The Navy Moves Toward Smarter Shipbuilding

March 10, 2014 Topic: DefenseState of the MilitarySecurity Region: United States

The Navy Moves Toward Smarter Shipbuilding

Hagel's move to bypass a bureaucratic mess in seeking alternatives to the Littoral Combat Ship should be imitated more broadly.

In his preview of the 2015 Defense Budget last week, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced his decision to truncate the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) at thirty-two hulls, and directed the Navy to “submit alternative proposals to procure a capable and lethal small surface combatant, consistent with the capabilities of a frigate. I’ve directed the Navy to consider 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.” While a decline in the size of the Navy in the face of ever-increasing demand for its capabilities is of great concern, Secretary Hagel’s speech offers the Navy the golden opportunity to get its shipbuilding program under control and set the stage for a return to sensible, affordable procurement in an era of constrained budgets. But the Navy must seize this moment immediately, before the forces of bureaucracy gather to stonewall, and it must use the Secretary’s words as its mandate.

While there are many reasons for the Navy’s acquisition troubles, few are as foundational and pervasive as the bureaucracy attending to the Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System (JCIDS), which governs the requirements side of the requirements/acquisition equation. Proving the adage about good intentions, this process was devised in order to validate “Joint” requirements in order to eliminate duplicative efforts by the Services, although its primary contribution thus far has been to create a bureaucratic Joint organization atop the Service requirements definition functions that does little but slow down the process.

For example, here is an admittedly top-level, mythical case study. The Navy decides that it needs a ship to replace ships going out of service. It looks at the threat, it looks at its existing and future fleet architectures, and it projects what resources would be available to determine the kind of ship (or ships) it would need to replace the capability. Now it enters the JCIDS process, where the first hurdle to clear is whether or not the desired capabilities (platform agnostic) are at all important to the Joint force. This of course, takes time. Once those capabilities are determined to be of value, the JCIDS process grills the Navy as to whether a ship is the right way to provide the capabilities, or whether the capability could be provided by air, ground, space, subsurface, network or some other means. Once this determination is made, the Navy can then move to the equally glacial acquisition process, which is not the subject of this piece. But this total ‘front-end’ process described above has been shown by previous studies on specific programs to consume many months and often years of time.

What is important about what Secretary Hagel said is that in essence, the Navy has clearance to skip several levels of JCIDS bureaucracy, and move straight to an analysis of alternatives, his “…new design, existing ship designs, and a modified LCS…” language. This is of inestimable worth to the Navy as several years of hand-wringing and navel gazing can be averted if the staff of the Secretary of Defense interprets their boss’s plain meaning and allows this to go forward as a Navy-run effort. However, if the bloated bureaucracies at the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Staff are not immediately reined in, they will revert to known behaviors and attempt to jam this Secretary of Defense designated square peg into a Joint Staff-administered round hole. The impact will be delay, and what was intended to be a quick turnaround effort to increase naval global presence will founder, accelerating the already dangerous decline in ship numbers.

The Chief of Naval Operations should act now to prepare for this streamlined effort, and one suggestion is for him to re-create the Reagan-era Ship Characteristics and Improvement Board (SCIB). Among its many responsibilities, the SCIB developed and promulgated initial ship requirements guidance, and approved all subsequent requirements/characteristics modifications. The level of interaction between the operational, requirements oriented Navy and the technical, acquisition oriented Navy enabled by the SCIB was essential to ensuring that the CNO was deeply involved in decisions that tend to slow down acquisitions and make them more expensive. Chief among these is “requirements creep”, in which great new ideas are injected late into mature designs. This creates increased risk in program implementation through parallel development, and unforeseen, unbudgeted integration costs that ultimately increase the total program cost and schedule delays.

All the cosmic tumblers are clicking into place to enable the Navy to regain executive control of shipbuilding, unshackled from the bureaucratic roadblocks of the JCIDS process. The time is now for the Secretary of the Navy to work closely with the Secretary of Defense and Capitol Hill to ensure that Mr. Hagel’s clear intent is realized. The Navy and the nation will benefit from more efficient shipbuilding.

George Sawyer is a Founding Partner of J.F. Lehman and Company, a private equity investment firm. He served as the initial Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Shipbuilding in the Reagan Administration. Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group, a defense consultancy. He also serves as the Assistant Director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower.