The Navy’s top officer says the rapid pace of technological change means his service has to find an alternative to a shipbuilding process that until recently has been characterized by large, monolithic acquisition programs — usually managed and integrated by a single vendor — and usually following exquisitely-detailed government specifications that take years to put down on paper.
The alternative envisioned by Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, is an ecosystem in which the Navy publishes its requirements early and often, pressing toward a future of modular systems that can be rapidly moved on and off of its ships depending on the missions they’ll need to perform during any given deployment. The Navy had already begun to head down the path toward “modular” ship design with its Littoral Combat Ships. The Pentagon has tamped down its enthusiasm for that particular program because of misgivings about those ships’ survivability, but Greenert said the Navy’s future still depends on vessels that use common, open architectures, allowing individual systems to be removed and new ones to be plugged in as warfighting requirements change.
“To me, it’s all about payloads and much less about platforms,” Greenert said. “So when I talk to industry and talk about the next ship, I’ve got to be thinking about modularity. That means open architecture. The platform needs to provide power, cooling and volume, but then I need to be able to turn to the rest of industry and tell them the effects I want to achieve. We’ll just give them the specs, and then we’ll be populating that platform with those.”
Greenert, speaking this past weekend at the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California, said the Navy has already achieved some successes via its modular approach. In some cases, it has enticed small businesses who are not normally part of the Navy’s industrial base to help build critical systems.
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“We need to focus on payloads, not on building ships or aircraft that are so integrated that the prime contractor does it all,” he said. “Give me the basics, and then I’ll go out to buy smaller, distributed systems. We have little clips of this in the unmanned industry. We reached out to replace our manned mine countermeasure systems, and we found that smaller companies can provide unmanned systems that can provide acoustics and other capabilities. They’re amazing, and it starts a competition.”
While modularity and open architectures have proved themselves with some of the Navy’s newer ventures, they are turning out to be very expensive and difficult to implement aboard the existing warships that make up the vast majority today’s fleet.
From the perspective of Navy program managers, putting new, modular systems aboard those vessels doesn’t pass the test of a cost-benefit analysis, Greenert said. Swapping out major pieces of equipment is a major undertaking that requires a ship to be taken out of service and placed into a dry dock, a process that takes about 18 months during a ship’s
regularly-scheduled maintenance cycle.
“The program managers are saying, ‘I have a perfectly good destroyer today, and you want to add a new payload to it? Do you have any idea what that means? I have to break open a proprietary system that was made by some big company that isn’t going to be the same company that makes the payload. That’s going to be expensive.’ I say, yeah, that’s why the next time we build, we’re not going to buy these large, proprietary things. Give me the backbone, give me power, cooling and volume, and then we’ll turn to other companies to make the payloads. We tested a missile from a new company last fall, they strapped it to the back of the ship, plugged it into a laptop and put in the GPS coordinates of what we wanted to hit, and it worked. That’s the easy part. The hard part is how you integrate that. But if we don’t do what I’m alluding to, we’re always going to be waiting until the next big docking period, which could be years. We don’t have years to put new capabilities into the fleet. Things are evolving too fast.”
To achieve its vision of a modular approach to innovation, Greenert said the Navy also needs to make some significant adjustments to the way it draws up its requirements and tests out new technologies, including more prototyping of systems that allows them to pass or fail early in the acquisition process.
In the past, the service might have taken years to build a detailed compilation of requirements for a new ship, specifying each of its capabilities in excruciating detail. Greenert said the Navy needs a process that can both open itself up to industry ideas it hasn’t yet considered, and that also makes sure the Navy is not demanding capabilities that industry can’t reasonably execute according to the cost and schedule the government has in mind.
“The current requirements process takes a lot of time, it gets a lot of review, but it starts to create a mosaic of what the thing’s going to look like before we’ve even started to consult with industry,” Greenert said. “I think we need to get engineering design modules and concepts out to industry and demonstrated much sooner. We have a means to do that if it’s urgent, and we have done it periodically. But we need to codify that. We also need an understanding with Congress that says, ‘We need to fund this thing, even though we don’t have a certain document finished. We’ve got to see if this thing will work.’ If we work to define the requirement in too much detail, we start shutting a lot of doors. In the world I live in, I’ve got a shipbuilder trying to put together an engine that’s supposed to go to a certain speed, I might not have the slightest clue what I’m actually asking that person to do. I need a process that allows me to say, ‘I need it to go fast.’ Then, the vendor can ask, ‘OK, how fast?’, and then we can talk about the knee in the curve in terms of dollars and speed.”
As one other mechanism to introduce more innovation into the Navy at a faster clip, Greenert’s office has created a bottom-up process that’s designed to garner ideas from the sailors who will ultimately use the technology the Navy deploys across the fleet.
That process, which the Navy terms its rapid innovation cell, has a dedicated pot of money from which Greenert has committed to spend up to $5 million on six different projects per year, all originating from ideas contributed by the Navy’s junior officers, and in some instances, senior enlisted members.
The project has been up and running for two years now. In one case, a sailor devised a testing framework that’s since become the single standard by which every Navy vessel tests its cybersecurity posture.
In another, sailors were looking for ways to make it easier to refuel at sea, complaining that the existing processes made it extremely difficult for officers on the bridge to track of the speed and heading of the oilers alongside them.
“Somebody suggested, ‘Why don’t you try Google Glass?’ They got ahold of Google, and then they built an app so that the course, speed and distance is now portrayed right there in the officer’s glasses. That turned into another project where you can look up at an airplane and find out its course, speed and altitude,” Greenert said. “This generation is all connected, and if they’ve got an idea, they go crazy on the thing. What we have to do is empower that and then reward them by making them understand that they’re the ones making the change. This is all theoretical speak, but it’s a journey I’m on. It’s a bit countercultural, but you’ve got to keep building on it.”