The Saga of the TICOs
cruiser neglect as a parable of institutional culture
I guess this is a “chickens coming home to roost” week at CDR Salamander. Hard not to be as there is lot of valuable work being done by the defense media reporters in the trenches that we need to make sure and take time to read. The latest by Geoff Ziezulewicz in Navy Times on the cruiser debacle of the last decade fits easily in to that category.
You will tell me your priorities by showing me what you spend your money on. We could almost stop today’s post there, because it is clear that Big Navy’s priority was not having cruisers anymore. It blew up CG(X) and then let the TICOs decay pier side … all the while pretending all is well here while throwing shade at the People’s Republic of China’s ability to produce their Type-55C cruiser into serial production.
It might be easy to dismiss this as “old news” or just more Navy Slimes tragedy theater, but that would be just ignoring an important story that most here know a bit of, but have yet to have a one stop receipt shop to tie this sinking-at-the-pier story of institutional pouting, planned neglect, and outright cynical truth avoidance.
You can see in this story most of the threads of unaddressed institutional dysfunction that has had a role in most of our Navy’s decisions of the post-Cold War period. The Navy that used to have an exemplary record of iterative development, rapid prototyping, and clear eyed self-discipline now finds itself tripping over its own feet attempting to “leap generations” and then having to fall back on the neglected previous generation, spend billions of dollars and a decade of development on dead ends, and finally - from the time the first Ensign was told to write his own FITREP that was not even a shadow of the truth to that same person learning that it is OK to lie to Congress if you’re cute about it during multiple tours in DC - we have a culture where its only bad news if you report it and only bad leaders give the boss bad news.
It’s all here, and I’m not sure we see any change coming that will take away the latent causes of so much of the dysfunction we see.
That being said, not talking about it in public and not having reporters like Geoff writing about it won’t fix it either. We are well past the point of the Navy correcting itself. As it won’t, the only option is the one that goes straight to the brain stem; fear and shame. Our Navy and its leaders need to fear the people who write their checks, Congress, and want to avoid the shame of having its maladministration of the money the taxpayers give to them made public.
So, let’s dive in.
Good or bad, reputation and trust are earned and maintained - not something you are entitled to in perpetuity.
An institutional culture is developed from the top down. Junior personnel will follow the example, again good or bad, that they see from senior personnel. The most ambitious especially so.
Honor. Bravery. Ethics. All these things are visible and measurable.
An institutional habit of keeping a loose hold on the truth. As mentioned above, it starts early when officers are not encouraged to be critical of themselves, much less anything else. From an Ensign’s FITREPS to the excuses we saw at the 4-star level for the negotiated surrender and national habilitation in Kabul in 2021. There is a direct line.
The Navy does not have its own funding line. It has to get its money from Congress. One would think this is one relationship the Navy would be careful with.
Navy leaders told the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2015 that the phased modernization was an “affordable framework” to keep the cruiser fleet steaming.
The greatest form of contempt is not just to ignore someone, but to ignore your promises to them - openly and without remorse.
At this point it might be important to put this in time and place. 2015 is the end of CNO Greenert and the start of CNO Richardson - all under SECNAV Mabus in the 2nd Obama Administration.
Chosin, Cape St. George, Hué City, Anzio, Vicksburg and Cowpens joined Gettysburg in the so-called “Cruiser Mod” program, with contract announcements rolled out amid promises that modernizing the aging ships would keep them in the fleet for years to come.
The congressionally mandated effort … sought to maintain the Navy’s surface fires and air defense capabilities even after the warships’ standard 35-year service life came to an end.
What is the cost of overpromising and over delivering? Telling people what they want to hear now - to make your short tenure easier - as opposed to what they need to hear now, knowing that someone down the road will have to face the music you put on to play?
Institutionally, this sounds like … well …
Antisocial personality disorder, sometimes called sociopathy, is a mental health condition in which a person consistently shows no regard for right and wrong and ignores the rights and feelings of others.
Sounds close. The more I think about this, the more this kind of makes sense … but I’m getting distracted. Let’s keep up the timeline.
The Navy now concedes that just three of the seven ships will ever return to the fleet, and the sea service has either retired or sought to retire the other four after billions of dollars were spent on the effort.
The Gettysburg got back underway from Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, in February, more than eight years after its modernization period began, and is working its way back to operations. The Chosin is expected to rejoin the fleet later this year and work on Cape St. George continues.
But the Navy says the other four are too old and broken down for any more money to be spent on them. It abandoned the modernization efforts for Hué City and Anzio and retired them in fiscal 2022.
During a congressional hearing in April, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro said that Vicksburg and Cowpens, which have already undergone extensive work, “will never see another deployment, regardless of how much money we put into them.”
BZ on SECNAV Del Toro here. He did not create this problem, but he does own it now. Like a good SWO, he spoke in clear words. Of course, the big question is why no one said this earlier.
Notice a pattern here? We’ve discussed over promising and under delivering and creating policy at the tail end of layered optimism filters? Both are primary indicators of a terminally sick institutional culture. Think what happened to Sears.
Modernization costs skyrocketed as shipyards cracked the aging vessels open and discovered a myriad of unexpected problems, sending the cost of work beyond the announced contract awards of between $150 million and $175 million each.
Phased modernization meant cruisers sat idle for up to six years before the deep work began, with crews and contractors struggling to bring systems back online after prolonged inactivity, according to Naval Sea Systems Command, which admitted that cost estimates for the work came in far below what was actually required.
To date, the Navy has been unable to state precisely how much cruiser modernization has cost the service.
The Navy invested $2.4 billion in cruiser modernization from 2016 to 2021, Vice Adm. James Kilby, then the deputy chief of naval operations for warfighting requirements and capabilities, told the House Armed Services Committee in June 2021.
After yesterday’s post, start to add up the billions of dollars thrown away for nothing. Were there any comparable failures of major systems such as this in the 1970s? 1980s?
Meanwhile, the Navy has had to man these ships even as the surface fleet struggles to fill gapped billets at sea, and the effort has sucked up precious time in the shipyards.
There is your human cost. COs who never deploy. Sailors who join the Navy for adventure, but wind up in the maritime version of hospice. Was that the plan?
Chosin and Cape St. George would be decommissioned in fiscal 2027 if the Navy has its way, with Gettysburg retiring the year before.
Is this what Congress in 2015 wanted? Was this the best value for our Navy?
They expressed frustration regarding how the Navy has carried out the cruiser modernization program, with several characterizing the process as one of “hostile compliance” or “malicious compliance” with Congress’ wishes to maintain the fleet.
…or, institutional antisocial personality disorder?
Navy leaders, including former CNO Gilday, have indicated that the service has learned lessons from its cruiser modernization efforts as it seeks to extend the service lives of certain guided-missile destroyers.
We’ve seen this movie before.
What are those lessons? How are we translating that in to action?
No, we should not trust our Navy to just “do it.” That account is in arrears.
What didn’t make it into Geoff’s article is the real messy part of the story. Since 2015 there have been all sorts of “crisis of the moment” that required money. Where did they find that money?
Talk to anyone involved in the program. They have stories to tell…or not.
But money was spent. Money that will create nothing. Careers that had years wasted watching decay. Institutional capital thrown down the most fetid DC rat holes imaginable.
People got paid and promoted, that’s for sure. But the Maritime Component Commander leading the fleet west of the International Date Line in 2028, what will he have?
More VLS cells? Better distributed risk among more ships? More redundancy in AAW? Higher readiness ships? Properly manned for combat?
No, but that wasn’t the point from 2015 onward, was it?
Will there be action to change the latent causes (incentives & disincentives for promotion, Goldwater-Nichols, acquisitions nomenklatura, etc)?
Will there be anyone held to account? Can there be?
What if any lessons can be taken away?
Was this all just an incredibly well-run DC play that was designed simply to avoid accountability, change, or lessons for the future?
Or is this just another expertly played victory via the exquisitely intentional incompetence of the well-ensconced bureaucracy primarily focused on itself?
Hard to know. What I do know I’ll repeat again for emphasis; it produced almost no warfighting capability for operational commanders who might be asked to lead Sailors in the fight in the next decade.
Pray for peace.