The U.S. Navy budget process has become stuck in a doomed cycle of dream-boom-bust. In other words, PowerPoint wishes eventually increased defense spending, followed by drastic cuts. The Biden administration is about to initiate another cycle with a multi-year round of studies to chart out a plan for the Navy of the future. This follows a long tradition of past efforts by the Navy and other services where decision-makers dream big, spend a lot of money, and hope for the best outcomes in a future when these current officials will be long gone. This is also reminiscent of the Trump administration's dream of a mostly autonomous 500 ship Navy, using (actually untested and undeveloped) artificial intelligence systems, even though no actual plan to deliver that type of capability was included in the timeline of the shipbuilding plans. This cycle has to be broken. There is another approach: Defense officials should not wait for the future, they should innovate now.
The debacle of the 20+ year development of the Joint Strike Fighter or the problems with the Ford-class carriers should have taught us that PowerPoint-friendly ideas never really end well, and planning now for another generation of ships to be completed in 2035, is likely to lead to similar acquisition disasters. Luckily, America has the most innovative and responsive commercial sector in the world. The administration should take advantage of that today.
The Navy should start with five existing ships and unleash the power of America's commercial sector on them. First, outfit these five ships, from bow-to-stern, inside and out, with 5G connectivity. Bolt on the sensors, do whatever it takes to provide this level of connectivity. Similar to the experimentation efforts in the 1920s, actions that led to revolutionary advances in carrier aviation, these ships would become the vanguard for networked capabilities.
Next, the Navy should borrow a few thousand Integrated Visual Augmentation Systems (IVAS) from the Army. The IVAS system can provide the Navy an already existing, commercially designed operating system with visual augmentation that can be used immediately by onboard sailors. Because these ships will have access to 5G communications from all locations, a portable cloud could provide the ship's processing power. Using IVAS could also benefit the Army and Navy as they would be using the same operating system and user hardware. This would drive down costs, and in effect, build a future joint open network.
Lastly, the Navy should once again turn to the commercial sector and ask them to send software engineers to partner with the various shipboard departments of these five special ships (by then already equipped with 5G and IVAS), and see how they could use and adapt current software technology to actually deliver and test new ways to help with maintenance, weapons, ship operations, and myriads of other tasks. This entire effort should be conducted under an Other Transactions Authority (OTA) development arrangement. OTAs would allow the commercial sector to conduct its work quickly under commercial terms and conditions, thus bypassing the laborious government management processes that force the Defense Department to wait decades for new capability. Interestingly, this was the acquisition model used to develop IVAS, and now the Navy could leverage the IVAS model to reach the next level.
This approach minimizes the number of moving parts needed to develop AI-enabled ships. It puts the Navy's most valuable asset, its sailors, at the tip of the innovation spear. It also cuts out all the PowerPoints and reams of documents that would be created otherwise. Using 5G and IVAS will bring non-traditional defense suppliers into the mix because the timelines are short. The Navy can provide small grants to the companies working on the projects, rewarding those who succeed. We believe that the incoming Secretary of the Navy can transform the Navy and change the future during the next four years by using this approach. There is much to be gained by empowering American sailors at the expense of bureaucracy.
Major General John Ferrari, U.S. Army (ret.), is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a former director of program analysis and evaluation for the U.S. Army, and the chief financial officer at QOMPLX. William C. Greenwalt is a visiting fellow at AEI and a former deputy undersecretary of defense for industrial policy.