Shine a Light – Navy Acquisition

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Much of what is discussed in Navy circles centers upon two broad topics: war-fighting and the material tools necessary to support a fight, now or in the future.  However, an examination as to how the Navy goes about the actual procurement of the systems intended to support the military’s needs is seldom undertaken. This is unfortunate as these processes may sometimes generate results which are either ill-suited, unanticipated, expensive to remediate or sustain, or confounding to the operators of the fleet. In short, these processes, if not carefully executed, may perturbate the Navy’s war-fighting abilities. Still, this lack of public colloquy regarding the process is a function of the inherent complexity of the system rather than indifference:  The entire process, end-to-end, is disjointed, complex and nuanced. And, because the key actors speak different languages and operate under different incentives, the entire process is difficult to fully understand, even to those who are intimately involved.

Systems Commands

There are six Systems Commands (SYSCOMs) in the Department of the Navy.  Simply put, these SYSCOMs are the Navy’s “engineers,” responsible for the acquisition of systems to equip the fleet.  They are the organizations which interface directly with industry, on behalf of the Navy, to develop and build new systems for the fleet. The largest and most important of these are; Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR).  NAVSEA is responsible for ships and submarines, NAVAIR, obviously for aircraft, and SPAWAR for all information technology systems.   These organizations are surprisingly large.   NAVSEA, for example, employs 74,000 and controls one-quarter of the Department of the Navy’s entire budget.1   So, while they may seem arcane to the average observer, the SYSCOMs are in no way insignificant.  

It should be understood that the Commanding Officers of these SYSCOMs are subordinate to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research and Development (ASN R&D), rather than the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO).  Each SYSCOM is nevertheless beholden to the Office of the CNO (OPNAV) for two things, which together describe their employment: requirements and money.  Simply put, OPNAV provides the SYSCOMs with the requirements, which may be thought of as descriptions of systems which are wanted, along with the funding necessary. The SYSCOMs, in turn, work with industry to build and deliver that which is wanted.

However, it is entirely possible that the specific intentions of the CNO/OPNAV may undergo unanticipated “translations” once the SYSCOMs receive them.   After all, it is ASN (R&D) and the SYSCOMs who are responsible for the actual making of things and in this process they undertake a sort of voyage of discovery, often ranging far beyond what may have been the original expectations of OPNAV.  As long as the top-level requirements are met, at cost, much of what will happen in the SYCOM, and then in industry, is typically over the Navy staff’s “radar-horizon.”

Second, the uniformed personnel in SYSCOMs are Acquisition Corps officers who transitioned from regular line communities at some point following their selection to O4.  They voluntarily chose to surrender that platform-centricity to focus on the complex problem of acquisition.  Once a member of the Acquisition Corps, they are assigned to increasingly complex acquisition billets, but they do not return to sea.  This results in a situation in which the SYSCOM’s uniformed leadership is increasingly disconnected from the actual fleet, which they are charged to serve.

Further, the total number of uniformed personnel serving in each SYSCOM is quite low as a percentage of the total force.  The vast majority of persons working in the SYSCOMs (and industry) have never seen a ship at sea. So, though through no fault of their own, these non-military persons may not understand what their decisions might mean to the front-line operator.  This is not to say that they are not perfectly intent on providing the best possible result, but once the effort is undertaken, SYSCOMs are primarily driven by two factors, which stand far above any other considerations; cost and schedule.

In the Pentagon

As for those in OPNAV who are involved in this process, they are fully occupied by considerations related to “the budget,” acting as the primary interface between Congress and the Navy.  It is important to understand that while OPNAV may be only interested in obtaining that which is operationally desirable, Congress is sometimes more interested in local, political considerations related to; for example, employment, taxes and the industrial base.   As Congressman Tip O’Neill once famously observed, “All politics is local.” Indeed, there are many historical cases in which Congress directed the services to buy systems which were, in the view of the services, unwanted. This remains unchanged.  According to the group Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonprofit spending watchdog, the approved June 16, 2018, House of Representatives spending bill contained at least $6.7B worth of spending that the DoD did not request in their budget proposal.  The Senate bill would add some $4.3B for 49 unrequested programs.

Even more vexing, OPNAV does not have consistent budgets owing to a variety of political machinations connected to, and growing out of the Budget Control Act of 2011.  Chief among these is the phenomenon known as “sequestration.”  Sequestration has burdened the Services since 2013.  On the ground, in OPNAV the effect has been that it is difficult to plan in either the short, mid or long-term.  The amount of funding expected to arrive in OPNAV year-to-year is impossible to predict.   Further, the funding which is provided changes up to the very last moment, meaning that not only is it difficult to plan the large movements in the acquisition process, but it is also impossible for OPNAV to control the very fine, essential last strokes in the process as tasks are handed off to the SYSCOMs.  While the effects of Sequestration have been mitigated in the last year, they are expected to return in 2020.

As far as who works in OPNAV, the answer is that the organization is manned primarily by either line officers or former line officers.  In many cases, these are the best and brightest available.  In OPNAV, there are several offices which are primarily involved in the process of procurement2:

  • Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (DCNO) for Integration of Capabilities and Resources (N8) is responsible for the fiscal pulling together of the efforts of all other OPNAV offices. It is comprised of the directors for Programming (N80), Assessments (N81), Fiscal Management (N82), Navy-Joint Capabilities and Integration (N83), Innovation, Test and Evaluation, Technology Requirements (N84), and Special Programs (N89).  
  • Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (DCNO) for Warfare Systems (N9) is responsible for the integration of manpower, training, sustainment, modernization, and procurement of the Navy's warfare systems currently resourced by the directors of Expeditionary Warfare (N95), Surface Warfare (N96), Undersea Warfare (N97), and Air Warfare (N98).
  • Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (DCNO) Information Dominance (N2/N6), is charged to enable informed program wholeness and warfighting capability trades for information, cyber, and electronic warfare systems.

How these organizations interface with not only the SYSCOMs, the fleet and Congress is both complex and fluid.   Internally, while N9 and N8 have a long-standing and fully evolved relationship, all relationships with N2/N6 are still in flux.   The hope would be that as N9 develops systems, the N2/N6 directorate would be entirely in lock-step with them to ensure that aircraft, ships and submarines, along with their associated weapon systems, arrive with fully integrated and supportive command and control systems.   Fair to say that these dynamics are still, very much, not fully established, and so, that which grows out of N2/N6 and their respective SYSCOMs sometimes simply doesn’t “fit” with that which N9 is providing.

The Fleet’s Involvement

To be plain, the fleet, itself, is not well connected to this process, and as far as any involvement in the discussions regarding the actual building of systems in the SYSCOMs, it is outside of the loop.  There are few if any mechanisms which allow the operational forces a voice at any point in the process.  Industry presumes that the Acquisition Corps officers assigned to the SYSCOMs, speak for the Fleet.  This is not the case.  Further, there is no sensible inquiry into what the fleet may want or need.  Nor is there a considered methodology for gathering feedback from front-line operators.   Writ large, the operational chain-of-command, which might actually have a sensible, real-time opinion on these material topics is not directly connected to those who make the decisions in OPNAV and far removed from those building the systems in the SYSCOMs. 

In theory, the operating forces are represented in this process by the respective Type Commanders (TYCOMs); however, these organizations are only loosely tied to the real decision makers who reside at the Pentagon.  To be fair, in some communities, the relationships, authorities, responsibilities and dynamics which exist between specific TYCOMs and their respective advocates in the Pentagon are close and well defined. In others, they are far looser and less specific.

The one agency which is technically charged to represent the fleet is U.S. Fleet Force Command, which produces a document called the “Integrated Prioritized Capability List” (IPCL). This document is a list of the combatant commander’s highest priority requirements, defining shortfalls in key programs which adversely affect the capability of commanders to accomplish their missions.  However, the IPCL is a bit disconnected from the real churn in Washington; the ongoing, minute, minute-to-minute interplay which takes place in OPNAV and between OPNAV and agencies like Congress and the SYCOMs.  Ultimately, the IPCL is broad in addition to being brief, and it ends up, in the words of one OPNAV flag officer being, “little more than a top-level restatement of the obvious.”

In Industry

Once OPNAV has provided the necessary funding and requirements, to a certain degree, they lose track of the SYSCOM’s activities.  These requirements are further developed, and then the radar is put out for bid by industry via a Request for Proposal (RFP).   It is in this process that things become even more disconnected from what the fleet would want.

It is important to understand that at this point the requirements for the radar may be, technically speaking, only be a few layers deep.   In actuality, the bid winner will do the deep work necessary to build the radar, and the results may be unexpected.   Consider the LCS class: Two entirely different ships were deemed to have met the requirements at a given cost.  In short, what comes out may differ from the expectations elemental to the entering argument.   This is the price of submitting requirements which are insufficiently detailed.  Also, this is the cost of SYSCOMs operating without the direct and deep involvement of line officers.

As for the various industrial competitors for the bid, they understand that their respective offerings will not only need to meet the stated, top-level requirements but will have to do so at a price point which will be in line with both governmental desires regarding cost and schedule. Ultimately, someone wins the competition as judged by a selection board, not inclusive of fleet-personnel.   The winner will then embark on the actual design, and eventually construction of the radar with varying degrees of SYSCOM oversight occurring at key points.

As industry works, unanticipated technical issues are discovered and costly schedule changes are introduced. For example, Navy timelines are altered, or unanticipated technical issues arise.  Trade-offs are then decided upon and some of these may have significant end-product impacts. Unfortunately, these trade-offs are decided upon by the SYSCOM, often without reference to OPNAV, and always unbeknownst to the fleet. 

Beyond that, many of the daily, critical decisions regarding production are taking place far below the level of the few officers assigned to the SYSCOM.   As competition has increased in recent years, cost has become increasingly critical in order for industry to win key contracts.  One of the hidden issues in this is that the experience of many of those working on military contracts, both in the SYSCOMs and in industry, has declined in recent years:  Experience is expensive, and to win competitions for work, it is often necessary to sacrifice experience.     

The Swoon of Technology

Finally, there is a palpable “swoon of technology” at play in this process.  Persons in both industry and the SYSCOMs sensibly want to keep moving forward, technologically speaking.  It is more profitable to industry and more interesting in general to those who live in the material world, day-to-day.  And, there is, of course, enormous pressure, both in the military and in industry, to continue to outpace world rivals.  In industry, new technology has a higher profit margin and promises the potential for overseas sales. In the military, it is essential to maintain a technological air gap between our forces and those of potential adversaries.

However, it is one thing to provide a high-tech solution to the fleet, and it is entirely another to support that system through training and in-service support. Front line units are overwhelmed with new technologies, which may or may not be a net plus, regardless of their newness. Consider the Ship Control Console (SCC) in USS John S. McCain (DDG 56).   Neither training nor support was provided, resulting in a catastrophe.   As it turns out, USS McCain’s SCC was only one of twenty-three different kinds currently in service in the fleet.2 The problem here is that while there is a large constituency for new systems, there is very little incentive associated with the support of existing systems.

While all of this may seem complex, the truth is that the truth is infinitely more nuanced and variable than represented here.  The roles of the Joint Staff, for example, are not at all included in this discussion.  Still, the point is that the entire process if riven with contradictions and conflicts.  Whatever may be the solutions to these problems, they are well worth considering.   To not consider them while obsessing over issues like division officer tour length or who can or cannot earn a SWO pin seems akin to standing in a lake full of alligators and worrying about the mosquitos.  

Captain Kevin Eyer (U.S. Navy, Ret.) served in seven cruisers, commanding three Aegis cruisers: USS Thomas S. Gates (CG-51), Shiloh (CG-67), and Chancellorsville (CG-62).  He also served as an air defense requirements officer in OPNAV.



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