Ship Shape

Dozens of senior military leaders gathered in Washington early this year to participate in Dynamic Commitment-a strategic war game that compressed eight years' worth of future military operations into four days. The exercise was designed largely to test defense capabilities and thus help establish procurement priorities over the next decade. Those priorities gained official endorsement in May with the release of the Quadrennial Defense Review, setting out the armed services' blueprint for the future. It was no surprise, then, that some of the fiercest battles during Dynamic Commitment were waged among the military services themselves, over the assignment of missions and the use of weapons to serve the tasks at hand.

What was surprising to some was that more than once during the simulated exercise, commanders called upon an untested technology-the arsenal ship-to execute their missions. Those calls were invalidated by the war game observers because the arsenal ship does not yet exist.

But if some military planners have their way, the Navy next year will demonstrate the new ship, one in a family of future combatant ships, loaded with hundreds of missiles from which commanders operating on land, in the air or elsewhere at sea, will be able to launch devastating attacks against a potential enemy. This new floating arsenal, as envisioned by some planners, would revolutionize warfare with its pre-positioned massive firepower remotely controlled by theater commanders in all three services.

The arsenal ships would be armed with about 500 long-range, precision-guided missiles, such as Tomahawk cruise missiles and the Army's Advanced Tactical Missile system (ATACMS), predominately for attacking land targets at ranges of up to 1,200 miles. The pre-positioned ships would provide the unified commanders in chief (CinCs) with massive firepower in the early hours of a conflict-much sooner than could be provided by bombers traveling from the continental United States or from aircraft carriers, unless they happened to be nearby during a crisis.

Just as revolutionary is the way in which the arsenal ship is to be developed. Instead of the normal 15- to 18-year time frame and billions of dollars in costs normally associated with designing and building a new ship, the arsenal ship would be built outside normal procurement channels in four years and would cost less than half a million dollars.

"I believe industry understands equally as well as we do that this is about much more than a single ship and it is about much more than the option to build four or five production arsenal ships in the future," says Rear Adm. Daniel Murphy, director of the Navy's Surface Warfare Division.

In fact, the arsenal ship is just one of a new line of ships the Navy anticipates building early in the next century as it repositions itself in the aftermath of the Cold War. With the demise of the Soviet Union, there is no enemy to challenge the Navy's command of the high seas. If the service is to be relevant in the conflicts military planners envision for the future, it must be able to project its power ashore and operate effectively in littoral waters, providing fire support for soldiers and Marines, and ensuring air supremacy along with the Air Force.

The arsenal ship is one component of that vision. It is being developed by the Navy and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as part of the Navy's Maritime Fire Support Demonstrator program, which will broadly consider the issue of supporting land forces in battle. The programs are part of the Navy's larger plan to build a family of future combatant ships, known as the SC-21 program, which will also include a new class of destroyers, the DD-21.

At the same time, the Navy is continuing its Smart Ship project, in which it is using the USS Yorktown as a platform to test new technologies that could substantially increase ships' operating efficiency, improve survivability and reduce crew size. Technologies that prove effective will be incorporated into new ship programs and retrofitted on current ships.

Together, these programs could significantly alter how the Navy conducts warfare and operates with the other services. They also could have a substantial impact on the CVX, the next-generation aircraft carrier the Navy has begun developing.

The success or failure of the arsenal ship, whose construction could begin next year if the Navy's plans are not scuttled by a skeptical Congress, offers a glimpse of what the future may hold for the Navy.

Smaller Fleet, Smaller Crews

"We are moving towards a smaller, hopefully more effective surface fleet with our transition through the arsenal ship," says John Douglass, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition. "Smart Ship and the Maritime Fire Support Demonstrator are two key enablers to the kind of ship we want to have in the first part of the next century," says Douglass.

Both programs aim to significantly reduce the size of ship crews, especially the arsenal ship, which is to have no more than 50 crew members. Like the crew of the Starship Enterprise, the arsenal ship crew would operate from a central command space, says Capt. Charles Hamilton, DARPA's arsenal ship program manager. Sensors operating in unmanned spaces on the ship could monitor temperature, pressure, humidity, stress, motion and other ship vital signs. By linking them through a wide area network, many fewer people can monitor and maintain the ship, he says.

The ship is expected be very large (mass provides protection against mines) and have a very low radar signature.

When he first learned about the arsenal ship program while working in the Defense acquisition and technology office two years ago, Hamilton knew it would face stiff opposition from some quarters, particularly among the acquisition and tactical operations specialists.

"Going from a gleam in the eye to a ship in the water in four years would certainly challenge the patience and enthusiasm of anybody selected to do that," he says. While that has proved true, he is optimistic the program could ultimately change the way the Defense Department buys major weapons systems in the future.

The arsenal ship is being developed under a radically streamlined and simplified acquisition strategy authorized for DARPA under Section 845 of the 1994 Defense Authorization Act. The authority exempts the program from many federal acquisition regulations and allows contractors and the government to work together and share information in ways they cannot under traditional procurement rules.

"[Section] 845 allows an intellectual freedom that is hard to articulate but is very exciting," says Hamilton. Under the program, three industry teams led by Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics will submit proposals in November to build the arsenal ship. In January the Navy will award a contract to build a prototype next year. The Navy will decide whether to procure more ships in 2002, after a final design is agreed upon and has undergone a one-year demonstration.

The teams competing for the arsenal ship contract have access to and are encouraged to exploit defense research and development efforts. The program solicitation gives contractors the Navy's concept for the ship and operational goals, but it does not specify how contractors should achieve those goals. Traditionally, the Navy has established the design and it is up to contractors to make it work.

The process has resulted in solutions the Navy would never have achieved on its own, because the teams can use commercial applications and solutions applied on other non-Navy military contracts, Hamilton says. "They have taken our goal statement and looked for any system which makes sense and can be done affordably. So now we have Air Force and Army systems being incorporated into this platform, which probably wouldn't have come together if the Navy by itself was designing this as a Navy system. In this sense, I think we're getting a joint warfighting platform design, and that's exciting."

Hamilton talks regularly to SC-21 program managers to share ideas and insights into building more efficient ships, he says. "Our product line precedes them in time and takes many of the technologies that are in their field of view for achieving reduced manpower, automated damage control, shipboard wide-area networks, integrating antennas into composite material-the list is lengthy. We in the arsenal ship program will take those items to sea to do our concept exploration and then be able to pass that [data] to the SC-21 folks for further exploitation," he says.

In a June 2 letter to Sen. Strom Thurmond, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jay Johnson asked for congressional support for the arsenal ship, as much for the role he anticipates it will play in other ship programs as for the ship itself: "We anticipate substantial benefit in terms of acquisition reform and technology advances will accrue to DD-21, as well as CVX and future ships. Our partnership with DARPA and industry is producing results well beyond initial expectations.

"If we do not break with historical norms of design, construction and life cycle costs, I am convinced we will not be able to build the right capability in the right numbers at the right time. The Maritime Fire Support Demonstrator [arsenal ship] holds the key," Johnson wrote.

Rough Sailing

Many in Congress are skeptical. Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., like other proponents of buying more Air Force B-2 stealth bombers, questions the rationale for developing the arsenal ship.

"I'm concerned about the arsenal ship, if the Navy is really serious about this," Skelton told Johnson at a March budget hearing. "We have four mothball battleships that could be refitted to do the same and I would also think that those same dollars might go into something more productive." He questioned what the arsenal ship might accomplish that could not be performed by the B-2, a submarine launch system or an aircraft launched from a carrier.

"Because this is still a concept yet to be proven, there are many naysayers and doubters," Murphy says. "The problem with bringing along something that has so much potential-we're still in the potential phase-is that there are those in this town who would like to immediately convert potential into reality." Opponents of the arsenal ship have used it to justify additional weapons, such as the B-2 or aircraft carriers, while supporters of the program have used it to justify cutting funds to those programs.

The arsenal ship is a concept worth exploring on its own merits and shouldn't be used to justify other budget decisions, Murphy says. It does not duplicate the capabilities of the B-2, but it does give commanders greater flexibility. As a forward deployed ship, it can provide a significant deterrent in unstable regions of the world through its ability to deploy a massive strike earlier in a conflict than could be launched from a carrier or delivered from a B-2 flying from the United States. Also, missiles can be launched day or night, whereas the B-2 flies only at night to avoid detection. And with such a small crew, many fewer lives are put in jeopardy, whereas a carrier requires thousands of sailors to operate.

"Near term supporters of the Air Force see the arsenal ship as being duplicative of B-2s or threatening to B-2s. We will get past that, because in truth, there is no duplication," Murphy says.

Not all the opposition to the arsenal ship is outside the Navy, however. Many aircraft carrier advocates fear the arsenal ship will weaken support for and drain funding from carrier programs. To mitigate those concerns, Murphy has restructured the Maritime Fire Support Demonstrator and arsenal ship program to keep all funding trade-offs within the funding accounts for surface combatants.

Nonetheless, those fears persist in a constricted budget environment. "The main challenge to the arsenal ship is that it's not a carrier of the conventional sort, and commitment to carriers runs very deep, even though [the arsenal ship] seems entirely consistent with technological changes and warfighting changes," says Richard Perle, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

For the program to be successful, however, it must do more than add a new weapon to the Pentagon's stockpile. "Simply changing systems without rethinking strategies is shortsighted and in many ways self defeating," Perle says. "When you have something like the arsenal ship, you need to fight wars very differently."

Retired Rear Adm. Dave Oliver, now the director of business and technology for naval systems in Northrop Grumman's Electronic Sensors and Systems Division, believes the military will need to rethink many command and control issues and how joint operations are conducted for the arsenal ship to reach its full potential.

The potential payoff is high, he says, but by no means assured. "It seems to me you have to build it and see. Are arsenal ships really the holy grail? It's like MGM thinking it is in the movie business and not the entertainment business," Oliver says.

Hamilton realizes he is treading on sacred ground with a program that rocks the entrenched acquisition and military operations bureaucracies. "I recognize that some of the things we're doing could be interpreted as threatening to both some of the war fighters and some of the acquirers who have grown up under a more traditional system," he says.

"I've taken on as a personal challenge what I call a community outreach program. I try to talk to as many different folks as I can on both the revolution in military affairs and the revolution in business affairs and get them comfortable with getting a product line to the fleet quicker that might be more responsive to the war fighter's needs," he says.

In recent weeks, Hamilton has met with various officials in the acquisition community to talk about how to use Section 845 authority, and he has met with tacticians in each of the services to discuss how the arsenal ship might affect military operations.

"Universally, when you lay out the whole story line to war fighters, the fleet guys, the acquirers, and you show the advantages that accrue to them, they say 'OK, there are some aspects of this that I am really uncomfortable with, but in the aggregate, the product that I think I'm going to get in the timeline that I want at the price you're offering me makes the uncomfortable aspects less important and I'm willing to deal with that'," he says.

Perle too believes there are valid concerns about the arsenal ship program, but that the concept is sound and should be pursued: "At the end of the day, I believe the opposition will end up being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century."

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