Payloads over Platforms.
Ford pickups over Ferraris.
Certain ideas get repeated so often that eventually discussion of their underlying validity (or lack thereof) gets bypassed and the discussion moves on to implementation. Diversity is one example. Despite absolutely no evidence that diversity offers any advantage, the national discussion bypassed the validity of diversity and moved straight into methods for achieving it. Similarly, modularity has moved beyond discussion of its merits (or lack thereof) and straight into methods for achieving it.
CNO Greenert has been one of the biggest champions of modularity with numerous public statements espousing payloads over platforms but with little discussion of the actual merits. Are modular payloads really the universal solution to all our tactical, technological, engineering, and budgetary challenges? Navy leadership would assure that they are. Are they, though?
Let’s consider a simple example. We want to win a car race. How do we do it given that we only have a pickup truck at our disposal? Well, modularity would suggest we simply put a bigger engine (the module, in this case) in the truck. Unfortunately, about half way through the first lap our truck would find its engine failing due to an inadequately sized exhaust system, its brakes overheating and failing because they aren’t properly sized for the power of the engine, the acceleration would be incapable of competing with the other true race cars because the gearing isn’t optimized for the engine, its tires would be shredding due to the high speeds, stress, and friction induced heat, and, worst, we’d crash because the steering and suspension couldn’t handle the high speed cornering. In short, our modular pickup truck would get blown away by the specialized race cars whose every component was exquisitely optimized for racing.
What went wrong? We had a modular approach and should have won, shouldn’t we? The problem is that our module, the engine, was not tightly integrated with the rest of the truck (the platform) and to achieve maximum performance, it must be.
Now, if we want our modular truck to simply be as cost efficient as it can, we could add a more fuel efficient engine and we’d see improvement. That’s an undemanding requirement that could be met by a module change. Even there, we still wouldn’t achieve as good cost efficiency as a vehicle whose every component was designed for cost efficiency and tightly integrated to function together towards that end.
We see, then, that the weakness of modules is that, by their very definition, they are not tightly integrated with the carrying platform. Lack of integration means, by definition, that performance must be sub-optimal. That’s OK if the module’s task is undemanding. Want to change a plane from a transport role to a cargo role by removing the modular seating? No problem. There’s no real penalty for the resulting cargo plane being a bit less efficient than a purpose designed cargo plane.
However, when we start applying modularity to combat we run into the race car problem. Asking an LCS to become an ASW platform by loading the ASW module (assuming it worked!) is asking a sub-optimal ASW vessel to go up against a dedicated, optimal submarine totally designed to kill ships. Sub-optimal versus optimal. The winner is going to be the submarine.
In contrast to a generic, modular ASW platform, an optimal ASW platform should have quieting built into every component from the first rivet on up. Every piece of machinery must be acoustically isolated. The engines should be selected for acoustic and motive performance in the ASW operational speed range. The sensors should be tightly integrated into the seaframe so that self-noise interference is absolutely minimized. The hull, itself, should be sized and shaped to minimize self-noise and maximize maneuverability within the range of tactics that will be used. That kind of integration and ultimate capability can’t be achieved simply by loading a module onto any old platform and, yet, that’s exactly what the Navy wants to do. We’re intentionally developing a second tier fleet while our enemies are doing their best to develop optimized, focused, lethal platforms.
Modularity is fine for non-combat applications but has no place in combat.