Pentagon Acquisition Has Innovation Problem, New Study Finds

The Pentagon has an innovation adoption problem that’s part of a system that does not encourage new techniques, processes or technologies, former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said at a Wednesday rollout of a new report on defense innovation. James used the example of the fast fielding of the B-21 Raider bomber in December […]

Undated photo of a B-21 Raider. US Air Force Photo

The Pentagon has an innovation adoption problem that’s part of a system that does not encourage new techniques, processes or technologies, former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said at a Wednesday rollout of a new report on defense innovation.

James used the example of the fast fielding of the B-21 Raider bomber in December as an example of success in remarks during a rollout of the interim report on the Commission on Defense Innovation at the Atlantic Council.

The most important reason the bomber was developed quickly, James said was the bomber had “fewer checkers checking the checkers.” It had intentionally been placed in the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, one of “these pockets of innovation” that have sprung up in the Pentagon over the last 10 years.

Other keys to speed in unveiling the new strategic bomber were using only mature technologies, keeping the requirements stable and pushing open architecture making the platform more capable of faster modernization once in the inventory.

Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, another member of the commission with James, said this new era of competition with China particularly, demands that the Pentagon “accelerate … the adoption of new technology.”

Quoting President Xi Jinping’s signal to the People’s Liberation Army to be ready for a possible military move against Taiwan in 2027, he added 2027 is only two budget cycles away. Two budget cycles are also the time it would take a new technology to move through the internal Pentagon budgeting process and then through to Congress to begin production.

“We’re way behind; we’ve got to be serious about this,” said Esper.

Commission member Ellen Lord, who served as the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer in the Trump administration, said “there’s never been a more opportune time” to streamline the acquisition process. But “to start writing contracts” that smaller firms need to survive the so-called valley of death the 18- to 24-month period where a technology, system or platform remains in tightly regulated spending categories.

The best way to do that, Lord said, was “to move from piles of paper to electronic databases” dissecting the project that is constantly updated for quicker approval to raise that contract to build to scale.

Congress needs to “delegate, delegate, delegate,” as does the Pentagon, Lord said at the Atlantic Council event. The council created the commission consisting of former Pentagon officials and the defense industry with the goal of delivering specific recommendations that can be adopted quickly.

James added, now the office of the secretary of defense, the services themselves and “eight different offices” are reviewing that single proposal potentially raising more questions that must be answered and delaying it further. “One ‘no’ shuts it down,” she said.

Michèle Flournoy, a former DoD undersecretary for policy, said, “where the department often stumbles is human talent” which puts a premium on being risk-averse across the buying workforce.

“You have to train [acquisition officers] on new authorities” available to them to move good ideas into adoption “and why we need them,” she said. Flournoy added those workers must be rewarded and that means having promotion opportunities.

The panelists added that taking risks can lead to failures, but lessons can be learned from that experience that will send other projects more speedily into production.

“Most of the innovation [in cutting-edge technologies] is being done in the private sector,” Lord said. There are companies large and small that don’t face the cumbersome budgeting cycle or the regulations and rules that cover defense spending.

“Input of leadership” at the defense secretary, service secretary and service chief level “to scour the budget to find the money” to spur innovation, like the establishment of the Army’s Future Command, is essential Esper said. That allows teaching the bureaucracy “a different way of doing” business. That hands-on leadership has to continue with Congress to build trust over why these are important changes.

Top Stories 2020: COVID-19 Pandemic

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020. The coronavirus pandemic affected almost everything the Navy did in 2020, from the way the service deploys forces, to the way its contractors built ships and weapons, to the way sailors and officers were educated and trained. The […]

Sailors prepare to man the rails as the Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), returns to Yokosuka, Japan following a six-month underway period. US Navy Photo

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020.

The coronavirus pandemic affected almost everything the Navy did in 2020, from the way the service deploys forces, to the way its contractors built ships and weapons, to the way sailors and officers were educated and trained.

The outbreak on USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) gained the most attention due to the scale of the outbreak – more than 1,200 personnel were infected – and the political fallout – the ship’s captain was fired by then-Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, who then, in turn, was fired for his handling of the outbreak. Though garnering less attention, dozens of other ships and bases saw cases, too, which they had to quickly quell with new and evolving Navy protocol before they spread out of control.

Since February – when Navy personnel stationed in Italy first had to worry about growing infection rates and looming lockdowns – 29,060 Navy sailors, dependents, civilians and contractors have contracted the disease. Two sailors have died, as have 26 civilians, 12 contractors and one dependent.

Theodore Roosevelt Outbreak

Sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) move meals, ready to eat (MREs) for sailors who have tested negative for COVID-19 on April 7, 2020. US Navy Photo

The Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group deployed Jan. 17, when the virus was still largely a problem for China and surrounding countries. The aircraft carrier implemented some mitigation steps such as bleaching hard surfaces twice a day, but the risk was considered so minimal that a port call to Vietnam was made March 5, with U.S. Pacific Fleet leadership flying in for a 400-person reception to mark the carrier’s historic visit to Da Nang. Thirty reporters were brought out to the carrier for tours.

As the port call was ending, 39 sailors from the carrier were put into quarantine after it was discovered that two British travelers staying at their hotel were infected, but by March 14 they had all tested negative for the disease and were let out of quarantine. Carrier onboard delivery, or COD, flights continued to and from the ship throughout much of March.

On March 24, the first three sailors were diagnosed with COVID-19. Navy leadership denied the outbreak was tied to the port call in Vietnam. The three sick sailors were flown off the ship to quarantine on Guam.

Adm. John Aquilino discusses the Expeditionary Medical Facility (EMF) with Capt. Jerry Hutchinson, EMF executive officer on Guam on May 3, 2020. US Navy Photo

Two days later, the carrier pulled into Guam. At the time, the Navy said they had found “several” more cases on the ship, though by April 1 that rose to 93 positive cases, by April 12 it was 585 positive cases, and by April 14 it was 950 sailors. In total, more than 1,200 sailors, or about a quarter of those in the ship’s crew and air wing, contracted the disease.

Following a March 30 memo from then-TR Commanding Officer Capt. Brett Crozier, on March 31 PACFLT Commander Adm. John Aquilino said the Navy was looking for government housing and hotel rooms for sailors on TR to quarantine ashore.

Capt. Brett Crozier, then-commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71), addresses the crew during an all-hands call on the ship’s flight deck on Nov. 15, 2019. US Navy Photo

Though most of the sick sailors were able to quarantine in single-person rooms and wait out the illness, one was found unresponsive in his room during the twice-daily medical checks. Aviation Ordnanceman Chief Petty Officer Charles Robert Thacker Jr., 41, died April 13 in U.S. Naval Hospital Guam from complications from COVID-19.

After 55 days in Guam battling the outbreak, the carrier returned to sea on May 20 with about half its crew to begin workups ahead of resuming the deployment. A minimal crew was used during this event, as many were still completing their quarantines and awaiting two consecutive negative COVID tests. On June 3 the carrier picked up the air wing and much of the rest of the crew. The carrier rejoined its strike group and remained on deployment in the Pacific until July 9.

Leadership Fallout

Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly speaks to Sailors aboard the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) from across the brow via the ship’s 1-MC public address system, March 31, 2020. US Navy Photo

Even as Theodore Roosevelt was tied to the pier in Guam, the ripples from the outbreak were being felt at the Pentagon.

After Crozier’s March 30 memo was leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle, reactions were mixed: some were horrified that the sailors on TR had to face the deadly outbreak with so little help from their chain of command, while others were shocked that Crozier went around that chain of command and blasted out his plea for more rapid assistance even as plans were already in the works.

Modly fired Crozier on April 2, saying he “demonstrated extremely poor judgment in the middle of a crisis.” In the immediate aftermath, President Donald Trump and then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper expressed support for Modly’s decision.

However, Modly flew to Guam and spoke to the sailors on April 6, telling them in a mix of prepared remarks and off-the-cuff comments – which were recorded and leaked to the press – that Crozier may have committed a “serious violation of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice” and was not fit to command a carrier. After the speech audio was leaked, Modly tried to apologize, but the damage was done: lawmakers quickly began calling for his resignation. Modly resigned the next day.

A preliminary investigation by Navy uniformed leadership into the handling of the outbreak on the carrier was set to end April 6, but its release dragged, with word leaking in late April that Navy leadership wanted to reinstate Crozier as skipper of the carrier. After Esper suggested there may be more questions that needed to be answered, a longer investigation spanned until late May, and ultimately on June 19 the Navy announced Crozier would not be reinstated as captain of TR.

USS Kidd, Other Ships

Lt. Cmdr. Andrew Sullivan, assigned to Commander, Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet Medical Readiness Division, center, addresses the medical team while preparing for Sailors aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Kidd (DDG-100) as part of the Navy response to the COVID-19 outbreak on board the ship on April 28 , 2020. US Navy Photo

Theodore Roosevelt was the ship hit hardest by COVID, but it was not hit first.

By mid-March, sailors assigned to San Diego-based ships USS Boxer (LHD-4), USS Ralph Johnson (DDG-114) and USS Coronado (LCS-4) had already tested positive for COVID-19, as had four Naval Special Warfare sailors training at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor. On March 24, the day the Navy announced three TR sailors had been diagnosed with COVID-19, 54 other sailors had already been diagnosed with the disease elsewhere in the fleet. Around that time, PACFLT ceased announcing which ships and units were affected by COVID, calling it “a matter of operational security.”

Still, the Navy couldn’t hide another outbreak on a deployed ship: USS Kidd (DDG-100). The destroyer had been serving in the Theodore Roosevelt CSG, but the sailors were not involved in the Vietnam port call or in contact with the ship’s crew or air wing. In April, Kidd peeled away from the CSG – with the carrier in port in Guam – to serve in U.S. Southern Command as part of a counter-drug effort. On April 24, the Navy confirmed 18 sailors on the ship had tested positive, even though a month had passed since the ship made its last port call in Hawaii.

The crew of Charles de Gaulle wear masks while underway. French Navy Photo

Amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (LHD-8) was ordered to rendezvous with Kidd in the Eastern Pacific to lend its fleet surgical team, intensive care unit, ventilators and testing capability if the Navy needed to treat the outbreak at sea. After 15 sailors were moved to Makin Island for treatment and two more flown ashore for care, the Navy ordered Kidd to return to San Diego.

American sailors weren’t the only ones facing the disease: an April outbreak on French aircraft carrier FS Charles de Gaulle (R91) quickly numbered in the hundreds, with ultimately about two thirds of the crew – 1,046 sailors out of 1,760 – plus a few dozen on other ships assigned to the carrier strike group contracting COVID-19. In October, more than 30 members of the crew of the U.K. Royal Navy ballistic-missile submarine HMS Vigilant (S30) tested positive for COVID-19 following a port visit to Navy Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia. In early October, most of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were in quarantine after Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Charles Ray tested positive for the disease following a meeting with the Joint Chiefs.

Safety Protocols

Sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) stand-by to depart the ship for quarantine after completing essential watch standing duties on April 25, 2020. US Navy Photo

By the time a small group of sailors on USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) tested positive for COVID-19 in early September, the Navy had refined its protocols well enough to avoid a major outbreak.

Starting with the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group workups and deployment in April, a ship’s crew had to quarantine for 14 days before heading to sea, and the squadrons conducted their quarantine at their home stations before flying out to the carrier. Because of the need to quarantine for two weeks ahead of going to sea, the Navy changed up the schedule for pre-deployment training and certification. Previously the ships would go to sea for advanced phase training such as the Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training, come home, regather for a Composite Training Unit Exercise (COMPTUEX) certification exercise, go home to bid their families farewell, and then deploy. Now, with the threat of a COVID infection rising every time the sailors left their bubble and went home, the Navy decided to consolidate all the activities, with the ships heading out to sea for training and certification and then flowing right into their deployment. Creating a COVID-free bubble, plus buying enough test kits for ships to use prior to and during deployments as well as implementing social distancing and mask-wearing policies, was thought to create safe enough conditions for the Navy to continue deploying as needed around the globe during 2020.

Though safer for the sailors deploying, the Navy has broken several records this year for most at-sea time, since the sailors have been at sea with no breaks for not only the seven-month deployment but also all the training that led up to deploying.

The Blue Angels, flies over the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) on May 20, 2020. US Navy Photo

As the Navy worked its way through figuring out how to get its first strike group, the Nimitz CSG, out the door without any COVID cases, the service decided it needed to have a COVID-free carrier ready in case of emergency. As a result, the Harry S. Truman CSG was ordered to stay off the coast of Virginia upon the completion of its deployment to the Middle East. Until Nimitz CSG was certified and ready for national tasking, the Navy couldn’t take any chances with Truman CSG sailors coming home, getting sick, and then being asked to get back to sea for an emergency assignment. That at-sea loitering lasted from about April 13 to June 16.

Adding to the burden of longer at-sea times was the inability to safely set up port calls during deployments. In the early days of the pandemic, the Navy in late February called for a 14-day period between port calls in U.S. 7th Fleet – a “prudent” step “to protect our ports and prevent any particular spread to our allies and partners and, obviously, protect our forces,” the Navy said – but that turned into an all-out ban on port calls by late March. A handful of “safe haven” ports were created, including the first one in Guam in June, so sailors could get off their ships and have access to cell phone reception without coming into contact with anyone outside their crewmates. However, not all ships had access to safe haven ports, leading to some difficult deployments this year: USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69), for example, was at sea for 161 consecutive days during its deployment.

Other major changes for the Navy revolved around moving new recruits around for basic training and follow-on job training, as well as allowing for permanent change of station moves around the globe.

What started out as blanket bans on movement, liberty and other opportunities for sailors to be exposed to the virus became more nuanced as the Navy and the world learned more about COVID-19. On March 15 Esper announced a stop-movement order initially set to last two months, though in May it was extended to late June. As it became clear that the military would have to learn to live with COVID-19 for at least another year, the policies restricting movement became more conditions-based, allowing local base commanders to play a greater role in determining when it was safe for them to “reopen” for personnel movements again, for example. After a short halt in bringing new recruits to basic training, they were allowed into training after completing a 14-day restriction of movement (ROM) quarantine ahead of time – for a time, that ROM was conducted in a closed water park in Illinois due to lack of single-person rooms at the recruit station – and once in basic training they were kept in a “bubble” that saw them through their initial military occupational specialty training and into their first assignments, having no contact with the outside world and no leave time until they had successfully completed training.

Hospital Ship Responses

Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Yesenia Ocenasek, from Camp Pendleton, Calif., inventories medical equipment in the sterilization processing department aboard the hospital ship USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) on May 6, 2020. US Navy Photo

When New York City was facing a nightmarish situation early in the pandemic, and then soon after Los Angeles-area hospitals were overwhelmed too, the idea of deploying Navy hospital ships to alleviate the stress on overflowing hospitals was exciting to many.

By March 17 USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) and USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) were beginning to get activated, and the next day Trump said Comfort would deploy to New York City. Mercy was originally expected to go to Seattle, whose suburbs had the very first outbreaks in the United States, but on March 23 the ship left San Diego for a short trip up to Los Angeles, which was deemed more likely to have patient need surpassing hospital capacity. Comfort left Norfolk, Va., for New York on March 28.

USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) conducts scheduled lifeboat training in accordance with US Coast Guard certification and watch keeping regulations before returning to Naval Station Norfolk on May 1, 2020. The ship and its embarked medical task force remain prepared for future tasking. The Navy, along with other U.S. Northern Command dedicated forces, remains engaged throughout the nation in support of the broader COVID-19 response. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Sara Eshleman US Navy Photo

Though expectations were high, the ships did not contribute as much as expected: the plan was to bring non-COVID patients to the ships, allowing the staffs there to focus on trauma care and heart attacks, while the city hospitals with better ventilation and isolation capabilities focused on the highly infectious disease. Instead, the screening process proved too cumbersome to bring in patients in great numbers, and patients brought to the ships for things like broken bones turned out to have COVID too.

By late April, Comfort left New York City having treated 182 patients, and Mercy left Los Angeles after treating 77 patients.

Top Stories 2020: U.S. Navy Acquisition

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020. 2020 may be among the most consequential years for Navy acquisition in recent memory, with the service making big moves in support of its Distributed Maritime Operations operating concept. 2020 was the year the Navy officially started construction […]

Attack boat Vermont (SSN-792) float-off on March 29, 2019. General Dynamics Electric Boats Photo

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020. 2020 may be among the most consequential years for Navy acquisition in recent memory, with the service making big moves in support of its Distributed Maritime Operations operating concept. 2020 was the year the Navy officially started construction on the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine program, a massive every-other-generation effort to replace the sea-based nuclear deterrent subs. It was also the year the Constellation-class guided-missile frigate program was awarded to Fincantieri, who will design and build what will become a centerpiece of the future distributed fleet. It was the year the Navy called for an end to the F/A-18E-F Super Hornet program, reinvesting that money into a longer-range next-generation fighter that could help silence critics who say the aircraft carrier will be useless against China because the air wing’s range is too short. And it was the year the Navy and its Marine Corps partners moved out on a Light Amphibious Warship that could revolutionize how the Fleet Marine Force moves around a maritime theater in support of sea control and sea denial.

Surface Ships

Fincantieri FFG(X) Design based on the FREMM. Fincantieri Image

The surface fleet is among the parts of the Navy most changed by Distributed Maritime Operations. Rather than the Navy’s recent reliance on guided-missile cruisers and destroyers to drill with allies and partners, patrol chokepoints and conduct freedom of navigation operations, the Navy will instead rely on a large fleet of small combatants to do much of this day-to-day work, freeing up a smaller number of destroyers to conduct higher-end operations and haul around large, long-range missiles. Key to this plan is the success of the Constellation-class frigate. The Navy awarded a $795-million contract to Fincantieri on April 30 to do detail design work and build the first frigate in the class. Options for as many as nine more ships would bring the total value to $5.58 billion if exercised. Fincantieri beat out four other competitors with a design based on the FREMM multi-mission frigate already operated by the French and Italian navies. It will build the frigate at its Marinette Marine shipyard in Wisconsin. In October, the class officially received a name, with Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite announcing the first-in-class ship would be USS Constellation (FFG-62) – after it was nearly named USS Agility by former SECNAV Thomas Modly earlier in the year. Though there will be fewer large combatants in the fleet, their mission will remain important: Navy leadership has said the large combatants of the future will haul around the biggest missiles, including hypersonic weapons.

USS Detroit (LCS-7) sails in formation with the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Lassen (DDG-82), USS Preble (DDG-88) and USS Farragut (DDG-99) while conducting maritime security operations in the Caribbean Sea. US Navy Photo

The Navy is still struggling to figure out how to get the ship it needs for a price it can afford, given the deemphasis on the large combatant portfolio in future fleet plans. What was once a 2023 start to the Large Surface Combatant program was pushed to 2025 and then 2026 – and this year, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said the large combatant, which he calls “DDG-Next,” will begin detail design in 2026 and construction in 2028. New and important to the DMO concept – and the related Marine Corps concepts of Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE) and Expeditionary Advance Base Operations (EABO) – are the Light Amphibious Warship (LAW) and the Next-Generation Logistics Ship (NGLS) programs that kicked off this year. After some Marine Corps officials had kicked around the idea of a stern-landing vessel for EABO operations last year, in February the Navy included in its Fiscal Year 2021 budget request $30 million each to begin working on the new amphib and new logistics ship.

Sea Transport Solutions Image

Throughout the summer, the vision of what LAW would become grew clearer, as the Marines made the case for small units operating outside the Amphibious Ready Group/Marine Expeditionary Unit construct. These units would move from shore to shore, providing the joint force forward refueling and rearming capabilities in remote locations, collecting intelligence, providing anti-ship and even anti-submarine strike capabilities, and more. Their small footprint and maneuverability with the LAWs would make them hard for an adversary to detect and hit. By the fall, a cost estimate of about $100 million apiece, as well as requirements for length, storage capacity, crewing and more emerged, showing the dedication to begin buying the ships in FY 2022. According to the long-range shipbuilding plan that accompanied the release of Battle Force 2045, the Next-Generation Logistics Ship would kick off procurement in FY 2023, though much less is known about that new ship compared to the LAW. This medium-sized ship would be able to help resupply the distributed Navy and Marine forces operating under DMO and EABO, while blending in with local merchant traffic and being harder for an adversary to target and disrupt the flow of supplies into theater. It’s unclear how far along the Navy is in developing its requirements. A previous effort for a somewhat larger set of ships to do resupply and other missions, called the Common Hull Auxiliary Multi-mission Platform (CHAMP), has hit several roadblocks as its price tag remains higher than Navy and White House officials are comfortable spending on an auxiliary ship.


Virginia-class submarine Delaware (SSN-791) was moved out of a construction facility into a floating dry dock using a transfer car system in 2018. HII Photo

The Navy in November awarded $9.47 billion to General Dynamics Electric Boat to officially start construction on the first ballistic-missile submarine in the Columbia class. This SSBN program is the Navy’s all-important program with no room for error or delays, after all schedule margin was eaten up in the early days of the program and the future USS Columbia (SSBN-826) must be ready for its first patrol in the fall of 2030. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the Columbia program remained on track, in a nod to the importance on the program and the Navy prioritizing resources – available workers, materials and money – to keeping this program on track, even if it means attack submarines or aircraft carriers slipping in schedule. Still, though the program has remained on track, the Navy announced last month it was looking at extending the life of the legacy Ohio-class SSBNs – again – to provide a bit of additional capacity for combatant commanders and a bit of cushion in case there are hiccups in the future with the Columbia program. Partly as a result of keeping Columbia on track, the Virginia-class attack submarines slipped further behind in production this year, after already having some schedule delays as the program tried to maintain a two-a-year production rate. Threatening to further challenge the program was a White House proposal to buy just one SSN in FY 2021, which would throw off the workflow for thousands of suppliers trying to smoothly ramp up their production rates to accommodate both the Virginia and the Columbia programs. The White House reversed course in late November and expressed support for a second Virginia sub. Looking towards the future, the Navy this year made headway planning for its Block VI Virginia design – which would add new capability and lethality such as improved stealth and the ability to conduct seabed warfare – as well as the SSN(X) design that would build upon both Block VI and the Columbia SSBN design. All told, the Navy is trying to morph its attack submarine fleet to something closer to the Seawolf class, which was designed to operate deep into Soviet waters and go head-to-head with peer adversary subs, compared to the Virginia class which was originally designed for land-attack and intelligence-collection missions.

Carrier Aviation

Sailors assigned to the air department aboard the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) prepare to launch an F/A-18F Super Hornet attached to the Gladiators of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 106 during flight operations, March 29, 2020. US Navy Photo

Even as the Navy continued on with its Ford-class carriers this year, questions began swirling about the class’s future and what might come next to either replace or to supplement the Ford-class supercarrier. In March, Modly kicked off a Blue-Ribbon Future Carrier 2030 Task Force to look at the future of aircraft carriers and whether the U.S. Navy would stick with the Ford class beyond the future Doris Miller (CVN-81), whether it would move to a different nuclear-powered carrier design, or whether it would use conventionally powered carriers. Despite the prominent figures on the task force, it was not particularly well received: any reduction in demand for nuclear ship components could break the fragile industrial base, some worried, while others were concerned that the 11-carrier fleet was already overworked today and that the task force could lead to a reduction in CVNs in the future without a reduction in demand for their presence in theater. Though the study itself was canceled just two months later by Acting SECNAV James McPherson, the idea lingered: former Defense Secretary Mark Esper became interested in the notion of a conventionally powered light carrier to supplement the nuclear-powered supercarrier, and after months of study he settled on a plan to field eight to 11 CVNs – possibly down from today’s 11 – and supplement them with as many as six CVLs. He and Navy officials conceded that much work needed to be done to figure out what the CVL would look like and how to balance the two classes of ships.

Aviation Ordnancemen assigned to USS Gerald R. Ford’s (CVN 78) weapons department bring inert training bombs up to the flight deck during flight operations May 30, 2020. Ford is underway in the Atlantic Ocean conducting integrated air wing operations. US Navy photo.

Despite the questions about the future of carriers, the Ford-class program continued along, with USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) at times spending more days at sea than in port to conduct post-delivery tests and trials and get ready for full-ship shock trials next summer. Despite PDT&T moving ahead of schedule and the troubled Advanced Weapons Elevators finally coming online in numbers, the Navy fired its CVN-78 program manager and brought in a captain with “proven program management acumen and extensive waterfront experience” to see Ford through its remaining work before being fully turned over to the fleet for a maiden deployment.


An F/A-18E Super Hornet, attached to the ‘Dambusters’ of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 195, prepares to land on the flight deck of USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) on Oct. 16, 2020. US Navy Photo

In a major move for carrier aviation, the Navy announced in February in its FY 2021 budget request that it would not continue Super Hornet production beyond the end of the current multiyear contract, which runs through FY 2021. Funding that had been planned for another contract for FY 2022 through 2024 would instead be diverted to “accelerated development of Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) and other key aviation wholeness investments.” With little fanfare, the Navy stood up an NGAD program office under Naval Air Systems Command in May and quickly began industry talks. Though investing in NGAD was the primary reason for ending the Super Hornet line, the Navy also said that stopping new Super Hornet production would free up the production line for Super Hornet life extension work, which the Navy needs to add capability to the jets and keep them around long enough for a replacement to be designed and built.

Sailors assigned to Fleet Logistics Multi-Mission Squadron (VRM) 30 direct a CMV-22B Osprey from the ‘Titans’ of VRM 30 on the flight deck of Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) on Nov. 20, 2020. US Navy Photo

Supporting a near-term change for the carrier air wing, Bell-Boeing delivered the first CMV-22B Osprey to the Navy in February, allowing the Navy to start a short test and evaluation program before turning the aircraft over to the operational squadron that will support the first deployment in 2021. The Navy needs the CMV-22 to serve as its new carrier onboard delivery (COD) platform because the legacy C-2 Greyhound cannot carry a large F-35C engine; the Osprey could carry the engine out to an aircraft carrier and would also have the added flexibility of being able to bring people and supplies directly to the other ships in the strike group, which can support the V-22 landing on their helicopter decks. USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) will make the first deployment with the F-35C in 2021, so the CMV-22 needs to be ready too for that deployment. Looking a few years out, the Navy is making good progress on its MQ-25A Stingray unmanned carrier-based refueling tanker. In April the Navy exercised a contract option to buy three more aircraft from Boeing, and in December the Stingray made its first flight with the refueling system attached under its wings.

Unmanned Systems

Medium Displacement Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MDUSV) prototype Sea Hunter pulls into Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii on Oct. 31, 2018. US Navy Photo

In other unmanned news, the Navy set off down a path to design and build medium and large unmanned surface vessels of its own, after earlier work had been done with Pentagon-purchased USVs. L3 Technologies in July won a $35-million contract to develop a prototype Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MUSV), with options for eight follow-on craft that could bring the contract to a value of $281 million. In September, the Navy awarded six companies contracts to begin determining what the service’s Large Unmanned Surface Vehicle will look like. Austal USA, Huntington Ingalls Industries, Fincantieri Marinette, Bollinger Shipyards, Lockheed Martin and Gibbs & Cox each won about $7 million for LUSV design studies. Using Pentagon-built prototypes, the Navy operated the Sea Hunter medium USV with a carrier strike group this year, and an Overlord large USV conducted the first-ever autonomous transit of the Panama Canal as it sailed from the Gulf of Mexico to Southern California. In the undersea domain, just this week the Navy released its final request for proposals for the Snakehead Large Displacement Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (LDUUV) program, with the intention to select a single vendor next year to begin designing and building two prototypes.

Plans and Budgets

USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) and USS Nimitz (CVN-68) and their carrier strike groups (CSGs) steam in formation on July 6, 2020. US Navy Photo

Though many of these moves in 2020 will be instrumental in creating the fleet the Navy and Marine Corps know they need to deter China or win a fight if needed – especially the unmanned vessels, the light amphib and the frigate – the exact future shipbuilding plans for the Navy are still unclear. After the Navy and Marine Corps wrapped up an Integrated Naval Force Structure Assessment in January, Esper did not agree it was the right plan. He ultimately kicked off a Pentagon-led Future Naval Force Study that worked from February to October to look at what the sea services needed to do to be prepared to beat China in a fight in the 2045 timeframe. This effort led to a Battle Force 2045 plan that had all the same themes as the Navy’s original INFSA earlier in the year. The Pentagon couched the differences as a matter of timelines and how aggressively to begin making changes: The Navy had been focused on a 2030 timeframe and what needed to happen quickly to overhaul the fleet in the next decade to support DMO, LOCE and EABO. The Pentagon instead took a longer view meant to incorporate what kind of threat China could ultimately become in the long run and therefore what the Navy and Marines would need to do to counter it – with the expectation that transformation would start now with that 2045 threat in mind. The plan will need buy-in from lawmakers, who have been largely unimpressed with the plans presented to them this year. The original FY 2021 budget request was called “dead on arrival” after it contained the smallest shipbuilding budget in years. The Battle Force 2045 and its accompanying long-range shipbuilding plan was panned for the opposite reason, for being out of touch with budget realities and calling for too quick a naval buildup.