Thursday, December 18, 2014

War may be politics by other means, but so is military acquisition.

When I left active duty, I accepted a civilian job working in the Navy's Mine Warfare (MIW) field.  No, not a minefield, but close.  This is very different from my previous career in Naval Aviation, but not too different considering a couple of non-flying jobs I had.  During my “Joint” tour, which has nothing to do with California's favorite recreational herb, I served as an Exercise Planner and the Readiness Officer for US Central Command in Tampa Florida.  A joint job is at a Combatant Command where all four services are represented.  Maybe 5- I think we had a Coastie or two running around. 

As the Readiness Officer, I coordinated with all the Task Force and Functional Component Commanders under CENTCOM to put together a bi-annual report to the Joint Staff, which was many pages of me complaining about all our shortfalls.  Each deficiency then listed what “stuff” we needed to improve those capability gaps.  This was in the mid-2000s, and we were just starting to realize how difficult it was to simultaneously fight an insurgent force and nation-build at the same time, so that report was long.  We pretty-much got everything we asked for back then- Counter IED equipment and jammers?  Check.  Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for ISR?  But you’ve got every Global Hawk and Predator we own.  “Ok, then we need more- everything you have is still not enough.” An Admiral who I came across later in my career was familiar with my reports and told me that within the Pentagon, they thought that CENTCOM was like a fat crying baby in the corner, everybody feeds it, but it still cries and so it keeps getting fed more and more.

During the next tour, after deploying on the USS PELELIU (LHA-5), I ran an annual conference to develop a “Top-10” list of stuff the Amphib Navy needed to support Naval Aviation. 

Three Minesweepers underway.  Must be an old picture.
My current work is similar- I keep track of the problems faced by our legacy MIW force and work to bring about the next generation of systems to improve our MCM capability, advocating for another list of "stuff."  By “Legacy” force, I’m talking about the AVENGER-Class Mine Countermeasures (MCM) Ships, and MH-53E Sea Dragon Helicopters.  These ships and aircraft are aging and oft-broken.  Heck, they aren’t aging, they’re already OLD, and by old, I’m talking like 210 in dog-years.  30 years is the average lifespan of a Navy ship, but that’s the average for an average ship- Cruisers (CGs), Destroyers (DDGs), and Frigates (FFGs).  That doesn’t include our Aircraft Carriers of course, which are built and maintained to last into their 50’s, but I digress.  The MCM ships and MH-53s are far from “average” because the level of support they receive doesn’t make it a level playing field.  Average would mean something that the Navy cared about, like a front-line ship or aircraft.  Our MCM "stuff" came out in the 80’s to early 90’s and has never gotten the care and feeding it deserves, so the ships and aircraft look very tired and worn out.  The oldest of the ships, which have already been decommissioned, were about 30 years old, but looked far worse.  If you want to keep something nice, you have to take care of it.

We're spending a lot of money to maintain these boats, but they still look a bit strung out, and rehab can only do so much.  Think of a 30 year old Buick - any chance of it still running if you didn’t maintain it well when it was younger?  And good luck finding parts for it.  All those shipyards are long gone by the way. It's the same for our helicopters.  They were taken care of a bit better than the ships, but the mishap rate has been less than good over the past few years.

MH-53E Sea Dragon conducting magnetic sweep with the Mk-105 sled.

MIW is just one of those warfare areas that big Navy doesn't really pay attention to.  It’s a matter of priorities, with Air Warfare, Surface and Anti-Submarine Warfare always being at the top of that list, and maybe rightly so.  Is MIW next in line? Well, yes, after Ballistic Missile Defense, Special Operations, EOD, Cyber-Warfare, and publicly reporting the latest CO firing.  The Navy has always found it easy to defer and delay maintenance to ships that don't have CV, SS, DDG or CG in their designation, and hardly any of those letters are in MCM.  The fact that there were only 14 of the ships, and 30 of the helos makes MIW even more of a bastard stepchild.  MIW is just one of those warfare areas that you don’t need, or at least you don't think you need, until you really need it.  So it’s been easy to underfund, especially with all these expensive wars going on. I could get all snarky here and complain about CVNs, CGs, and DDGs asking those crews when was the last time they actually did any real Anti-Air or Anti-Surface Warfare, but I’d be digressing.  MIW might not be a cool, sexy mission area like the others, but if one insurgent terrorist fisherman drops a cheap drifting mine in the gulf, just watch what happens to the price of oil.  And I was so enjoying gas under $3 a gallon.

So when the old stuff is gone, we’ll have a cool new sexy Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) with a bunch of critters doing MCM.  The ship isn’t going into the minefield, but some unmanned systems will.  The ship has had its fair share of problems throughout its development, with both mechanical issues and some horrible press.  The LCS has also had more than its fair share of political opponents.  Nevermind that it was a political decision to build two different LCS classes, keeping two shipyards fully employed, but that was a different politician.

I know some of the bad press is deserved- we buy a brand new ship that was very late to the showroom, way over-priced, and it breaks down minutes after we drive it off the lot- that's not good. But many of our weapon systems have had problems during development and tended to be a wee bit more expensive than the lying liars in the defense industry told us they would be.  One of these, which also helped accelerate the S-3B Viking Sundown, was the Super Hornet, which had a serious wing-stall problem until the wing pylon stations were redesigned.  Remember the MV-22 Osprey? That one killed a bunch of good Marines before we got the bugs worked out of that program.  Now, both aircraft are vital to the Navy-Marine Corps team and are doing a great job.

As will this one if it gets the chance:

It really deserves to.  The LCS is a great concept- build a ship from an existing commercial design (the trimaran LCS-2) that can have its mission packages swapped out depending on what we need it to do.  And if technology advances, we don't need to send the ship into drydock, or take it off the schedule for an extended yard period in order to upgrade the systems- just swap out the boxes. Sure, it's expensive, but that price would have come down (it already was) as we committed to more ships and stabilized the design.  It was supposed to be a much cheaper ship though, until the Defense Industrial Complex and the Navy's Acquisition Process got a hold of it. And it's not like other systems haven't had massive cost over-runs.  Anybody ever hear of the F-35 and CVN-78?

But the voices of all the detractors rose to a cacophony, and enough of them found the ears of Secretary of Defense Hagel.  Because of all the bad press, and stronger political voices than the ones that chose to buy the LCS, SECDEF decided earlier this year to hold the planned number of ships to 32 (from the original 52) as we evaluate the design.
“I am concerned that the Navy is relying too heavily on the LCS to achieve its long-term goals for ship numbers. Therefore, no new contract negotiations beyond 32 ships will go forward...”
Hagel has instead directed the Navy to, “submit alternative proposals to procure a capable and lethal small surface combatant, consistent with the capabilities of a frigate.”
The Navy is to consider options that would include, “a completely new design, existing ship designs and a modified LCS. These proposals are due to me later this year in time to inform next year’s budget submission.”

Then on Dec 10th, Secretary Hagel made these remarks updating DoD's plan for the LCS.  I'll summarize the one page memo:  "We're done with it."
I approve your plan to procure a small surface combatant (SSC) based on an upgraded Flight 0+ LCS, and direct the following actions to be taken:
  • Develop an Acquisition Strategy to support design and procurement of new SSCs no later than Fiscal Year 2019 (FY 19), and sooner if possible. Provide this Acquisition Strategy to the USD(AT&L) for review and approval no later than May 1, 2015.
Holy Fast Frigates Batman!  We're going to supposedly design and build a new ship in 5 years?  So instead of a light and fast modular ship, we're going to start buying Frigates again, and quickly!  I tend to be a bit cynical, and expect that a bigger, heavier, more traditional ship will make somebody a ton of money, and that probably won't be the Australian company that is building the LCS-2 Independence Class.

If any procurement program in recent history offers any sort of indication as to whether that is possible, please let me know and I'll stop this blog post right now...

Anyone?  Nah, I didn't think so.

Captain John Paul Jones

Hagel must have read the quote by CAPT John Paul Jones-
"I wish to have no connection with any Ship that does not sail fast for I intend to go in harm's way."
One of the complaints of the mainly aluminum LCS (2), is that it supposedly can't survive in combat. Although it can definitely get there quickly.  MCM is mainly conducted in or close to enemy waters, but we rarely, if ever, operate in contested waters.  And what the hell do people think our 30 year old minesweepers are made of?  Steel?  Nope, guess again.  Good old homegrown American timber; typically oak, Douglas-fir, or Nootka Cypress - coated in glass-reinforced plastic.  Not exactly bulletproof.  And did I mention that the LCS doesn't even go into the minefield!?

Navy leadership has accepted his decision almost without argument.  I would rather they adhere to the quote by CAPT James Lawrence:
"Don't give up the ship!"


  1. " 30 years is the average lifespan of a Navy ship"

    The F-15 that had my name on it was built in 1978. It's still operational. That's dinosaur age for a fighter pulling 9Gs and going the speed of snot. Good Post, Tuna.

  2. It frustrates me as both a defense analyst and as a taxpayer. The more we allow politics to be infused into the acquisition process, the more it seems to cost us.

  3. Politics will always be a part of the acquisition process. Our tax dollars do the purchasing. Our congress-critters represent us, if we choose them badly, we will always see bad choices in the acquisition process. When we hold our politicians accountable (by voting them out when they do stupid things) then we might get the acquisition process under control. Until then, as they used to say in Korea, "Never happen GI!"

    From Wikipedia (
    During the late 1990s, the U.S. Navy realized its Cold War-era cruisers and destroyers would be vulnerable in shallow coastal waters, where the next naval battlespace was anticipated. Designed for open-ocean warfare, they faced dangers from high-speed boats, missile-firing fast-attack craft, small submarines, sea mines, and land and air-launched anti-ship missiles. The Navy's official solution was the DD-21, a large coastal warship that could absorb hits. Two Navy strategists, retired Captain Wayne Hughes and Vice Admiral Art Cebrowski, refined an opposing Streetfighter concept for a 1,000-ton small, specialized, and heavily-armed vessels costing just $90 million (2001 dollars).

    From me:
    I have never liked VADM Cebrowski's ideas and, not to speak ill of the dead, thought his "streetfighter" concept (small expendable, manned ships) was an idea verging on criminal stupidity. A superb way to get our sailors killed.

    Never fight where the enemy wants you to fight.

    But the LCS as minesweeper, that's not a bad idea. But the cost of those things is ridiculous. Beyond ridiculous.

    Not an LCS fan, never will be.

    FWIW, I hate the F-35 even more. No gun? Didn't we make that mistake already? And paid dearly for it.

  4. Other than cost, do you have other concerns? That alone is unconscionable, but much of that is due to the changing requirements and delays. I don't like that at all, but I know how soon we need SOMETHING to replace the Avengers. How we got this ship is another post for another day, but I'll summarize- no program ever dies.

    1. Some programs do die. The A-12 Avenger...

      A government report released in November 1990 documented serious problems with the A-12 development program. In December 1990 Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney told the Navy to justify the program and deliver reasons why it should not be canceled. The response given by the Navy and the contractors failed to persuade the Secretary of Defense, as he canceled the program in the following month, on 7 January 1991, for breach of contract.

      The government felt the contractors could not complete the program and instructed them to repay most of the $2 billion that had been spent on A-12 development. McDonnell Douglas and General Dynamics disputed this in Federal Claims court; the reasons and causes for the cancellation have been debated and remain an issue of controversy, with suggestions of political expediency and scheming to be behind the action.

      The manner in which the program was canceled led to years of litigation between the contractors and the Department of Defense over breach of contract. On 1 June 2009, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled that the U.S. Navy was justified in canceling the contract. The ruling also required the two contractors to repay the U.S. government more than US$1.35 billion, plus interest charges of US$1.45 billion. Boeing, which had merged with McDonnell Douglas, and General Dynamics vowed to appeal the ruling. In September 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court said it would hear the two companies' arguments, that the government canceled the project improperly and that the use of a state secrets claim by the U.S. prevented them from mounting an effective defense. In May 2011, the Supreme Court set aside the Appeals Court decision and returned the case to federal circuit court. In January 2014, the case was settled with Boeing and General Dynamics agreeing to pay $200 million each to the U.S. Navy.

      My biggest concern (other than cost) is that this thing is NOT a surface combatant. The mission modules aren't there, the crew is too small and I can't see it fulfilling any mission outside of mine warfare. And that's a damned expensive mine warfare platform.

      You're right, we need something to replace the current ships. IMHO, LCS isn't it. But we are stuck with them. So yeah, make 'em minesweepers (or whatever the term du jour is).

      Something I forgot to mention above: brilliant post Tuna. Well done.

    2. It also killed the P-7 (P-3 replacement), at a time when we REALLY needed the upgrade... And cost over $1B to rewing old tired P-3s...

  5. I remember all of those "cute" little boats (coastal minesweepers) sitting in the India Basin at Sasebo back in the early '60s.
    The were old then.
    The Mine Warfare boats in those photos don't look much different.
    The main attraction for duty on those boats back then was it was almost like shore duty.
    The crew even lived in dorms when in port, which was pretty much all of the time.

    1. Huh. I was detailed to command one of those (Widgeon (MSC 209). All set for Japan, but fond out decision had been taken to decomm all the MSC force. I was diverted to command an AOG out of Pearl Harbor--and the rest is history. Funnily enough, the very best RAV I ever had with the AOG was in Sasebo--and we berthed in India Basin.

  6. An interesting take on a complicated problem. For decades our strategy relied upon our (mainly European) allies to supply the bulk of the mine warfare assets--a skill they practiced and were quite good at. That strategy served us well in a NATO scenario--but in the IO and Pacific, not so much. I agree that we need to develop, maintain and support a mine warfare capability--perhaps crewed mainly with Reserves..

    With respect to the Little Crappy Ship--we have invested huge resources in a platform which was advertised as "Transformational" (Beware ANYTHING so described IMO) and which would replace several previous classes of ships, including Frigates, Destroyer Escorts, Patrol Craft and, of course Minesweepers. The problem is that the ship's mission performance is inferior (except for speed--and it sure can't outrun a missile or airplane) to the types it is replacing, and to foreign peers to boot. Furthermore, its crew is insufficient even keep the ship clean and maintained, much less do damage control. It is a death trap in any reasonable battle scenario.

    It can certainly be a high speed minesweeper. Once.

  7. So do we cancel the LCS and leave a hole in our MCM capability until we approve, design, build, and field another minesweeper? What's that, a 10-15 year process?

    1. Well, not if we buy a proven foreign design--and there are several. I also have considerable confidence that we will be able to leverage remote mine sweeping as a valid tactic. Several of our NATO partners re pretty well along that path.

  8. I keep asking myself why the process runs acquisition. The ultrabug is vital because it's the only; the meat component of the system is 100 percent responsible for the "great job." They deserve at least an A-7. And now big navy is trying to kill all the meat. So who's gonna swap out them modules and prosecute them missions? How can this end well?

  9. With 32 of the "legacy" LCSs, we may have enough, but we don't know yet how well the MCM MP will work. We haven't tested the MP from LCS-1 yet and there's not a lot of room in that mission bay compared to LCS-2, which would be a better platform for us. As for the other mission areas, I have no idea. Those MPs are still being planned.

  10. It's all politics... Not enough $$ in the kitty, and they are now deferring maintenance to CRUDES too... LCS is a BIG/EXPENSIVE mistake, and the 'concept' of MCM module while good, is not effective due to the limited range. The Avengers are outdated, no question. The Navy would be better off buying something similar to what the Aussies have for MCM units. MCM is hind tit, till somebody gets sunk, THEN you'll get $$ for a year or two. You know that as well as I do.

    1. Concur all, I just wish Navy would be upfront about it--instead they keep blowing unicorns and rainbows up everyone's skirts. Gosh, wonder where they learned THAT?

    2. Well, you know the Navy, spin first, and make your relief deal with the fall-out. As to the buying of foreign MCM ships, great idea, but you know as well as I that doing so doesn't employ enough Americans. Pieces of MCM equipment? Maybe. The whole ship? Not gonna happen. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good week.

    3. Alas, I agree. Happy holidays to you and yours also.

  11. " I served as an Exercise Planner and the Readiness Officer for US Central Command in Tampa Florida"

    I was JCSE and JCSS for 13 years. You need to send me a bottle of 18 year old Balvinni to make up for some of the crap-holes you sent me...

    1. Ohhhhh!

      He has a point Tuna, just sayin'.

    2. If it helps, if we meet I can drop a coin on you. Mine is #79 with the Airborne wings on it with all of the branches of the service and on the other side the "Greater" JCSE emblem and 224th and 290th logos on it. Lots of good memories and some not so good.

      I lift a toast to a certain Gunny that road my ass and I felt his mission in life was to make me miserable, but he made me a better airman and much better man.

  12. There is a quote from an Admiral during the Korean War frustrated by the fact that NORK mines kept much of the fleet from operating closer to shore because of our lack of capability in this area even then (from memory): "Here we are, the greatest Navy in the history of the world, and we're being kept from operating in many areas by a nation THAT DOESN'T EVEN HAVE A GODDAMN NAVY!"

    1. Great quote Virgil.

      Did you hear about Buck? Sad news. Go to his place.


Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)
Can't be nice, go somewhere else...

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