CRYSTAL CITY: From standardizing paint schemes to buying fewer types of valves, the Navy is going all-out to save money as budgets tighten. This new emphasis on affordability goes beyond the usual mundane economies to a sea change in how the service develops new vessels and technologies, with the much-criticized Littoral Combat Ship as the high-stakes pilot project.

“You can’t just do some really effective system anymore; it’s got to be effective and highly affordable,” declared Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, who heads the Office of Naval Research. ONR is normally associated not with cost-cutting but with high-tech, high-cost innovations such as railguns. But at last week’s Surface Navy Association conference in Crystal City, just south of the Pentagon, Klunder framed even the case for railguns in economic terms, arguing they would let the Navy shoot down incoming threats much more cheaply than firing interceptor missiles.

If defense companies or entrepreneurs have ideas that can buy more capability for less money, that cost our enemies more to counter than they cost us to develop, “I’ve got a whole pocket full of business cards. I’m willing to take time for that discussion,” Klunder told the conferees, many of them defense executives. If your idea buys more capability for more money, he went on, you’ll have to wait.

This pervasive focus on bang for the buck has become the chief justification for the Navy’s most ambitious shipbuilding program, the 55-vessel Littoral Combat Ship class, once touted for its high-tech cutting edge.

“What’s important about LCS is it is a ship that is affordable,” said Vice Adm. Thomas Copeman, commander of Naval Surface Forces, at the conference, amidst a generally gloomy discussion of fleet readiness in an era of limited funds. “We can afford to buy a bunch of them. We can change its combat capability in 20 or 30 years.”

The crucial nugget in this statement is the potential to keep upgrading the Littoral Combat Ship’s combat capability throughout its service life. The Navy already modernizes its ships, of course, but current vessels weren’t designed from the start to make that easy.

Sometimes the Navy decides upgrades are simply cost-prohibitive, as with the three Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers — aging and overloaded ships with minimal margin for growth — that it wanted to retire (Congress refused). Sometimes it bites the budgetary bullet, as with the DDG-51 Arleigh Burke class, which first entered the fleet in 1991 and which it plans to keep modernized and in service until 2072 — not an easy task.

Thanks to one such recent upgrade, the third-oldest Arleigh Burke, DDG-53 John Paul Jones, is now the most advanced warship on the planet, boasted Rear Adm. Thomas Rowden, director of surface warfare on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations. But to install new systems, Rowden told the Surface Navy Association bluntly, “we had to gut that ship.” And gutting a ship ain’t cheap or fast.

Every time a DDG-51 goes in for such a comprehensive overhaul, Rowden went on, “I lose that ship for two years.”

In the future, though, the Navy thinks it can upgrade new designs like the LCS — meant to be modular — at a much lower cost in money and in time.

When LCS needs an upgrade, said Adm. Copeman, “it’s relatively easy to put it on there… without having to pull into the yards for a year and gut the ship. [That] has to be the wave of the future, because of the quickness with which technology changes.”

Destroyers: From Guns & Armor To Missiles & Microchips

Once upon a time, what mattered most about a warship was its physical structure. A battleship with too narrow a beam simply couldn’t carry the biggest guns; a carrier with too short a flight deck couldn’t launch the highest-performance planes; a destroyer with too small an engine couldn’t outrun the foe, any warship with too thin a belt of armor couldn’t survive a hit.

But, bluntly put, hull design plateaued decades ago. The last big innovation was in the eighties, when the Navy started building ships around the Vertical Launch System, essentially a system of tubes which could be loaded with any number of different kinds of missiles. More recently, there have been attempts to build stealthy vessels with radar-eluding hulls; but the only example to enter production, the DDG-1000 destroyer, proved so expensive the Navy cut the planned 32 ships to three.

In place of the cancelled stealth ships, the Navy restarted the production line for the VLS-equipped DDG-51 Arleigh Burkes. Like their predecessors, the CG-47 Ticonderoga cruisers, the DDG-51s are built around the Aegis system to defeat incoming air and missile attack. What determines their combat capability is not so much the hull, engine, and guns but the kinds of missiles loaded in the VLS tubes and the radar, computers, and software that direct them.

The latest Aegis upgrade turns the Arleigh Burkes into part of the national missile defense system, able to shoot down ballistic missiles aimed not at themselves or even their task force but at US and allied territory on land. In tests in 2011 and 2012, in fact, Aegis ships did not even see the target with their own sensors when they initially fired: Instead they rather “launched on remote” using data relayed from aircraft, land-based radars, or other warships, and only later locked on with their own onboard radars.

Assuming there are no more glitches in the test program — there have been a lot lately — the first “launch on remote” using data from a satellite should happen by March, said Rear Adm. Randall Hendrickson, program executive for Aegis ballistic missile defense at the Missile Defense Agency, in a briefing to the Surface Navy conference. The next step, Hendrickson said, will be to “engage on remote,” where the Aegis ship itself never sees the target and relies entirely on others’ sensors.

All these upgrades not only improve the Arleigh Burke’s existing capabilities: They give it capabilities its designers never envisioned. Yet the ship itself looks and sails the same. What matters is not the hull but the missiles and the microchips inside.

It’s this kind of modernization that Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Greenert had in mind when he called for warship design to move from high-performance, hard-to-modify “sports cars” designed for a specific set of missions to modular, adaptable “trucks.”

At the cutting edge, where that vision meets messy reality, is the controversial Littoral Combat Ship, the LCS.

LCS: Not A Sports Car But A Truck

A lot of people love to hate the Littoral Combat Ship. It has come under heavy criticism for multiple reasons:

  • cost overruns on the first two vessels, LCS-1 Freedom and LCS-2 Independence, although cost on subsequent ships has come way down;
  • physical problems, chiefly hull cracks on the aluminum-and-steel LCS-1 and hull corrosion on the all-aluminum LCS-2, which the Navy and contractors insist are being corrected;
  • manning shortfalls, driven by the Navy’s initial plan to do most LCS maintenance ashore and keep the core crew to only 40 sailors, though LCS-1 will deploy to Singapore this year with 50;
  • design decisions, like the radical hull shapes and huge engines required to achieve LCS’s 40-knot-plus top speed, whose utility in real-world tactics the Navy is still frankly figuring out; and
  • most worrying of all, survivability, a concern raised by both the Chief of Naval Operations himself and the Pentagon’s independent Director of Operational Test and Evaluation: Can such relatively small ships take a hit and keep fighting like the larger and more heavily built destroyers? After all, survivability has been one of the most important factors in American naval victories since World War II.

But note that all these high-profile controversies have been about the physical structure of the ship — the hull, engines, crew accommodations, and so on, known in Navy jargon as the “seaframe.”

The whole purpose of the LCS seaframe, however, is to carry “mission modules,” plug-and-play packages of equipment that enable the LCS to perform a specific task. Currently in development are modules for minesweeping, hunting submarines, and fighting off fast attack boats.

The module part of the program is hardly trouble-free. “We are behind schedule on the delivery of what we originally thought the mission modules would be,” acknowledged Adm. Copeman at the conference. LCS-1 Freedom will sail to Singapore this year with a stripped-down version of its surface warfare module that includes extra guns, an armed helicopter, and fast boats to carry boarding crews, but not the anti-ship missile originally planned. Mine warfare and anti-submarine modules lag further behind.

Even the concept for using the modules has changed. Originally, LCS proponents dreamed of swapping modules on short notice to meet the current threat, converting, say, an LCS minesweeper into a sub-hunter overnight. Today, the Navy is more disposed to keep the same module on an LCS throughout a deployment and to emphasize not the short-term tactical advantages but long-term ease of upgrade.

Developing multiple, interchangeable mission modules to fit on a single seaframe is arguable harder, up front, than simply building the necessary systems straight into the ship. But — if the Navy can make it work — the new approach has long-term returns both in budgeting and in battle. By making upgrades easier, modularity should make them both less expensive and more frequent.

“Modularity… gives us opportunities and challenges,” said Rear Adm. Thomas Eccles, chief engineer at Naval Sea Systems Command, NAVSEA. The challenge is doing twice the amount of integration, making sure all the modules’ systems work with each and then that the module as a whole works with the seaframe. The opportunity, he told the surface navy conference, is the greater ability to keep up with new technologies and threats. “We can turn inside a much smaller loop,” he said, “in responding to changes on the adversary’s side.”

Standardization: Navy, Not Industry, At The Helm

Building a Navy of modular, easily upgraded “trucks” requires a new approach not just to the ship design but to contracting. Plug-and-play modules require an open architecture where specific components can change constantly but the ground rules, the standards, remain the same. That means the Navy has to take control — not leave things up to industry.

“We have to have that interface control document,” Adm. Rowden said at the conference. Despite all the other ups and downs on LCS, he noted proudly, “that document is a decade old and has had one minor change.”

But other aspects of the LCS program are hardly models for future programs. As part of a fad for “lead systems integrator” contracts that also afflicted the Army’s Future Combat Systems and the Coast Guard’s Deepwater project — both since cancelled — the Navy gave Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics extraordinary leeway to choose components for their respective variants of Littoral Combat Ships. The result is two different LCS designs packed with non-standard systems that are common neither with each other nor with the rest of the fleet. That makes crew training, maintenance, and buying spare parts much more complicated — and expensive.

Now the Navy’s on the warpath to reduce such “variance” across the fleet. At the surface navy conference, Rear Adm. Dave Lewis, NAVSEA’s program executive officer for ships, laid out a host of common-sense economies, such as painting all Navy ships the same paint scheme and reducing the number of different kinds of valves the Navy buys from thousands to dozen.

On LCS specifically, said Vice Adm. Mark Skinner, the military deputy to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for research, development, and acquisition, “we’re looking at greater commonality,” both between the two variant seaframes and with other types of Navy ships

To prevent the proliferation of such different types of equipment in the future, Adm. Rowden said, the Navy needs to assert its control over issues now ceded to the contractors. “Right now we’re asking the shipbuilder to be the integrator between the combat system and the ship, [but] the Navy needs to be the integrator,” Rowden said. “Do we have the expertise?… If we don’t, by golly, we need to go get that.”

This is not an approach that’s likely to endear itself to industry — or to Republicans in Congress, who have supported efforts to outsource functions once undertaken by federal bureaucrats. (Democrats like Obama prefer insourcing functions back to the government, which incidentally builds up federal-worker unions). But the Navy feels radical change is necessary to keep the fleet modernized and ready under tighter budgets.

“There’s a fiscal environment out there, we know it’s tough, we know it’s really tough,” ONR’s Adm. Klunder told contractors at the conference.

“Do not get dragged down in the mire of that! Do not walk out of here negative!” Klunder said, his voice rising to a shout. “I believe in this! That’s why I signed up! Do not let people drag you down! We’ve got to be tough, we’ve got to keep momentum!”

But with the federal government unsure what its budget will be in March, let alone next year, there are heavy fiscal seas ahead.

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