Monday, November 26, 2012

Darwinian Naval Evolution

For those whose biology education may be a bit rusty, Charles Darwin was the man credited with developing the theory of evolution.  Summarizing, evolution is the development of an organism in response to survival pressures.  The mechanism of evolution is genetic mutation.  Spontaneous changes in genetic code cause new characteristics in the organism.  Those characteristics which prove beneficial to the organism’s survival are retained and passed on to future generations.  Those that do not aid in survival or actively hinder survival are not passed on because the organism does not live long enough to breed. 

The key point from the above is that successful change is a response to pressure.  For example, a new predator moves into an area and it is highly attracted to red colored birds as a food source.  Over time, some red birds are, instead, born blue due to genetic mutations.  Being blue and less noticeable to the predator, the mutated birds are more likely to survive and eventually all the birds are blue.  That’s a simplistic example but it illustrates the role that pressure plays on evolution.

How does this apply to naval development?  Well, much like an organism, the Navy is constantly changing or mutating and exhibiting new characteristics.  Some of those changes may be beneficial and are propagated to the future fleet and some are not beneficial and are eliminated from the future fleet.  To complete the analogy, we have to recognize what constitutes the pressure on the naval organism that determines which characteristics are good or bad.  Do you see what the pressure is?  It’s combat, of course!

Is the Navy Evolving in the Right Direction?

During WWII, many different ship types, weapons, tactics, etc. were tried and the pressure of combat determined which were beneficial and would be passed on to future ships.  By the end of the evolutionary period (the end of the war), the naval organism had evolved to as near a perfect fit for its environment (WWII) as possible.

Once the war ended the selective pressure of combat ceased.  Naval characteristics continued to change, however, there was no longer anything to measure them against and really determine their usefulness.  Oh sure, for a while the veterans of WWII remembered the lessons and tried their best to evaluate the new characteristics against the pressures of combat that they had experienced.  With time, though, the veterans retired and the Navy was left without even the memory of combat.

So what happened as a result?  One has only to look at the current fleet for a litany of questionable characteristics that have taken hold without the pressure of combat to weed them out.  Consider,

  • the Navy has abandoned armor except for shrapnel protection
  • the stunning decrease in size and number of naval guns
  • the almost debilitating dependency on GPS
  • the unstated assumption that our satellite (and other) communications will not be challenged
  • the extensive use of aluminum (and now wood!) in ship construction despite several examples of the tragic consequences using this material
  • the Navy has forgotten that excess manning is the most important aspect of damage control
  • the Navy has forgotten that men will be killed in combat and excess manning is the only way to replace them during combat
  • the Navy has forgotten that ships will be lost in combat and that speed of construction and affordability are the means to replace ships during war
  • the Navy has forgotten the lessons of redundancy and separation of vital equipment
  • the Navy has forgotten that simplicity ensures operability, reliability, and repairability

The Navy has not been engaged in combat since WWII.  Yes, there have been moments of low level conflict but not combat with a peer.  There has been no pressure on the Navy to force development of combat-desirable characteristics.  As a result, the Navy has lost its way with respect to developing combat-capable warships, effective weapon systems, and effective doctrine and tactics.  Today’s ships, weapons, and tactics are evaluated by criteria other than combat effectiveness.  Instead, affordability, comfort, public relations, social imperatives, politics, political correctness, ease of construction, desire to maintain work for shipyards, etc. have become the primary criteria.  While some of these criteria may be desirable at a secondary level, most have nothing to do with combat effectiveness and yet, absent the pressure of combat, have become the means by which we design, build, and evaluate ships, weapons, and tactics.  Is it any wonder we have problems?  Do you have any doubt that our next war will reveal how poorly the Navy has directed its own evolution?

Consider the example of the Viet Nam war.  That conflict was strictly an aviation combat affair but it revealed the fallacy of the assumption that dogfighting was dead.  It revealed the weakness (bordering on utter failure) of the Sparrow weapon system.  It revealed the weakness of a jet engine in the Phantom that left a giant smoke trail.  It revealed the total lack of effective air combat tactics that was rectified only with the advent of Top Gun.  And so on …

This does not mean that none of the Navy’s developments are successes.  Aegis, for example, may well be an effective weapon system but it has not been proven under the pressure of combat.  It may succeed brilliantly or it may fail miserably.  More likely, it will need further changes to be truly effective – changes which will be revealed only under pressure.

The Navy needs to recognize that they have not been under pressure for quite some time and that many flawed ships, systems, and tactics have taken hold.  Short of intentionally starting a war just to evaluate equipment, what other options are there to subject new characteristics to pressure?  Far and away the best option would be to conduct as realistic training as possible.  We’ve discussed this in previous posts.  This would be the closest thing to combat and would go a long way towards providing the pressure that would allow the Navy to evolve in the proper direction.  Can the USS Darwin pass on its characteristics or will it be an evolutionary dead end?

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