CNO: Navy Is Equipping Ships with a Software Arsenal, Taking Lead on New Destroyer Design

This year’s State of the Navy event found Adm. Mike Gilday just back from a West Coast swing, taken primarily to look at naval aviation. But the Chief of Naval Operations has a lot more on his mind as he enters his fourth year on the job, from trying to get the fleet on track to match up with China’s burgeoning force to persuade Congress to pay for it. Deputy Editor Bradley Peniston spoke with Adm. Gilday on Sept. 14; full video of the interview is available (registration required), here.

Q. Let’s start with aviation readiness. Reports by the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office have noted declines in aircraft readiness and mission-capable rates. Does it concern you, and what’s the Navy doing about it?

A. In terms of our carrier wings, we’re already in very good shape. And in particular, we’re taking a page out of the framework that we use to sustain Super Hornet readiness at 80 percent; it hasn’t gone below 80 percent since the fall of 2019. We’re also applying that same model to our other type-model series aircraft, and having success there. We’re flying every day.

And I would say that, in terms of funding for flight hours in the Congress, we’ve been very happy. And although we have been making a big push on live-virtual-constructive training, big investment in simulators—I was just out to see a new integrated training facility out in [California’s Naval Air Station] Lemoore—I will also say that it’s a priority to keep young aviators flying. They need to be in the air.

Q. Have you increased flight hours? There was some concern that people weren’t flying enough.

A. Just talking to the fleet over the last few days, aviators are satisfied with the number of hours that aircrews are getting on a monthly basis.

Q. In July, the Navy sent Congress a classified Battle Force Ship Assessment and Requirement that called for 373 battle-force ships, up some 75 ships from today and higher than any of the 2023 budget request’s options—and said another assessment would come this year. When, and what’s going to be in it?

A: Our focus continues to be to maintain a ready, capable, lethal fleet today. The friction is balancing that against investments in a future fleet. Priority one has been readiness of the fleet that we have, and modernizing it at the same time. Because 60 to 70 percent of that fleet, we’re going to have a decade from now.

When we talk about readiness, we’re talking about filling billets at sea, so that shifts are properly manned, about ensuring that storerooms aboard our ships have the adequate capacity and the right parts, so that ships can self-sustain out there during long deployments. That also involves weapons and magazines. Although it’s nice to talk about the number of VLS cells one navy or another might have, unless they’re filled with weapons, they’re irrelevant. And there’s a second-order effect there in terms of retention, in terms of retaining sailors in the fleet. They want to serve in the Navy that’s ready to fight.

In terms of the fleet in the future, we’re trying to turn the corner here, giving the shipbuilding industry a steady and predictable demand signal. In our budget proposal, as an example, you see two DDGs across the board for the next five years. For FFGs, you see a bit of a sawtooth pattern—1, 2, 1, 2, 1—over five years, but again, we expect that to settle out to at least two to three a year once that production line gets rolling.

We have the highest shipbuilding budget right now—proposed—that we’ve ever had, at $27 billion. So we need to sustain that steady demand signal. Like you mentioned, we’re 75 short of where we need to be; we need to grow that fleet to at least 350 manned ships.

Q. You’ve said that the biggest bottleneck in getting more ships is industrial capacity. But Ingalls Shipbuildingfor example, has sunk a lot of money into its yard over the past few years, and it says it could build more destroyers.

A. In the current budget that’s up on the Hill, there is a proposal to increase destroyers to three a year, if the industrial base can support that. Right now, we are not at a point where the industrial base is supporting three destroyers a year. Right now, we’re somewhere between two and two and a half.

Q. Is the bottleneck at the big yards or the smaller suppliers?

A. I think it’s across the board. We’ve seen with the industrial base, producing submarines on time, on schedule, and within budget. Same thing with aircraft carriers. Destroyers are coming around, but we still have some work to do. Whether it’s shipbuilding, whether it’s aircraft production, the industrial defense base right now is strained.

And a lot of that has to do with the workforce as we recover from COVID. That’s not an excuse. It’s just where we are in this country right now. And that skilled manual labor force is something that those companies are laser-focused on so they can grow that talent and sustain it. But again, we shouldn’t expect them to make that kind of investment in our workforce, or in infrastructure in their facilities, unless we’re providing a steady demand.

Q. Some say the lessons of the DDG 1000 and LCS programs are: stick to mature designs, use simpler technologies, and avoid creep requirements. Are those principles informing the DDG(X) program?

A. I think it’s important that the Navy maintain the lead on design. And so what we’ve done with DDG(X) is, we brought in private shipbuilders, so that they can help inform the effort. So it’s a team, but it’s Navy-led. Both of the companies [Ingalls and General Dynamics Bath Iron Works] that produce DDGs are involved in that initial design.

Our intent is to go into build with a mature design…more than 80 percent complete when we actually start bending metal. We have seen great success with that, with Columbia as an example; we were more than 80 percent designed as we began that first hull. That’s going to be something that we’re going to pay close attention to, because it actually drives down technical risk. Technical risk has been a challenge for us, whether it’s Zumwalt, LCS, or Ford. And it’s cost us in terms of keeping those ships, not only within budget, but also on schedule.

Q. In the past few weeks, Iranians have tried to steal several US seaborne drones. What does that mean for the Navy’s efforts to make increasing use of unmanned vessels?

A. Well, we did have a response plan. We actually put it into effect when the Iranians grabbed two of those Saildrones. That is going to be a challenge for us, though. We’re a learning organization, and we’re learning from what happened over the past month.

The task force in the Middle East is also informing how we’re going to move towards larger, unmanned efforts. A large unmanned surface vessel would be an example, where that could potentially be a missile truck in the future. A medium USV would potentially have electronic warfare or some type of command-and-control features to it. Security is another aspect of this, whether these vessels would initially be minimally manned, whether they would be part of a surface action group, a carrier strike group or an ARG [amphibious ready group] so they wouldn’t be out there alone and unafraid, if you will.

Q. What’s the latest with the year-old AUKUS pact that’s going to help Australia operate nuclear submarines?

A. One of the benefits that I see in the near term of AUKUS is that it’s helped us focus on what barriers we can knock down with respect to sharing technology and sharing information.

As you’re probably aware, we’re in a consultant period right now. At the end of March of 2023, we’ll finally present a recommendation to the secretary of defense and the president that will answer questions about discrete capabilities. Right now, there’s double-digit working groups taking a look at different aspects of the whole ecosystem that has to be in place in order to sustain, operate, maintain, and produce submarines.

Q. And Project Overmatchthe effort to get Navy ships and every other asset hooked into a big information grid?

A. We’re still on track right now to have a strike group in 2023 go to sea with that capability. We’re also making big gains with something that we call the Software Arsenal, that has applications that allow users at the tactical edge to use that data in a way to put us in a position to decide and act faster than an adversary. I think the Navy is in a good place to—if not produce, to definitely inform the joint tactical grid of the future. I see us delivering that capability in this decade.

Q. Tell me about the Software Arsenal. Is it apps on the Aegis system?

A. Instead of embedding those capabilities inside the weapons system, we actually have them riding on the [network] backbone of these ships. And so they’re a lot easier to update. It allows sailors at the tactical edge, tacticians at the tactical edge, to actually propose changes; they could actually code changes themselves. Those changes, of course, get tested before they’re distributed force-wide. It’s utilizing industry’s best practices, so that we turn those updates from a days-or weeks-long process into just hours, and hopefully, in some cases, minutes.

Q. In 2016, I suggested to the skipper of DDG 1000 that sailors were eventually going to be programming their own apps on the ship. And he thought I was crazy.

A. Yeah. You know, for DOD, it takes us sometimes weeks to get software updates out to the fleet. This idea of ​​having those applications right in the backbone, leveraging microprocessing just like you do in your phone or in your mobile device, is absolutely the way to go.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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