CNO Greenert had an article published in the most recent issue of Proceedings espousing “payloads over platforms” (1). His premise is that the Navy’s future lies in modular payloads rather than in tightly integrated ships and weapon systems due to the ability to modify payloads faster and cheaper than entire ships. This is not an entirely new concept and he acknowledges that point with examples of weapon systems being modernized over the years on existing ships. However, Greenert suggests that the Navy of the future will take the modular concept to the LCS level in which the payload (module) is totally divorced from the platform (the ship) other than drawing electrical and other necessary utilities from it.
While this sounds good, initially, there is an aspect to modular payloads that was overlooked in the article. Not all payloads can be made totally independent of the platform. In fact, most will be significantly dependent on the platform’s characteristics to achieve full effectiveness.
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Of course, if we ever get to the point that all kinds of futuristic technologies are invented that allow the carrying platform to stand well off and simply launch other vehicles (manned or unmanned) to perform the search and prosecution than the carrying platform truly doesn’t matter and, in fact, could be a commercial cargo ship since it wouldn’t be involved in the combat aspect of the payload’s function and would be simply a payload cargo ship. However, as the LCS module development debacle has demonstrated, this kind of technology leap is still decades away, at best.
For the foreseeable future, CNO Greenert is failing to heed the lesson of the LCS and wants to continue designing inherently weak platforms under the assumption that future wishful thinking payload modules will totally compensate for the platform’s weaknesses. Payload and platform can’t be uncoupled unless we are willing to accept sub-optimal performance.
On the other hand, a scaled down version of modularity wherein standard size “pits” are built into the platform to accept varying sensor or weapon packages is, potentially, a useful idea and, indeed, has already been implemented in various ship classes such as the MEKOs. This allows flexibility and upgradability in weapon/sensor selection without sentencing the platform to mediocrity.
The Navy needs good, solid ship designs with the ability to easily incorporate reasonable upgrades. The Navy does not need more LCS-type designs that attempt to leapfrog the technology ladder and are doomed to failure.
(1) USNI Proceedings, “Payloads over Platforms: Charting a New Course”, Greenert, July 2012