The senior leadership of the U.S. Navy is embarking on a cross-country series of town meetings to remind the nation why the world’s preeminent sea power needs a big navy. That might seem like a no-brainer, but after five years of fighting terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq mainly with ground forces, the admirals are starting to worry they might lose budget share to the Army. The Air Force is beginning a similar series of public dialogues, but its role in the global war on terror is a good deal more visible — it provides much of the Army’s firepower, mobility and reconnaissance — and its aircraft fleet has grown so decrepit with age that policymakers aren’t likely to fix Army problems with Air Force money.
The Navy is more vulnerable to budget shifts. Not only is its role in the terror war nearly invisible (unless you count the Marines), but its fleet is in relatively good shape. In fact, for the first time ever its average warship is younger than the Air Force’s average plane. The contributions to the counter-terror campaign being made by Navy special forces and submarines engaged in sensitive intelligence gathering go largely unreported in the media. So when the Army says it needs to increase its budget by an amount roughly twice as big as all of Australia’s annual military outlays — as it is currently telling the White House — the Navy has good reason to worry.
Most of the Navy’s case for maintaining its budget share will need to focus on proving its relevance to coping with emerging threats. For example, the Navy is better capable of providing defenses against North Korean missiles than other services because it can deploy its interceptors much closer to likely launch points on the Korean peninsula. It also is better positioned to provide “maritime domain awareness” in vital shipping lanes. But beyond such operational arguments, the Navy will also need to prove that it is not wasting money that could be put to better use by the other services. In that regard, the service has a serious problem in the way it purchases new technology.
The crux of the problem is that although the Navy leads the joint force in understanding the warfighting value of new technologies, it trails the other services in thinking through how to actually acquire and integrate those technologies. Like the Army and the Air Force, the Navy says it needs to transition from closed, proprietary networks and software to “open architectures” where any supplier with a smart idea can play. But because of its insistence on forcing new technology into the framework of legacy systems, there is a minimum of competition when it comes time to modernize. Instead, the Navy defaults to traditional suppliers who charge high prices to update the capabilities of existing, closed architectures.
It costs the Navy so much to update its technology this way that the service has to retire perfectly good warships for lack of money. That’s what Rear Admiral Michael Frick, the Navy’s head of integrated weapons systems, told Defense Daily on June 27. Even when the service can find the money to modernize, solutions that have to fit into a framework of existing, proprietary standards and configurations typically are inferior to a clean-sheet approach. The service argues that because the legacy systems employ unique specifications, only the original producer is qualified to provide improvements. That might be true in some cases, but wouldn’t it make more sense to at least solicit alternatives before making an award? The bottom line is that you don’t get the full benefits of open architecture (or competition) in a closed market, so the Navy needs to start adapting its acquisition culture to a new era. If it can’t make the leap to a more efficient business model, maybe the money can be spent more productively elsewhere.
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