS was never built.
Just as the ABCDs pioneered a Squadron of Evolution, a task force formed to develop measures to counter the kamikaze became the Operational Development Force (OpDevFor). Ships assigned ranged from the venerable USS Wyoming (BB-32), to the surrendered German Type XXI U-boat U-3008, to destroyer conversions proposed as solutions to the ASW problem posed by Type XXI. Unfortunately, once OpDevFor became the shore-based Operational Test and Evaluation Force, the surface forces, unlike Submarine Development Squadron 12 and the Air Test and Evaluation Squadrons (VXs), maintained no permanently assigned units dedicated to tactical development, relying on ad hoc projects whose lessons were quickly lost. There may be light at the end of that tunnel: The Pacific Fleet’s Surface Development Squadron One will support “experimentation to accelerate delivery of new warfighting concepts and capabilities to the fleet.”11
Shipbuilding Strikes Out
The Soviet threat evaporated overnight, and with it the “blue-water” Maritime Strategy. It was replaced by “From the Sea” and successor strategies, built around vague littoral warfare missions and lacking focus (beyond inserting special forces somewhere) on what the Navy would do in those littorals and in whose littorals it was going to do it. In responding to new mission statements, the Navy failed to heed the lessons of years of innovation and many prototypes and conversions. This failure—three straight strikeouts, the result of ignorance of those lessons—is particularly painful, given GAO’s finding that “[t]he change in threat to national security from the collapse of the Soviet Union’s alliance system reduces the justification for concurrent development and production of major weapon systems and supports the Packard Commission’s acquisition strategy that favors the increased use of prototypes.” The Weapon System Reform Act of 2009 further mandated competitive prototyping of major acquisition programs.12
Strike one was the Cyclone-class patrol combatant (PC), primarily intended to support special operations. Nine of a planned 16 had been laid down before the first was commissioned; the program was halted at 13 ships when the Navy concluded the PC was too large for its planned inshore role.13
The littoral combat ship (LCS) was next. Conceptualized as “transformational” with tailored “mission modules,” it was projected to be a class of 35, starting with two competitive designs. LCS was to be “a fast, agile, mission-focused platform designed for operation in near-shore environments yet capable of open-ocean operation . . . designed to defeat asymmetric ‘anti-access’ threats.”14 Nineteen are in commission, with nine more under construction. GAO reported, “The Navy planned to experiment . . . to determine its preferred design variant . . . this experimentation strategy was abandoned. . . . Whereas acquisition best practices embrace a ‘fly before you buy’ approach, the Navy has subscribed to . . . buy before you fly . . . business imperatives . . . have outweighed the need to demonstrate knowledge, such as technology maturation, design, and testing . . . despite an unclear understanding of the capability the ships will ultimately . . . provide.”15 The Director, Operational Test and Evaluation FY 2017 Annual Report also contained extensive comments, many of them critical, regarding numerous aspects of LCS and its mission packages.16 As these shortcomings continue to mount, the urgency to proceed with the FFG(X) will increase, an admission of the failure of LCS. Strike two.
After years of study to define the next major surface combatant, the Navy approved the design that became the USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000), laying down the lead ship in 2011. Units two and three quickly followed. The Zumwalt class was to be “the largest and most technologically advanced surface combatant in the world . . . performing a range of deterrence, power projection, sea control, and command and control missions. . . . Stealthy, powerful, and lethal, the [class will] bridge from current needs to future capabilities . . . accommodating systems not yet imagined but designed to counter adversaries that challenge us now and in the decades to come.”17 In October 2018 the Congressional Research Service reported that the Navy had halted procurement at three ships after determining its “destroyer procurement now needed to emphasize three missions: open-ocean antisubmarine warfare (ASW), countering anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), and countering ballistic missiles” and that an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer “could perform these three missions adequately and would be less expensive.” Beyond a return to classical destroyer missions, the cost growth of the new-design 155-mm advanced gun system and its rocket-assisted guided projectile very likely contributed to the demise of the Zumwalt class. In November 2016 it was reported that the Navy had decided to cancel procurement of the gun because the projected cost per round had risen to at least $800,000.18 Apparently, there was no one who could recall the lesson of the 8-inch major-caliber lightweight gun.
If there was ever a need for a one-off, the Zumwalt was it. Instead, it was strike three.
To reach the National Defense Strategy’s goal of “achieving a more lethal, resilient and agile force by pursuing acquisition strategies to build ships more quickly and affordably,” the Navy’s shipbuilding program cannot keep striking out.19 The service needs a new lineup and game plan. Acquisition expertise must come back in-house with a workforce that can do the job. Process compliance and accountability in contract administration are only the means. Results matter, and the Navy is not getting them.
One of the great losses in outsourcing expertise was the invaluable preliminary design function of the Naval Sea Systems Command; therefore, it should come as no surprise that while the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer’s preliminary design was accomplished in-house, it was not for LCS or the Zumwalt class.20 Acquisition strategies must acknowledge the differences between evolutionary progress and revolutionary opportunity. Facing the latter, prototyping is essential. A prototype Zumwalt would have been expensive, but it would have taught valuable lessons, including the need for clarity in mission definition. Finally, if achieving effective acquisition means that the competent acquisition corps officer is not competitive in the unrestricted line, the Navy should accept reality and implement a more pragmatic career path. If quality and “waterfront credibility” are the ostensible goals, delivering a ship that actually works should be a more than adequate demonstration.
Some will claim prototyping is unaffordable, but given the PC, LCS, and Zumwalt experiences, that argument has little merit. By summoning the courage to resist the pressures that force embarrassing “buy-in” decisions and returning to prototyping—starting with FFG(X)—the Navy can begin to restore its shipbuilding credibility.
Will prototyping restore force structure more quickly? No. Will we get there with better ships? Almost certainly. The Navy cannot continue building the wrong ships in the wrong way; a century of experience reveals that the old way might actually be the better way.
1. Public Affairs, Program Executive Officer Unmanned and Small Combatants, “U.S. Navy Releases RFP for Guided-Missile Frigate Contract,” 21 June 2019, www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=109976.
2. Scott O’Neil, “A New Approach to Tactical Weapon Systems,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 142, no. 2 (February 2016): 57.
3. Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, Department of Defense Acquisition Workforce Strategic Plan: FY 2016–FY 2021, 4, www.hci.mil/docs/DoD_Acq_Workforce_Strat_Plan_FY16_FY21.pdf.
4. Valerie Grasso, John Luckey, and Kate Manuel, Inherently Governmental Functions and Department of Defense Operations: Background, Issues, and Options for Congress (Congressional Research Service, 22 June 2009), 5, www.crs.gov R40641.
5. Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition, Department of Navy (DON) Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act (DAWIA) Operating Guide (7 December 2017), 46, www.secnav.navy.mil/rda/workforce/documents/2017-don-dawia-operating-guide.pdf. See also CAPT Daniel B. Francis and CAPT Robin J. Walther, USMC, “A Comparative History of Department of Defense Management Reform from 1947 to 2005” (master’s thesis, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, 2006), https://calhoun.nps.edu/handle/10945/10068.
6. Norman Friedman, U.S. Cruisers: An Illustrated Design History (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984), 20.
7. Norman Friedman, U.S. Aircraft Carriers: An Illustrated Design History (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1983), 47.
8. Norman Friedman, U.S. Submarines Since 1945: An Illustrated Design History (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994), 56, 102.
9. Norman Friedman, U.S. Destroyers: An Illustrated Design History (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1982), 258.
10. Friedman, U.S. Destroyers, 285.
11. Commander, Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, “Navy Leadership Accelerates Lethality with Newly Designated Surface Development Squadron,” 23 May 2019, www.public.navy.mil/surfor/surfdevron/Pages/Navy-Leadership-Accelerates-Lethality-with-Newly-Designated-Surface-Development-Squadron.aspx.
12. U.S. General Accounting Office, Acquisition Reform—Implementing Defense Management Review Initiatives (Washington, DC: 8 August 1991), 5. See also Weapons Systems Acquisition Reform Act of 2009, Pub. L. No. 111-23,120 Stat. 2320 (2009).
13. A. D. Baker III, The Naval Institute Guide to Combat Fleets of the World 1998–1999 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998), 1031.
14. “U.S. Navy Fact File Littoral Combat Ship Class—LCS,” 5 March 2019, www.navy.mil/navydata/fact_display.asp?cid=4200&tid=1650&ct=4.
15. Littoral Combat Ship and Frigate: Congress Faced with Critical Acquisition Decisions, Testimony before the Senate Comm. on Armed Services, 114th Cong. 2nd Sess. (2016) (statement of Paul L. Francis, managing director, Acquisition and Sourcing Management, United States Government Accountability Office), www.gao.gov/products/GAO-17-262T.
16. Director, Operational Test & Evaluation, FY 2017 Annual Report (Washington, DC: January 2018), 191, https://news.usni.org/2018/01/25/pentagons-director-operational-test-evaluation-2017-annual-report.
17. “U.S. Navy Fact File Destroyers—DDG,” 23 January 2019, www.navy.mil/navydata/fact_display.asp?cid=4200&tid=900&ct=4.
18. Ronald O’Rourke, Navy DDG-51 and DDG-1000 Destroyer Programs: Background and Issues for Congress (Congressional Research Service, 17 May 2019), 9, www.crs.gov RL32109.
19. Program Executive Office, Unmanned and Small Combatants, Public Affairs, “U.S. Navy Releases RFP for Guided-Missile Frigate Contract,” press release, 21 June 2019.
20. Norbert Doerry, Naval Sea Systems Command (SEA-05T), “Preliminary and Contract Design” (presentation, CPES Design Tools and Methodology Roundtable, Potomac, MD, 16-17 March 2016), www.doerry.org/norbert/papers/papers.htm.