CAPITOL HILL: The new Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. John Richardson, previewed a Navy “design for maintaining maritime superiority” this morning. The service will roll it out in January, just before the 2017 budget. While Richardson seems a bit more guarded than his predecessor in his public comments — at least, so far — he did tease enough details to build a partial picture of the plan.
Among the goals are a Navy with an acquisition express lane to speed promising unmanned vehicles, cyber weapons, and electronic warfare technologies from the lab to the fleet. The CNO wants to move more and more systems from the sclerotic conventional acquisition system to this high-speed bypass over time. All this high-tech acceleration is driven by anxiety over America’s eroding advantage, especially that over Russia and China.
“It is possible…to come up with kind of an HOV lane, if you will, that can fast track some really mature [examples of] the right types of technologies,” Adm. Richardson told reporters today at the Newseum. “Then once you see that happening — and this has to be done with full transparency, right? — then more and more people can sort of start to gradually move over to this streamlined way of acquiring.”
What sort of systems might lead the way? “The UCLASS [drone] program and other unmanned technologies — undersea, surface — are sort of primed for this kind of approach,” Richardson said. The admiral noted that Navy Secretary Ray Mabus is pushing hard, creating new organizations to help nascent unmanned projects cross the funding “valley of death” from the lab to formal program-of-record status.
In general, Richardson said, while high-speed acquisitions probably won’t work for entire warships — he’d prefer bulk-buy arrangements there — the fast track can accommodate the specific payloads those ships carry, “unmanned being one payload.” But unmanned systems aren’t the only example, he said. So will cyber and electronic warfare. “A lot of those electromagnetic types of payloads in particular, as we move into this information age with vigor will be other candidates for this kind of rapid acquisition, rapid prototyping.”
In his speech earlier this morning to the US Naval Institute, Richardson said that “mainstreaming… information warfare into our business is, I think, key to way we need to do things going forward.”
What exactly does that mean, I asked him afterwards — cyber warfare? Electronic warfare? Both?
“When I think about an ‘informationalized’ navy,” Richardson said (interestingly using a Chinese military-theoretical term), “I think all of the above, Sydney. And so it does include cyber; it does include electromagnetic warfare; it includes everywhere were information travels over a network — whether it’s a fiber optic network, an electromagnetic network, you name it, [even] an acoustic network.”
(Fiber optic cables, which transmit information as light rather than electricity, are commonly used for transoceanic cables that carry vast amounts of data. They are big, static targets for deep-diving submersibles to tap into or sabotage. Russian submersibles have been detected near major cables recently. Acoustic networks, which use sound, are short-ranged systems sometimes used to control unmanned underwater vehicles).
“Mainstreaming” these evolving technologies is about much more than the technologies themselves, the admiral emphasized. “What we don’t want to have happen, let’s say, is we put together the ingredients for an operation or an exercise or something, we kind of mix that all together, we put it in the oven, and we take it out, and we say, wait a second, what about the information warfare part of this? And then we sort of put that on as the icing to that cake after it’s been baked,” he said. “We want to get that information [operation] into the early-on planning.”
Much the same holds true of unmanned systems, Richardson said. When unmanned enthusiasts gather, “too often the person who’s not in the room is the operations guy, the N3,” he said. “We need to get some of these unmanned technologies out there doing missions.” The Unmanned Carrier-Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) drone is “a prime candidate,” he added. (However, UCLASS has been held up for over a year by fundamental debates over whether it should be primarily a stealth bomber or an armed scout).
Richardson is hardly alone in his push for better procurement, but different proponents emphasize different reasons for reform. Speaking later this morning at the Naval Institute event, for example, Senate Armed Services chairman John McCain promised to build on the reforms in the 2016 defense bill.
“I assure you, this year we will be doing a lot more on acquisition reform,” McCain said, “and I’m sorry to say it’s going to break a lot of china.” (Protip: The feisty Senator is not really sorry). But the senator focused on the financial reasons, especially decrying the $2 billion overrun on the carrier USS Ford. “How can I justify that to my constituents?” he fumed. “Well, the answer: I can’t.”
Richardson, by contrast — like the McCain’s counterpart Mac Thornberry and Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall — focused on acquisition reform as a way to accelerate technological progress. While Pentagon modernization programs plod on in a straight line, he said, the civilian economy and, increasingly, our adversaries are advancing at an exponential rate.
“I would argue we’re lagging a little bit behind. We just have not really adapted,” Richardson said “On our best days, we can convince ourselves we’re doing okay, that this is manageable. But you can see going forward that gap is only going to widen.”