June 22, 2022

Panelists challenge US Navy strategic thinking

A WEST conference and expo roundtable deliberately designed to be provocative asked whether the U.S. Navy’s strategy enabled the kind of innovation needed to compete with peer competitors such as China.

Vice Adm. Ann Rondeau, USN (Ret.), President, Naval Post Graduate School, moderated the discussion. The panel also included Adm. James Winnefeld Jr., USN (Ret.), former vice president, Joint Chiefs of Staff; Bran Ferren, Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer, Applied Minds LLC; and Steve Blank, adjunct professor, Stanford University and senior researcher for innovation, Columbia University.

Adm. Winnefeld described three horizons of innovation. The first would include incremental technical and tactical changes that fit into the current strategic concept. Examples might include building radar systems with greater range or slightly more accurate missiles.

The second innovation would include a surge in innovation, such as stealth technology, precision-guided weapons or even machine learning coupled with directed energy weapons. But that would still fit into the current strategy.

“Now we are doing really, really, really well on those first two horizons as an army and as a country. These are actually very important stimulus efforts that help us expand our strategy as our competitor gets closer to reversal. But we can only extend the period before the strategy breaks down again,” Admiral Winnefeld asserted.

The third horizon requires rethinking the whole strategic concept, which “is culturally very, very difficult”, he said.

One way to rethink China is to rethink its center of gravity. This center of gravity is what the adversary fears the most. “That center of gravity, as with any totalitarian government, is their leadership and what they wake up in the morning and really fear, which is control of their people. We see this fear every day in the behavior of China. Look at the Olympics,” the Admiral said. “And we actually see it today with Russia being paranoid about having a free and democratic Ukraine sitting on its border.”

However, targeting that center of gravity as part of a new strategy doesn’t necessarily mean getting into high-end fights with an even opponent engaged in their own backyard. “Rather, it speaks of a whole-of-government solution that jeopardizes the economic and social foundation of the mandate, applying all of our national instruments of power in ways that present dilemmas along a rich escalation ladder to which the army participates. ”

And that “implies a few different capabilities for our navy that we don’t have enough of, or that we’ve allowed to atrophy, or that we don’t even have at all,” Admiral Winnefeld said.

Also, he suggested working on a long-term future strategy is necessary “If we want to serve our nation well” as the country is at a tipping point and “we don’t have much time”, he said. he warned.

For his part, Ferren criticized the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) and the outdated requirements process for the development of new technologies or the acquisition of new systems. “I strongly believe that if we wanted to defeat an enemy, we just had to get them to adopt our process, and we would be safe,” Ferren joked. “We’ve gotten to the stage where we’re paralyzing in terms of innovation for government systems, the military, etc.”

The process is too slow and requires managers to have the answer to generate the requirements before they even know the question, he said, adding that common sense has been suspended. “We no longer do strategic or long-term thinking. If anything, we can do long-term tactical thinking and call it strategic, but it’s really just a spreadsheet exercise. … It’s not a survival model.

Blank suggested that a more ambitious strategy might not focus on carrier battle groups. He pointed out that Carrier Strike Groups and submarines have been the preeminent formation in US naval warfare for 80 years, and that China has watched those same formations for decades.

Blank asked what would happen if the Carrier Strike Groups could no longer win a fight and suggested that the United States may be underestimating China’s capabilities, intentions, imagination and operational concepts. “What if they could take out a destroyer or a strike group via cyber, conventional, hypersonic weapons – the whole list of capabilities they worked very hard on?

Navy plans call for a distributed fleet architecture and a mix of manned and unmanned ships, he noted. At the same time, however, Navy ships are large and complex and take too long to manufacture and are too expensive for the service to purchase as many as needed. “What’s plan B?” White asked.

One proposal is what he called “the small, the nimble, and the many,” which calls for hundreds or thousands of unmanned vehicles, in the air, as well as on and below the ocean’s surface. All could communicate and collaborate as autonomous formations. “It requires a different view of the world, a view that is no longer tied to the 20and industrial systems of the century on which we still operate. It forces us to understand that software is the new platform,” Blank said. “We have to observe that the Navy has world-class engineering and procurement processes for managing hardware, but that’s quite embarrassing when applied to software and digital systems.”

Ferren took up this theme. “We have these expensive things called aircraft carriers, which are very effective, very impressive when they show up and do a whole bunch of stuff – until you have an enemy who is really serious and wants to take them out because then they disappear very quickly,” he said.

Ferren described “split concepts” of swarms or even super swarms of thousands of autonomous systems. Some might be big enough to carry missiles, others measured in inches. Some might “swim up to an electro-optical opening and squirt tar over it or get into gun barrels and just melt away,” he said, calling it an evolutionary concept that really takes advantage of industry innovation. “Now the problem is that China is better than us. If we were going to build 10,000 entities or 20,000 of them, we would probably have China do it for us, which might not be the best strategy for that.

He also floated the idea of ​​a ship designed to manufacture unmanned systems on demand. The “force-generating” ship could be as big as an aircraft carrier, but it would provide mines or unmanned aerial vehicles and unmanned underwater vehicles to serve as a communications relay or intelligence, monitoring and reconnaissance “on demand when you need it to deal with a problem.”

Adm. Winnefeld touted the need for smart offensive mines. “The state of offensive mine warfare in the Navy – I’m sorry people – is just appalling,” he said, noting that the Navy is focused on countering mines laid by other rather than on the pose of his own. “It is a powerful and powerful tool. My God, compare what we have today to what would be the art of the possible with machine learning and communications and new energy materials and technologies and all kinds of great things that you could add to those devices,” he said. “You could scare the living out of China and use it to shut down their economy or help Taiwan defend itself.”