Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, has created a tempest with an article in the latest issue of Proceedings, published by the U.S. Naval Institute. Defense analysts have zeroed in on Greenert's assertion that U.S. adversaries will eventually be able to use unusual radar-wave forms and high-powered computing to find even the most elusive stealth aircraft. Many observers interpreted this acknowledgement by the Navy's top officer to be a crack in the Pentagon phalanx defending the troubled and hugely expensive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. A Navy spokesman later denied that Greenert intended any such implication and declared the Navy remains committed to the F-35.
The larger point of Greenert's essay was an argument for a fundamental reassessment of how the Pentagon should approach weapons procurement. His discussion of the fleeting advantage of stealth technology was an example of how the accelerating advance of technology renders weapons platforms such as aircraft and ships obsolete and vulnerable at a breakneck pace. Yet due to the immense expense of such platforms, Pentagon acquisition officials will require them to stay in service for decades. The task for designers and program officials is find a way to keep platforms relevant even as new technology quickly makes them obsolete.
For Greenert, the answer is to fashion platforms such as aircraft and ships to be large, simple "trucks" rather than exotic, yet soon-to-be-obsolete, "luxury sedans." Platforms carry payloads such as missiles and sensors, which field commanders change depending on the required mission at that moment. It is much easier for weapons designers to upgrade to new payloads as technology advances -- a process much cheaper than upgrading platforms to the latest technology. Thus, according to Greenert, it makes more sense to focus technology investment on the payloads and economize on the platforms by buying simple "trucks."
This is hardly a new concept for weapons procurement and is a technique the Pentagon has successfully employed numerous times over the past five decades, resulting in huge savings to taxpayers. Yet the success stories of platform adaptation have more often been the result of fortuitous improvisation rather than calculated design. The platforms that have most successfully adapted to new roles have one dimension in common: they have all been some of the biggest ships and aircraft in the U.S. arsenal. Successfully implementing Greenert's adaptable "truck" concept may require Pentagon planners to favor "big box" platforms over their little brothers.
Greenert opens his essay by noting that the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise made it through five decades of service because it was easily able to upgrade its payload -- the aircraft it hosted -- as new generations of aircraft replaced obsolete models. Enterprise's huge size also contributed to its adaptability; it had the space, storage, and electrical power generation capacity to receive new aircraft types, adjust crew requirements, and upgrade ship equipment, factors that have constrained the adaptability of smaller ships. Other examples of adaptation include the temporary conversion of the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk into a sea base for special operations forces at the start of the Afghan war in late 2001 and the arrival in the Persian Gulf this month of USS Ponce, an amphibious assault ship now operating as a floating forward base. Just as Enterprise has seen several generations of aircraft on its decks since the 1960s, more than a few classes of smaller escorting destroyers and frigates have come and gone, too. Having learned from Enterprise's example, the Navy has built adaptability into the design of its new Gerald R. Ford class of aircraft carriers.