Ten years ago, renowned author James Gleick published a book called Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything. The book documented how new information technologies were speeding up the pace of innovation, investing and just about every other facet of life, with huge consequences for society. Policymakers in the Rumsfeld Pentagon had noticed the same thing, and embarked on a series of initiatives aimed at disorienting and overwhelming slow-moving adversaries by “getting inside their decision cycles.” But critics pointed out there was a big obstacle to leveraging new technology for maximum military effect: the defense department’s baroque acquisition system was just too lethargic to do anything fast.
That complaint has persisted up to the present time. Military satellites routinely reach orbit years later than planned. When defense secretary Robert Gates purged the Air Force leadership in 2008, one reason was that the service was taking too long to get surveillance drones to warfighters. And analysts such as my colleague Dan Goure have noted it will take the joint logistics system the better part of a year to get 30,000 more troops deployed to Afghanistan. However, there is one part of the military establishment where things really do seem to be speeding up, and that is naval shipbuilding. Consider a few recent developments:
— The time required to build each Virginia-class attack submarine has fallen from nearly 15 million man-hours to 11 million. According to Lance M. Bacon in Defense News, the latest boat in the class was delivered after 70 months — four months early — and now the Navy thinks it can compress the time needed to construct each attack sub to 60 months. That will not only save a lot of money, but prevent the size of the undersea fleet from shrinking to only 40 subs in the future.
— The Joint High Speed Vessel being developed as a fast intratheater connector for the Army and the Marine Corps got through its technology development phase in record time. New naval vessels typically require 3-5 years for the key technologies to be nailed down before they can commence advanced system development and initial production, but JHSV managed to race through the tech development process in only two-and-a-half years, assuring the much-needed sealifter reaches the fleet as soon as possible.
— The Navy’s newest class of surface combatants, the Littoral Combat Ship, was delivered to the fleet only six years after it was first conceptualized, which is barely half the time it normally takes to define, design, develop and produce the lead ship in a new class of warships. Lockheed Martin, prime contractor on the lead ship, now says it can cut the man-hours on the next littoral warship it builds by 30%, and even more on subsequent vessels in the class.
What these programs seem to prove is that there is nothing inevitable about the protracted development cycles that have become customary in the military acquisition system. If program managers have the skills and authority to manage effectively and contractors are incentivized to perform, impressive results are possible. That could be really crucial for naval shipbuilding in the years ahead, because it is facing a big shortfall in funding if it builds ships the traditional way. Of course, speeding things up could confront the Navy with some unusual dilemmas — like when the world-class workforce at Bath Iron Works proves to service leaders it can produce the canceled DDG-1000 class of destroyers in much less time and for much less money than anyone expected. But wouldn’t it be nice to have that kind of problem, for a change?
Find Archived Articles: