US Navy: Our 'Running Fix' Has Us Firmly in the Channel
An interview with Rear Admiral Ronald A. Boxall, Director, Surface Warfare (N96), conducted by Capt. Edward Lundquist, U. S. Navy (Ret.)
The theme of the recent SNA West Coast Symposium was “Take a Running Fix.” So what’s your “fix” right now about where we are regarding surface warfare?
The SWO Boss is thinking about that from a man/train/equip standpoint, and being able to ensure that we’re trained to the best we can, that we’re manned properly, and have the equipment we need. I look at things from the programmatic standpoint, and the things that I have to program for generally take two to seven years to get out to the fleet. But when I think about “take a running fix,” I think about kind of the larger piece of where we want to be with our surface force, from a programmatic standpoint. I’m more focused on providing those tools to get out to the war fighter and the surface force. We developed the Surface Capability Evolution Plan (SCEP) this last year, we’ve made progress on that plan, and therefore, I think our “running fix” has us firmly in the channel.
What does the SCEP tell us?
It examines the Large Surface Combatant, the Small Surface Combatant, the Large and Medium-sized Unmanned Surface Vessels, and the combat system that will bring them all together. I also am responsible for the combat system for carriers and amphibs, as well, and I consider that combat system to be vital to all those surface platforms. A year ago, we didn’t have a large surface combatant plan, or clarification on the frigate, on a real idea of what we wanted in the unmanned world other than a few prototypes. Now we have a very clear goal to get a large surface combatant on contract in the ’23 to ’24 time frame, and the CNO has been very adamant about us building a flexible and adaptable large surface combatant that can take a lot of the capability that we have in the DDG Flight III and move it to a new hull that has the ability to be upgraded in stride, without these long, expensive modernization periods typically required for really top-end platforms. We need to be able to update more frequently, but less dramatically and less costly at each interaction, and more importantly, we don’t want to take that asset offline. The small surface combatant – the frigate – is also moving forward. We have five teams under contract for conceptual work. They’re working with our program offices to mature the system specification and the individual designs inside the cost parameters that we’re looking for to make that small surface combatant a common, networked, surface platform to do both sensing and shooting, and common to the large surface combatant and our unmanned platform or platforms.
What cost are we looking at for the frigate?
We’re looking in the $800 million range, and we’re doing a lot of things to try to stay in that range. We’re using a lot of government-furnished equipment with systems we know, so we’re not bringing a lot of uncertainty in. We’re bringing competition in, so we’re letting industry figure out how to make that a more cost effective platform. We sometimes add requirements that unintentionally will drive us to a larger, more expensive ship and we want to keep ourselves from doing that. So there’s a healthy give-and-take as to what we think will meet our requirement and still be affordable. Then there is the unmanned piece. We’ve got some initiatives out there, such as the Sea Hunter, our MDUSV, which we are using to investigate different types of packages to put on that platform. And if we think about our distribution of our force, we need capacity, so we need some things to be big and some things to be small, and figuring out how to balance capacity and cost and distribute those sensors and shooters most cost effectively within our force.
At the small surface combatant level, that force needs to have capacity at a cost, and be able to sense, shoot and do command and control. The sensor and capacity won’t be as much as a LSC but it will still have that same common combat system. So that’s why commonality matters. And it’s the same thing if you look at the unmanned platform, it might be a sensor, or shooter, or something in between – a command and control node, but not all of those things. We need things to be as small as they possibly can be, but big enough to do what they need to do. With that mentality, we think that we will get more platforms at a better cost and distribute that force in a manner that makes a difference. We’ll keep assessing that mix, but we can’t wait until we have the perfect answer. With the large and small surface combatant, the SCEP show us that we have a block upgrade program so that we can consider when and where we want to upgrade.
When you talk about upgrades, are you referring to hull, mechanical upgrade programs, too.
It could. We’re at the limit of what we can put on the DDG 51 hull. So we want to take the capability that we like in the DDG Flight III, and move it over to a new and larger hull so it’s got room and opportunity for growth. We have a completely integrated power system right now on DDG 1000? Is that the same one we want to go with forward? Or is there new technology that we think makes more sense.
But regarding upgrades in general, it’s now a requirement that we can upgrade in stride. Why haven’t we done it in the past? Because we’d never had a requirement to do so. Now we have to be able to be able to reconfigure or adjust as we need to, and those are the things that we’re going to go to industry for. How do you do this? What’s the best way to do this? How do we balance survivability, modularity, cost – all those things.
How many DDG 51 Flight IIIs will we build before we move to the larger platform?
I think we have about 10 to 12 DDG Flight IIIs.
The first DDG 51 was commissioned in 1991, but we’re still building them. How are we keeping them up-to-date?
I had command of a Flight I DDG – the USS Carney – and she didn’t have a helo hangar. When we upgraded and made the Flight II-As, they had helo hangars. Now we’re thinking it would be great if it had a solid state radar. That’s where we went with the DDG Flight III. It has the same VLS system and gun, but the solid state radar, and a bigger power plant and cooling to handle that bigger, more powerful radar.
But updating our ships usually requires a long and expensive availability.
If you look at modernizing a ship with a 35-year expected service life, and do that at 20 to 25 years, you have to question if it’s worth it to continue to do that?
Some of the lower number DDGs do have the latest AEGIS baseline and the latest SQQ-89 A(V) 15 sonar. That’s a good news story.
We have about half of our old destroyers upgraded to that A(V) 15 Suite, which is game-changing in the ASW world. However, if you think about it, it still takes a lot of money and time to do that. So we hope in the future that we can plan for that with a little more foresight, to design not just to build it, but to modernize it in stride.
Let’s talk about LCS. The first one was commissioned ten years ago. When we were in San Diego for the West Coast Symposium, I saw lots of LCS, That’s good, in that those ships are joining the fleet in numbers. But if they are all in port means they’re not deployed. So how do we look at the LCS program today?
LCS are coming out fast; they’re getting about four to five per year now. Like you, everyone’s noticing, including the operational commanders. We didn’t have a deployment in 18, but we did a lot of things. We conducted an LCS Review and changed the way we operate and crew those ships. We went to a blue and gold crew model. We shifted homeports so the LCS 1 variants are on the east coast and the LCS 2 variants are on the west coast. Instead of having this modular concept where each LCS would change modules for whatever mission we need to do, we still maintain the ability to do that conceptually, but we’re keeping one module on one ship, and those ships will all be in their own division. So you’ll have a surface division, a mine warfare division, and an ASW division.
And the mission detachments will be part of ship’s company.
Right. We put everybody together. And so we changed everything last year, and we’re now in execution. We’re also still testing all the mission packages. So we’ve taken some marks on the mission packages. By 2030, over half our deployed vessels out there will be LCS and frigates, so they’ve got to be capable. So what have we done to make them more capable, more survivable and more lethal. This was also an outcome of the LCS Review. The LCS backfit for the Naval Strike Missile is in progress. We have program money to get those ships an anti-surface missile, which will probably be one of the best missiles we have out there in the surface fleet.
Lundquist: When do you envision LCS to start deploying again?
I will defer that to the fleet. But programmatically, we’re putting the money in to keep her on schedule and deploy her. We have scheduled deployments in 19.
Is there’s a demand signal for them?
Absolutely. Again, this meets our small surface combatant demand for 52 small surface combatant requirement out there. So we want to get LCS out there as soon as we can. I know that Maj. Gen. Kaufmann, my counterpart in N95 needs the mine warfare capability out there as quickly as possible.
How is the LCS blue & gold crew concept working?
LCS training is the huge success of this program. We are learning a lot about how Sailors are trained at our LCS training facility that we didn’t even envision. It’s so much better than what we planned. As we look towards learning and improving our training to respond to the McCain and Fitzgerald incidents, we looked at LCS because those Sailors coming off those ships have so many more reps and sets, and they have better quality trainers. We’re trying to put that same mentality in ALL our ships to have that quality. But it’s not just the quality – it’s the time to train. A destroyer or a cruiser is struggling to go from event to event, and getting dedicated time to train is incredibly difficult. The whole beauty of this concept is that we have an always-ready crew to go, so we can sustain that crew in a forward-deployed status for a much higher operation availability. We’ll get a lot more time out of those ships on deployment than any platform we have right now – over twice as much. So we’re excited to see that actually come to fruition as we prime this pump. We can compare the LCS Sailors with their counterparts on the DDGs and the cruisers, and from a navigation standpoint, for example, their numbers of success are metrically much higher than we’re seeing on any platform. They have the highest percentage of completion and satisfactory completion when they go through SWOS training.
How can we expand that to those other classes or ship?
We are doing that. The Maritime Skills Training Program, including dramatically improved trainers like our LCS trainers, and will be integrated with combat systems suites. They will be located on the waterfronts, and available for COs to go train their teams, in addition to us giving their people more time in the school house before they get to their ships. So you’ve got a combination of improved systems, and longer time to train that permits and more reps and sets of the types of high rep scenarios, and high stress scenarios, that we haven’t been doing in the past. And we can do those in those trainers at the Maritime Skills Training Program. It will happen on the waterfront, and it’ll happen at SWOS. So that investment is critical, from my perspective, to field that capability for the man/train/equip side, so that they have those things. We know that’s spending in the right direction. We’ve already seen positive results with the junior officer of the deck course where we improved the reps and sets. When we tie that to the higher quality fidelity trainers, that combination will have the same net effect on the cruisers and destroyers that we’ve seen on the LCS.
Are the investments in modeling and simulation are paying off?
LCS has a 3D simulator used to train crane operators. The operator can load and offload equipment on LCS. It’s like a Hollywood set. If you’re standing there, it looks like you’re underway. The boat responds the same way: it sways, you’ve got people that are working with you at other work stations, and it’s all linked together in a 3D virtual environment. We can inject casualties in this virtual environment that we could never do at sea, not to mention the cost of fuel to get underway to train. We don’t want to put Sailors in danger, and we don’t want people facing a real casualty for the first time. We want them to already have practiced what to do in the simulator.
That’s what this virtual environment allows us to do.
Our ship drivers on LCS are noticing that there’s almost no difference between the simulators and the real ship at sea. When they report to their ship they’re basically ready to go.
We’ve made those investments in the 3D imaging of the whole ship. We’ve modelled the ship and its performance characteristics and we say, “Let’s go out there and try this and compare it to the real life.” They can sit down in that trainer, and literally report aboard their ships, ready to go. We still have them go aboard LCS and demonstrate their proficiency, but the training has made them very capable before they even get underway.
I can’t wrap my head around that. I didn’t grow up in virtual environments, interacting interact with each other – but this is normal of our junior officers today.
Those folks that are my age, we’re behind the curve. But the younger folks want to learn this way. They’re excited about it, and we think this is not only good from making a better sailor, but they enjoy it – this is what they want to do. If I’m a commanding officer of a ship, I want my ship crew trained in the best way possible. There’s no substitute for the real thing, but if I can get them excited about getting the reps and sets in this environment, I’ll take it every day.
Tell me a little bit about DDG 1000. When we actually started the program, we were looking at 32, then 24, then 12, then seven, then three, then two, then none, then three. Where does it fit in the fleet today? Is it a big science project? Or is it a stealthy, modern, lethal warship.
We conducted another requirements evaluation last year to look at the best way to proceed with these three ships that are unique animals to us. Now that we don’t have a full production line of these ships, how should we be using these ships? Are we going to be using them the land attack destroyer that we designed them to be after many years? The answer is not exactly. We’ve supported land campaigns, and we know how to hit targets ashore. But as we shift back to the blue water/open ocean environment to conduct distributed maritime operations to assure sea control, we’re looking at what this platform has that can help us in that environment. As we look at our large surface and combatant, and what we need the big ships to do, we see that DDG 1000 can do some of those things today. We need it to be able to operate in an environment and carry weapons to the fight. We have 80 PVLS (peripheral vertical launch system) cells on DDG 1000 – that’s our largest VLS – so we’re looking at options to put more, longer range missiles on that ship. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do. It was not originally designed to be a long-range VLS platform for the Maritime Strike Tomahawk, but we’re going to make it do just that. We’re also going to look at the active missiles that it can shoot, and as new longer-range missiles come out, we’ll evaluate whether this the right platform to put them on. There are unique capabilities on that ship – some I can talk about and some I cannot – but as we look at the capabilities we need going forward, they’re still very relevant. In fact, some of our best capability in our surface fleet resides in those three ships. So make no mistake – they will be a vital part of our fleet. But we have some challenges with DDG 1000. These are the only ships with the AGS (advanced gun system) gun, LRLAP (long-range land-attack projectile) and a very unique loading system designed to be operating by a very small number of people. It’s become hard to get industry excited about making rounds for the AGS at a cost effective rate. So we do have great capability in that ship, but it’s not going to be in the gun. So as we go forward, we’ll look at what we do with that gun – whether we keep that one or whether we put something else up there. We’re going to constantly assess that. And now that we have a process in this large surface combatant, we can look at those tradeoffs, and decide at what point it becomes cost effective for us to put this weapon – or this gun system, or this boat, or this command and control system, or this sensor – on this platform. So, some of that’s going in now; some of it will go in later, and we’ll wait and see on a couple things.
DDG 1000 has a lot of power available. A lot of people have talked about using that as a power-hungry directed energy type platform for rail guns or lasers.
Certainly, that is a potential. Again, I don’t know how – or when – we will integrate a rail gun, for example, into our large surface combatants or smaller ships. But we have to look at how we can learn from these platforms, in much the same that the submarine navy learned from Seawolf (nuclear-powered fast attack submarines). As we move forward with the large surface combatant, one of the things we’re looking very closely is what things from DDG 1000 that we would like to keep into the next generation large surface combatant. And there’s quite a few things coming out of that. So, more to follow on that as we finish up the work, but certainly we’re going to take the best of what we have in DDG Flight III and DDG 1000, as well. And it would be a shame for us not to learn from those investments that we’ve made in those very capable platforms.
What would you like to say about your staff here at N96?
I am blessed, like every 96th that I’ve known – or 86 or 76 – with the pick of the fleet. We bring some of our best surface warriors here. That’s one thing that makes me excited to come to work every day. I have to stay on my toes because they are smart, and they’re making me smarter about our capabilities every day. They challenge me. They’re the ones that are bringing new ideas, and are trying to build out this Surface Capability Evolution Plan with exciting, new unmanned concepts. They’re the ones that are saying, “Hey, when I was in the fleet, wouldn’t it have been cool if I could have done this?” This is how we’d like to look at it – let’s pair up with our team here. We’ve tightened up the linkage to our Surface and Mine Warfare Development Command that helps us get these tactics. We’ve tightened that linkage. We’re looking at what the fleet needs to do, and how do I bring that into the capability on our platforms as quickly as I can. So that’s one of the things I love most about my job – the quality of the people we’ve got. Most have come from the fleet, and most are going back to the fleet. We also have a solid core of government civilians. They’ve seen it all before, and they also get energized by the new blood that constantly comes here from the fleet. We feel it’s our obligation to maintain and improve our capability as best we can. And these folks see it, know it firsthand, and they care. So that’s what makes it exciting. I’m thrilled to work with them.
How are the relationships with industry?
My bandwidth with industry involvement has gone up dramatically – that’s both a blessing and a curse because it takes a lot more of my time. But I would also say that the same is truefor the program managers – they’re seeing a lot more. We’re having “industry days.” We’re speaking at these events like SNA, and we’re talking with industry, and we’re hearing what they’re saying, they’re hearing what we’re saying, we’re setting up meetings. We’ve got work going on with the large surface combatant, small surface, unmanned work, combat systems and power. So, there is a lot of excitement, from my perspective, to continue to learn from industry. There was a while there when the budget was coming down and were just rewarming the same hash over and over again. And I think that’s absolutely false at this point. We don’t even know how much we can do with unmanned yet. But the more things we try, the more we learn, and it’s always been industry that’s made us a great Navy and it will continue to be. Back a few years ago when I was the deputy in this job, there was kind a fear of industry, of ethics in that you can’t say too much. I think we’ve gotten through that. We know how to do this and we know how to do it the right way, the fair way. But at the same point, there never was a desire to lessen our involvement with industry, and I’ve worked really hard, and my staff works really hard, to attend the SNA and NDIA events, and those types of conferences, and meet with industry on individual appointments. So we think we’re having more engagement now than we’ve ever had, that I’ve seen in the last five years. I hope they also believe that’s true. And if it’s not, you know, we’ll need to continue to work hard.
Courtesy of Surface SITREP, published by the Surface Navy Association (www.navysna.org).