NATIONAL HARBOR, MD: Trucks, not sports cars – that’s the Chief of Naval Operations’ vision for an affordable and upgradeable future fleet. And that’s good news for an array of programs, from the controversial Littoral Combat Ship, to the LPD-17 amphibious ship, to a Marine Corps initiative called Harvest Hawk that straps missiles to a KC-130J aerial tanker (pictured).

Historically, Greenert said in an address to the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space convention on Tuesday, when the Navy wants to bring a technology to the fleet – a radar, a sonar, a missile – it hardwires it into a ship or aircraft designed to carry that specific system. “The philosophy has been [that] we’ll design the capability to be integral inside the platform, and we’ll build a pretty high-end integrated sports car,” Greenert said, “but it’s integral and [so] it’s hard to change and it’s hard to update.”

The Navy has upgraded the Aegis air-defense systems on its destroyers and cruisers repeatedly over the years, for example, but it’s expensive and difficult to do because systems such as radars are built into the structure of the ship. In the future, said Greenert, “we’re going to have to decouple a little bit the payload from the platform.” So instead of “sports cars,” Greenert said, what the Navy needs now are “trucks with modular payloads”: highly adaptable hulls designed to take plug-and-pay equipment that can be easily and affordably swapped out when new technology becomes available.

That’s the core concept of the Littoral Combat Ship and its three “mission modules,” and it’s no surprise Greenert went on to mention LCS. But he also mused about modularizing other vessels such as the Mobile Landing Platform, a kind of floating dock, and the LPD-17 San Antonio-class amphibious warfare ship. Interestingly, just hours earlier, the head of the shipyard that makes LPD-17 had touted the once-troubled vessel’s adaptability to new missions: “The ship has a lot of payload capability and it has a lot of power” to run added equipment, Ingalls Shipbuilding president Irwin Edenzon boasted to reporters.

One airborne example of this kind of adaptability that Greenert didn’t mention, but which fits his model, is the Marine Corps’ Harvest Hawk, which turns the latest variant of the venerable C-130 cargo aircraft into a ground-attack plane. Starting in 2010, the Corps took some of its new KC-130Js, a C-130 variant equipped for mid-air refueling, and added sensors, a targeting system, and an arsenal of Hellfire and Griffin precision-guided missiles. The plane doesn’t even lose its capacity to refuel other aircraft (albeit with only one of its two hoses).

In fact, the Marines almost backed into the idea: As long as we have these KC-130Js turning slow circles in the sky over Afghanistan, waiting for fighters to refuel, they thought, why don’t we put some sensors on them so they can scout out dangers on the ground? And as long as we’re putting sensors on them, why don’t we arm them so they can hit any enemies they see themselves instead of waiting to call in other aircraft? It’s hardly a high-performance aircraft, and you’d never deploy it against an enemy with sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles; but in a drawn-out conflict with elusive guerrillas, the ability to wait overhead until the enemy reveals himself is critical, and nothing has the fuel to stay on station like a tanker.

“We’ve deployed dozens of weapons in Afghanistan using the Harvest Hawk,” said Marine Brig. Gen. Gary Thomas, Assistant Deputy Commandant for Aviation, in a briefing at the Sea-Air-Space conference. “It gives you persistence over the battlefield, so it’s ideal for an irregular fight like we have here.”

There are practical limits to this kind of innovation. “You can’t have open architecture run wild,” Admiral Greenert warned in answer to a question from the audience after his address. All too often, he said, someone has a bright idea and slaps a new technology onto an existing platform without thinking through the consequences of adding non-standard equipment, from the new maintenance needs to interoperability with existing equipment to simply bothering to train sailors how to use the new stuff. “The documentation and the training and sustainment has to accompany it,” he said. But with some systematization and standardization, a fleet of trucks might navigate today’s bumpy budgetary roads better than high-performance sports cars.