USNI’s website has an article about the next generation Navy aircraft that prompted a few thoughts. The article discussed several of the options that the Navy is considering (1). Here’s a couple of tidbits,
“Under the Navy’s vision for its Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) battle network, an individual platform would not necessarily need to have a full suite of sensors—rather it could rely on off-board data. Data-linked information from another platform in the air such as the Northrop Grumman E-2D or at sea like an Aegis cruiser or destroyer could provide targeting information or even guide a weapon launched from a platform like a future F/A-XX.”
“... Rear Adm. Mike Manazir, the Navy’s director of air warfare, told USNI News that the F/A-XX would carry missiles, have the required power and cooling for directed energy weapons and sensors target the smallest radar cross-section targets. Manazir also said the F/A-XX family of systems might incorporate the use of cyber warfare capabilities at a tactical level—which the Navy is currently exploring.”
What do these have in common? They’re incredibly advanced concepts that propose non-existent technology. We’ve thoroughly discussed the pitfalls in initiating programs based on non-existent technology: schedule slippages, cost overruns, quantity reductions, and technology failures.
Oh good grief, ComNavOps is going off on another rant about program management failure. We get it, already. Haven’t we read enough about this? Well, relax. We have read enough about that (for the moment!) and we’re going in a different direction for the rest of this.
What occurs to me is that the Navy is pouring an enormous amount of effort into its combat aircraft (whether wisely directed or not is an issue we’ll set aside for another time). The article discusses the Navy’s interactions with industry to try and capture the best technologies. Numerous studies are being conducted to define the aircraft’s requirements. Further, the level of technology being contemplated for this program is mind-boggling (again, we’ll set aside the problems inherent in that). Let’s assume, for sake of discussion, that it all works perfectly and the Navy produces a reasonably priced plane that can network, interface, shoot thousand mile weapons using some other platform’s sensor data, mounts lasers and railguns, is totally invisible to any enemy sensor, requires no maintenance, and can be optionally manned or unmanned. Wow! What an achievement! No enemy could stand up to that combat force.
Of course, a single diesel sub with a couple of torpedoes could sink the entire airwing.
Of course, a single mine could sink an entire airwing.
You see the problem? The Navy is so focused on the ultra-high end technology toys that they’re failing to see the weak links in the overall naval warfighting machine. When you’re putting the bulk of your effort and resources into the very high end and ignoring the lowly mine or submarine that can destroy it all, you’ve lost sight of the overall picture.
Where’s the equivalent emphasis on MCM? Our current MCM capability has atrophied almost to the point of non-existence. What new mine detection technology have we developed (don’t say unmanned – that’s the same old technology, just remotely controlled; great from a safety perspective but still the same old technology)? Where’s the push for new MCM technology development? What new focused MCM platforms are we developing?
Where’s the equivalent emphasis on ASW? Our Burkes are woefully undertrained for ASW. We have no focused ASW platform. To be fair, the SSN fleet should be a potent ASW force although I have no idea whether their level of training is compared to what it once was during the height of the Cold War. I suspect it’s dropped off but I don’t know that. What new ASW technology advances have we made? Where’s the push for ASW research? What new ASW platforms are we developing?
Let’s be fair, here. There have been some minor improvements or, at least, attempts at improvement. The LCS was a well-intentioned attempt at MCM and ASW, although it failed miserably. The P-8’s multi-static sonobuoy system is an attempt at improving detection although it is currently non-functional and its actual benefits (as opposed to manufacturer’s claims), if any, have yet to be demonstrated.
You get the idea. The amount of effort and resources being poured into advanced aircraft design and procurement dwarfs the amount going into MCM and ASW by a staggering margin and yet it is the lowly MCM and ASW capabilities that will determine whether the airwing can even survive long enough to get to the fight and stay in it. The Navy is focused on the glittering toys and ignoring the down-in-the-bilges capabilities that will safeguard the new toys.
Naval Institute, "Navy Taps Industry in Quest For Next Generation Fighter", Dave Majumdar, US September 10, 2014,