We’ve repeatedly discussed the Navy’s fascination with and, indeed, fixation on, revolutionary advances as opposed to evolutionary advances. Sadly, but predictably, most of the Navy’s attempts at revolutionary advancement have failed miserably. While the LCS and JSF are obvious poster children for the pitfalls of revolutionary advancement, there are numerous other examples.
Does the seeming inevitability of failure associated with revolutionary advancement mean that the Navy (and more generally the military) must content itself with only evolutionary advancements? The answer is a double “no”.
The First No. No, revolutionary advances can and should be pursued but not within the context of production. Revolutionary advances should be pursued as research projects. We need to attempt revolutionary advances but we need to do so in an environment forgiving of the inevitable failures that will occur along the developmental path. That’s why the LCS, JSF, and others have failed so badly. It’s not that their failures are either unexpected or inherently “bad” – heck, failure is the source of knowledge and the impetus for success – it’s that their failures have been institutionalized or “baked in” to production. Thus, a flawed LCS concept is produced 55 times over and must be corrected 55 times at a cost of 55 times a single event as opposed to a single failure during the course of a revolutionary research program. Further, the production failures produce secondary negative effects such as bad public relations, loss of confidence among Congress, the public, and even the uniformed ranks, burgeoning cost overruns that impact other programs, and a reluctance to allocate additional monies to fix the problems or to initiate other new programs.
Let the revolution begin but let it be conducted at the research level rather than production.
The Second No. No, revolutionary advances can come about from evolutionary or even existing technologies. Herein lies the main premise of this post. The Navy can achieve revolutionary advances by utilizing existing technology. Huh?? How can revolutionary advances occur with existing technology? Doesn’t “revolutionary” by definition involve technologies that don’t yet exist? Yep, that’s correct. Here’s the loophole, though … If the technologies exist but just not within the Navy, then incorporation of existing technologies can, indeed, produce revolutionary advances.
Here’s a ridiculous example that will illustrate the concept. Suppose that we’ve all been “driving” anti-gravity cars for the last decade or two but that the Navy has never adopted the technology. If they did, they’d instantly have ships that were no longer constrained by hydrodynamic drag forces and would be instantly many times faster. A revolutionary jump in capability would have been achieved by adopting existing technology!
That’s all well and good as a fictional example but there’s no such real world, non-military technology that would produce revolutionary advances, is there?
Before we go any further, let’s briefly consider what we mean by revolutionary advances. We tend to associate revolution with technology: unmanned totally autonomous vehicles, lasers, rail guns, invisibility coatings, dynamic armor, and so forth. What is it that’s really revolutionary about those technologies, assuming they worked and became suddenly available? It’s not the technology, per se. It’s the changes in tactics, doctrine, and operations that they enable that are what’s really revolutionary. A working laser would allow us to significantly rethink how we conduct AAW, how far we could push into an A2/AD zone, how aggressive we could be in conducting amphibious assaults, how many ships we need to protect a task force, and so on. Had the LCS worked as originally envisioned, it would have totally revolutionized HOW we conduct ASW, MCM, and land force support, not WHAT we do. We’d still conduct the same tasks but in a completely different manner.
So, back to our premise … Are there existing non-military (meaning civilian) technologies that can revolutionize naval operations? Let’s look at some possibilities.
- Heave compensated cranes – These cranes have been around for some time in the merchant marine world and their adoption might allow VLS reloads at sea, cargo transfers unlimited by sea state, and revolutionary impacts on amphibious loading/unloading operations.
- Barges – These have been used in the commercial world for many years to provide mobile, flexible platforms for an endless variety of tasks. The military could use them to host large Army aviation units and special ops forces for persistent operations. These could revolutionize our peacetime operations, in particular.
- Podded Propulsion Units – These propulsion units offer many potential benefits and have been in commercial use for some time. These could revolutionize ship propulsion design and capabilities.
- User Interface - Advances like mobile device apps
and voice actuated systems from the consumer world could be applicable to
command and control and CIC. The
incident was due to misinterpreted data that might have been prevented by suitable apps and voice interface. Data interpretation has always been a weak link and the consumer mobile device world offers many possibilities for revolutionizing our Command and Control process. Vincennes
- Earthquake and Sway Tolerant Structures – The Navy is plagued by stress induced cracking of hulls and superstructures. The civilian world has long since mastered the construction of earthquake and sway (skyscrapers and bridges) tolerant structures. The Navy ought to look into adapting some of those techniques to ship construction. For example, poor vibration control design in the LCS has rendered the Mk110 gun useless when the ship is at speed. Another example is the superstructures of the Ticos, LCS, and, to a lesser extent, the Burkes. They suffer from stress induced cracks due to the constant motion of the ship on the sea. Adapting civilian sway design into naval architecture could revolutionize ship design and construction.
- Armor – Tanks (not a civilian technology but not a naval one, either) utilize an amazing variety of composite armors, reactive armors, spaced armors, spall liners, etc. Spacecraft utilize ablative armor. Automobiles utilize impact absorbing “armor”. Adapting some of those armor schemes to ships could revolutionize ship protection.
|Active Heave Compensated Crane|
There are also existing technologies within the Navy and the military that are not being utilized to their fullest. Here’s an example from the Russian navy – the Kashtan. They took the existing gattling gun CIWS that’s been around since the Cold War and bolted it together with a simple surface to air Stinger-type missile. The result was a revolutionary close-in weapon system. We’ve seen small examples of the same type of thing in the military. The warhead/seeker from one missile is married to a longer range propulsion body and a completely new, far more effective weapon is created – a revolutionary advance achieved by a recombination of existing components. That’s good and we need to do more of it.
- Existing ICBMs could be paired with conventional warheads to create truly long range tactical ballistic missiles.
- MLRS (Multiple Launch Rocket System) could be navalized and mounted aboard ships to provide long range, high explosive, high volume naval fire support.
- Army counterbattery radars (Firefinder and GATOR) could be navalized to provide protection for amphibious assault forces.
Some might quibble and attempt to call these evolutionary developments and, admittedly, there can be a degree of overlap between the two concepts. Evolutionary merely enhances an existing capability whereas revolutionary creates a new capability. At this point it becomes a matter of semantics and is not worth further discussion. The premise remains.
|Russian Kashtan CIWS|
Finally, there’s also revolution from history. There are weapon systems that have existed that, if adapted to today’s needs, would provide revolutionary capabilities. Perhaps the leading example is the Navy’s need for a truly long range anti-ship missile. Well, guess what? The Navy had a proven long range anti-ship missile once upon a time – the Tomahawk Anti-Ship Missile (TASM) – but gave it up. Why not bring it back? It would provide a revolutionary anti-ship capability.
Other historical platforms that could offer revolutionary capabilities today include:
- The S-3 Viking which could provide long range ASW, higher capacity aerial tanking (KS-3A), and electronic signals intelligence (ES-3A Shadow) could fill dire capability gaps with the Navy’s dream of a common airframe.
- The A-1 Skyraider, a propeller driven attack aircraft which could relieve the Hornet fleet of its pickup truck plinking duties thereby saving wear and tear on our front line combat aircraft
- The Spruance class destroyer which was the best ASW ship ever built and would revolutionize today’s ASW operations.
The point is that revolution is available from sources other than fantasy technology wishlists. Fantasy is fine as long as it remains in the R&D realm and not production. There are plenty of existing revolutionary capabilities just waiting to be found. Look around, Navy! Stop depending on Peter Pan for your next wonder-weapon and start applying some imagination to history and everyday technology.