Rear Adm. Ron Boxall, USN, the US Navy’s director of surface warfare (N96), discusses getting the Littoral Combat Ship on regular deployment cycles, the new FFG(X) frigate program, a new Large Surface Combatant, sophisticated new training aids for warfighting and ship driving with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian at the at the Surface Navy Association’s annual conference and tradeshow in Northern Virginia. We are an SNA media partner for the event and our coverage is sponsored by Huntington Ingalls Industries, GE Marine, L3 Technologies and Leonardo DRS.
Rear Admiral Ron Boxall
Director, Surface Warfare, U.S. Navy
Surface Navy Association Conference
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here at the Surface Navy Association’s Annual Conference and Trade Show, the number one gathering of the United States Navy Surface Force leaders as well as senior leaders from across the service. Our coverage here is sponsored by Huntington Ingalls Industries, General Electric Marine, Leonardo DRS, L3 Technologies, and we’re also a media partner with SNA on this great event.
We’re honored to have with us one of the stars of this show, Rear Admiral Ron Boxall, who is the Director of Surface Warfare. Sir, it wouldn’t be SNA if we didn’t have an opportunity to talk. Thanks very much for the time.
Rear Admiral Ron Boxall: Thank you, Vago. It wouldn’t be the same for me if you didn’t have this time.
Mr. Muradian: I always enjoy it.
First, I want to start a little bit about the incidents and accidents in 2017. I know that a lot of that work is being done. We talked to the VCNO about some of the changes. Admiral Brown was very articulate about that as well, about some of the changes that are happening. I know that you’re on the requirements side of things.
Talk to us a little bit about your role in sort of addressing some of the challenges and shortfalls. I know you have a huge training portfolio piece of it that goes into it. There was a little bit of a material and systems piece of it. Talk to us about your role in sort of rebuilding the capabilities of the force in addressing some of the challenges that we face.
Rear Admiral Boxall: Sure, Vago. As you have heard, I mean one of the big issues with this, the collisions that caused a lot of introspection, hey, do we really give the best training and the best fidelity trainers that we can do? Do we have the best radars and systems?
As you know, as you look at those incidents and accidents, we put a premium on the quality of the command and the commanders, but we also took a step back and said we need to look and make sure those commanders have all the tools we can give them to ensure that we give them as much as we can to do as good as they can so that the ships are safe and the crews are competent in their abilities overseas.
So as we went through, one of the immediate things that we looked at were are the quality of the radars, are the quality of the trainers themselves. You know, what are we doing? How much time we’re giving them? The types of things that we’re doing. That’s not in my lane, really, but the training side, we said we were doing, some of the scenarios that we were running were kind of outdated. We didn’t really capitalize on the fact that a lot of these ships are operating in a much more dense, concentrated environment. So we’ve moved a lot of those scenarios into higher stress shipping situations to complement the warfighting training that we’re getting.
So between us, one of the biggest things that’s coming out is the Maritime Skills Training Program which has increased fidelity and quality of trainers on the waterfront in San Diego and Norfolk and also up at SWOS. So you’re going to see a vast improvement in both the type of training, the quality of the trainer and the reps and sets that they’ll get to do. So increase in accelerated investment in better radars and just the training itself. Those are the immediate, really high-dollar investments that we have coming right out of, we already started it in ’18, we’ll do it again in ’19, and we’ll continue to follow it up through the next few years.
Mr. Muradian: You mentioned in your remarks that actually LCS crews are showing better ship handling skills, in part because they have the higher fidelity trainers. So there is actually a direct link between the investment you’re making and those shoreside installations and folks’ ability to drive their ships.
Rear Admiral Boxall: We think so. We’re going to keep looking at the data as we improve the fidelity of trainers across everybody. If it works for LCS we think it will work for everybody else. They do have better trainers. They’re a newer class of ship and we designed that training for the blue/gold concept or the multiple crew training, and in doing that, we have learned that they also get more time. There’s on-hull and there’s off-hull. When they’re off-hull they have time to train, which is equally as important. Time becomes a critical factor in all this, not just the quality of the trainers. If you have the best trainers in the world but you don’t have time to train, it really doesn’t matter. So we’re looking at that.
The last thing I can say with LCS is that we don’t know if it’s all because of the trainers or the fact that as they get out there they have smaller ward rooms, so they’re getting more —
Mr. Muradian: Sets and reps.
Rear Admiral Boxall: — per officer of the deck that’s driving. There’s fewer officers of the deck, same amount of time, they’re going to get more time per person. So that’s part of this as well, to see, we’re interested to kind of keep digging down and see what’s causing that. We want to take whatever model’s improving and take it forward. But certainly the fidelity of the trainers for me, when I walked in there I said you can pull someone right off that trainer, put them right on the ship, and it’s a very, very short period of time before they’re proficient. Very interesting feedback from the commanding officers.
Mr. Muradian: It’s extraordinary.
Also standardization on ship control panels. Is that going to be something that’s going to be investment as well? There was some confusion about rudder position and other things. Do you think there’s going to be a greater drive towards standardization on that?
Rear Admiral Boxall: One of the things that we’ve done is we have created a tech warrant holder which is someone who basically wakes up every day thinking about commonality of bridge equipment and the quality of bridge equipment. So we’re very excited about putting that back into our portfolio. Usually it’s done by class. We said no, we want everyone across any classes to have a common bridge control system they look at. If you’re on a frigate, you’re on a future destroyer, we want it to all look the same.
We’ve also looked at some of the consoles themselves. In the quest to get technologically improved, we want to make sure that, you know, people don’t usually drive by panels and pushing buttons. We drive like this with a car, we drive using a stick. So there’s physically something there. We’re looking at whether we should put that back and make sure that someone driving a ship gets the feel of driving a ship as well. And sometimes you may not see the numbers change or maybe the button go up or down.
I would liken this to the first time you or I went from an analog speedometer to the first time someone put one of those digital things on your — it wasn’t quite the same. So we’re looking and doing the human factors piece to ensure that the people driving the ships get that feedback linkage which makes them most productive and most good at their job.
Mr. Muradian: That was obviously a factor in the McCain incident where folks didn’t know, or weren’t quite sure, the discrepancy between the indicator and where they thought the rudder was.
Rear Admiral Boxall: Yeah, and history, again, a history of looking at it a certain way, and it was relatively new equipment. So we’re looking still at how much of that was a factor or not, but regardless, we are looking at whether we can improve the quality, and that’s really what we’re focused on.
Mr. Muradian: Let me ask you a quick LCS, it’s a long saga, it’s a long story. I remember Admiral Harvey now going back almost ten years ago saying hey, we’re going to deploy it. I know the entire Navy leadership team has talked about it. You’ve talked about it. Hey, this is going to be the breakout year. Apart from the program, we’ve heard that from Admiral Brown as well. Talk to us a little bit about how the mechanics of this, what’s going to be happening what we’re going to end up seeing because there isn’t a conversation I’ve had with a Surface Warfare officer or a Surface Warfare leader that does not at some point lead to the initials LCS. So I feel it incumbent to have to ask you this question.
Rear Admiral Boxall: Well, we have every intention, and that was the plan. The delays in ’18 were really a function of the reorganization that happened the year before. We did the big LCS Review. We did an upheaval kind of in the operational approach to employing LCS. We went from having them kind of both variants on both coasts. We’ve gone to one variant on one coast one on the other with an anti-submarine warfare and anti-surface warfare and a mine warfare division on each coast. So that organizational structure, we’re priming the pump right now to make it sustaining.
We just commissioned our 16thLCS, Wichita, last Saturday. In doing that, you’re going to see these coming out about four per year. So once this pump gets primed, and we think it’s going to be fully primed and ready to deploy on schedule in ’19 as the Fleet Commander has stated, then they’re going to come fast and furious and those ships will be out there and ready to operate.
I don’t want to go back to, there are a lot of reasons why there was a lot of anti-LCS sentiment. Now that the ship’s out there and operating, the Fleet Commanders, not surprisingly, want the ship out there. We’re going to outfit that ship with a Naval Strike Missile. We awarded the contract last year. We’re going to do everything we can to get that on one of those deployments in ’19. I don’t know if we can or not, but it’s really important to get that type of capability out on a ship that size. It’s really a huge improvement in the warfighting capability.
Also, we’re going to be deploying the Detroit, we believe, with the Surface Mission Module. This is that new module that’s part of the surface mission package that will give her a great capability against small boats, and we’re excited to put that deployed forward in ’19. So it’s not just getting them out there, it’s getting them out there with relevant capability and things that the warfighter needs.
We have had, we’re still learning with LCS. We’ve made dramatic changes. I think everything is moving in a positive direction. We’ve already seen the benefit of the training in LCS. So I think we’ve got to take some of the stories we heard about LCS and give it a chance to kind of prove itself as we are very confident it will.
Mr. Muradian: Talking about improving capabilities. FFG(X), the Future Frigate, is also a topic of hot conversation. The requirement this year, down select; next year a very robust competition. Huntington Ingalls, one of our sponsors, is one of the competitors. But so are the two Littoral Combat Ships are in the mix there. Fincantieri who sponsored us last year was there as well. Talk to us a little bit, you know, Dave Johnson who we talked to at the time who was the Military Acquisition Deputy who now has a beard and works for L3, another one of our sponsors, had sort of jokingly said hey look, a billion dollars is the requirement but yes, you know, we want to have good anti-submarine warfare and be that kind of flexible frigate.
Can you give us a little bit more granularity about what this requirement’s going to look like and what are some of the LCS lessons learned that will go into the ship and how this ship paves the way for the future from a commonality perspective as you look at a couple of new generations of Larger Surface Combatant.
Rear Admiral Boxall: When the CNO tasked us with going to a new frigate from the LCS he said make it more lethal, make it more survivable, make it competitive, open competition including foreign designs built in U.S. shipyards, and get it on contract in ’20. Those were the rules.
Mr. Muradian: And make it cheap enough to buy in numbers.
Rear Admiral Boxall: He didn’t say that, but it was certainly implied. I certainly took it that way. As we see where it fits into our structure, we see that as the low in the high/low mix, right, of a structure. Large Surface Combatant, Small Surface Combatant and then you’ll have unmanned which is even less expensive but good capability.
So the frigate, we said okay, what can we do to really learn from LCS and we took the mission packages right off. The surface and ASW mission packages, we kind of crossed over and said hey, those are the capabilities we want in this ship right off the bat.
We looked at the radars, and we said if we’re going to make this a more survivable platform we need to put something that looks like our best quality radar that we have out there which is the SPY-6 radar and we’re going to downsize it to the frigate. In doing that, we get commonality between radars.
We also said let’s make it lethal and survivable. That means putting weapons on there that can do what we need it to do to strike long range and/or defend if we need to. So we put VLS, Vertical Launch System, 32 cells on there which we think is going to give it a lot of striking capability and also the ability to defend itself.
So now you have VLS in common with our other platforms. You have radar that’s common with other platforms. And the remaining piece of the commonality trinity is the combat system. So we’re going to already use the combat systems that we know — ACB-16, Baseline 9, whatever we’re calling it in the future as we go to one single integrated combat system, we will want that to be a direct drop onto the frigate to ensure, again, we have commonality in training, commonality in — so it won’t have the capability with as big a radar, it won’t have the capacity with as many VLS, but other than that, it has almost all the same qualities that you see at sea today on our DDG Flight 2 Alpha ships, which is pretty good capability.
So if we can complement some of those other capacity things, maybe with unmanned, maybe with other platforms, then we think that’s a great platform to get out into lots of places in the cost point that we think is valuable inside the larger infrastructure.
So as far as what the cost is going to be, we’ll wait and see. We’ll put a request for proposal out this year, we’ll get it on contract by FY20. But we’re very excited about the competitive space. We’ve worked with industry to collectively look at what’s driving their costs and see if we can mitigate some of those to have this give and take between what drives cost and what we need for capability. And when it comes time to award the contract, we think we’re going to be in a space that’s competitive, cost-effective, and will be a good balance for getting us more ships in the same amount of [SEN].
Mr. Muradian: Do you see the frigate program — the Navy has a history of sort of picking programs that reinvent both how it buys something but also how it does business, right? MQ-25 is a good example of it. The new carrier refueling aircraft is going to advance how the Navy acquires systems but also change the game on how carrier aviation delivers capability.
On the frigate program, it was sort of always understood that it may be a game-changing program. How do you see that? The original intent was hey, let’s throw the door open, let’s change how we do business as we go through it. But depending on who you talk to in this competition, there are some folks who are like you know, the Navy is still — you made a joke about it a little bit, about USS Princeton, first screw-propelled ship, but it looked just like a regular ship because the Navy knows what works and devolves to what works, right? Going back to a helm. We’re not going back to a total separate lee helmsman, right? But it’s like hey, we know that and we know it works.
How do you do the tradeoffs on this? Is this program something that can reinvent the way you do stuff? Change the way you do logistics, change the way that you do the mission based on the technology that may be resident in some of these ships as opposed to doing it the way the Navy — you know what I mean? It’s like somebody may come up with a novel idea, but you’re going to execute it the way you always did as opposed to executing it differently.
Rear Admiral Boxall: To answer your question, really, we are doing something very different. Someone could say that we changed the requirement and worked with industry to get something on contract in that short period of time, that’s a very different model. So the front-end model is dramatically different. Then you start looking at okay, well, what are we doing differently inside to look at capability? Every time we start a ship, we create a requirement, we throw it over to the acquisition side, we say here, go figure this out. Then they open up their book and they do it the same exact way.
Well, we didn’t do it the same way this time. As we went through we found examples of what we want in our book that we do it all the time. This is the survivability, this is how you get it. And when we looked at that book we said well, does that make sense? These ships are already built. Are we going to change the way — let’s look at the way they did it. Do you achieve survivability in a way that will work for us or not? And we assessed those. Sometimes we said yes, sometimes we said no. Because we don’t want, if we’re going in a competitive space with ships that exist, it’s counter-intuitive to go and say let’s dramatically change that so you can meet this requirement that never changes.
So we did look at that. We had something called the Frigate Affordability Board that we created between requirements and the acquisition side. We have industry come in and say hey, we think this requirement, we meet it. We don’t meet it the way you say it, but let’s show you why we think our way will work. We say okay, lay it out there. They bring it in and we would review that and we would value the risk and cost associated with changing that. Sometimes we accepted it, sometimes we didn’t. About half of them, more than half we accepted. So that’s a new way of doing business.
So the risk piece of that has both a cost risk, what does it cost to change, and an opportunity risk. They may be doing it in a better way that we didn’t look at. So that’s a different part of it.
So I do think we’re changing. Again, the wheels of progress move slowly, but I think in this great power competition the CNO’s challenged us in this Design 2.0 to go after every one of those things. He’s using it by time lines, he’s using it by giving us the flexibility to create these new processes. The Requirements Evaluation Team is the swarming tactic. We didn’t do it that way before. It was a serial process, slow. There was an opportunity cost for going slow. The capability got delayed and the adversary moves ahead while we stay the same.
Mr. Muradian: Let me ask you about Large Surface Combatant. You said volume and power and cooling are sort of the key characteristics, right? You want to create a good bus that can be used for a variety of different applications.
Can you fill that out a little bit? You want to get that ship under contract in ’23. I think you want to have the requirement out year after next if I’m correct on that. Beyond just saying hey, it’s going to be a big bus that can carry a variety of different things. You said we may no longer do a cruiser. That’s something which is novel and under discussion. We may want to have larger missile tubes as we do on the Zumwalt class that can carry a different generation of far-longer range weaponry potentially. You even mentioned Virginia Payload Module compatibility. Was that what you were suggesting with the submarine force?
Talk to us about some of the other ways you’re thinking about this ship and some of the other characteristics you want that go beyond just sort of power, cooling and volume.
Rear Admiral Boxall: You missed the two most important aspects which are flexibility and adaptability. Those are the two primary reasons we need a new ship. We’ve got a big radar on the DDG Flight 3. We’ve got a lot of power. We’d like more. We don’t have the ability to be flexible and adapt and change. That ship is very densely packed because we’ve taken this hull and we’ve put more and more on it to the point where we’ve pretty much maxed out the footprint. So that’s the SWAP-C piece. We aren’t going be able to put a larger VLS on there if we decide to do so, and if we do put a larger VLS on something, we want to make sure it’s common. You know, if a submariner is going to use something we want to look at that model. I’m not saying that’s what we’re going to do, but if there’s an investment in how they’re doing it and it fits for surface ships, then we’re interested.
What we are most interested in ensuring that if we have a bigger missile on our ships in the future, I don’t know what that looks like but I don’t want to design a ship without that ability to put that in there.
So to me, the volume, SWAP-C cooling area, that’s good, that’s important. But flexibility and adaptability.
In the new space that the CNO talks about, Design 2.0, of going faster, high-velocity learning. We don’t know what capabilities we’re going to need, so it’s best to build it with the idea of being able to build to whatever you need rather than saying hey, well, this is what we think today and we’re going to have that for 45 years.
So that’s really the key part that I think is most important in the Large Surface Combatant is the flexibility and adaptability. But of course, you know, we’re changing out the DDG Flight 3 because the capabilities we need on our Large Surface Combatant, we think there’s going to be a need for more power which will mean — ships grow in three dimensions when you put generators or whatever on there. So the space will become important. But creating, de-densifying the ship, I don’t know how you say that, but putting more area in there and at the same time making sure it’s survivable.
Those are all things that are a consideration in the space.
Mr. Muradian: Unmanned. The surface force has always been interested in sort of unmanned platforms. Things like Wave Glider have been part of the force actually for a long time in terms of sort of sea surveillance. You put a slide up there that had a big ship with the word “unmanned” over it and some folks thought you were going to be driving bigger ships around.
Walk us through a little bit of the unmanned surface road map in terms of the capabilities you want to deliver to the Surface Force, whether it’s for surveillance and whether payload or other kinds of applications, given that your requirements are a little bit different from the dull, dangerous and dirty, for example, that the submarine force consistently talks about.
Rear Admiral Boxall: I would say the thing that we add is we want more platforms, more capability to distribute it. So dull, dirty, dangerous and distributed is not a bad mantra for us on the surface side.
I would also say that the whole purpose of going to something smaller isn’t just to make it cheaper. If we can do it better in a way that gives us the capability, then that’s what we’re looking for.
If you remember yesterday, I talked about really things that go on surface ships fall into sensors, command and control and payloads. So we’re looking at the whole force’s ability to do that. Big payloads, big sensors, big command and control on the big ships. At the small side maybe you’re getting one or the other. Maybe you get payloads on the large. Maybe you get sensors on the small. Maybe you do a little bit of both on either. But again, that’s the work that we have to do to find out what’s the right balance.
Some of these large unmanned in the near term, they may actually be manned, or as we like to call them optionally unmanned. They’ll be manned today but maybe not tomorrow while we think through the concept, get out there and operationally experiment with these vessels to ensure that they are meeting what we want them to do, and also using it as a platform for innovation to go out there and say if we put these with these squadrons, experiment and let people try them, people that are a lot younger and more attuned to what technology brings them are going to be more likely to change that platform for their next few generations, not mine.
Mr. Muradian: If I may, I know you’ve got to run. But on training, the idea of embedded training. We have the on-demand trainer. That’s game-changing. It’s on display here. It’s a Lockheed Martin product. In terms of being able to do more integrated shoreside and adaptable, right? Instead of a $300 million facility you can move this around. Now there’s increasing talk about hey, embedding this kind of capability in the ships themselves so that whether you’re at pier-side or anywhere else you can have these sort of much broader interactive kind of fleet-wide exercises because everybody’s interested in experimentation, right? So your security requirements go up and there are a whole bunch of challenges associated with it.
How soon before we have these sort of embedded capabilities in the way that I think and everybody talks about needing, but we’re still sort of in this extraordinary bridging period where naval training is really going through an incredible transformation? What’s the map to sort of get us to the sorts of things that you, when you were driving a ship, were like boy, I wish I had this resident on my ship and I didn’t have to go to a shore-side training?
Rear Admiral Boxall: I could spend an hour talking to you. I won’t. But —
Mr. Muradian: I’ll be here for an hour to talk to you about it, but anyway.
Rear Admiral Boxall: The exciting thing for me is the things we’re doing today — this isn’t something in the future. It’s today. We’ve already got operational trainers that can do everything at sea using a virtualized combat system. Taking the same operational program that we have today and operating it in the training environment. So if you do that today, then the obvious tomorrow is to take that capability and put it at sea on the ships. If we put the virtualized environment on the ship, we want to make sure the functionality to self-train, like we have with Aegis today but not the level of fidelity, and it’s not up to date as quickly as we’ll be able to do this with a virtualized system where we can update the software literally while you sleep. Like you get it on your iPhone.
So that’s the future we want to go to.
Now from here, today, to there, tomorrow, we will need some sort of kind of gap-filling capability. I don’t know if that’s some onboard, on-the-pier trainers, if it’s going to be schoolhouses that we fill in with these, or some combination. That’s kind of probably what it will be, some combination of gap-filling.
But interestingly, we just tested, for the first time we used this [CIAT] trainer, this Combined Integrated Air Missile Defense ASW trainer which is in effect today in San Diego. The Rafael Peralta is the first ship to go through it. The feedback was eye-watering. What we could do in the fidelity of the training, and what we were able to do there far exceeds what they can do even on our most capable, newest Aegis DDG Flight 2 Alpha ship today.
So that excitement is going to generate more excitement which will create a demand that, we see it coming, but I don’t think we can keep up with the pace. So we’re going to go aggressively trying to build more innovative trainers like [CIAT]. We’re taking parts of that and moving it up to Dahlgren, moving it to the waterfront, moving it to SWOS, but on the piers, that’s where it matters the most.
For the ships that have that most capable, which isn’t all of them yet, as we start getting more Baseline 9 Aegis ships out there over the next few years, that’s going to dramatically increase. When that happens, the training demand will also increase. So that’s the future we’re shooting for, and we’re going to go heavily into that type of training because it’s a very huge return on investment for the quality improvement and training for dollar, and the sailors love it because it’s what they’re used to. They want to see this in real time. They’re not going to be happy with a mismatch between what they’re seeing in their trainers and what they’re seeing in real life because they live in the gaming world. And frankly, that’s what we need to do.
Mr. Muradian: The coolest trainer with the bulkiest name. Rear Admiral Ron Boxall, Director of Surface Warfare, the N96. Sir, it’s always a pleasure. Thanks very much, and break a leg, and looking forward to talking to you again at Navy League for another update. Thanks, sir.
Rear Admiral Boxall: Thanks, Vago.