The U.S. Navy’s Hamlet Problem

November 19, 2015

Indecision is a hallmark of the human condition. In military circles, Nagumo’s vacillation at Midway and McClellan’s inability to take risks dominate the spectrum, but for those outside the military the epitome of indecision is Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

The famously re-quoted “To be, or not to be,” the bane of high school English students, epitomizes Hamlet’s recurrent inability to act. He knows he must avenge his father. He knows he must rise to the throne. He knows what must be done. Yet, he never makes any real decisions and in doing so dies, completely failing to avenge his father and take the throne.

Each of those cases is a look backwards. For those seeking to right the future, the first step in fixing a problem is recognizing there is one. The second is to act. The U.S. military is capable of identifying issues, but seems stuck on the second step. Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations (CNO), became the most recent senior leader to acknowledge that our innovation cycle does not work as it should. At the Reagan National Defense Forum, he said:

Experimentation and failure is appropriate early on in the development process. That environment needs to be a little more agile and perhaps a little bit riskier. Going through that, we actually gain confidence and field a much better tested product, so that when it goes forward into the fight, it’s completely tested. So, failure at the proper point is key to getting to a higher level of confidence faster.

Richardson’s comments echo previous language from Secretaries of Defense Ash Carter, Chuck Hagel, Leon Panetta, Robert Gates, and Donald Rumsfeld; Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus; and former CNO Adm. Jon Greenert. His assertions are supported by a wealth of research and writing from industry. They are frequently repeated here at War on the Rocks. Yet over the varied tenures of these defense leaders, we’ve seen less risk-taking in acquisition, instead focusing on slightly modified repeats of previous, modest successes and in some cases continuing failures.

Take for example the replacement for two of the Navy’s amphibious connectors, the Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) and the Landing Craft Utility (LCU). The current LCU was designed in the 1960s as an iterative improvement on World War II-era models and built in the 1970s. After a series of aborted attempts at faster, innovative, modern designs, the expected replacement now looks to be nothing more than an incremental improvement over the current ship. While more modern, the new landing craft utility retains the basic hull shape, propulsion, and capability of its 40-year-old predecessor. Newer, perhaps. Modern, most definitely not.

The same applies to the LCAC and her replacement, the Ship to Shore Connector (SSC). The 21st-century SSC is essentially a rebuild of a hovercraft developed in the 1970s. In neither case does the new platform provide improvement in capability, capacity, speed, reliability, numbers, or cost.

This problem replicates itself across the fleet. The Navy recently decided to replace the LSD-41 amphibious dock landing ship with a stripped down version of the LPD-17 hull. The replacement, while larger and more modern than the ships it replaces, will have less capability and less capacity with a shorter well deck, less space for connectors, and less capacity to move equipment from ship to shore.

The upcoming replacement for the Tarawa-class (LHA-1) and Wasp (LHD-1) amphibious assault ships is also an incremental improvement. Like the LCU, the basic hull form remains the same through five decades. There have been minor modifications around aviation fuel, the location of the combat information center, optimization for LCAC operations, and an internal maintenance space for the MV-22 Osprey. Yet from only a mile or two away, the old ship is nearly indistinguishable from its replacement.

Finally, as the USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000) puts to sea this year for initial testing, the Navy advances discussions on truncating an already condensed program and continues building the Arleigh Burke destroyer in a Flight III version. The major rationale provided for truncating the Zumwalt-class was cost, yet the favored DDG-51 Flight III looks to cost as much as Zumwalt under the Navy’s originally planned procurement model and also continues a 1980s design into the late 21st century.

In the end, the bulk of the U.S. battle fleet in 2040 will not only look just like the fleet in 2015, but also just like the fleet in 1990.

Meanwhile foreign navies are moving forward with innovative approaches in the Danish Absalon class, British Ocean class, and Australian Canberra class. The U.S. Navy’s Combat Logistics Fleet, the unarmed and unsexy ships that carry “bullets, beans, and black oil” to feed sailors and fuel ships, is actually showing innovation and taking risks with the Spearhead and Montford Point-classes. Spearhead is a high-speed transport ship based on an Australian ferry design, and Montford Point is a tanker redesigned as a medium-lift float-on-float-off ship. The preliminary design contract for the Spearhead-class was awarded in 2008. Today there are six operating ships with a seventh under construction. The Montford Point-class, based on an existing oil tanker, design contract was let in 2011, and all three ships are now complete. In contrast the Littoral Combat Freedom-class, also based on a civilian ferry, received an initial design contract in 2004, and the third ship of the class will be commissioned November 21.

While the U.S. fleet appears to be stuck inside an infinity mirror, Navy leadership sponsors contests on innovation, touts programs placing junior officers in game-changing companies, opines on modernizing the clunky personnel system, and talks about acquisition reform and taking risk. But there is a severe mismatch between words and deeds. It is time to stop just talking and start doing. If that does not happen, one has to wonder, which does the Navy really reward: taking risk, or repeating the past?

 

Captain Michael Junge is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer currently serving in the Joint Military Operations Department of the U.S. Naval War College. He commanded USS Whidbey Island (LSD 41) and served in amphibious assault ships, destroyers, and frigates. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Naval War College, the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government. However, his cat is perfectly happy if this article gets him in trouble.