Friday, September 16, 2016

Just Because We Have The Capability ...

The US military has a fascination with technology – always has, always will – even to the detriment of maintenance, training, tactics, etc.  The problem with this fascination is that it completely violates the K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle which rules the battlefield.  The combination of Murphy (Murphy’s Law) and KISS, roaming the battlefield, ensure that overly complex technology will fail or, at best, struggle to provide even halfway useful performance.

Let’s consider some examples throughout history. 

The sword was a lethal advance in close quarters combat over the club but when it first appeared it suffered from very poor performance.  Swords would break at the worst possible moment (are there good moments in battle?) and wielders struggled to keep a useful edge on the blades.  Many users were killed when their swords failed in battle.  This was because, initially, the metallurgy was insufficiently advanced to make the sword a practical battlefield weapon.  Eventually, of course, the technology of the sword advanced to the point where it became a viable weapon.

Steam engines offered a huge advance in naval propulsion.  However, the first steam engines were inefficient (to put it mildly), rarely worked, and were extremely difficult to repair and maintain.  The operators of the time, the sailors, simply didn’t have the technological understanding of the basic concept to allow them to maintain the engines and extract the potential performance from the engines.  Many ships were stranded, powerless, when their engines broke down.  Eventually, of course, the technology caught up to the point where we could produce fairly reliable engines.  Just as importantly, the education level of the operators also caught up.  Sailors came to understand the basic engineering concepts and were capable of repairing and maintaining the engines.

Radar revolutionized warfare, offering the ability to see things beyond the visual range.  The initial introduction of radar in WWII did not proceed smoothly, however.  The equipment was unreliable and the operators had no understanding of the fundamental principles and were unable to interpret the radar returns even when it worked.  The naval battles of Guadalcanal demonstrated the pitfalls of introducing technology that was too advanced.  Ship Captains didn’t trust the devices and either ignored the information or failed to properly utilize the capability.  As a result, many ships and sailors died when they needn’t have.  Eventually, of course, the technology improved and, more importantly, the operators came to understand the basic engineering principles and learned to correctly interpret and utilize the technology

Just because we have the technology doesn’t mean we should instantly put it on the battlefield.  Sure, crowds of manufacturer’s technicians, all with advanced doctorates in specialized fields, can make a given technology function in carefully scripted tests but what happens when that technology gets installed in the fleet and has to be maintained by 20 year old kids who don’t have the education to understand the basic principles?

An illustrative example is Aegis.  Aegis was introduced to the fleet with the support of hundreds of tech reps sailing on every Aegis ship.  The system was carefully and lovingly maintained by the best technical support that manufacturing had to offer.  Over time, however, the manufacturer’s reps returned home and the maintenance of Aegis fell to the average sailor, trained through a Navy tech school.  Well, there’s a world of difference between a Navy tech school education and the manufacturer’s Ph.D engineers who built the system.  The predictable happened.  Aegis system performance degraded across the fleet.  Aegis performance got so bad that the Navy had to implement one of their infamous Admiral-chaired committees to address the problem. 

The really interesting part of the Aegis story is that the degradation was not even noticed at first.  Proceedings had an interesting article some years ago by an Aegis Captain who thought he had one of the best Aegis systems/ships in the fleet, only to find out that his system was markedly degraded when reviewed by the manufacturer’s team of true experts.  Neither the Captain nor his Aegis techs had any idea the system was significantly degraded.  Aegis was too complex for the operators to even know that it wasn’t working well.

Sidenote:  The Aegis improvement program was classified and I don’t know the status of the system, fleetwide, today.  I suspect that with the effects of minimal manning and manpower cutbacks it isn’t good.

Let me be clear, technology is not a bad thing.  What’s bad is forcing immature technology into service before the reliability and maintainability have caught up with the bleeding edge technology.  When war comes, we need technology that works and is robust enough to function under the dirty, maintenance deprived conditions of a battlefield.  Aegis is nice but if it breaks down 30 days into combat due to lack of sophisticated maintenance, wouldn’t we be better off with old fashioned rotating radars?  If the F-35 that, in peacetime, barely managed to function with the aid of Ph.D technicians working in sterile conditions resembling a hospital operating room can’t be maintained in a dirty carrier hangar and covered in salt water (have you seen some of the pictures of carrier aircraft? – they get awfully dirty!) then what’s the point of having it?

Here’s an example of a technology introduction that worked – the aircraft piston engine.  When revolutionary WWI aircraft took to the skies, the engines worked well.  Other aspects of aircraft design and construction did not but the engines did.  Why?  Because, by the time the aircraft was introduced, the engine itself was commonplace and mechanics understood the technology.

Technology can advance and succeed only when maintainability and reliability go hand in hand with it.  Just because we have a given technological capability doesn’t mean we should instantly use it.  In the long run it’s better to operate it as a prototype and gain valuable experience before introducing it into production. 

For example, this philosophy would have paid off in spades in the entire LCS module program.  Had we built just one prototype LCS and its modules, we would have realized that the technologies were too immature to introduce into production and we would have saved billions of dollars.

Remember the old Enterprise/Long Beach radar systems?  They were revolutionary but no one knew how to maintain and operate them and so they failed and had to be replaced.  If we had operated the system as a prototype, we would have saved a great deal of money and had alternate, functional radar systems installed on those ships.

The Navy is currently violating this philosophy repeatedly despite numerous failures.  The DOT&E annual reports are full of examples of the Navy pushing to waive testing to get brand new, immature technology into production rather than fully develop it and then introduce it as reasonably mature capability.

Consider the recent example of the LCS propulsion system.  The complexity of the dual engines and combining gears are clearly beyond the operating and maintenance capabilities of the crews (crews the Navy claims are the oldest, most experienced, and best trained in the Navy).  The propulsion system should have been part of a prototype LCS until the technology matured enough to be operated and maintained by the average sailor.  Instead, the immature technology was pushed into production and every LCS that has put to sea for any length of time has suffered catastrophic propulsion failures;  some of the ships have suffered multiple failures!

We need to return to the concept of prototypes.  We need to build them and operate them.  Prototypes allow us to learn from our mistakes and grow and mature the technology without jeopardizing our battlefield success.  Hand in hand with that is the opportunity to learn about the maintenance and operating procedures of new technology before it enters production.  The Navy’s rush to push the latest technology into production is unwise, costly in the long run, and dangerous in that it leaves us with production ships and aircraft that have failed and unmaintainable technology installed.  That F-35 that the Marines declared ready for combat, isn’t really – in fact, it’s not even close.

The Navy needs to relax, be patient, and let technology mature and allow maintenance to catch up.  The way to do this is prototypes. 

Just because we have the capability doesn’t mean we should try to use it.  If the average sailor can’t operate and maintain it, it shouldn’t be in the fleet.


  1. Fascinating reference to SCANFAR on the Long Beach, I had no idea AESA went back that far. Brilliant, but unfortunately far far ahead of its time. Excellent example of what you’re saying I guess.

    1. SCANFAR was actually a simplified version of the Typhon Combat System/SPG-59 that was truly beyond state of the art. They tried to combine search/tracking/guidance into one radar.

      They are only getting that to work in the past decade or so.

    2. We still don't know (at least in the public domain) whether radar can successfully perform the guidance function in the real world while also scanning and tracking. All our Aegis ships still have separate illuminators.

    3. Actually we do. The European APAR's is an active phased array that does the medium range search, target tracking, illumination for up to 32 missiles.

      The PAAMS/SAMPSON system on the RN's Type 45 destroyers seem to be capable of it too.

      The US is finally getting in the AMDR/SPY-6, in small arrays, on the Burke-flight 3 ships.

    4. I don't know anything about European systems and to what extent they have been realistically tested. I have no doubt the claims are extravagant. Whether the real world performance matches that is unknown, at least to me.

      The US Navy has not, to the best of my knowledge, conducted guidance with a radar. Thus, the technology is unproven as yet.

  2. Now I’m thinking that I generally agree with you here. (Even though as you know I’m an R&D guy)


    For the sake of debate, do you not think that ;

    1] You can’t find the issues until it’s used by the sailors in realistic environments and

    2] Maintenance and Fleet experience and understanding can only grow through using the new systems.

    I’m not sure without some level of deployment. And ultimately sooner or later you got to let a system out of the BETA test stage and into combat, how can you ever know it’s ready till you try it?

    (Circular argument I know, but I just wanted to throw it out there)

    1. I know you didn't miss the entire point of the post so let me sum it up for those, not you, who might have: don't put unproven technology into production just because you can. The key phrase was "into production". There is nothing wrong with prototyping - I made the point strongly that prototyping is what we should be doing. There is also nothing wrong with putting a prototype aboard a ship for a deployment to let people see what it can do and learn how to operate/maintain it. The Navy has done this with a laser.

      What you don't do, to repeat the main point yet again, is to put unproven technology into production.

      That should have completely addressed your questions and concerns.

    2. How would you consider Nautilus? Would you consider that a more reasonable way to go? She was launched in '55, and the Skates were already starting to be built.

      A quick turnaround pace to be sure, and they were intended as combat subs if need be, but the class sizes were small as they tweaked the nuclear model.

    3. Nautilus was a one-off prototype - exactly the sort of thing I'm arguing for. Further, the only unique thing about the Nautilus was the nuclear power plant and that had been extensively prototyped on land with various efforts dating back to 1946. Again, exactly the kind of prototyping I'm arguing for.

  3. You are setting up another "I TOLD YOU SO" entry, when the Navy refuses to follow 1970's recommendations to prototype and operationally test FIRST.

  4. I don't think hybrid propulsion for ships is new or overly complicated. But I believe that an IEP system, i.e. harnessing electricity straight from the engines, bypassing complicated transmissions and long drive shafts, and directly powering electric propellers would have been the better option.

    Not just because of the reduced mechanical complexity, but because of the massively increased electrical power available to the ship, and the flexibility in how the energy output is allocated.

    Furthermore reliability is not solely a function of the amount or level of technology used, the Russians build complex highly advanced yet extremely reliable, high performance 4++ Gen fighters capable of operating from even the most run down and dirty airfields.

    The US builds comparable fighters with roughly the same level of complexity, but with no emphasis or priority to the dirty conditions of war, the lack of parts, engineers, and clean/undammaged runways that would define a modern war. Russian Fighters have to be able to operate in any environment, with an assumed lack of supplies and personal.

    They have for instance designed built in mechanical precautions to prevent debris that would otherwise severely damage a western fighter from damaging their planes. In a western environment, the runway are checked for such debris and kept very clean...

    The sweedes have also designed their fighters to be low-maintainance, the Gripen is therefore much cheaper to operate than the F16, the whole engine can be replaced very quickly, minimal turn-arround time, minimal start-up time, yet employs similar engines and comparable sensors and other technology.

    There are designs for ground vehicles focusing on same priorities, the bradley is designed to be the poster-boy child of the army, but on the other side of the world the PMMC G5 a derivitive of the reliable and proven M113 whilst not looking as sexy is nethertheless a highly capable battle taxi, full protection from small arms, add-on protection against missiles/rpgs, the driver has excellent visability (way better than other APCs, like a normal car) and the engine can be replaced in well under an hour.

    The whole vehicle could probably be stripped down and the drive train replaced in a few hours with a COTS engine, tops.

    Point is you can have the technology and keep much of the low total cost of ownership, the high reliability, but it has to be a priority during the inital design phase and as part of the contract and as part of the programme, and for the military and the people in charge of procurement. If people aren't on board with it, if money isn't placed in support of these goals, then companies like LM will sell ships like HP sells printers, and they will make their money selling INK (parts and servicing, and replacements....).

    1. You may have missed the point of the post. The post was not about technology, per se. It was about introducing cutting edge technology too soon. You seem to be describing solid technology that's simply poorly integrated into the platform. That's a different subject.

  5. Questions from a French national.
    What is your opinion about French Navy (the Charles de Gaulle, the Mistrals, the FREMMs,...), the Rafale M, etc
    I wonder why US Navy wants bigger, heavier,..., toys?
    Why not to aim at having 50 Charles de Gaulle, 100 Mistrals, 500 FREMMS, 1000 Rafale M, etc...?

    1. First, I have to confess that I do not know enough to have valid opinions about French ships and aircraft.

      That said, the de Gaulle is too small to be of use in high end combat. She can barely carry enough aircraft to defend herself let alone conduct heavy duty strikes. However, for the US Navy, I've called for smaller carriers than the Nimitz class and the de Gaulle has the overall dimensions that might fit that need. Of course, the smaller carriers would be paired with larger ones in the event of high end combat.

      The Mistrals seem okay, what little I know of them, but, again, like the de Gaulle, are too small to be the only amphibious assault vessel.

      I do not believe the US Navy has any need for frigates as the rest of the world defines them.

      I know nothing about the Rafale's air to air performance so I have no opinion about it.

      In summary, the French military is fine for peacetime and low end combat but is entirely too small and unsuited for high end combat. I'm not being insulting, I'm just being objective.

    2. You are US centered not insulting.

    3. This is a chance for me to learn something from you.

      What do you see as the capability of the French military? Capable of stopping Russia or China? Capable of low end combat? Capable of combat only in conjunction with another military? Something else?

      What do you see as the French military's role in the world? Global intervention? Self-protection, self-interest only? Something else?

      I'm genuinely curious!

    4. Rafale is a pretty solid aircraft.

      Actually, it is probably the best dogfighter right now in the world.

      That's why I advocated the US license manufacturing some.

  6. One solution might be to give DOT&E actual power to stop the production of a weapons system or new ship if it doesn't work reliably enough to be useful.

    Granted, a lot of ships would be stopped, but that would leave more funding for training and maintenance.

    It would also encourage a more incremental design approach, versus trying to shove all the newest bells and whistles into the next class of ships at once.