Why the Navy Needs Disruption Now (part 2 of 2)

The future is here it’s just distributed unevenly – Silicon Valley view of tech adoption

The threat is here it’s just distributed unevenly – A2/AD and the aircraft carrier

This is the second of a two-part post following my stay on the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. Part 1 talked about what I saw and learned – the layout of a carrier, how the air crew operates and how the carrier functions in context of the other ships around it (the strike group.) But the biggest learning was the realization that disruption is not just happening to companies, it’s also happening to the Navy. And that the Lean Innovation tools we’ve built to deal with disruption and create continuous innovation for large commercial organizations were equally relevant here.

This post offers a few days’ worth of thinking about what I saw. (If you haven’t, read part 1 first.)


The threat is here; it’s just distributed unevenly – A2/AD and the aircraft carrier
Both of the following statements are true:

  • The aircraft carrier is viable for another 30 years.
  • The aircraft carrier is obsolete.

Well-defended targets
Think of an aircraft carrier as a $11 billion dollar portable air force base manned by 5,000 people delivering 44 F/A-18 strike fighters anywhere in the world.

The primary roles of the 44 F/A-18 strike fighters that form the core of the carrier’s air wing is to control the air and drop bombs on enemy targets. For targets over uncontested airspace (Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, etc.) that’s pretty easy. The problem is that First World countries have developed formidable surface-to-air missiles – the Russian S–300 and S-400 and the Chinese HQ-9 – which have become extremely effective at shooting down aircraft. And they have been selling these systems to other countries (Iran, Syria, Egypt, etc.). While the role of an aircraft carrier’s EA-18G Growlers is to jam/confuse the radar of these missiles, the sophistication and range of these surface-to-air missiles have been evolving faster than the jamming countermeasures on the EA-18G Growlers (and the cyber hacks to shut the radars down).

Hq9

This means that the odds of a carrier-based F/A-18 strike fighter successfully reaching a target defended by these modern surface-to-air missiles is diminishing yearly. Unless the U.S. military can take these air defense systems out with drones, cruise missiles or cyber attack, brave and skilled pilots may not be enough. Given the F/A-18’s are manned aircraft (versus drones), high losses of pilots may be (politically) unacceptable.

Vulnerable carriers
If you want to kill a carrier, first you must find it and then you have to track it. In WWII knowing where the enemy fleet located was a big – and critical – question. Today, photo imaging satellites, satellites that track electronic emissions (radio, radar, etc.) and satellites with synthetic aperture radar that can see through clouds and at night are able to pinpoint the strike group and carrier 24/7. In the 20th century only the Soviet Union had this capability. Today, China can do this in the Pacific and to a limited extent, Iran has this capability in the Persian Gulf. Soon there will be enough commercial satellite coverage of the Earth using the same sensors, that virtually anyone able to pay for the data will be able to track the ships.

During the Cold War the primary threat to carriers was from the air – from strike/fighters dropping bombs/torpedoes or from cruise missiles (launched from ships and planes). While the Soviets had attack submarines, our anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capabilities (along with very noisy Soviet subs pre-Walker spy ring) made subs a secondary threat to carriers.

In the 20th century the war plan for a carrier strike group used its fighter and attack aircraft and Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from the cruisers to destroy enemy radar, surface-to-air missiles, aircraft and communications (including satellite downlinks). As those threats are eliminated, the carrier strike can move closer to land without fear of attack. This allowed the attack aircraft to loiter longer over targets or extend their reach over enemy territory.

Carriers were designed to be most effective launching a high number of sorties (number of flights) from ~225 miles from the target. For example, we can cruise offshore of potential adversaries (Iraq and Syria) who can’t get to our carriers. (Carriers can standoff farther or can reach further inland, but they have to launch F-18’s as refueling tankers to extend the mission range. For example, missions into Afghanistan are 6-8 hours versus normal mission times of 2-3 hours.)

In the 21st century carrier strike groups are confronting better equipped adversaries, and today carriers face multiple threats before they can launch an initial strike. These threats include much quieter submarines, long-range, sea-skimming cruise missiles, and in the Pacific, a potential disruptive game changer – ballistic missiles armed with non-nuclear maneuverable warheads that can hit a carrier deck as it maneuvers at speed (DF-21d and the longer range DF-26).d21d range

In the Persian Gulf the carriers face another threat – Fast Inshore Attack Craft (FIAC) and speedboats with anti-ship cruise missiles that can be launched from shore.

The sum of all these threats – to the carrier-based aircraft and the carriers themselves –  are called anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities.

Eventually the cost and probability of defending the carrier as a manned aircraft platform becomes untenable in highly defended A2/AD environments like the western Pacific or the Persian Gulf. (This seems to be exactly the problem the manned bomber folks are facing in multiple regions.) But if not a carrier, what will they use to project power?  While the carrier might become obsolete, the mission certainly has not.

So how does/should the Navy solve these problems?

Three Horizons of Innovation
One useful way to think about in innovation in the face of increasing disruption / competition is called the “Three Horizons of Innovation.” It suggests that an organization should think about innovation across three categories called “Horizons.”

  • Horizon 1 activities support executing the existing mission with ever increasing efficiency
  • Horizon 2 is focused on extending the core mission
  • Horizon 3 is focused on searching for and creating brand new missions
    (see here for background on the Three Horizons.)

Horizon 1 is the Navy’s core mission. Here the Navy executes against a set of known mission requirements (known beneficiaries, known ships and planes, known adversaries, deployment, supply chain, etc.) It uses existing capabilities and has comparatively low risk to get the next improvement out the door.

In a well-run organization like the Navy, innovation and improvement occurs continuously in Horizon 1. Branches of the Navy innovate on new equipment, new tactics, new procurement processes, more sorties on newer carriers, etc. As fighter pilots want more capable manned aircraft and carrier captains want better carriers, it’s not a surprise that Horizon 1 innovations are upgrades – the next generation of carriers – Ford Class; and next generation of navy aircraft – the F-35C. As a failure here can impact the Navy’s current mission, Horizon 1 uses traditional product management tools to minimize risk and assure execution. (And yes, like any complex project they still manage to be over budget and miss their delivery schedule.)

Because failure here is unacceptable, Navy Horizon 1 programs and people are managed by building repeatable and scalable processes, procedures, incentives and promotions to execute and the mission.

In Horizon 2, the Navy extends its core mission. Here it looks for new opportunities within its existing mission (trying new technology on the same platform, using the same technology with new missions, etc.) Horizon 2 uses mostly existing capabilities (the carrier as an aircraft platform, aircraft to deliver munitions) and has moderate risk in building or securing new capabilities to get the product out the door.

An example of potential Naval Horizon 2 innovations is unmanned drones flying off carriers to do the jobs fighter pilots hate such as serving as airborne tankers (who wants to fly a gas tank around for 6 hours?) and ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance), another tedious mission flying around for hours that could be better solved with a drone downlinking ISR data for processing on board a ship.

However, getting the tanker and ISR functions onto drones only delays the inevitable shift to drones for strike, and then for fighters. The problem of strike fighters’ increasing difficulty in penetrating heavily defended targets isn’t going to get better with the new F-35C (the replacement for the F/A-18). In fact, it will get worse. Regardless of the bravery and skill of the pilots, they will face air defense systems evolving at a faster rate than the defensive systems on the aircraft. It’s not at all clear in a low-intensity conflict (think Bosnia or Syria) that civilian leadership will want to risk captured or killed pilots and losing planes like the F-35C that cost several hundred million dollars each.

Management in Horizon 2 works by pattern recognition and experimentation inside the current mission model. Ironically, institutional inertia keeps the Navy from deploying unmanned assets on carriers. In a perfect world, drones in carrier tanker and ISR roles should have been deployed by the beginning of this decade. And by now experience with them on a carrier deck could have led to first, autonomous wingmen and eventually autonomous missions. Instead the system appears to have fallen into the “real men fly planes and command Air Wings and get promoted by others who do” mindset.

The Navy does not lack drone demos and prototypes, but it has failed to deploy Horizon 2 innovations with speed and urgency. Failure to act aggressively here will impact the Navy’s ability to carry out its mission of sea control and power projection. (The Hudson Institute report on the future of the carrier is worth a read, and a RAND report on the same topic comes out in October.)

If you think Horizon 2 innovation is hard in the Navy, wait until you get to Horizon 3. This is where disruption happens. It’s how the aircraft carrier disrupted the battleship. How nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines changed the nature of strategic deterrence, and how the DF-21/26 and artificial islands in the South China sea changed decades of assumptions.  And it’s why, in most organizations, innovation dies.

For the Navy, a Horizon 3 conversation would not be about better carriers and aircraft. Instead it would focus on the core reasons the Navy deploys a carrier strike group: to show the flag for deterrence, or to control part of the sea to protect shipping, or to protect a Marine amphibious force, or to project offensive power against any adversary in well-defended areas.

A Horizon 3 solution for the Navy would start with basic need of these missions (sea control, offensive power projection – sortie generation) the logistic requirements that come with them, and the barriers to their success like A2/AD threats. Lots of people have been talking and writing about this and lots of Horizon 3 concepts have been proposed such as Distributed LethalityArsenal Ships, underwater drone platforms, etc.

Focussing on these goals – not building or commanding carriers, or building and flying planes – is really, really hard.  It’s hard to get existing operational organizations to think about disruption because it means they have to be thinking about obsoleting a job, function or skill they’ve spent their lives perfecting. It’s hard because any large organization is led by people who succeeded as Horizon 1 and 2 managers and operators (not researchers). Their whole focus, career, incentives, etc. has been about building and make the current platforms work. And the Navy has excelled in doing so.

The problem is that Horizon 3 solutions take different people, different portfolio, different process and different politics.

People: In Horizon 1 and 2 programs people who fail don’t get promoted because in a known process failure to execute is a failure of individual performance. However, applying the same rules to Horizon 3 programs – no failures tolerated – means we’ll have no learning and no disruptive innovations. What spooks leadership is that in Horizon 3 most of the projects will fail. But using Lean Innovation they’ll fail quickly and cheaply.

In Horizon 3 the initial program is run by mavericks – the crazy innovators. In the Navy, these are the people you want to court martial or pass over for promotion for not getting with current program. (In a startup they’d be the founding CEO.) These are the fearless innovators you want to create new and potentially disruptive mission models. Failure to support their potential disruptive talent means it will go elsewhere.

Portfolio: In Horizon 3, the Navy is essentially incubating a startup. And not just one. The Navy needs a portfolio of Horizon 3 bets, for the same reason venture capital and large companies have a portfolio of Horizon 3 bets – most of these bets will fail – but the ones that succeed are game changers.

Process: A critical difference between a Horizon 3 bet and a Horizon 1 or 2 bet is that you don’t build large, expensive, multi-year programs to test radically new concepts (think of the Zumwalt class destroyers). You use “Lean” techniques to build Minimal Viable Products (MVPs). MVPs are whatever it takes to get you the most learning in the shortest period of time.

Horizon 3 groups operate with speed and urgency – the goal is rapid learning. They need to be physically separate from operating divisions in an incubator, or their own facility. And they need their own plans, procedures, policies, incentives and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) different from those in Horizon 1.  

The watchwords in Horizon 3 are “If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.”

Politics: In Silicon Valley most startups fail. That’s why we invest in a portfolio of new ideas, not just one. We embrace failure as an integral part of learning. We do so by realizing that in Horizon 3 we are testing hypotheses – a series of unknowns – not executing knowns. Yet failure/learning is a dirty word in the world of promotions and the “gotcha game” of politics. To survive in this environment Horizon 3 leaders must learn how to communicate up/down and sideways that they are not running Horizon 1 and 2 projects.

Meanwhile, Navy and DOD leadership has to invest in, and clearly communicate their innovation strategy across all three Horizons.

Failure to manage innovation across all three Horizons and failure to make a portfolio of Horizon 3 bets means that the Navy is exposed to disruption by new entrants. Entrants unencumbered by decades of success, fueled by their own version of manifest destiny.

Lessons Learned

  • Our carriers are a work of art run and manned by professionals
    • Threats that can degrade or negate a carrier strike group exist in multiple areas
    • However, carriers are still a significant asset in almost all other combat scenarios
  • Speed and urgency rather than institutional inertia should be the watchwords for Horizon 2 innovation
  • Horizon 3 innovation is about a clean sheet of paper thinking
    • It’s what Silicon Valley calls disruption
    • It requires different people, portfolio, process and politics
  • The Navy (and DOD) must manage innovation across all three Horizons
    • Allocating dollars and resources for each
  • Remembering that todays Horizon 3 crazy idea is tomorrow Horizon 1 platform

Thanks to the crew of the U.S.S. Vinson, and Commander Todd Cimicata and Stanford for a real education about the Navy.

Why the Navy Needs Disruption Now (part 1 of 2)

The future is here it’s just distributed unevenly – Silicon Valley view of tech adoption

The threat is here it’s just distributed unevenly – A2/AD and the aircraft carrier

Sitting backwards in a plane with no windows, strapped in a 4-point harness, wearing a life preserver, head encased in a helmet, eyes covered by googles, your brain can’t process the acceleration. As the C-2 A Greyhound is hurled off an aircraft carrier into the air via a catapult, your body thrown forward in the air, until a few seconds later, hundreds of feet above the carrier now at 150 miles per hour you yell, “Holy Shxt.” And no one can hear you through the noise, helmet and ear protectors.


I just spent two days a hundred miles off the coast of Mexico aboard the U.S.S. Carl Vinson landing and taking off on the carrier deck via a small cargo plane.nimitz class carrier

Taking off and landing is a great metaphor for the carrier. It’s designed to project power – and when needed, violence.

It’s hard to spend time on a carrier and not be impressed with the Navy, and the dedicated people who man the carrier and serve their country. And of course that’s the purpose of the two-day tour. The Navy calls its program Outreach: Americas Navy. Targeting key influencers (who they call Distinguished Visitors,) the Navy hosts 900/year out to carriers off the West Coast and 500/year to carriers on the East Coast. These tours are scheduled when the carriers are offshore training, not when they are deployed on missions. I joined Pete Newell (my fellow instructor in the Hacking for Defense class) and 11 other Stanford faculty from CISAC and the Hoover Institution.

I learned quite a bit about the physical layout of a carrier, how the air crew operates and how the carrier functions in context of the other ships around it (the strike group.) But the biggest learning was the realization that disruption is not just happening to companies, it’s also happening to the Navy. And that the Lean Innovation tools we’ve built to deal with disruption and create continuous innovation for large commercial organizations were equally relevant here.

The Carrier
U.S. aircraft carriers like the Vinson (there are 9 others) are designed to put the equivalent of an Air Force base anywhere on any ocean anywhere in the world. This means the U.S. can show the flag for deterrence (don’t do this or it will be a bad day) or to control some part of the sea (to protect commercial and/or military shipping, or protect a Marine amphibious force – on the way or at a place they will land); and project power (a euphemism for striking targets with bombs and cruise missiles far from home).

On an aircraft carrier there are two groups of people – the crew needed to run the carrier, called the ship’s company, and the people who fly and support the aircraft they carry, called the Air Wing. The Vinson carries ~2,800 people in the ship’s company, ~2,000 in the Air Wing and ~150 staff.

Without the Air Wing the carrier would just be another big cruise ship. The Air Wing has 72 aircraft made up of jet and propeller planes. The core of the Air Wing are the 44 F/A-18 strike fighters.

The F/A-18 strike fighters are designed to do two jobs: gain air superiority by engaging other fighter planes in the air or attack targets on the ground with bombs (that’s why they have the F/A designation). Flying on missions with these strike fighters are specially modified F/A-18’s – EA-18G Growlers that carry electronic warfare jammers which electronically shut down enemy radars and surface-to-air missiles to ensure that the F/A-18s get to the target without being shot down.

Another type of plane on the carrier is the propeller-driven E-2C Hawkeyes, which is an airborne early warning plane. Think of the Hawkeyes as airborne air traffic control. Hawkeyes carry a long-range radar in a dome above the fuselage, and keep the strike group and the fighters constantly aware of incoming air threats. They can send data to the fighters and to other ships in the battle group which identifies the location of potential threats. They can also detect other ships at sea.

The other planes in the carrier’s Air Wing are 16 helicopters: 8 MH-60S Nighthawk helicopters for logistics support, search and rescue and special warfare support; and 8 MH-60R Seahawks to locate and attack submarines and to attack Surface targets. seahawk helicopterThey carry sonobuoys, dipping sonar and anti-submarine torpedoes. And last but not least, there is the plane that got us on the carrier, the C2-A Greyhound – the delivery truck for the carrier.

You’re not alone
Carriers like the Vinson don’t go to sea by themselves. They’re part of a group of ships called the “carrier strike group.”  A strike group consists of a carrier, two cruisers with Tomahawk cruise missiles which can attack land targets, and two destroyers and/or frigates with Aegis surface to air missiles to defend the carrier from air attack. (In the past, the strike group was assigned an attack submarine to hunt for subs trying to kill the carrier. Today the attack subs are in such demand they are assigned by national authorities on an as-needed basis.) The strike group also includes replenishment ships that carry spare ammunition, fuel, etc. (The 150 staff on the carrier include separate staff for the strike group, Air Wing, carrier, surface warfare (cruisers with tomahawk missiles) and air defense (Aegis-armed destroyers.)

strike groupThe strike group also receives antisubmarine intelligence from P-3/P-8 anti-submarine aircraft and towed arrays on the destroyers, and additional situational awareness from imaging, Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) and radar sensors and satellites.

Before our group flew out to the carrier, we were briefed by Vice-Admiral Mike Shoemaker. His job is aviation Type Commander (TYCOM) for all United States Navy naval aviation units (responsible for aircrew training, supply, readiness, etc.) He also wears another hat as the commander of all the Navy planes in the Pacific. It was interesting to hear that the biggest issue in keeping the airplanes ready to fight are sequestration and budget cuts. These cuts have impacted maintenance, and made spare parts hard to get. And no pay raises make it hard to retain qualified people.

Then it was time to climb into our C-2 Greyhound for the flight out to the aircraft carrier. Just like a regular passenger plane, except you put on a life vest, goggles, ear plugs, and over all that a half helmet protecting the top and back of your head while enclosing your ears in large plastic ear muffs. Then you and 25 other passengers load the plane via the rear ramp, sit facing backwards in a plane with no windows and wait to land.

On the U.S.S. Vinson
Landing on an aircraft carrier is an equally violent act. When you make an arrested landing, a tail hook on the plane traps one of the four arresting cables stretched across the deck, and you decelerate from 105 mph to zero in two seconds. When the plane hit the arresting wire on the carrier deck, it came to a dead stop in 250 feet. There was absolutely no doubt that we had landed (and a great lesson on why you were wearing head protection, goggles and strapped into your non-reclining seat with a four-point harness). As the rear ramp lowered, we were assaulted with the visual and audio cacophony of crewmen in seven different colored shirts on the deck swarming on and around F-18s, E2Cs, helicopters, etc., all with their engines running.

flight deck shirts

Captain Doug Verissimo and his executive officer Captain Eric Anduze, welcomed us to the carrier. (One of my first problems onboard was translating Navy ranks into their Army/Air Force equivalents. For example, a navy captain equals an Air Force/Army Colonel, and a rear admiral is a brigadier general, etc.)

flight deckThen for the next two days the carrier’s public affairs officer led us on the “shock and awe” tour. In four years in the Air Force I had been stationed on four fighter bases, three of them in war zones, some with over 150 planes generating lots of sorties. But I had to grudgingly admit that watching F­-18s landing on a 300-foot runway 60 feet above the water, on a pitching deck moving 30 mph at sea – one a minute – at night – was pretty impressive.  And having us stand on the deck less than 50 feet away from these planes as they landed trapping the arrestor wires, and launched via a catapult was a testament to the Navy’s PR acumen. Most of crew on the flight deck are in their late teens and maybe early 20s. (And for me, hard to believe 4 decades ago in some other life I was doing that job.) Standing on the deck on a Navy carrier, it’s impossible not to be impressed with the precision choreography of the crew and the skill of their pilots.

Our group climbed the ladders (inclined at a 68-degree angle – there are no stairs) up and down the 18 decks (floors) of the ship. We saw the hangar deck where planes were repaired, the jet engine shop, jet engine test cell, arresting cable engine room, the bridge where they steer the ship, the flag bridge (the command center for the admiral), the flight deck control and launch operations room (where the aircraft handler keeps track of all the aircraft on the flight deck and in the hangar), and the carrier air traffic control center (CATCC).LPO

At each stop an officer or enlisted man gave us an articulate description of what equipment we were looking at and how it fit into the rest of the carrier.

(What got left out of the tour was the combat direction center (CDC), the munitions elevators, ships engines and any of the avionics maintenance shops and of course, the nuclear reactor spaces.)

During lunch and dinners, we had a chance to talk at length to the officers and enlisted men. They were smart, dedicated and proud of what they do, and frank about the obstacles they face getting their jobs done. Interestingly they all echoed Vice-Admiral Shoemaker’s observation that the biggest obstacles they face are political –  sequestration and budget cuts.

Just before we left we got a briefing from the head of the Carrier Strike Group, Rear Admiral James T. Loeblein about the threats the carrier and the strike group face.

Then it was off to be catapulted back home.IMG_8187

It’s clear that the public affairs office has a finely tuned PR machine. So if the goal was to impress me that the Navy and carriers are well run and manned – consider it done.

However, it got me thinking… new aircraft carrier’s cost $11 billion. And we have a lot of them on order. Given the threats they are facing are they going to be viable for another 30 years? Or is the aircraft carrier obsolete?

Tomorrow’s post will offer a few days’ worth of thoughts about carriers, strike groups and how the Navy can continue to innovate with carriers and beyond.

Lessons Learned – part 1 of 2

Thanks to the crew of the U.S.S. Vinson, and Commander Todd Cimicata and Stanford for a real education about the Navy.

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