Monday, August 8, 2011

"How the Navy’s Warship of the Future Ran Aground," David Axe

You know, when conservative hawks decry cutting the Pentagon budget, they seldom acknowledge costly fiascos like the littoral combat ship (LCS). David Axe's long profile of the U.S. Navy's intended next-generation combat vessel in Wired is a sad and alarming tale of airy military theories that were never properly vetted before being misinterpreted, hijacked for ideological purposes, and worst of all, funded anyway.

Axe cites a litany of problems, including terribly bad (read: optimistic) cost projections and time-to-delivery forecasts, but to my mind this is, or was, the crux of the model's problems:
Five years and billions of dollars into the LCS program, the Navy still hadn’t figured out what the coastal combatant was really for. Today, the sailing branch is no closer to an answer.
What comes through loud and clear in Axe's account is that Donald Rumsfeld's DoD jumped on the purely theoretical savings and flexibility the original concept promised, but never properly evaluated that concept. DoD never determined if the required technologies could be produced at a reasonable cost. It never determined if the numerous types of missions proposed for the model were compatible within the same physical platform. DoD never even reconciled a fundamental tension between its vision for the ship and that of the LCS's originators, a pair of Navy strategists. Those strategists regarded the LCS in its original form as disposable, while the Navy recoiled at the idea of a disposable capital ship.

Hindsight is 20-20, of course, but if you premise your concept of a product, any product, as disposable, you have a fundamentally different idea of how your product should be built and used than someone who conceives of a similar product which is not disposable. Did the Navy and DoD ever consider this conceptual difference when they leaped on the LCS's supposed cost savings?
No one had taken the time to clarify the LCS requirements and reconcile that important difference.
The LCS's low cost, relative to other capital ships, made it attractive to those who wanted the Navy's overall number of ships to increase. Left unsaid in Axe's account is whether those number-boosters, including Congressman Edward Schrock (R-VA), had a good reason for their numerical targets. Fortunately, Axe linked to the 2003 Navy League interview in which Schrock explained his reasoning for wanting to quicken the pace of ship-building to 14 ships per year:
If we are going to truly get to the 375-ship Navy that the current chief of naval operations aspires to, we have to do better than [build] five, six, or seven ships every year. We have to produce 12 to 14 ships every year.
Now all we need to do is to figure out what the then-chief of naval operations wanted to do with those ships. Did it include missions for which the LCS in any of its incarnations would have been appropriate?

In that same Navy League interview, Schrock had a beautiful vision for the LCS:
That's going to be a transformational ship, because it's going to be "plug and play." You can put in new technology and not have to practically rebuild the ship every time [upgrades are needed]. You just unplug one thing and plug another in.
I don't know what Schrock's background is, but I doubt he knows anything about computers or he'd know that "plug and play" is a concept in disrepute. The idea originated from the electrical grid, where it is indeed possible to plug in any consumer-grade electrical appliance and just have it work -- or at least, the appliance will draw power without further fuss. What plug-and-play advocates in any field never mention is how much work has gone into making the electrical grid consistent. Just take a look at the National Electrical Code.

Tell us, Rep. Schrock, how much work has gone into making modular weapons systems, or communications systems, or detection systems? Do they exist today? If not, will they exist tomorrow? How much do they, or will they, cost?

Discrete systems long have been "modular" in the sense that upgrades are designed to be compatible with the environments in which they're currently used. The Navy's former workhorse fighter, the F-14, was kept in service long after its projected retirement by upgrades to its radar and other electronics systems. It wasn't designed to be modular, though, in the way Schrock envisions. To my knowledge, no military hardware platform is that flexible. Military technologies change too quickly for anyone to develop forward-compatible specifications, like the national electrical code, to which military contractors can design systems. That's what would be needed to develop fully plug-and-play modularity of the kind that Schrock imagines (and I stress "imagines," as in "fantasizes about").

Rumsfeld's and the entire George W. Bush administration's dodgy fingerprints can be seen all over the inception and dubious conception of the LCS. As naval analyst Bob Work wrote in a February 2004 report for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, the Navy first announced its desire for a relatively small vessel on 1 November 2001. This represented an abrupt and unanticipated about-face by the Navy. Even worse, "there was no broad supporting constituency for the LCS within the Navy itself," so "the Navy’s leadership was forced to test out arguments for the new ship on the fly."
Sometimes the LCS was labeled transformational because of its high speed and the new associated hull forms; other times it was because the ship was designed to defeat “asymmetric” littoral threats such as submarines, mines, and “swarming boats;” other times it was because of the ship’s modular combat system, new technology, and automation; and still other times the Navy trumpeted the ship’s transformational impact on the American shipbuilding industry. The constantly changing rationale for the new ship helped to confuse both the Navy’s internal and external audiences.
"Constantly changing rationale" -- does that remind you of anything else? A certain Iraq War, perhaps? The G.W. Bush administration specialized in making policy directives before evaluating whether they made sense.

Billions have been spent on the LCS, and we still don't know if it will serve for any of the missions for which it has been claimed as the solution. Yet reducing Pentagon spending -- forcing it to perform the same kind of hard-nosed spending-efficiency analysis that Congress itself must perform (at least, if it's any good at its job) -- is off limits to conservatives? That artificial stricture makes no sense.

Kind of like the LCS.

(Thanks to LongReads for the link to Axe's piece.)

No comments:

Post a Comment