Vice Adm. Bill Merz, USN, the deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems or N9, discusses closer integration of US Navy systems and capabilities, future fleet, manned-unmanned force mix, harnessing information and the right great power mindset with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian. The interview was conducted at the Navy League’s 2019 Sea Air Space conference and tradeshow near Washington where our coverage was sponsored by GE Marine, Huntington Ingalls Industries and Leonardo DRS. Merz has been nominated to become the next commander of the 7th Fleet.
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here at the Navy League’s Annual Sea Air Space Conference and Trade Show, the number one gathering of U.S. Navy leaders from around the world along with their international counterparts to talk about strategy, technology, budgets and more. Our coverage here is sponsored by GE Marine, Huntington Ingalls Industries and Leonardo DRS.
It’s our honor to be talking to Vice Admiral Bill Merz who is the N9, Warfare Integration, and pending Senate confirmation the future Commander of the United States 7thFleet.
Sir, it’s always an honor and a pleasure to see you.
Vice Admiral Bill Merz: Yes, Vago. Good to see you again.
Mr. Muradian: Great seeing you, and I’m going to make sure that I don’t ask you any 7thFleet questions because that’s not your job yet. Hopefully, we’ll visit you in Japan when you’re in office and running. But let’s talk about warfare integration.
You had this job you’re going to be handing off to Admiral Kilby who’s going to pick up. One of the questions and challenges Brian McGrath, we talked to him yesterday at the show. One of the things he said is, not being critical of anything, but that there needs to be better integration of all of the entire portfolio of unmanned/manned systems. I know that’s something that’s been occupying an enormous amount of your time, and indeed, the headspace of a lot of the leadership, whether the CNO and the VCNO as well as fleet commanders.
Talk to us a little bit about getting that warfare integration piece of it right, especially in a time when you’re looking at combining manned, unmanned, air, surface, sub-sea, space, all of these platforms together to generate that rich data picture the Navy wants of its future battlespace.
Vice Admiral Merz: We’ve worked very hard to get that integration right, and it’s been a little bit of a journey. I would say as little as five years ago we were still pretty stovepiped in how we handled not just each community but each domain. Subsurface, sea floor, air, surface, space, even the cyber domain. It kind of worked in isolation.
But as we’ve gotten more people to rotate back to the Pentagon from the fleets we’ve gotten this huge sense of cross-domain, cross-integration. Essentially that’s how we operate forward, so bringing that back to the building and just another justification of why it’s so important to bring in fleet commanders, fleet leadership, back to the Pentagon to help with the requirements.
Some years ago we used to do this all under one umbrella, the N8. The Resourcing and Requirements Branch. We realized the tour was betting very big so we split it out, just to have a Requirements side. So all the Resource sponsors work now under the N9.
We’re essentially the only service that does it this way, but it was really to remove distractions and focus more just on the requirements generation. Over the last three years, we’ve been very much on this theme that this can’t be a discreet act. It has to be a lifestyle of working cross-domain, cross-community, cross-integration.
So the way we’ve structured the programming, the budget programming over the last couple of years is, we divide the entire Navy program into portfolios. Each portfolio is led by two two-star admirals, or I also have a two-star Marine general, and they lead each one of these portfolios so there’s this check and balance across them to make sure that the portfolio lethality is maximized, regardless of what domain’s coming through.
So I work with Brian McGrath, I talk to him quite a bit. Apparently I need to give him an update on where we stand, but he’s exactly right. This is so obvious that everybody’s kind of come to the right answer collectively. I’m very comfortable with how we approach the warfighter requirements. There’s still a lot to do to get to that requirement, but how we approach it, how we define the capabilities we need, it’s very cross-functional, very cross-domain. And really, it’s very intrinsic to the characteristics of our type of Navy which is a forward deployed Navy.
We are often looked at as a very big, very capable Navy, but we’re also a Navy that’s spread throughout the entire globe. So any particular area we may not be so big, or we may not be so lethal. So our ability to leverage all the different domains at one time is very important to the basic course, how we employ the Navy.
Mr. Muradian: One of the things that Brian also mentioned was sort of the need for bringing back sort of a Navy Materiel Command kind of approach at a four-star level. Do you think that that kind of a structure would also be something that would be beneficial? Because I think what he was talking about, again, he wasn’t targeting anybody in particular but was saying hey, the soup to nuts, the full way of looking at what this future architecture is going to look like, mind it, support it, and continue to improve it.
Vice Admiral Merz: I think we’re open to any suggestions that, better organization, more efficient way to do the business. When you think back to the Materiel Command, that was a committed four-star that worked on these issues. But now we’re organized under a different four-star, the Vice Chief. We all support him in the decision-making. He advises the Chief of Naval Operations.
So we’re pretty comfortable with how we’re running now, but we always do nudges to the process every single year, so we’re certainly receptive to, if there’s a better way to slice this pie and get after the effects we need, we’re wide open to input.
Mr. Muradian: You were the product of one of those nudges actually, right? N9 wouldn’t have existed with you pioneering the job if it hadn’t been for that.
Let me ask you about the digital fleet blueprint that the Navy is working on. The CNO and Navy leaders have been sort of two messages, right? We want 355 ships but let’s not judge the Navy exclusively on the number of hulls you’ve got out there, let’s look at capability. Obviously looking at whether or not large, unmanned platforms would count against fleet strength, especially on the surface side but as well, unmanned, underwater vehicle. I think folks don’t fully recognize that some of these unmanned, underwater vehicles you’re looking at are the size of conventional submarines in fact, and are eye-watering in terms of the persistence that you want to get and the autonomy you want to get out of them.
Talk to us a little bit about how the digital fleet blueprint, what are some of the ideas you’re working on what that future fleet looks like and how it could be actually, in some ways, very different than what the fleet looks like today and how that potentially affects a numbers side of the game as well.
Vice Admiral Merz: This is a good opportunity to kind of reflect on the 355 number. I always take the opportunity to reinforce that it’s a derived number. We do a lot of campaign analysis. We do a lot of wargaming. We do a lot of intelligence reviews, looking at the threat factors. And we come up with the capabilities we think the Navy needs. Then we go through our force structure assessment to tell us how much of each of that capability that we need to bring to bear to meet all our commitments around the world including attrition, if it comes to combat, and including some risk we’re willing to take.
We add all those numbers up and that’s how you get to the 355. We don’t start at 355 and start working our way backwards. Or I can get you to 355 in a lot of non-lethal ways. That’s not what we’re after. We’re after naval power.
We don’t see us coming off that number. We think there’s going to be a home for manned combatant ships well into the future. What we’re really focusing on now, assuming we can get to 355, is what are all the other enablers we need to bring to complement that 355 ship force?
You mentioned the digital world. We know we have to continue our crusade to be as connected as possible and as resilient in that connectivity as we can. We’re putting a lot of effort into advanced capability weapons, directed energy, hypersonics, that sort of stuff. But also you mentioned the unmanned world. And there’s a lot of moving parts in the unmanned world, but we’re very persistent that we right now are not committing to replacing any battle force ships with unmanned ships. There’s the Law of Armed Conflict, ethics, everything that has to go with that.
Set that aside, we’re fully committed to developing the capability. We’ll figure out that other stuff hopefully in stride and in parallel.
You’re right, these are going to be capable platforms. We’re putting a lot of energy and engineering into them. We’ll see how it goes. But right now we’re just committed to a collective naval power, not a ship count, not how we account for them. It’s important in a lot of areas just to make sure we don’t lose our focus, but the reality is, it’s about the collective naval power we’re pursuing.
Mr. Muradian: One of the questions about this digital autonomous architecture is in a contested environment, especially one where communications are degraded, whether through kinetic strikes on our satellites or jamming or any of the other features that go with it. A lot of autonomous systems still require a lot of communication with home base in terms of guidance, corrective, because we’re not sure of the autonomy. Again, putting the Laws of War aside, whether or not we’re going to have that degree of autonomy that we really need for some of these situations.
Are you comfortable in terms of the strategy, the approach and the thinking you guys are putting into this to be able to operate these large platforms in potentially denied or degraded environments, for them to be able to operationally be effective units as opposed to costly, you know, they may end up on the bottom of the ocean.
Vice Admiral Merz: We are comfortable in understanding the challenge of integrating these types of platforms into the fleet. Communications are always a challenge, more so undersea, less so in the air. Navigation’s always a challenge. We have to come through that. But we’re a very decentralized Navy anyway. So we’re pretty comfortable in our ability to operate on our own, connected or disconnected, and we just need to bring in the autonomous systems along with that same line of thinking.
They’re going to be pretty much tied to the battle force early on, and then we’ll see where they go, where they develop.
Mr. Muradian: One of the things the CNO has said, the VCNO has been pushing this message. I saw my friend Christian Becker, the SPAWAR Commander, Boris Becker. And everybody has been talking about hey look, it’s about the data. The ship is actually a repository of data. The Navy’s actually a data organization that projects sea power.
How does that shape how both commanders need to think about this? How do commanders, whether you’re on the requirements side of things and generating them, or whether you’re on the battle force side of things, how does that change how you think about what the force is and how you project force and how you use information and how your team uses information?
Vice Admiral Merz: The saying right now is it’s all about the data. This is true within the Navy, the greater Department of Defense and across industry. There was this myth out there that industry has this all figured out, and it turns out it’s an extremely hard problem for everybody. So we’re very much partnering with our industry friends to get after this and start understanding what are the data requirements, what are the data standards, how is that going to change over time? This is a living, breathing thing. You can snap a line on this one day and then you’re going to have to start the evolution again.
So we’re getting after this thing called the operational architecture which you can use like a Verizon model where you have some infrastructure, you have operating systems, and you have applications. And across that is this lifeblood of data that has to be shaped, tagged, whatever you want to call it, to continue the evolution of the capability that goes along with it. There’s no lack of effort across all of DoD. This is one of those efforts that is bringing all the services together so we get this right collectively. A lot of organizations have been stood up, a lot of organizations and efforts have been directed by Congress. So there’s a wide recognition of this challenge and I think the resources are available. We are still defining the targets to shoot on, and we’re moving out.
Mr. Muradian: Let me ask you a last question about culture. You started your career in the Cold War. We were talking a little bit earlier and you said you were an O4 by the time you met your first admiral because you were underway. I was going to say haze gray and underway, but flat black and underway for a long time.
Talk to us about how you and other leaders from your generation are channeling that great power mindset to get folks focused on — I know the submarine force was a little bit ahead of everybody else in terms of really getting up on that step. You were Director of Submarine Warfare, and you and I did talk a couple of times about how like hey, you know, we’re getting gup that curve and been getting up that curve.
Talk to us about that mindset difference you’re bringing to a new generation of folks whose experience has been more often than not being in Afghanistan, Iraq or supporting Syria operations as opposed to getting there, trailing, doing some of the missions you guys did. Or being out on the high seas and actually coming alongside other folks doing FONOPS, for example, which is a very different ball game.
Vice Admiral Merz: That’s a very insightful question. The Cold War was the last time we would really say we’re in a great power competition and there were serious, existential threats to both the United States and any other country that was involved in the Cold War.
Since then we’ve been more localized, more regional. And as we move out of that, a lot of the Cold Warriors have gone away. But those of us who still remember understand the stakes that are in play.
It’s unfortunate that we’re finding ourselves in the scenario again, but the U.S. being the U.S., we don’t back down, we keep pace, and we believe we have serious responsibilities around the world that really can only be undertaken by the United States and we’re up to the challenge.
Mr. Muradian: Sir, Vice Admiral Bill Merz, for a little while now still the N9 and hopefully soon, pending the Senate’s agreement, the future Commander of the United States 7thFleet.
Sir, thanks very much. It’s always a pleasure talking to you. And we certainly look forward to seeing you in sunny Japan.
Vice Admiral Merz: Thanks, Vago. It’s good to see you again.