Priors and Prejudice: Planning the U.S. Navy’s Future
Most of us have no idea where we will be in 2050. But the U.S. Navy should — the ships that it is procuring now will most likely still be in service then. Like its fellow seagoing services around the world, the U.S. Navy is forced to engage in painstakingly specific planning for the future despite great uncertainty. This is a difficult balancing act given the long lead times for complex systems, from research and development all the way through to deployment. All of this has to be achieved in a budgetary environment that may not remain fertile for naval acquisitions.
When looking at how naval planning fits with future requirements, it is important to think about two key concepts: the military-industrial complex and innovation. Both can help or hinder the United States in ensuring that its naval forces are fit for purpose over the next few decades. It is vital that American military planners challenge their priors — the assumptions that underpin how they think about defense planning and the problems that they are trying to solve — and evaluate the role that these concepts play. If they can do this, the U.S. Navy will be better placed to plan, procure, and deploy a force fit for the future.
The Military-Industrial Complex
There are three key parts of the modern military-industrial complex: the military, the defense industry, and the political system. Each of these plays a key role itself in defense planning, but the interactions between the three also have a huge effect. It is the conversations within and between these groups that shape how military capabilities are built and deployed, and no conception of naval planning is complete without understanding this interplay.
The interaction between the military and the government is a central part of planning for the future. Both elected congressional representatives and bureaucrats need to understand how the armed forces work, and the military must appreciate the political factors involved in decision-making. When it comes to naval planning, Navy leaders ought to ensure that they are clearly communicating the needs of their service to those in government who do not necessarily have military experience. Rep. Mike Gallagher and Rep. Rob Wittman have called for better communication between Navy leaders and elected representatives, including via wargaming sessions. Many officials in the Department of Defense have deep knowledge of the armed forces, and there are a significant number of congressional representatives who have served. However, experience cannot be taken for granted, and assuming experience where none exists can lead to miscommunication. Likewise, politicians and Department of Defense officials must clearly communicate the direction of policy and the budgetary limits on what can be done. Communication is a two-way street. Continuing to keep lines open and relationships strong between the government and naval personnel will do a great deal to ensure that the U.S. Navy gets what it needs in future years.
The military and the government also need to be able to communicate with the defense industry. The bureaucratic processes involved in U.S. defense procurement can be daunting (with a guidebook that runs to over a thousand pages), and conversations about how to improve these are vital to ensuring a smooth acquisition process that fulfills the U.S. Navy’s requirements at a price and timescale that can be politically justified. If only the largest and oldest companies have the experience and personnel to be able to navigate the vagaries of defense acquisition, smaller and newer firms with fresh ideas may be unable or unwilling to put forward their products, leading to a large opportunity cost for every military service. Given the globalized nature of the defense industry, militaries that do not demystify byzantine procurement processes will lose out on technologies and platforms to nations that make it easier for companies to work with them. Even though butting heads with the Department of Defense procurement system would be unlikely to force a Western company to move toward working with Russia or China, the United States could lose out on capabilities to other free-market nations — a friendly competition, but a competition nonetheless.
It is also important to understand the political dimensions of the defense industrial base. When decisions on procurement are made by elected politicians, it is easy for the big defense companies to lobby for a particular outcome. This can be done by political donations, direct persuasive lobbying, or by siting production facilities within a particular district or state to incentivize representatives via local jobs. Many of the case studies I look at in my research (like the littoral combat ship) involve decisions in favor of buying products that are unnecessary, buying too many of a platform, or buying weapon systems that simply do not work. Such decisions are taken in large part due to lobbying by manufacturers, in concert with the often cynical political interests of Congress and the wider political system. When considering future naval requirements, American planners should be mindful of this factor. They should not allow naval capabilities to be undermined or steered in the wrong direction by the influence of the defense industrial base, nor by the entrenched interests of either Congress or, indeed, the U.S. Navy itself. The focus should be on acquiring and deploying the correct capabilities, not on the political or economic fortunes of the players in the military-industrial complex.
Each of these relationships is shaped by the specific culture of the participants. Organizational and service cultures are often unspoken and unnoticed, but they can play a huge role in how that body and its members deal with others and what goals they identify as important. Even within a single military service such as a navy, which will have its own overarching culture, there will be subcultures around surface warfare, submarine operations, aviation, etc. These considerations apply even more so between nations, even those that have been allies for many years. Language barriers, differences in doctrine, and divergent service cultures can all contribute to allies talking past each other, or not talking at all. Naval planning cannot be done in isolation, and a robust and healthy relationship between allied navies and between their governments is vital to ensuring not only interoperability in theater, but also a wider concert in terms of direction and capabilities. NATO members have traditionally excelled at this — and have only become better at it with the looming threat from Russia — but the United States and its close allies should remain mindful of maintaining and extending partnerships with friendly naval powers further removed from the European theater, such as Brazil and Peru. I have gleaned from my own conversations over the last few years that some in the global south can feel detached from American-led maritime operations, and the more the U.S. Navy can do to keep such valuable partners on its side, the better.
The Promise of Innovation
The practical issues that the United States faces when considering future naval planning are not peculiar to the U.S. Navy — navies around the world are grappling with similar questions about how to best incorporate technological advances into platforms, systems, and operations. Budgets are not infinite, and may well become tighter, so the U.S. Navy needs to make decisions about prioritization and sustainability in order to meet the moment.
There is an ongoing trend toward mission modularity in ship design, and navies now demand that their platforms be more flexible, more multifunctional, and more operationally versatile. This can manifest through ships coming into service with modular functions to enable the swapping out of their role. Platforms can also be developed with a greater level of adaptability to be updated throughout their life when technological advances warrant. However, this type of modularity is not a simple thing to achieve. Although it appeals to both U.S. Navy and political planners, and can easily promise to solve myriad problems, making a ship multifunctional can compromise its design and therefore its effectiveness. These platforms must be thoroughly evaluated at the earliest possible stage in order to ensure that the tempting possibilities of modularity are not covering up a multitude of sins in the small print of the design.
Navies are also wrestling with the problem of crewing. Personnel are a large contributor to the through-life sustainment cost of a ship, and it is becoming more challenging for navies to recruit and retain the right people. Greater levels of automation and autonomization within crewed vessels mean a reduced need for personnel, as long as a sufficient crew is retained for processes that cannot yet be automated. Integrating such systems into new and existing ship designs will increase their adaptability and give commanders more options. However, uncrewed ships will form a significant part of the answer to the crewing problem. Smaller autonomous and remotely piloted vessels are already being incorporated into naval operations, and although we will not see large uncrewed ships for some time, they are on their way. It is vital that the U.S. Navy asks the right questions when it comes to ensuring that doctrine and operational concepts are evolving to capitalize on the potential advantages brought by these new technologies. This is a novel area for planners, and one where it is important to carefully test new approaches in order to get things right. This year’s International Maritime Exercise and the establishment of Unmanned Surface Division One to oversee operations and experimentation are some encouraging steps in the right direction.
The answer to these problems has often been that most sexy of words: innovation. How do we fight our adversary? We innovate! How do we solve problems around crewing and autonomous platforms? We innovate! How do we get our ships to do more with less? You guessed it: We innovate! Much of the language around future naval planning tends towards the idea of rapid change, often making us feel that technology is running away from us at a speed we cannot keep up with.
Innovation is, of course, needed, and it is how we solve many problems. However, a note of caution is required. Novelty or change for its own sake risks becoming more of a fetish than a solution. Not all innovations represent progress, and not all progress requires substantial innovation. Often, defense leaders believe without question that innovation provides momentum, that feeling that something is happening. However, that “happening” does not in itself mean that progress is being made, or that a solution to problems is just over the horizon. While inertia feels stultifying — and is too easily a brake on progress when allowed to take root — a dose of it can be valuable in slowing things down enough to give planners time to assess the direction in which they are heading and whether there is a better path to get to their destination.
Challenge Those Priors
Ultimately, we cannot know what will happen in the next decade, much less the next half-century, and, as always, flexibility and adaptiveness will be the key for naval forces. The military-industrial complex, whether one has a positive view of it or not, is the environment in which these forces are shaped and procured. Naval planners should be mindful of its effects on how capabilities are chosen and acquired. A complex made up of strong relationships, with clear communication and political transparency, will help the U.S. Navy in ensuring that it is able to face the challenges of the next few decades. Incorporating and capitalizing on new technologies will be integral to solving the problems faced by navies around the globe. However, it is important to remember that innovation for its own sake is not necessarily helpful.
If the U.S. Navy and its civilian masters can challenge their priors about the military-industrial complex and the concept of innovation, they will be able to avoid the pitfalls of entrenched interests and the fetishization of novelty — and America’s naval forces will be able to keep their pre-eminence on the high seas.
Emma Salisbury is a Ph.D. candidate at Birkbeck College, University of London. Her research focuses on defense research and development in the United States and the military-industrial complex. She is also a senior staffer at the U.K. Parliament. The views expressed here are solely her own. You can find her on Twitter @salisbot.
This article is based on the author’s remarks at the Kiel International Seapower Symposium 2022. She would like to thank the Institut für Sicherheitspolitik Kiel and the participants for their valuable feedback.
Image: U.S. Navy