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Biden Defense Dept Attempting to Innovate to Meet Current Challenges – Mostly Unsuccessfully

Biden Defense Dept Attempting to Innovate to Meet Current Challenges – Mostly Unsuccessfully

New York Times article suggests that Navy innovation issues are mostly an issue with Navy traditionalists and Congressional lobbyists; the truth is that the Biden Administration is pursuing pie-in-the-sky quick fixes to solve a very complex problem

The New York Times recently reported on the difficulty that the Navy is having in attempting to modernize the fleet, especially in times of rapid change: Faced With Evolving Threats, U.S. Navy Struggles to Change:

[T]he focus from Washington on producing a stream of new warships is…creating a fleet that some inside the Pentagon think is too wedded to outdated military strategies and that the Navy might not be able to afford to keep running in decades to come…

At no moment since World War II has the service faced a more urgent demand to embrace new technologies and weapons systems, given the rising threat from a now formidable Chinese military.

The Navy’s top brass talks frequently about the need to innovate to address the threat presented by China. The Defense Department’s own wargames show that the Navy’s big-ship platforms are increasingly vulnerable to attack.

But the Navy, analysts and current and former officials say, remains lashed to political and economic forces that have produced jobs-driven procurement policies that yield powerful but cumbersome warships that may not be ideally suited for the mission it is facing.

An aversion to risk-taking — and the breaking of traditions — mixed with a bravado and confidence in the power of the traditional fleet has severely hampered the Navy’s progress, several recently departed high-ranking Navy and Pentagon officials told The New York Times.

The piece suggests that the solution is to shift fleet resources (i.e. money) from traditional manned warships to various new, innovative, unmanned maritime platforms:

Half a world away, at a U.S. Navy outpost in Bahrain, a much smaller team was testing out a very different approach to the service’s 21st-century warfighting needs.

Bobbing in a small bay off the Persian Gulf was a collection of tiny unmanned vessels, prototypes for the kind of cheaper, easier-to-build and more mobile force that some officers and analysts of naval warfare said was already helping to contain Iran and could be essential to fighting a war in the Pacific.

Operating on a budget that was less than the cost of fuel for one of the Navy’s big ships, Navy personnel and contractors had pieced together drone boats, unmanned submersible vessels and aerial vehicles capable of monitoring and intercepting threats over hundreds of miles of the Persian Gulf, like Iranian fast boats looking to hijack oil tankers.

Now they are pleading for more money to help build on what they have learned.

“It’s an unbelievable capability . . . .”

The piece goes on to describe the difficulty that the Navy is having with entrenched Congressional officials who are the subject of extreme lobbying efforts from shipbuilding interests. For example, Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), whose state’s biggest manufacturer is the Huntington Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula, is one of the politicians targeted for tens of millions of dollars of campaign contributions. And Huntington Ingalls has what the Times describes as its “own small army of lobbyists. They include two former House leaders (Richard A. Gephardt, Democrat of Missouri, and Robert Livingston, Republican of Louisiana, who was the speaker-designate before resigning) and a former Senate majority leader (Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi), as well as Haley Barbour, the former Mississippi governor and Republican National Committee chairman.”

The Times article also quotes various officials claiming that the “[t]he U.S. Navy is arrogant,” “[r]ight now, they are still building a largely 20th-century Navy,” and “I have not been impressed with the speed at which they’re moving on” adapting the fleet to use unmanned and other high-tech maritime options.

Far be it from me to defend the United States Navy from the Gray Lady’s latest hit piece, or to deny the power of lobbyists, but, as our old friend, Navy blogger extraordinaire Commander Salamander argues on his Substack,* the biggest problem may be coming from the Biden Administration itself: DEPSECDEF Hicks’s “Replicator” Speech: 80% Cringe, 20% Excellence:

Serious times require serious leaders to communicate serious solutions in a serious way.

We do not need people who are steering the future of our military picking up the methods, intonations, or practices of late night TV salesmen, the exaggeration and appeal to emotion of televangelists, or the earnestness of the most cringe inducing TedX talk personalities.

We are not selling time shares.

We do not need to try to pretend we are tech-bro hype-men.

Salamander goes on to quote at length from a speech given by Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks that was delivered at a recent Defense News Conference. He was not impressed:

This is a 80/20 speech. It almost reads like it was written by two people. 80% by someone from the ShamWow school of sales, …and the last 20% written by a sober professional along the lines of Vince [Lombardi].

[O]n balance this whole [DOD Innovation] “Replicator” effort smells of another flash in the pan to eat up time and money while distracting us from the very real and required hard work of building a Navy ready to meet the challenge growing west of the International Date Line…

Are we investing time in fixing the systemic problem we all see so the future has a better path to prosper, or are we selling another over-promised and probably under-delivered vaporware shortcut that feels great to say now, but later makes no significant shadows on ramps; displaces no amount of water?…

Whatever we are calling [unmanned systems] this FY [fiscal year], regardless of what we purchase we need to quit selling them as THE future. They are part of the future, but they will not be IT. They will support the main effort, not be the supported.

In a portion of Hicks’ speech she notes that she has formed a “Deputy’s Innovation Steering Group — brand new — which the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and I co-chair. Every key DoD stakeholder will have a seat at the table: combatant commanders; military departments, service secretaries and service chiefs; and OSD component heads.” Salamander’s take:

So, the solution to an accretion encumbered bureaucratic system is to create yet another layer of bureaucracy and demand time from other already existing bureaucracies overtasked with already existing projects they are underperforming on? That’s the plan?…

As opposed to getting as much duct tape and bailing wire within reach to form another kludge, who in Congress is DEPSECDEF [Hicks] working with to fix the clearly counterproductive system she and everyone else is trying to work around? It was created by us – it can be fixed by us. Previous generations with no computers and fewer people performed “transformative” advances better.

Of course, Salamander did like 20% of Hicks’ speech, such as “don’t forget that integrating autonomy into weapon systems is nothing new for DoD. We know how to do it responsibly. In fact, we’ve done it so far for decades, from AEGIS destroyers to ship- and ground-based Phalanx defense systems. And we’ve continually gotten better at it,” which Salamander calls a “solid statement.”

But, overall, after reading the New York Times article, Hicks’ speech, and Commander Salamander’s take on it, and as a veteran of some serious Pentagon battles (which I shudder to recall), I can’t help but think that the current administration is not doing the Navy any favors here. Instead of a serious push towards Congress for funding to make this forward thinking happen, they propose to do it with more bureaucracy, for free, somehow. I am as unimpressed as Salamander, and I can only hope clearer thinking somehow claws its way into the picture.


* [By the way, if you don’t subscribe to Cdr Salamander’s Substack, you should. I do, it’s free, and it’s a breath of fresh air about the military in these woke, DEI/CRT-centric times.]

Note: The Featured Image is two Saildrone unmanned maritime systems, which are discussed in the New York Times article, and a U.S. Navy warship, the USS Delbert D. Black (DDG-119), an Arleigh Burke class destroyer, operating in the Persian Gulf on January 8, 2023.


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Maybe we should just proactively surrender to all hostile nations now to avoid a humiliating defeat?

I don’t expect anything out of the Navy after Tailhook.

Is this story related to the rumor that our next aircraft carrier will have sails, because of “wind power” or something?

    SophieA in reply to MAJack. | September 19, 2023 at 9:32 am

    Twenty-first century navy invents “the sail?” lol

    What’s the next new technology they’ll invent to fight “climate change and transphobia?”—Battleship and aircraft carrier slave rowers?

    After that, maybe they’ll invent jets that flap their wings?

    What a joke our military has become.

The Mississippi shipbuilding lobbyist are strong and deservedly so!! It is one of the last shipyards left in the US.

One of the reasons the Navy has ship procurment issues is that they is no competition left because we let the industry die and with it innovation and an internal desire to drive down costs.

This twitter guy posts images and
other things about unmanned watercraft
operating in the Black Sea.

henrybowman | September 18, 2023 at 8:24 pm

“At no moment since World War II has the service faced a more urgent demand to embrace new technologies and weapons systems”

If you think the Navy is out of control, wait until you see the Army’s new and innovative vision for future warfare.

The Gentle Grizzly | September 18, 2023 at 9:26 pm

Any word on further development of propulsion using the buttered toast / cat array power source?

Guardian79 | September 19, 2023 at 8:14 am

This is what happens when you let bureaucracy out of control, and when you promote only incompetent sycophants and sociopaths to flag positions. I’ve seen some completely incompetent officers get promoted to high ranking positions and their only attribute is that they spend 90% of their day kissing up to those above him, while bad mouthing and blaming people below him. He spent more time spreading rumors about scapegoats and competing officers than actually doing his job. He eventually got a cush job teaching at the Naval Post Graduate school despite having absolutely no qualifications to teach. He didn’t even have an advanced degree!

2smartforlibs | September 19, 2023 at 10:09 am

Where do you start? Liberal playbook: Never think past the knee-jerk, Never solve a problem you can’t get more money if you solve anything…..

I second the recommendation on subscribing to CDR Salamander.

The only thing I can add to the awesome CDR Salamander is that the supposedly automated Navy vessels that are supposed to go out and cruise on their own are horribly vulnerable to supply-side interruptions and non-conventional warfare such as nets and speedboats. I see very little downside to a light combatant with an airborne and underwater drone launcher, provided they can fix the blasted things when they break, replace them when they sink, and still keep their own boat afloat (yes I know they’re ships but that’s not alliterative) while a thousand miles from shore.

To do this, every part on a ship that can break needs to last a million miles and be replaceable in five minutes without a screwdriver from onboard stores. ‘Delicate’ should be expunged from the Navy. Automated shipboard tasks need automated backups, and a simple mechanical fall-back. Minimalizing crew should be balanced against battlefield redundancy to the point where smaller vessels should be able to sail a thousand miles with an ensign and five Marines. Etc…

    henrybowman in reply to georgfelis. | September 19, 2023 at 7:43 pm

    “every part on a ship that can break needs to last a million miles and be replaceable in five minutes without a screwdriver from onboard stores.”

    It sounds like a tall order, but one of the amazing things I learned when I got into guns is how almost every modern handgun is designed so that common maintenance and part replacement requires no tools at all, not even a screwdriver (screws get loose).

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