One of the most audacious and bold manifestos for the future of naval innovation recently was posted by the rear admiral who heads up the Office of Naval Research. It may be the hedge the United States needs to deter China in the South China Sea.
While You Were Out
In the two decades since 9/11, while the United States was fighting al Qaeda and ISIS, China built new weapons and developed new operational concepts to negate U.S. military strengths. It built intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with conventional warheads to hit U.S. aircraft carriers. It converted reefs in international waters into air bases, creating unsinkable aircraft carriers that extend the range of its aircraft and are armed with surface-to-air missiles that make it dangerous to approach China’s mainland and Taiwan.
To evade U.S. fleet air defense systems, China armed its missiles with maneuvering warheads, and to reduce U.S. reaction time, it developed missiles that travel at hypersonic speed.
The sum of these Chinese offset strategies means that, in the South China Sea, the United States is now challenged to deter a war, because it can no longer guarantee it can win one.
This does not bode well for U.S. treaty allies Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea. Control of the South China Sea would allow China to control fishing operations and oil and gas exploration; to coerce other countries bordering in the region; to enforce an air defense identification zone over the South China Sea; or to enforce a blockade around Taiwan or invade it.
What To Do About It?
Today, the U.S. Navy has aircraft carriers, submarines, surface combatants, aircraft, and sensors on and under the sea and in space. The plan to counter China can be summed up as “more of the same, but better and more tightly integrated.”
This might be the right strategy. However, what if it is not? What if assumptions about the survivability of these naval platforms and the ability of U.S. Marines to operate, were based on incorrect assumptions about U.S. investments in material, operational concepts, and mental models?
If so, it might be prudent for the Navy to have a hedge strategy. Think of a hedge as a “just in case” strategy. It turns out the Navy had one in World War II. And it won the war in the Pacific.
War Plan Orange
In the 1930s, U.S. war planners thought about a future war with Japan. The result was War Plan Orange, centered on the idea that, ultimately, U.S. battleships would engage the Japanese fleet in a gunnery battle, which the United States would win.
Unfortunately, Japan did not adhere to the plan. It was bolder and more imaginative than were U.S. planners. Instead of battleships, it attacked with aircraft carriers. The United States woke up on 7 December 1941 with most of its battleships sitting on the bottom of Pearl Harbor. A core precept of War Plan Orange went to the bottom with them.
But the portfolio of options available to the Navy and the President were not limited to battleships. They had a hedge strategy in place in case battleships were not the solution. The hedges? Aircraft carriers and submarines. While its primary interwar investment was in battleships, the Navy also had made substantial alternative investments—in aircraft carriers and submarines. It launched the first aircraft carrier in 1920. For the next two decades it ran fleet exercises with them. At the beginning of World War II, the U.S. Navy had seven aircraft carriers and one aircraft escort vessel. By the end of the war, the United States had built 111 carriers (24 fleet carriers, 9 light carriers and 78 escort carriers). Twelve were sunk.
As it turned out, it was carriers, submarines, and the Marines who won the Pacific conflict.
The Current Plan
Fast forward to today. For the past 80 years the carriers in a carrier strike group and submarines have been the preeminent platforms for U.S. naval warfare.
China has been watching the U.S. Navy operate and fight in this way for decades. But what if carrier strike groups can no longer win a fight? What if the United States is underestimating China’s capabilities, intents, imagination, and operating concepts? What if China can disable or destroy U.S. strike groups (with cyber, conventionally armed ICBMs, cruise missiles, hypersonics, drones, submarines, etc.)? If that is a possibility, what is the Navy’s 21st-century hedge? What is its Plan B?
Here is where this conversation gets interesting. While analysts have opinions, think tanks have opinions, and civilians in the Pentagon have opinions, Rear Admiral Lorin Selby, Chief of the Office of Naval Research (ONR), has more than just an opinion. ONR is the Navy’s science and technology systems command. Its job is to see over the horizon and think about what is possible. Selby previously was deputy commander of Naval Sea Systems Command and commander of the Naval Surface Warfare Centers. As the chief engineer of the Navy, he was the master of engineering the large and the complex.
What follows is a paraphrasing of Rear Admiral Selby’s thinking about a hedge strategy the Navy needs and how it should get there.
A hedge strategy is built on the premise that you invest in different things, not more or better versions of the same.
If you glance at Navy force structure today and its plan for the next decade, you might say the service has a diversified portfolio and a plan for more. The Navy has aircraft carriers, submarines, surface combatants, and many types of aircraft. And it plans for a distributed fleet architecture, including 321 to 372 manned ships and 77 to 140 large, unmanned vehicles.
But it is equally accurate to say this is not a diversified portfolio, because all these assets share many of the same characteristics:
• They are large compared to their predecessors.
• They are expensive—to the point that the Navy cannot afford the number of platforms force structure assessments suggest it needs.
• They are multimission and therefore complex.
• The system-to-system interactions to create these complex integrations drive up cost and manufacturing lead times.
• Long manufacturing lead times mean they have no surge capacity.
• They are acquired on a requirements model that lags operational identification of need by years—sometimes decades, when you fold in construction span times for some of these complex capabilities, such as carriers or submarines.
• They are difficult to modernize. The ability to update the systems on board these platforms, even the software systems, still takes years to accomplish.
If the primary asset of the U.S. fleet now and in the future is the large and the complex, then surely there must be a hedge, a Plan B somewhere?
In fact, there is not. The Navy has demoed alternatives, but there is no force structure built on a different set of principles that would complicate China’s plans and create doubt in U.S. adversaries about whether they could prevail in a conflict.
The Hedge Strategy
In a world where the large and the complex are either too expensive to generate en masse or potentially too vulnerable to put at risk, “the small, the agile, and the many” has the potential to define the future of Navy formations.
The Navy needs formations composed of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of unmanned vehicles above, below, and on the ocean surface. It needs to build collaborating, autonomous formations, not a collection of platforms.
This novel formation is going to be highly dependent on artificial intelligence and new software that enables cross-platform collaboration and human machine teaming.
To do this will require a different world view. One that is no longer tied to large 20th-century industrial systems, but to a 21st-century software-centric agile world.
The Selby Philosophy
• Digitally adept naval forces will outcompete forces organized around the principle of industrial optimization. “Data is the new oil and software is the new steel.”
• The systems engineering process built over the past 150 years is not optimal for software-based systems. Instead, iterative design approaches dominate software design approaches.
• The Navy has world-class engineering and acquisition processes to deal with hardware, but applying the same process and principles to digital systems is a mistake.
• The design principles that drive software companies are fundamentally different from those that drive industrial organizations. Applying industrial-era principles to digital-era technologies is a recipe for failure.
• The Navy has access to amazing capabilities that already exist. Part of the challenge will be to integrate those capabilities in novel ways that allow new modes of operation and increase effectiveness against operational priorities.
• It is imperative to foster a collaborative partnership with academia and businesses—big, small, and startup.
• This has serious implications for how the Navy and Marine Corps needs to change. What changes are needed when it comes to engineering and operating concepts?
How To Get “The Small, The Agile, and The Many” Tested and In The Water?
Today, “the small, the agile, and the many” have been run in war games, exercises, simulations, and small demonstrations, but they have not been built at scale in a formation of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of unmanned vehicles above, below, and on the ocean’s surface. The Navy needs to know whether these systems can fight alongside its existing assets (or independently if required).
ONR plans to rapidly prove this idea works, and that the Navy can build it. Or it will disprove the theory. Either way, the Navy needs to know quickly whether it has a hedge. Time is not on its side in the South China Sea.
ONR’s plan is to move boldly. It is building this new “small, agile, many” formation on digital principles, and it is training a new class of program managers—digital leaders—to guide the journey through the complex software and data.
It is going to partner with industry using rapid, simple, and accountable acquisition processes, to get through the gauntlet of discussions and to contract in short time periods. And these processes are going to excite new partners and allies.
It is going to use all the ideas already on the shelves, whether government shelves or commercial shelves, and focus on what can be integrated and then what must be invented.
All the while it has been talking to commanders in fleets around the world. And taking a page from digital engineering practices, instead of generating a list of requirements, it is building to the operational need by asking, What is the real problem? It is actively listening, using Lean and design thinking to hear and understand the problems, to build a minimal viable product—a prototype solution—and get it into the water. Then asking, Did that solve the problem?
No? Why not? Okay, let’s go fix it and come back in a few months, not years.
The plan is to demonstrate this novel naval formation virtually, digitally, and then physically, with feedback from in-water experiments. To get agile prototyping out to sea and do it faster than ever before.
In the end, ONR aims to effectively evaluate the idea of “the small, the agile, and the many.” How to iterate at scale and at speed. How to take things that meet operational needs and make them part of the force structure, deploying them in novel naval formations, learning their operational capabilities, not just their technical merits. If it is successful, it can help guarantee the rest of century.
What Can Go Wrong?
During the Cold War, the United States prided itself on developing offset strategies, technical or operational concepts that leapfrogged the Soviet Union. Today, China has done that to the United States. It has surprised us with multiple offset strategies, and more are likely to come. China is innovating faster than the Department of Defense; it has gotten inside the Department of Defense (DoD) OODA loop.
But China is not innovating faster than the United States as a whole. Innovation in the U.S. commercial ecosystem—in AI, machine learning, autonomy, commercial access to space, cyber, biotech, semiconductors (all technologies the DoD and Navy need)—continues to solve the toughest problems at speed and scale, attracting the best and the brightest with private capital that dwarfs the entire DoD research and engineering budget.
Rear Admiral Selby’s plan of testing the hedge of the small, the agile, and the many using tools and technologies of the 21st century is the right direction for the Navy.
However, in peacetime, bold, radical ideas generally are not welcomed. They disrupt the status quo. They challenge existing reporting structures, and in a world of finite budgets, money has to be taken from existing programs and prime contractors or programs might even have to be killed to make the new happen. Existing vendors, Navy and DoD organizations, and political power centers may see the small, the agile, and the many as a threat, even if it is positioned as a hedge. It challenges careers, dollars, and mind-sets. Many will do their best to impede, kill, or co-opt this idea.
The United States is outmatched in the South China Sea. And the odds are getting longer each year. In a war with China, the nation will not have years to rebuild its Navy.
A crisis is an opportunity to clear out the old to make way for the new. If senior leaders of the Navy, DoD, executive branch, and Congress truly believe we need to win this fight, that this is a crisis, then ONR and the small, the agile, and the many need to report directly to the Secretary of the Navy and the budget and authority to make this happen.
The Navy and the country need a hedge. Let’s get started now.