Monday, December 28, 2020

The Navy Has Problems and Must Be Bold to Fix Them

For the last Monday of 2020, we are bringing in one of our favorite regulars guests, Bryan McGrath.

Bryan offers one of the better situation reports of where our Navy finds itself in the first year of what will be an incredibly challenging decade. 

Get a fresh cup of coffee and dig in. He doesn't just provide the solid analysis of where we are, he offers a way forward.

Bryan, over to you.

Coming as it has on the heels of scandal, tragedy, leadership failure, and pandemic, recent news of plans for a dramatically larger Navy seemed to be a lifeline to an organization that has had a few difficult years. That this planned Navy comes after a year of intense scrutiny from the then Secretary of Defense (who rose to that job came through Army service and the Army Secretary position) and has been buttressed by the support of a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (who had previously been Chief of Staff of the Army), seemed to add to the sense of certainty. 

That said, reading the tea leaves in this manner ignores that there are problems with the Navy Department that could put these optimistic growth plans in jeopardy and, worse, risk holding back the Navy at a time when its strategic value to the country is rising. 

There is an opportunity for a fresh start with an incoming administration. Focused leadership and a willingness to pivot offer the best paths to moving beyond some of these issues and to placing the Navy on the firm footing the nation requires. This essay identifies several key problems and then offers a set of recommendations to address them.


To say the Navy has lost the trust of its governing institutions goes too far, but trust has frayed. Congress, the Secretary of Defense, and the White House have each taken actions that indicate dissatisfaction with basic functions that in the past have been carried out within the Department of the Navy, and for which the Navy was generally considered competent. The pathologies leading to diminished trust seem to disproportionately spring from major shipbuilding acquisition failures. The post-Cold War Navy placed efficiency over effectiveness and, in the process, lost both. The government acquisition and technical workforce, specifically those who in the past were trusted with being the honest brokers between program managers and requirements organizations, was eviscerated, with these functions largely outsourced to industry. The mania for “efficiency” led to too few watchers even as the complexity of desired technology exploded, along with the basic costs of owning a Navy (personnel costs chief among them). In the end, increasingly expensive platforms advanced with immature designs shepherded along by a process that relied on optimistic assessments of technology readiness and a sense that whatever was broken could be fixed in the endgame. 

We are now two decades into this era of efficient shipbuilding and it is an unmitigated failure. To the extent that there are any successes in the Navy’s shipbuilding portfolio, it is from programs that began prior to the year 2000 (DDG 51 and LPD 17) although both are wrestling with major modifications in their latest variants. The Navy’s CONSTELLATION CLASS Frigate program seeks to return to the 20th Century approach by capitalizing on an existing hull and proven technology, but success is not predetermined here. The degree to which Congress doubts the Navy’s basic approach to shipbuilding was reinforced in the omnibus spending measure passed last week, in which language was inserted to essentially zero the Navy’s “Large Surface Combatant” program, and by continuing resistance on Capitol Hill to the Navy’s Large Unmanned Surface Vehicle program

Trust in the Navy has also been an issue within DoD, manifesting itself in the historic micromanagement of fleet architecture and force structure by OSD over the past year. And while I consider the process to have ultimately produced a supportable and reasonable architecture (which in many respects resembled the Navy’s original work), it also injected delay and disruption in the logical sequence of architectural development. That sequence should have started with a strategic basis, then moved to a fleet architecture to support the strategy, and finally onto a 30 Year Shipbuilding Plan that would project the resources and pace necessary to implement a large portion of the architecture. For those keeping score at home, this is a representation of the classic “ends, ways, and means” of strategy-making. 

The Trump Administration provided the Navy with superb bases for moving forward. The National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy both point clearly to the benefits of naval power, and the fact that there was nearly a three-year gap between the release of the NDS (January 2018) and the new Tri-Service Maritime Strategy (December 2020) is inexcusable. Into the void, the new Commandant of the Marine Corps General Berger released his 2019 “Commandant’s Planning Guidance”, which was, as I said at the time, the most important bit of naval strategic thinking since the famous maritime strategy of the 1980’s, but which for all its worth, represented the distillation of thinking and discussion about naval integration that had been ongoing for eight years. A maritime strategy effort timed to drop within three months of the release of the NDS, followed shortly thereafter by an update to the fleet architecture studies released in early 2017 could have resulted in a 30 Year Shipbuilding Plan submitted with the FY 21 budget in the spring of 2019. That plan would likely have had a lot in common with what was submitted earlier this month in the dying days of the Trump Administration but would have had the benefit of two years’ worth of familiarity. 

Instead, the pathologies cited earlier (scandal, tragedy, leadership failure, and pandemic) dissipated Navy senior executive time and energy while Congress grew increasingly impatient with the Department of the Navy’s inability to articulate its needs. On a human level, it is difficult to imagine that the Navy’s troubles did not also color its relationship with OSD, and pressure from Congress on OSD certainly did not help this problem. For that matter, neither did pressure from the White House.

That pressure arrived in the person of National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, who entered the picture in the Fall of 2019.  O’Brien, who has an interest in naval matters and fleet architecture, came into office determined to make progress on Trump’s campaign promise to grow the Navy, but which had not seen much progress due in no small part to the foregoing issues (and to an inattentive President). The energy with which OSD interposed itself into Navy force structure planning in 2020 was a sign of both impatience with the Navy and a bureaucratic response to NSC pressure. Mostly though, what played out in 2020 was a case of diminished trust in the Navy across the board; trust deeply impacted by decades of shipbuilding failures, compounded by other perceived failures, and pressurized by doubt in the ability of the Navy to do things it once was good at. 


If the Navy does its job properly, its contributions to national defense and economic prosperity are difficult for the average American to discern. Over time, questions rise as to the necessity of providing the enormous sums required to maintain a first-rate Navy, especially in the face of other important national priorities. Freedom of the seas and the everyday business of conventional deterrence around the world do not convey easily to mass entertainment. Americans understand the importance of ships, submarines, and aircraft when the shooting starts, but they do not hold a firm grasp of the fact that those weapons must be regularly procured in peacetime and must be constantly modernized and postured forward to keep that shooting from happening in the first place. 

It is the job of the Secretary of the Navy, the Chief of Naval Operations, and the Commandant of the Marine Corps to make this case relentlessly, both to the public at large and to their representatives in Congress. Over time, the zero-sum power game between the Service Secretaries and the Secretary of Defense has moved decidedly in the direction of OSD, and the consensus-driven, grand-unifying theory of Jointness has dampened the public advocacy of naval power as a foundational element of national power. 

The costs of providing and maintaining the world’s most powerful Navy are considerable, as are the myriad claims upon national resources made by our modern economy and social safety network. The Navy must do a better job in communicating the value it provides to the nation and the role it plays in the stability and prosperity that underpin the other elements of national power. Advocating for seapower does not mean criticism of other elements of military or national power. It means making the persuasive case for the obvious linkage between the health and power of our Navy and the well-being of the Republic. 

The development and implementation of this communication strategy must be driven from the top and aligned among the various constituencies targeted.  Message alignment across the fleets, within the force, upward to OSD, Congress, and the White House, and outward to the American public, our allies, AND potential adversaries must be carefully managed and implemented. Strategic communication is a first order responsibility of leadership, and it must be treated as such. 


The Department of the Navy is not well-organized to produce its main, desired product, and that is ready, integrated naval forces in support of conventional deterrence, warfighting, and war-termination. Two services exist within the Department, and it is meet and proper that they do. Existence and organization are different things, and no one should take from this essay a sense that the differences should be eliminated. But within the Department of the Navy, there is no organization resourced to determine the warfighting requirements necessary to achieve the Integrated American Naval Power that the CNO and the Commandant desire. And if such an organization existed, there would be no organization resourced to do the systems engineering and systems architecture necessary to achieve those requirements. And if such an engineering and architecture organization existed, there is no acquisition organization resourced or constituted to field these requirements. There is instead a kluge consisting of military services, each with its own requirements organizations, doctrine commands, systems commands, and program offices all operating within their lanes and achieving truly integrated capability largely as the result of the efforts of talented persons working together on an ad-hoc basis rather than as the result of repeatable processes that work despite leadership talent or personality. 

Naval integration must be top down and bottom up, and changes need to be made throughout and between the Navy and the Marine Corps. Nothing is as cliché as a reorganization carried out by a new management team. That said, the Department of the Navy must organize better to achieve its mission, to include the possibility of larger staffs and additional organizations suitable for a new era of great power competition. The age of efficiency at the cost of effectiveness has ended. 


There are of course, other problems in the Department of the Navy. I have chosen to concentrate on the ones that senior leadership can best tend to, but there is no substitute for ethical, deck-plate leadership to address many of the others. To complete this essay, I offer the following recommendations to address the deficiencies noted.

  • When you are in a hole, stop digging.  Rebuilding the relationship with Congress should be job one. Being uncommunicative and stubborn with your bankers is self-destructive. A better relationship with Congress will lead to less micromanagement from OSD and the White House. 
    • Fully fund the basic engineering and test facilities that Congress rightly believes underpinned previous shipbuilding success for the Large Surface Combatant and LUSV programs. Alter current shipbuilding plans to reflect a realistic timeline for these facilities to mature, even if it means injecting several years of delay in the desired shipbuilding profile. In the meantime, continue to build ships already designed, increase capital investment in desired industrial capability, and spend more on innovative networking schemes. 
    • Commit to a shipbuilding philosophy that relies on mature designs and technologies, with batch implementation of only proven upgrades. 
    • Move more cautiously in identifying a second source to build the CONSTELLATION Class Frigates; be confident in the design and learning curve before dramatically increasing production rate. 
  • Remember your AOR. The AOR for the Secretary of the Navy, the Chief of Naval Operations, and the Commandant of the Marine Corps extends from their offices on the fourth deck of the Pentagon, to the Offices of the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Capitol Hill, to the White House. The overwhelming majority of time and effort should be spent in this small AOR. Travel outside of Washington should be rare and impactful. 
    • Make immediate plans to implement Congressman Mike Gallagher’s initiative to bring Congress more fully into the discussion of fleet needs. Routinely invite key staffers to participate in DC area forums, war-games, and table-top exercises. 
  • Get the order right. Ends. Ways. Means. The Department has a strategy now—the Tri-Service Maritime Strategy—and although its release was timed unfortunately, it is an excellent document that ought to be discussed and briefed across the naval service, around the country, and within the leadership AOR. When the Biden Administration releases its NSS and NDS as it inevitably will, this strategy should be re-evaluated against the new political direction and updated. Immediately thereafter. Future fleet architecture efforts and force structure assessments must be routine, and the 30 Year Shipbuilding plan should be delivered with the budget every year, on time. 
    • Large swings in the shipbuilding plan are difficult for the industrial base to digest and strain an already brittle supply chain. Any hope of successfully growing the Navy hinges on consistent growth over time resulting from sound analyses and strategic insight. 
  • One message, many voices. Strategic communications within the Department of the Navy needs to be formalized, regularized, and reformed. The Under Secretary of the Navy is the perfect place for this responsibility, and he or she should convene a regular process of message development, targeting, and assessment. This process should be holistic, encompassing communications with OSD and CJCS, operational movements and fleet messaging, international messaging, test and evaluation, internal service messaging, legislative affairs, and media relations. 
    • The Chief of Information (CHINFO) and the Chief of Legislative Affairs (CLA) should be blended USN/USMC staffs that report solely to the Secretary of the Navy through the Under Secretary. Leadership of the organizations should pass between the Navy and the Marine Corps. 
    • USN and USMC flag and general officers must be directed to deliver standardized educational briefings to civic groups around the country and report back to CHINFO on what their audiences bring up as important and relevant. 
    • Navy leadership should encourage the Navy League of the United States to execute its advocacy and education missions more fully and formally and should support these efforts consistent with law and practice. 
  • Organize for Success. The Secretary of the Navy should consider a reorganization that brings certain important functions currently delegated to the Chief of Naval Operations and the Commandant of the Marine Corps into the Secretariat to drive closer integration of the planning and budgeting functions in DoN. Specifically, the DCNO for Integration of Capability and Resources (N8) and parts of the Deputy Commandant for Programs and Resources would merge into an Integrated Naval Power Capability and Resources branch. The individual service staffs would continue to execute resource sponsor responsibilities and requirements validation, but the Secretariat would be where the trades would be made across capabilities and services in pursuit of greater integration.
    • The Under Secretary of the Navy create and implement the Strategic Communications process discussed above, and both CHINFO and OLA would reform accordingly.
      • A four-star Systems Engineering, Design, and Acquisition Command should be established to create and maintain the integrated naval architecture and enforce architectural compliance across the DoN. The existing SYCOMS would continue to execute construction, delivery, and life-cycle management responsibilities, but design and acquisition functions would accrue to this cross-domain/cross-service organization.  Some other ideas of note can be found in this 2016 piece by current National Security Council Senior Director Mark Vandroff and me
    • Consideration should be given to whether the existing doctrine organizations within the Navy and Marine Corps can produce doctrine for Integrated American Naval Power. Currently, there is no organization charged with this task. 
  • Do Something Big but, Unexpected. A new administration coming in with President whose electoral process did not require a detailed program of military spending and national security planning has a lot of options, and there will never be a better opportunity to do something bold. Some candidates include:
    • Cancel the remaining LCS ships, take most existing ships out of commission (exempt MIW), and offer for foreign military sale or if necessary, direct transfer. 
      • Re-invest any savings into modifying the three ships of the DDG 1000 class with the same combat system as the DDG 51 Flight III (including an upgraded IAMD worthy radar) and install a launcher to accommodate Conventional Prompt Strike Missiles. Create a true Maritime Dominance Destroyer.
      • Direct the installation of a variant of the DDG 51 Flight III combat system be employed in the LPD 17 Flight II class; direct each new construction LPD 17 to be equipped with a 32 cell VLS Launcher. Backfit all existing LPD 17’s with the Flight III combat system and the VLS Launcher.
        • Both initiatives would move the force toward the future integrated combat system and would increase the available VLS cells. 
    • Consider the truncation of the FORD Class CVN with the latest hull in the budget. 
      • Direct the Navy and Marine Corps to do preliminary design of an aviation capable, nuclear-powered, catapult-equipped platform without a well-deck. 
      • Set the cost ceiling (fully constructed for fleet use) at $10B (FY 20) and give them a year to come back with a plan. 
      • Set a goal of 25 hulls and fully interchangeable with current CSG and ESG missions.
      • Consider the conversion of an existing nuclear capable shipyard into a second building yard for this platform.

Good, smart people lead and follow in the Navy and Marine Corps. What they do is of supreme importance to the nation, and the difficulties of the last few years weigh on many of them. There are no silver bullets, there are no quick and easy paths to the easy life. 

Providing, maintaining, organizing, training, equipping, and operating the most influential and powerful Naval Force the world has ever known is hard. Tell the truth about what you think you need, show the math when you tell the truth, explain the assumptions behind the math, and when your bankers tell you to do something, do it. Don’t be satisfied with organizations that aren’t aligned with your goals. Work to change them. Question your own assumptions more aggressively than your opponents do. Take on the best arguments against you. Make your case, make it well, and make it often. Things will get better. They have to. 

Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC. All opinions here are his own and do not reflect the views of his clients, which include the U.S. Navy. 

Crossposted on substack.

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