Even When We’re Fast, We’re Slow

“Even when we’re fast, we’re slow.”

These words, uttered by Secretary of the Navy Gordon England at a two-day Naval Institute symposium on Sept.  29, 2004, were not part of his prepared remarks. As reported by Kate Wiltrout of The Virginian-Pilot, following his prepared comments, England spoke informally with Institute members and several guests.

As is often the case, these informal remarks spoke volumes about not only England ’s point of view, but of where the Bush administration wants to take not just the Navy – but the entire Defense Department – during the next few years. It is an immense undertaking.

I remember back in the 1960s when the Navy instituted a new supply system that was designed to lower the cost of carrying seldom-needed spare parts in inventory while simultaneously ensuring that such vital parts were always at hand for immediate use. On paper, it was a remarkable system that saved potentially hundreds of millions of dollars while keeping our fighting fleet battle ready.

But the plan failed to take human nature into account. Submariners have historically fended for themselves. The “ midnight requisition party” is a legendary part of submarine lore. Since before World War II, submariners have known that the value of going to sea with what you need was worth a few cases of frozen steaks or a couple of traditional leather jackets. And if you still didn’t have it the night before patrol, you made sure you had it anyway – by whatever means.

In the 1960s, as sleek nukes replaced aging diesels, submariner self-sufficiency continued unabated. “Nuke Pukes,” as the good-smelling, sharply-attired fast attack sailors were known to diesel submariners, quickly learned from their grungy brothers.

As the automated supply system got up to speed, submariners’ (and especially diesel boat guys’) off-the-radar “requisitions” soon caused significant distortions in what appeared to be an otherwise excellent supply system. Eventually, some critical diesel spares fell out of the system entirely, which – some say – hastened the diesel boats’ demise.

Most of us remember the fall of the Berlin Wall. What many do not really understand is that the Soviet system was doomed from the outset by its inherent inefficiency. Personally, I have no doubt that President Ronald Reagan played a major role in hastening its downfall, but it was doomed no matter what anybody said or did. Soviet Premier and Party Chairman Nikita Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs that one of his greatest frustrations was his inability to solve problems like a train hauling logs cut in one forest to a sawmill a thousand kilometers away, while logs felled near that distant sawmill were transported to a mill near the location of the first logs. He said it drove him crazy. He complained that every five-year plan the Central Committee developed would further complicate a system that already was complex beyond imagining.

While the Soviet Union is gone, here and there in today’s world, some smaller governments and some political parties still cling to the belief that central control can really work – if only they get it just right. Secretary England noted that the U.S. Navy’s structure is directly descended from the Napoleon-designed French model. He said we must tame our “huge bureaucracy” because we face an almost totally decentralized enemy. “Even when we’re fast, we’re slow,” he said, and added that the Department of Defense is the “last bastion of socialism” – a centralized economy with a five-year planning cycle.

The theme of the Naval Institute-sponsored conference was: “Ready or Not? How Do We Respond with Ready Forces to the Right Place, the Right Time, to Win the Next War?”

England directed attention away from this theme with these comments: “While that is an important topic, I must tell you frankly that I am more interested in winning this War; namely, This War on terrorism that could be with us for several generations.”

He then went on to discuss our vulnerabilities in a scenario of a decentralized enemy with the ability to strike quickly and intensively at both civilian and military targets worldwide. He noted that the Navy no longer is opposing a blue-water enemy with carrier-based flotillas and a fleet of nuclear attack subs; and we no longer have to protect ourselves from submarine-launched ICBMs.

He characterized this new enemy within a naval perspective as one who is transporting nuclear weapons components and other Weapons of Mass Destruction (MWD) components by sea in small vessels indistinguishable from thousands of similar vessels plying the oceans everywhere. The new enemy attacks our large vessels not with torpedoes and missiles, but with explosive-laden dhows and leaking sampans.

“Make no mistake,” England said, “terrorists don’t care about nationality or the religion of their victims. Today in Iraq and in Saudi Arabia, radical Muslims kill innocent Muslims. Terrorists are blind to innocent women and children. Using any means, they threaten our security and our economies.”

He quoted President Bush from a pivotal June 2002 speech to the cadets at West Point: “Our security will require transforming the military … (to) be ready to strike at a moment’s notice in any dark corner of the world.”

“This War is about time and speed and information, being timely, agile and quick to react to robust intelligence,” England continued. “Never before have these attributes been so necessary to our planning, our operations, and our need to sustain readiness.” England went on to say that in order to be relevant, our naval forces will need to “seize the initiative rapidly … as we will not have the luxury of time to prepare in advance.” He described the metric “ 10-30-30,” which defines the Navy’s new goal for closing forces in as little as ten days, defeating the immediate enemy within 30 days, and resetting for the next round within another 30 days.

Navy leaders are already transforming our fleet into one that has the flexibility to respond within the 10-30-30 metric. In Vietnam, England said, a carrier strike package could hit 23 targets per day. In Desert Storm, it was 162. Today, we can target 680. By 2008, that number will be over 1,000. In 1994, it took 12 hours to retarget a Tomahawk. Now we do it in-flight in real-time.

England described how today a Marine in a combat zone can communicate a need directly to a scientist in Crane, Indiana, for immediate response.

“We do not, however,” England warned, “have management systems as responsive as our technology.”

In his prepared remarks, England did not directly address the real problem our military, and our Navy in particular, faces. But in his informal comments following his speech he pulled no punches. He made it absolutely clear that we must tame our “huge bureaucracy” if we are to succeed in the war on terror. He implied that the senior brass had better go along with the program or get out of the way.

What England and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld propose is no MacNamarian replace-the-guys-with-high-tech-toys scenario. It is nothing less than a complete overhaul of the Napoleonic bureaucracy, putting the guys on the front lines, on the vessel bridges, and the submarine control rooms in direct contact with those who can supply immediate solutions to their immediate problems.

High tech will continue to play a role throughout the spectrum of military operations. Innovations on today’s battlefields include intelligent body armor for combat soldiers, computer-net control of battlefield operations, nanotech forward imaging in urban combat settings, computer-net command and control of ship and squadron operations, smaller, more maneuverable, less expensive Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) submarines for in-shore operations, unmanned surveillance drones, and even unmanned combat aircraft, to name just a few.

Under England ’s vision, look for a complete restructuring of the Pentagon’s current centralized command and control. Look for a great deal of autonomy by field commanders coordinating their actions through flexible, secure computer networks. Look for sea-borne hit-and-run operations that will take out terrorist operators within hours or even minutes of their terrorist strikes – or even before those strikes occur. Look for board-and-search operations that will find and capture contraband within hours or minutes of its presence being detected by satellite and other surveillance means.

And look for a paradigm shift in how we collect intelligence, and how it gets disseminated to the forces that need it the most.

“Even when we’re fast, we’re slow” may be true now, but we’re changing, and as Secretary England implied, if you’re not part of the change, get out of the way.

Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor

Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

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