In the January 1988 issue, THE SUBMARINE REVIEW’s editor suggests that “the Congress believes that the Navy’s requested submarine R&D programs have not reflected the potentials of certain technologies which can markedly improve our submarines.” He describes an array of issues, technologies, developments and ideas which are not funded to the degree that their supporters consider adequate. Prominent among the issues are submarine double-hulls, drag reduction techniques and satellite-based laser communications. The thrust seems to be that these developments have been ignored improperly in the allocation of development monies.
Recognizing that the historical precedents usually cited demonstrate that often the military services have been too conservative in adapting technological advances, I would like to offer another view of Captain Rube’s issue based on my experience in having had to make hard choices between too many needs and too few dollars.
All submariners desire to dive deeper, go faster, turn tighter, detect the enemy more acutely, process more information faster, communicate easier in ships which can be manned by fewer men; all of these desires to be fulfilled at lower costs. In considering new developments which offer a significant improvement over present ships — already the best submarines in the world — priority has to be given to those which collective wisdom indicates have the highest returns for the technical and monetary investment, e.g. sound quieting, weapons capability and load, sensor size, shape and location, processing equipment, speed with endurance and maintainability.
Like those on the House Appropriations Committee list, all these items require R&D investment. All have merit but not equally so. And which is or more value than the other depends in great measure on one’s experience, outlook and responsibilities. I would submit that the most biased judges or such tradeoff are in the R&D community — starting with the scientist who has the pride or invention extending through the manufacturer who seeks jobs and profits and Congressional advocates who often use new R&D efforts as an excuse to escape funding current needs.
Just as one ought not to change the set or the sails as soon as he relieves the watch, there is merit in the argument that existing systems ought to be treated with great care before radical changes are made for these are the product or a development process which examines in an orderly manner new ideas for military, technical, economic and political soundness as a matter or routine. In this process, new ideas must prove themselves.
Admiral Arnie Schade taught me that ” . . . new ideas have a high mortality rate.” Ev’n in the richest times, funds are never adequate to pursue all the R&D one would like. Tradeoffs must be continually and carefully made between basic research and advanced development, between incremental improvements of large numbers of existing systems for reasonable sums versus huge expenditures to gain small numbers with radical improvements, and similar competitive propositions.
Only occasionally in history are there technological developments which justify radical efforts and expenditures. Jet aircraft, nuclear power and the satellites are examples in our own time while gun powder, screw propulsion, rifled cannon, and central gun-laying could be cited as historical precedents. Not many developments can be categorized as this significant.
Incremental developments result in a great variety and range of improvements. Characteristic of such improvements has been the ability to adapt them to a wide range of equipments or platforms shortly after their initial development at relatively modest costs: homing torpedoes, sound quieting, digital sensing and processing, VLF radio and SATCOM. It is in the comparison of these incremental gains that lay the hard decisions on where to allocate R&D funds.
For example, no immediate substantive problem with communications to submarines was identified which the proposed space based laser communication system would correct. The CNO’s staff identified the value of this system and our judgements were substantially different than the system’s promoters. The CNO staff has to try to evaluate the incremental worth to battle effectiveness of any particular development and then weigh that against the resources needed to develop and deploy such a system. Estimating the value which can be reasonably expected to be gained in a development against the gains made with some other use of the funds is best done by knowledgeable skeptics. For the laser communication system, it meant comparing the cost-benefit gained by adding this system to several which already provided excellent service for submarine forces. This judgement then had to be balanced against use of resources to develop communications systems for which we have no current capability and which are absolutely necessary if naval battle forces are to be able to operate in a jammed environment. There is no argument that a laser system would be useful. But in a tradeoff of available funds, its merits have been outweighed by other needs.
My compatriots in the SSN development business wrestled with these similar problems although in a somewhat narrower scope since they did not have inter-platform tradeoffs to consider. As an occasional consultant and sometimes referee in parts of these arguments, I know that no one was in favor of slower, shallower, more costly submarines with fewer weapons and more people -which take longer to build. Each potential improvement for the near and far future had to face scrutiny as being achievable technology at the best cost and then prioritized against other requirements. When completed, these efforts represent a coherent package — a collection of what can be done at costs worth the effort. Reality means meeting the expected threat with machines that will do the job. We’d like a submarine that could fly, but we ought not to spend any money trying to get it.
During the process, promotion of new developments by their advocates must be viewed with suspicion. As submariners, we have a common experience with technical differences revolving about postulated ASW threats to our submarines. There are theorists who predict that technology will make the ocean transparent although oceanographers and submariners take a more realistic and skeptical view. Inventors, promoters and developera collectively and individually hardly ever acknowledge the limitations to their technology. As a scarred veteran of the Joint Tactical Information and Display System development, I have been a party to such limits and failure to acknowledge them. The need for this system to support a forward deployed battle force was clear and well established. There was universal agreement that the technology was “available.” Unfortunately after a hundred million dollars was expended with out a product, the Secretary of the Navy terminated the program reluctantly.
Apropos to this problem of Congressional management and interference is former ASN(R&D) Gerry Cann’s comment, also in the January issue, that ” . . . it is almost impossible to put together a forward looking program because of the zealous oversight from those in the Pentagon and on the Hill.” Great effort is expended by the Navy to construct programs so that they can sustain this scrutiny and survive such mischief as is made in them.
All of us have had the responsibility of being carefUl to spend the people’s money where it counts. In doing this we occasionally spend some where it produces no gain and sometimes fails to exploit fully a technology which could provide benefit. However, I am convinced these are extremes. In the main, new ideas warranting attention get it. As is repeatedly argued, “Quality wins.”
As defense funding stops increasing, arguments in and between the Services will get less objective and more acrimonious. In this environment of stringent resource limits, even more than in periods of plenty, advocates of new ideas in and out of the Service contribute to that collective wisdom by promoting the best facts they can in favor of their ideas. The whole selection and decision process is open and incremental. Required to support the President’s budget submission, it is repeated every year or more often. So there are continuous opportunities to introduce new ideas and evidence.