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Future Casting, Predictions & Some Context on the Age of Transformation
the first person view from Bob Work
Today is a treat for the Front Porch. As I’ve often said; I don’t have the right answer, but neither does anyone else. Only through well meaning people of good will having a vigorous discussion on a specific issue can both get closer to the correct answer. You’ll never get there, but you get close.
As a byproduct of an exchange with the former Undersecretary of the Navy and Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work on a topic of mutual interest last week, I asked if he’d be interested to rolling up to the front porch, have a seat on the cedar glider, and telling us what for.
No better way to start the week off right than with a guest post by Bob.
Colonel, over to you!
I finally told myself to get off my ass and into the fight. So, for better or for worse...
My former boss, Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig, once told me that anytime an important decision came to him, it represented the sum total of many previous decisions. It was often important to try to understand them to put the decision at hand in context. He likened it to driving a core into an alluvial plain (don’t let your brain explode, Sal!) to look for breaks in the sedimentary layers—the times where the most consequential decisions led to sharp breaks with the past and led to new directions for evolution.
This is one of those times.
The story begins with fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The end of the Cold War was, for our purposes, the Chicxulub impactor that wiped away the previous evolutionary eras. It came as a strategic surprise and led to massive strategic disorientation. The reflexive political decision was to take a “peace dividend” and reduce the overall size of our military as a more “peaceful world” seemed inevitable. Navalists fell to their knees and prayed the US would adopt a maritime grand strategy that would help preserve the peace and sustain a large battle force around the size of the 600-ship Navy, if not larger.
But the only “grand strategy” they got was: get smaller…and the sooner the better. The 1985 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget Act triggered the longest post WWII defense drawdown; it didn’t end until 1998. And around 1990, year over year (real) cuts to federal and defense spending were in full swing.
To wit: the high point of the 600-ship Navy was 594 active ships on 30 Sep 1987. 115 of these ships were frigates. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the need to escort convoys across the pond evaporated in an instant. As a result, these were among the first ships the Navy jettisoned—and by the bushel full. All frigates except the Knox and OHP classes were quickly decommissioned. By 30 Sep 1993, the battle force stood at 454 ships, only 59 of them frigates. That’s right. 56 frigates out the door (and SecNav Jim Webb with them) in 6 years, almost ten a year.
Nearly contemporaneously with the end of the Cold War was Desert Storm, another sediment shattering event, that ushered in a revolution in war. Guided munitions-battle network warfare rendered subordinate combined arms operations with unguided weapons. Everyone was trying to figure out how the “revolution in military affairs” would change warfare and the forces that fought them.
While all this was happening, the Navy was frantically trying to establish a “floor” for the post-Cold War fleet. The next big change on our post-Cold War alluvial plain, the 1993 Bottom-Up Review, provided the basis. It called for a Joint Force large enough to defeat two regional powers (in two major theater wars, or MTWs) in overlapping time frames.
This force sizing and planning construct did not call for a sea control Navy. By 1993, the old Soviet fleet was rusting at its piers and China did not yet have a Navy to speak of. Even if North Korea, Iran and Iraq created a naval coalition and combined all their naval power, they would be crushed like cockroaches. So the Navy needed to make a big strategic adjustment.
The BUR assumed regional competitors would mount armored invasions of one of our allies. The role of the Joint Force would be to conduct a “rapid halt” of any invasion by RMA-like guided munitions bombardment, followed by a joint campaign to eject the bad guys and reestablish the status quo ante.
The Navy was competing with the Air Force for the rapid halt mission. The Air Force argued regionally and CONUS-based bombers were best suited for the mission. The Navy argued forward deployed Naval forces were a much better option (“virtual presence is actual absence.”)
While the Navy didn’t win the debate outright, it did lead to a major change in Navy force planning with a turn away from sea control toward power projection. At this point a sizable minority of Naval officers began to argue that a Navy built for presence would make more sense than one designed for power projection and would lead to a larger battle force, to boot. However, that dog was never going to hunt at OSD, which will always focus on the warfighting force planning and sizing construct.
As they well should have, then, the Navy adopted a power projection force planning construct. It published associated visions in …From the Sea and Forward…From the Sea. Just as importantly, from a force design perspective, it assumed sea-based power projection operations would be mounted from virtual sanctuaries in close in littoral waters, a debatable but reasonable assumption given the seeming absence of any credible naval competitors on the horizon.
Subsequent consequential force design decisions followed from this new strategic direction. The Navy would replace Nimitz-class carriers with a new carrier (CVNX) designed for high generation of tacair sorties in uncontested sanctuaries approximately 200 miles from shore. It would pause SSN production to redesign a boat better optimized for operations in the littorals. It would continue to build Cold War Arleigh Burke-DDGs, with 90 or 96 VLS cells each. This made perfect sense. These were the finest surface combatants in the world coming off a hot production line. And the vast VLS magazine they carried was perfectly suited for the rapid halt mission.
At the same time, however, the Navy began conceiving of the future family of 21st century surface combatants (SC-21s). The Navy and OSD conducted a Cost and Operational Effectiveness Analysis (COEA) for SC-21s with the DDG-51 Flight IIA as the cost and analytical baseline. The first SC-21 would be a “multi-mission” destroyer (DD-21) optimized for land attack. It would ultimately be followed by a “full capability” guided missile cruiser (CG-21) to replace the Ticonderoga-class CGs sometime around 2020, when those ships would start to retire.
In my view, the force planning decisions made in this timeframe were mainly an urgent attempt to deal with a looming block retirement problem. Cold War surface combatants were washing out of the battle force throughout the 1990s at a rapid clip. 23 Adams and 10 Farragut-class DDGs were all gone by year end, 1992. The problem would only get worse in the early 2000s. The 31 Spruance-class and 11 Forrest Sherman-class DDs in commission were due for retirement starting in 2005, if not before. The Knox and OHP frigates (46 and 51 ships, respectively) would begin leaving the fleet alongside them. The Navy also had another 31 ships (18 mine warfare and 13 patrol) that would follow soon thereafter. For anyone counting, that’s 170 total ships that were headed to the breakers just after the turn of the century, or 57% of the 300-ship inventory target. This problem had to be addressed if the Navy was to achieve and maintain its desired inventory target.
This was a daunting force planning problem that few remember and recognize today, and that would tax any force planner. I am therefore inclined to give the Navy force planners in the late 1990s a bit of slack. But that slack doesn’t extend to the Navy’s ship requirements and design processes. The first of the SC-21 family of ships would be a 16,000-ton stealth “destroyer” (first DD-21; then DD(X); then DDG-1000) with two “machine gun” 6-inch cannon (a nod to the 6”/47 cal guns that lit up the Tokyo Express in the Slot) and 80 large VLS cells. It was to have “submarine-like survivability” and have an average construction cost of $750 million. YGBSM. Even this dumb Marine knows that set of requirements didn’t match the projected construction cost.
As I have written before, I therefore don’t put the DDG-1000 in the transformation bucket. There was no Office of Force Transformation at the time and minimal OSD fingerprints on the design. Those were generally all Navy, which with light OSD oversight over-specced the ship to a fair thee well, planting the seeds for its eventual demise as a viable ship program.
The next observable break in the alluvial plain came with the 1997 QDR. The Navy finally got OSD to agree on a “floor” of about 300 battle force ships, including 12 CVNs (11 active, 1 reserve), 116 surface combatants, 50 SSNs and 12 Amphibious Readiness Groups. The Navy wanted a bigger battle force, but decided to take what they could get until they could convince OSD the number needed to be bigger. It was therefore time to get busy and determine the exact makeup of the ships in a 300-ship Navy After Next, which led to the next set of consequential decisions.
So, what did they decide? The CVNX decision was in the can. As was the decision to restart SSN production, trading the Seawolf ($2.8 billion/boat) for the Virginia. ($1.8 billion/boat). The immediate focus was thus on the 116 surface combatants.
With a ceiling of 116 combatants, Navy leadership decided to get out of the frigate business entirely. It desired a big high-end large combatant force, optimized for guided missile salvo battles. But these large combatants were ill-suited for the many low-end missions that the Navy performed. So, the Navy wanted to complement the large DD-21s and CG-21s with a low-end small combatant force consisting of a single multi-role modular combatant that would replace all the frigates, mine warfare ships and patrol ships in one fell swoop. This sip would later be known as the LCS. A multi-role ship would help minimize the number of small combatants and maximize the number of large combatants in the 116 -ship surface combatant force.
It was not yet apparent the DD-21/DDG-1000 was too expensive to build and the Navy would never see the 32 ships that were projected to replace the Spru-cans and Shermans. The design for the Seawolf-class SSN also proved too expensive to build, so it was truncated to three boats and would be replaced by the Virginia class, the first of which was laid down in 1999.
Not to beat a dead horse, Sal, but these failures had less to do with the transformation problem and more to do with a failure in cost-informed ship design and inability to contain operating costs. That’s the original sin, and one the Navy continues to commit.
From a force design perspective, however, you probably have a valid point. Perhaps the most momentous decision of the 1997 QDR was the move to a single multi-role small combatant. This decision trailed the DDG-1000, and I admit that transformational thinking played a part in it. Still, perhaps naively, I see it primarily as a failed force design play. In this regard, I am reminded of the SAS motto, “Who Dares, Wins.” But sometimes, “Who Dares, Loses.” In hindsight, it’s clear the Navy grossly underestimated the challenges of this force design decision. So, as we now know, the Navy’s dare ended in a loss.
Soon after the 1997 QDR, Admiral Vern Clark became the CNO. This caused another perturbation in the alluvial plain. He published a new vision called Sea Power 21 which described a distributed and networked battle force and its associated 375-ship Global ConOps Navy. The Navy’s desire for a battle force bigger than 300-ships remained strong.
Consistent with the SC-21 COEA, the Global ConOps Navy included the newly named DD(X) family of ships, with a DD(X) land attack destroyer (later renamed the DDG-1000), the LCS, and a CG(X) next generation guided missile cruiser to be named and designed later. It also had new innovative force packages such as the Expeditionary Strike Group.
This vision soon evaporated because the Navy evidently lost any ability to design ships that were economical to procure or build ships that were economical to operate. DDG-1000 program costs exploded, with the 32 planned ship run being truncated to just three ships. The LCS program suffered its well documented self-immolation. The CG(X) was ultimately down-scoped to the DDG 51 Flight III. The cost for the CVNX equaled the GDP of a small country. We finally got to two Virginias per year, but it was a mighty struggle—one necessitated by the decision to pause SSN production in the 1990s. And let’s just pray to all that’s holy that the Columbia-class SSBN’s radioactive mushroom cost cloud hanging over the Navy’s entire shipbuilding program doesn’t irradiate and kill the Navy’s plans for its future conventional fleet.
Here is where we pause while Sal rightly cries, “What the f%&k,” and drinks himself into oblivion on his front porch. With good reason. I honestly don’t know if transformationalism is mainly to blame, or faulty force development. Likely a bit of each. But it hardly matters. Drinking is the only way to cope with the wreckage.
The implosion of the Navy’s shipbuilding program was accompanied by a resurgence of the presence school. Their cries reached a crescendo with the 2007 Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (CS21), which implied that naval presence was the key to preventing war, and “preventing war is as important as winning war.”
I mark this as another major disruption to the alluvial plain. In fact, I’d argue it was nearly as consequential to Navy thinking as the end of the Cold War. In my view, NOTHING is as important as winning our nation’s wars and being always ready to do so. I think CS21 is where the Navy stopped thinking like warfighters and started thinking like diplomats. I know that to my friends Bryan McGrath and Jerry Hendrix and all card-carrying members of the presence school, these are fighting words. I have written elsewhere about what I see as the Navy’s misguided emphasis on presence rather than warfighting but can’t bring myself to expound on it here. So, all I’ll say is post CS21, all you must do is look at the alarming subsequent collapse of battle force material readiness, the ship handling disasters in the 7th Fleet AoA, and the dithering on the pier among senior leaders about who was in charge while the steel of Boney Dick burned and melted next to them. Are these the actions of a battle force that is spending the majority of its time thinking about how to win modern naval wars and send the PLAN to the bottom? I think not.
The next important shift in the Navy’s post-Cold War sediment occurred in 2016, when the Navy published Force Structure Assessment with a battle force inventory target of 355 ships. There was one big problem with this assessment…and it was a big one. The FSA was neither vetted nor approved by OSD. This pissed off the powers to be in the Pentagon. So much so that OSD ultimately took away the responsibility and authority to perform force structure assessments from the Department of the Navy.
So, here we stand, seven years later, with no approved force design or battle force inventory target. And, As Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, wrote, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” (this is now commonly believed to be a misattribution, but if the shoe fits….)
So, Sal, we wind up in a common place of despair, but take a different path to get there. You despair of the Navy’s antiquated procurement system, Goldwater Nichols, and the COCOM/Joint construct. I despair of the Navy’s failure(s) in cost-informed ship designs and inability to contain operating costs; its focus on presence rather than warfighting; and its failure to convince either OSD or Congress on its future force design and inventory target. In all honesty, I’d say our views are actually pretty sympatico. So let’s break out the tequila and cry together!
But it’s important we acknowledge all is not lost. The U.S. Navy is still the finest Navy in the world. It may have lost a step, but it’s hard to think they’ve lost their lead. For goodness sake, we plan to maintain 10-12 CVNs with the most capable and lethal airwings in the world (although this is an opportunity cost we should think hard about). We are going to have 80+ Burke-class DDGs, with nearly 8,000 VLS cells among them. We have over 50 SSNs and SSGNs, including three Seawolfs and 21 Virginias (6 more building and still more planned). And they are all crewed by the finest sailors anywhere.
So yes, the Navy is comfortable with…and perhaps even a bit arrogant… about these ships. Mainly, Mr. Lipton, because they are the best in the world and form the basis for a world-class sea control battle force. And guess what? The PLAN is intent on challenging us for command of the seas once the Taiwan question is settled. We’d be happy to have this Navy when and if they do.
But it’s clear the battle force can be improved. In this regard, an unmanned asteroid has recently hit the alluvial plain and has caused a new sediment layer to form. It’s safe to say the future Navy will inevitably have a hybrid battle force with both crewed and uncrewed vessels. Even though I am an advocate for unmanned systems, it is not yet clear what that hybrid battle force should or will look like, and what type of unmanned vessels will prove to be the most operationally relevant and cost effective. We should be unafraid to explore and push toward this hybrid fleet. But before we throw our current force design with the bath water, we better be damn sure we don’t screw it up.
In this regard, I think the most important lesson since the end of the Cold War is OSD and the Department of the Navy have been terrible at future casting and making predictions about the future. We need to be extremely humble when we make a prediction and include numerous hedges whenever we do, since we are as likely to be wrong as right.
Okay. I’ve said my piece. Thanks, Sal, for your blog. It’s a great place to come and ramble on and rant like a crazy old uncle!
Robert Work spent 27 years on active duty in the Marine Corps as an artillery officer. He was the undersecretary of the Navy in the first Obama administration and the deputy secretary of defense from 2014 to 2018, serving alongside three different secretaries across two administrations.