Friday, March 16, 2018

Naval Cornerstones

Consider these Naval Cornerstones:

  • People matter most
  • Doctrine is the glue of tactics
  • To know tactics, know technology
  • The seat of purpose is on land
  • Attack effectively first
  • We don't rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training

The preceding truisms are time tested and proven.  Here are a few newer truisms for consideration.

  • Surveillance enables firepower.  The longest ranged weapon in the world is useless if your detection/targeting range doesn’t extend much beyond the horizon.

  • Armor sustains combat.  Ships need to be able to take a hit and keep fighting.  Today’s one-hit mission kill ship designs are idiotic in the extreme.  Designing a multi-billion dollar ship that can’t take a hit is just stupid on a plate.

  • Stealth is the terrain of the naval battlefield.  On land, terrain enables deception, delays detection, and dictates the battle.  At sea, stealth is what a ship hides behind.  That stealth can come from signature reduction, electronic warfare, decoys, etc. but without stealth in some form, ships are just advancing slowly across an open field.

  • Offense wins wars.  In recent decades, the U.S. Navy has forgotten that fact.  Our main weapon system, Aegis/Standard, is purely defensive.  Our air wings are half their size and our aircraft are short-legged and light on weapon payloads.  We have no effective anti-ship cruise missile.  We have no short/intermediate range ballistic missile.  We have no significant offensive mine warfare capability.  We have no effective naval gun support capability.  We have forgotten how to win a war. 

We need to refocus on high end, peer warfare and these truisms offer a good starting point as we design new ships, aircraft, and strategies.  Perhaps you have some of your own to offer?

Tuesday, March 13, 2018


Navy SEALs.  Who doesn’t love Navy SEALs?  Well, I guess in a show of hands, ComNavOps might be one of the very few who raises his hand as not loving Navy SEALs.  Let me be clearer.  I don’t love what they’ve become organizationally and functionally.

Recall the SEAL’s lineage.  It began in WWII with the Amphibious Scouts and Raiders, Naval Combat Demolition Units, and Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT) and evolved over the years into the SEALs of the Vietnam era.  The founding missions were hydrographic surveys of potential assault sites, obstacle demolition, beach reconnaissance, infiltration, etc.  During the Vietnam war, there were two SEAL teams, one based on each coast of the US.

Underwater Demolition Team

There are now 8 SEAL Teams, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, and 10 with Teams 7 and 10 having been formed in 2002.  There are also two reserve SEAL Teams, 17 & 18.

Naval Special Warfare Command (NSWC or NSW) was established in 1987 in Coronado, and has responsibility for SEAL, SWCC (Special Boat operators) and SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV) personnel (1).   The SEAL Teams were designated as such in the mid-1980’s from the previous Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT).

It is difficult to get an accurate count of the number of SEAL and NSW personnel.  No two sources seem to quite agree.  The SOCOM 2018 Fact Book gives the NSW manpower as “approximately 10,000”. (6)

From the Navy’s website,

“The NSW community is organized around eight SEAL teams, one SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV) team, three special boat teams and supporting commands which deploy forces worldwide. The community is comprised of approximately 9,200 total personnel including more than 2,700 active-duty Special Warfare Operators, 700 Special Warfare Boat Operators (SWCC), 700 reserve personnel, 4,000 support personnel and more than 1,100 civilians.” (4)


“NSWC is the parent command to a total of 5,400 active duty and 1,200 reserve NSW personnel. It oversees four subordinate Major Commands known as NSW Groups 1-4, and their lower commands: eight SEAL Teams, two SEAL Delivery Vehicle Teams (SDVT), and three Special Boat Teams (SBT). All even-numbered Groups and Teams are located on the East Coast, and all odd-numbered ones on the West Coast of the U.S.” (1)


“The total number of personnel in the SEAL teams comes in at 8,195.  Subtracting those assigned to SEAL Team Six, we get a figure of 6,895.  Looking at the total number of soldiers assigned to the 75th Ranger Regiment, we get 3,473. Can we lay this rumor to rest now? There are way more SEALs than there are Rangers.” (2)

Debates about the exact number of personnel aside, I’d like to examine the SEAL’s organizational growth and mission.

NSWC active duty personnel increased from around 5000 in 2001 to around 8100 in 2014 (3).  These are not all SEALs but the numbers provide a feel for the magnitude of the increase.  Funding increased from $260M in 2005 to $576M in 2014 (4).

Even very recently, NSW funding continues to grow.  From the 2016 budget justification document (5), we see that the specific account line for “Ship/Boat Operations”, which is a part of the NSW budget, rose from $87M in 2014 to an estimated $113M in 2016 – a 28% increase even after adjustment for inflation.

From two SEAL teams (and UDT) during the Vietnam War to the 8+ Teams and other NSW groups of today, it is clear that NSW has experienced explosive growth.  Well, there’s nothing wrong with growth if it’s necessary, right?  That leads us into the heart of this post.

What does NSW do? 

Popular impression is that SEALs conduct missions that originate from the sea and return to the sea.  The link to the sea is what distinguishes SEALs from other special forces such as the Green Berets or Rangers.  Of course, this is not completely accurate as we’ve seen SEALs deploy to completely land-locked areas and conduct purely ground actions.

Well, then, what is the official mission of the SEALs?  From the Navy NSW mission web page, we get this,

“NSW is postured to fight a globally-dispersed enemy, whether ashore or afloat, before they can act. NSW forces can operate in small groups and have a continuous presence overseas with their ability to quickly deploy from Navy ships, submarines and aircraft, overseas bases and forward-based units.  The proven ability of NSW forces to operate across the spectrum of conflict and in operations other than war, and provide real-time, first-hand intelligence offer decision makers immediate and multiple options in the face of rapidly changing crises around the world.” (4)

That’s a pretty generic and, therefore, worthless statement although it does offer two tidbits that we’ll come back to.

Setting aside the generic and largely non-specific mission statement, we all understand what SEALs do.  They do small unit, high degree of difficulty, high risk actions.  They attack high value targets, provide surveillance and intel, and the like.  This is admirable.  This is also redundant and counterproductive.

We already have several special operations forces dedicated to land operations.  Why are we using SEALs?  That’s redundant and wasteful.

What should SEALs be doing?  They should return to their roots which is actions on the sea and from the sea and leave the pure land actions to the other groups.

Now, here’s the counterproductive part.  Because of the focus on land operations, SEALs are largely ignoring many vital missions.  Let’s consider some possibilities.

  • Destruction/sabotage of the illegal Chinese artificial islands.  Those islands, especially while they were under construction were ideal targets for sabotage and destruction.

  • Destruction/sabotage of Iranian swarm boats and base facilities.  Iran is long overdue for some serious punishment for its repeated pattern of reckless and illegal behavior toward the U.S. Navy.

  • Seizure of vessels supplying arms and supplies to NKorea and Iran.

  • Sea-launched anti-terrorist surveillance, intel, and stike actions in Africa.

  • Capture and/or destruction of drug trafficking vessels in South America and Mexico.  Clearly those countries are incapable of effectively conducting their own operations.

  • Seizure of Chinese unmanned vehicles operation on, under, or over the ocean.

  • Destruction of NKorean naval vessels such as the SSBN that is being built.

  • Destruction/sabotage of the Crimean shipyards seized from Ukraine and the Russian corvette vessels reportedly under construction there.  Such clandestine efforts would be an appropriate response to Russia’s illegal, militaristic, expansionist activities and send a clear message about our resolve.

And the list goes on.  To be fair, some of these activities may be occurring without public knowledge.  In fact, one hopes they are!  However, nothing I’ve seen even hints at this.  The SEALS appear to be firmly wedded to the land and make no particular effort to hide that fact which makes it unlikely that they are conducting the kind of hidden missions I’ve outlined.

There’s one more aspect to the SEALs that needs to be addressed.  SEALs, along with other military assets, have traditionally been used to take actions that support our national security but which may, on the face of it, appear illegal according to international laws and regulations.  For example, it’s widely believed that during the Cold War we sent submarines inside Soviet Union territorial waters to conduct clandestine operations.  Similarly, it’s assumed that we send SEALs on missions that may violate territorial boundaries.

The justification for this is that the countries in question have, by their own illegal and irresponsible actions, presented a threat to our national security and forfeited their rights to the protections provided by international law.  This is not the point of the post so I’m not going to discuss it further.

Note that in the SEAL mission description quoted earlier, we see this snippet regarding SEAL missions, “enemy …  before they can act”.  This is formally recognizing the pre-emptive nature of special forces missions.  The SEALs exist to take action before an enemy can take action against us.  Thus, the suggested missions list I presented earlier and which some of you are undoubtedly furiously pounding out replies about the illegality of, now become clear for what they are:  pre-emptive and preventative actions.

The SEALs need to return to the sea and leave the purely land operations to the other groups.  Why do we have Delta Force, Rangers, Green Berets, etc. if we’re going to intrude into their responsibilities with SEALs?  Would we think it makes sense to have Green Berets conduct sea based operations?  Of course not and the Navy would pitch a fit if they did, so why do we think the reverse makes sense?

Here’s another tidbit from the mission statement,

“… provide real-time, first-hand intelligence …”

The original purpose of the UDT/SEAL force was to provide intel.  Over the years, that has morphed into active and intentional combat.  The SEAL community has lost its focus or, more likely, intentionally changed the focus in pursuit of a larger budget slice.  We need to return the SEALs to clandestine intel collection and isolated destruction/sabotage rather than wholesale land combat.

The SEALs were never intended for sustained land combat and yet that is what they have become.  They’ve become a naval army.

Let’s cut way back on the size of the SEAL force, return those billets to the fleet, and refocus the SEAL mission responsibility to the sea-based arena that it is supposed to function in.

I love SEALs but I don’t love what they’ve become.


(1) website,

(2)Sofrep website, “Navy SEALs or Army Rangers: Who Has the Higher Numbers?”, Jack Murphy, 6-Aug-2015,

(3)Government Accounting Office (GAO), “Special Operations Forces”, July 2015, GAO-15-571, p.46
(4)ibid, p.55

(4)Navy website, Naval Special Warfare Command,

(5)United States Special Operations Command Operation and Maintenance, Defense-Wide Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 Budget Estimates, SOCOM-847,

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Combat Fleet Count - China vs. U.S. Comparison

I’m beginning a combat fleet count for China to use as a comparison to ours.  I’ll use the same criteria for inclusion.

To refresh your memory, the combat fleet is composed of carriers, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, submarines, and amphibious ships (CVN, DDG, CG, FFG, SSN, SSBN, SSGN, LHA, LHD, LPD, and LSD).  Vessels like patrol ships, minesweepers, hospital ships, tugs, salvage ships, and ships whose designation starts with “T” or “A” are not counted as part of the combat fleet.  Yes, I know that China doesn’t necessarily use the same designations we do but I’ll do my best to apply the same categorization regardless of what the Chinese designations are.

I’ve included the Chinese missile boats (Fast Attack Craft – FAC) due to their heavy offensive firepower which makes them a significant battle fleet asset.  This is a reasonable inclusion but it does distort the total fleet size number comparison so take that into consideration.

Here are the numbers and breakdown as of the start of 2018

                  China(1)    U.S.

SSN                    14      51
SSBN                    5      14
SSGN                    0       4
SSK                    58       0
CV                      1      10
LHA                     0       1
LHD                     0       8
LPD                     4      11
LSD                     0      12
LST                    32       0
LSM                    31       0
CG                      0      16
DDG                    29      66
FFG                    49       0
FS (Corvette)          39       0
FAC (Missile Boat)    203       0

Total                 474     193

Here’s a few noteworthy considerations:

  • The U.S. has more “heavy” ships such as carriers, cruisers, and high end destroyers and, therefore, retains a firepower advantage.
  • The U.S. Navy has a huge advantage in carriers and, therefore, mobile aerial firepower but the Chinese have begun an aggressive carrier construction program and will likely match the U.S. carrier fleet in about 10 years.
  • China has a heavy investment in lower end ships such as frigates, corvettes, and missile boats, all of which are heavily armed for their size and would constitute a significant firepower threat.  This is the U.S. Navy’s vaunted distributed lethality realized.  We’re talking about it and the Chinese have done it!  So, all the U.S. Navy’s claims of disproportionate impact that distributed lethality will have on the enemy’s operational complexity and confusion, the Chinese have already applied against us many times over.  ComNavOps has severe doubts about the validity of distributed lethality but according to the U.S. Navy’s claims, China has already hugely overmatched and beaten us in this arena.
  • China’s fleet is, for the most part, new and getting newer all the time.
  • The U.S. fleet still possesses as qualitative advantage in technology although this gap is shrinking rapidly. 

I’ll continue to update this from time to time.


(1)Wiki, "List of active People's Liberaton Army Navy ships", retrieved 12-Mar-2018,

Friday, March 9, 2018

Combat Fleet Count Update

Here is the periodic update on the combat fleet size.  The Navy claims the fleet is growing and is well on its way to 300+ but what are the actual numbers?  Well, previous updates have shown that the combat fleet size is steadily decreasing.

To refresh your memory, the combat fleet is composed of carriers, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, submarines, and amphibious ships (CVN, DDG, CG, FFG, SSN, SSBN, SSGN, LHA, LHD, LPD, and LSD).  Vessels like the JHSV, MCM, PC, hospital ships, LCS (we’ll count them if and when they ever get any combat capability), tugs, salvage ships, and ships whose designation starts with “T” or “A” are not counted as part of the combat fleet.

I’ve deleted the Ford from the count because, even though technically in commission, it is not a functional ship yet.

I’ve also deleted the six idled Ticonderoga class cruisers from the count since they represent a permanent decrease (they’ll only return to the fleet on a one for one replacement for a retiring Tico, according to the Navy, though it remains to be seen how this will play out).

Here are the updated numbers.

1980  392
1985  421
1990  405
1995  283
2000  243
2005  220
2010  225
2012  210
2014  205
2015  197
2016  191
2017  193

You can check the fleet size for yourself at .

So, we’ve gained two ships and halted the steady downward trend.  That’s good, I guess, but at that rate we’re not going to achieve any 355-ship fleet any time soon! 

I’ll close this post with the same statement I closed the previous Combat Fleet Count update posts:

Compare the Navy’s trend to China’s and ponder the implications for yourself.

I’ll continue to update this from time to time.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

More Austere Forward Operating Base Nonsense

We’ve totally debunked the austere, forward operating base concept for the F-35 and yet there are still people who believe it’s viable.  Well, we’ll just keep beating it down.  Here’s the latest proof that it can’t work.  Defense News website reports that low observability (LO) features, meaning stealth, account for half of all production quality defects on the F-35. (1)

Examples of stealth related defects cited in the article include,

  • Holes drilled too big
  • Dings
  • Small deviations in panel alignment
  • Scratches to the LO coating
  • LO coating overspray or misapplication

Do you understand what that list of defects means?  Those are incredibly minor problems that commonly occur, indeed, are almost unavoidable, when performing mechanical/maintenance work on machines and yet they’re enough to impact the stealth of the aircraft.

Do you understand what else that list means?  Those are defects that are occurring in a pristine, carefully controlled environment with highly trained technicians who have access to all the tools and parts they need.  It’s the best possible world for working on the aircraft and yet the defects are still occurring.  What’s going to happen when the aircraft is sitting out on some austere field with shrapnel flying around, insufficient parts, people under the gun (literally) to maintain and patch up aircraft?  When LO coatings are applied and before they can dry they’re covered in dirt, bugs, and debris?  When no one has the time or tools to align panels to micron accuracy?  When an aircraft has holes in it from shrapnel and someone has to rivet a patch on?

After a couple of days, that stealthy F-35 is going to look like a 747 airliner on radar!

Consider this telling and damning statement,

“Speaking to reporters at Lockheed’s media day on Monday, Jeff Babione acknowledged that low observability, or LO, capabilities in particular are posing a challenge to the company.”

If achieving LO is a challenge in the quiet, calm, pristine, factory with highly trained technicians equipped with all the tools and materials they need, it’s going to be impossible in muddy, humid, debris filled bases with clouds of dirt and debris kicked up every time an aircraft lands or takes off.

The Lockheed spokesman just basically said that the fantasy of an austere, forward operating base is just that: a fantasy. 

We are not going to be operating a couple of F-35’s, rising silently out of the jungle to wreak havoc.  The logistics are impossible.  Base defense is impossible.  Maintenance is impossible.  LO preservation is impossible.  Aircraft availability will be 25%.  And the list of impossibilities goes on.

Give up the fantasy or admit that you also believe in unicorns.


(1)Defense News website, “Stealth features responsible for half of F-35 defects, Lockheed program head states”, Valerie Insinna, 6-Mar-2018,

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Optimal Manning Experiment

Long ago, the Navy committed to minimal manning as a cost savings measure.  They later changed the phrase to “optimal manning” as a public relations measure, presumably believing that “optimal” sounds better than “minimal”.  Regardless of the terminology, it was an attempt by the Navy to operate ships as if they were business cases.  This was stupidity on a platter and most outside observers said so and have continued to say so.

The LCS was trumpeted as having a minimal, nearly non-existent, crew that could perform miracles, assisted by copious levels of automation.  The claim was that the LCS would have a far, far smaller crew than a Perry class frigate.  Even though the Navy denied that the LCS was a direct replacement for the Perry, they didn’t hesitate to draw direct comparisons between the two ships when it served their purpose.  But, I digress …  Of course, the LCS minimal manning failed miserably.  The core crew size has been increased.  The shore-side maintenance support crew has been significantly increased.  The degree of contractor support has been markedly higher than anticipated.  Overall, the LCS “crew” size is on par with the Perry or, most likely, larger.  Worse, because the LCS was sized and designed for minimal manning, the ability to add crew is severely limited.  The ship’s hotel services: food and water storage, berthing spaces, heads, galley space, showers, etc. are pretty much fixed and every additional crew member cuts into the ship’s endurance which was only two weeks to begin with.  Currently, the LCS is likely only good for around 10 days endurance, at best.  That’s not really a problem since most LCS’s break down in less than 10 days at sea – oh no, he didn’t just say that, did he?  Way to pile on the poor, hapless LCS!  I apologize, that was inappropriate.  Moving on …

The Zumwalt and Ford have been designed with minimal manning and it remains to be seen whether those crew sizes prove workable or not – spoiler alert: they won’t.

Earlier attempts at variations of minimal manning, in the form of crew sharing/swaps, ended in failure as the affected ships suffered from poor maintenance due, presumably, to the associated lack of bonding between ship and crew and the natural human tendency to put off dirty jobs knowing that the crew would be leaving shortly and the problem would be the next crew’s responsibility.  Unfortunately, the next crew had the same natural human tendencies and the ships suffered.

The Navy also implemented an intentional policy of routinely and systematically shorting fleet billets for many years.  Partly, this was simple incompetent personnel management and partly it was a desire to operate smaller crews even on ships that were not designed for minimal manning.  This could actually have worked had the Navy simultaneously increased funding for shore side support measures but they didn’t and the resulting poorly maintained ships were completely predictable.

And, finally, there’s the complete disconnect between the minimal manning to operate a ship during routine, peacetime sailing and the manning needs of a ship in combat.  Extra crew are needed for wartime combat stations, watchstanding, damage control, and casualty replacement.  These requirements did not make it into the Navy’s business case.

So, that’s a brief summary of the history and current situation regarding minimal manning.  Now, we have a GAO study of the practice and it’s fascinating.

Hey, just out of curiosity, how did the Navy think they were going to be able to reduce crew size and continue to operate ships with the same amount of work needing to be done but now with less people to do it?  It can’t be done, you say?  Well, the Navy found a way.  What they did was ingenious in an incredibly stupid way.  They merely and arbitrarily increased the theoretical amount of work an individual sailor could do – if each sailor can do more work then you need fewer sailors, so the Navy thought.

“To further drive down ship crew sizes, the Navy changed workload assumptions and the equation used to determine manpower requirements in 2002. For example, it increased the Navy standard workweek from 67 to 70 productive hours per sailor, which further reduced shipboard manning by up to 4 percent.”

There you have it – stupid beyond stupid.  The fact that sailors weren’t physically capable of the calculated increase in workload didn’t matter to the Navy.  All that mattered was that on paper they could justify reducing crew sizes.  The only puzzling aspect was why the Navy didn’t just increase the standard work week even higher.  Why not 90 hours, or 150?  If you’re doing something that stupid, you may as well go all the way!

The Navy claims that personnel costs are the major contributor to a ship’s operating costs.  Thus, the desire to reduce crew size is understandable, if ill advised.  Setting aside the negative effects on maintenance, readiness, and combat capability, did the Navy’s efforts to reduce crew size actually achieve its desired goal of decreasing operating costs?  According to the GAO report, the opposite occurred!

“Ship operating and support costs—the total cost of operating, maintaining, and supporting a ship, including personnel, operations, maintenance, sustainment, and modernization—increased during the optimal manning period and have continued to increase for most ship classes … “ [emphasis added]

What????  How could reducing crew size and, thus, personnel costs, increase overall operating costs?  I mean, the overall operating costs have to go down, right?  No.  Here’s GAO’s explanation.

“… increases in maintenance costs offset reductions in personnel costs.”

Well, there’s great big, “duh!”.  Everyone with an ounce of common sense could anticipate that.  If you take away crew and allow maintenance to suffer, you’re going to pay a heavier price down the road in increased maintenance – and that’s exactly what happened.  Worse than that, the policy resulted in many ships being retired early, decreasing the fleet size during a time when we’re desperately trying to increase the fleet size.

Even the Navy has belatedly acknowledged that its minimal manning efforts produced effects the opposite of what was desired.

“Navy officials acknowledged that the reduced crew sizes during the optimal manning period, along with reductions in shore support, may have yielded short-term cost savings, but also increased maintenance costs over the longer term, in part because reduced crew sizes resulted in maintenance being deferred, which developed into more costly issues that had to be addressed later.”

Again, a thoroughly predictable, common sense result that surprised no one but the Navy.

Okay, so the minimal manning experiment was an abject failure.  The Navy has restored at least some of the reduced manning so that should decrease the increased maintenance costs, right?  Again, no.

“In all cases, maintenance costs are above pre–optimal manning levels …”

This suggests that once you damage a ship by deferring maintenance, the damage is permanent and the increased maintenance costs are irreversible.  The Navy irreparably harmed the fleet with its idiotic minimal manning experiment.

The Navy also discovered, to no one’s surprise, that by reducing crew size they had to depend on contractor supplied maintenance to a greater extent.  Contractor costs are higher than captive Navy sailor costs so the result was higher overall ship operating costs due to the increased dependence on contractors.  Another resounding, “duh!”.  Everyone but the Navy could anticipate that one.

The GAO report goes on to cite example after example of the negative impact of minimal manning and one aspect after another that the Navy failed to realize and account for.  At this point, it would just be beating a dead horse for me to continue documenting all this.

The truly stunning aspect to this is the complete absence of common sense exhibited by the Navy in their minimal manning experiment.  You don’t have to be a Ph.D personnel and operations analyst to recognize simple, common sense cause and effect relationships.  That the Navy failed to do so, repeatedly, is a scathing indictment of Navy leadership that has continued to this day.  The recent Burke ship collisions and groundings were, in part, cause by shortages in crew size.  While the minimal manning experiment officially ended some time ago, the effects linger and the Navy is still trying to operate ships with too few crew even for basic safety during routine evolutions.

Minimal manning was an embarrassing failure of epic proportions and needs to be reversed.  Every ship in the fleet is undermanned and needs larger crews.  The theoretical cost savings from reduced crew sizes have been proven to be illusory and increased costs have actually resulted.  Crew shortages contributed to two Burke collisions which will cost hundreds of millions of dollars.  Where are savings?


(1)Government Accountability Office, “NAVY FORCE STRUCTURE Actions Needed to Ensure Proper Size and Composition of Ship Crews”, May 2017, GAO-17-413,

Friday, March 2, 2018

The Industrial Base

Time and again, ComNavOps hears the argument that, yes, shipbuilding workmanship may be shoddy and overpriced but we have to keep building substandard products just to protect the industrial base.  In fact, on a related note, ComNavOps has proposed that shipbuilding undergo a several year hiatus so that the Navy and industry can “catch their breath”, in a sense, and design a good warship unpressured by artificial time constraints.  Many commenters, however, argue that we can’t stop building ships because that will endanger out industrial base and risk losing skilled designers and construction workers.  Of course, given the poor designs and poor construction quality we’re getting from industry, one can’t help but wonder just how big a loss of expertise we’re really risking … but, I digress.

The common theme in these arguments is the need to protect the industrial base.  In fact, some elevate protection of the industrial base to a national strategic imperative!  Indeed, there is an argument to be made along those lines.  When war comes, attrition replacement will require a robust industrial base.

Fair enough.  So, where is this going?  Well, consider the following comment by a reader in response to the recent post, “Diversity In The Air”. (1)

“Those US fighters came from 7 different makers.  Now you have two design teams that design 1 or 2 planes in their entire work career you get mediocrity, practice makes perfect etc.”

‘scottg’ brings up a great point that deserves further discussion.  In fact, the comment raises a couple of issues.

The point about designers who may only design one or two aircraft in their entire career is incredibly profound.  In the 1930s -1970s, an aircraft designer was likely involved in dozens of designs over the course of a career.  That’s a huge range of design experience.  What’s more, the designs covered all manner of aircraft so the designer could, with time, bring to bear experience from all facets of aircraft design to the next design effort.  Further, with all the designs, prototypes, and production experience, there was a nearly endless source of real world trials and lessons learned.

Today, as pointed out, a designer may only be involved in one or two designs over a career.  In fact, if the designer is unlucky enough to work for the losing design in a mega project, he may actually go an entire career without designing an aircraft that is actually produced.  What kind of experience base does that generate?  What kind of “lessons learned” can the designer draw on?  Not much!

The F-35 began around 20 years ago and serious designing for the next combat aircraft, the so called 6th generation aircraft, won’t seriously begin for another five years or so.  That’s a 25 year time span.  Twenty five years is the better part of a career and, for the designers, results in one design.

The lack of designs leads us to the next point which is the impact of single, mega programs on the industrial base.  The F-35 is, of course, what we’re talking about.  Setting aside the merits, or lack thereof, of the aircraft itself, the F-35 program resulted in only a single manufacturer producing a final design and build.  How is a winner-take-all, mammoth, mega program benefiting the industrial base?  Clearly, it isn’t!  Manufacturer’s are dropping out of the business and even those that stay are losing their design and manufacturing expertise.

ComNavOps has previously proposed that instead of mega programs we build limited runs of, say, 200-500 aircraft on short cycles and do so with much greater frequency.  I’ve described exactly how to produce a state of the art aircraft in a 5 year period so this is eminently doable.  The greater frequency offers many advantages:

  • Many more designs in a given period.
  • The ability to incorporate known, existing technology without worrying about trying to design a “forever” aircraft with room for any imaginable future technology.  If a technology we design into an aircraft becomes suddenly obsolete we simply build a new aircraft with the new technology since we aren’t committed to a forever aircraft. 
  • Multiple manufacturers can compete on a regular basis and, presumably, multiple manufacturers will actually produce aircraft thus maintaining a diverse stable of design philosophies and production facilities.
  • Having a diverse range of alternatives provides greater resilience when combat reveals weaknesses in a particular design.

Clearly, mega programs such as the F-35 are damaging the industrial base.  Further, maintaining the F-35 in order to “protect” the industrial base is actually having the opposite effect.  We should terminate the F-35 for that reason alone!

The larger point is that we need to stop the practice of mega programs and return to smaller, more frequent programs.


(1) Navy Matters blog comment, Username: scottg, posted 25-Feb-2018, 3:16 PM,