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Legacies – worthy of respect or scorn?

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With Pentagon budget testimony season set to swing into high gear on Capitol Hill, onlookers should prepare to hear a dirty word over and over. A term meant to evoke burden and encumbrance, liability and downright inconvenience.

Legacy. Ewww.

As in, “we need to divest ourselves of these legacy systems.” “We cannot afford to support these legacy systems.” “We need to take money from these legacy systems and put it into future systems.”

This is all well and good, and in a perfect world such declarations might make perfect sense. But alas.

Simply put, legacy systems generally are those that came before those currently in office – the systems and programs people inherited when they took over. They can be ships, planes, vehicles, contracts, computer networks, communications systems and so much more. Let’s confine this discussion to those legacies involving platforms, such as ships and aircraft.

No service will talk more about the burdens of legacy systems than the Navy. The fiscal 2022 budget request is full of mentions about the need to divest of legacy systems in what is described as a budget-constrained environment. Navy officials declare the savings will be ploughed into future systems.

The divestment approach does not square with constant declarations about near-peer competitors, about China being a pacing threat, about the need to move with urgency, alacrity and adaptability, the need to rapidly grow the fleet, the need for a larger Navy of 355 ships. It doesn’t square with the recently-leaked budget planning memo for 2023 from Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Harker, where he states that the Navy needs a new submarine, a new strike fighter and a new large surface combatant – but can afford only one.

There are no indications the Navy’s acquisition budget is going to dramatically grow and Navy officials already acknowledge the current plan will not get to a bigger fleet any time soon. Throwing away existing assets for hoped-for programs that will take years to deliver operational results is not an approach responding to multiple warnings of the threat from a vastly more capable and aggressive China and resurgent Russia.

If everything the Navy wants is not affordable – as if it ever will be – an alternative approach would be to make better use of existing assets. But the budget proposal is notably light on programs to significantly update or change existing programs already in hand. Yet in the past service officials have been quite adept and effective at getting solid performance from assets on the back side of their prime.

Take, for example, the destroyer situation in the late 1950s and early 1960s, where several hundred World War Two ships were approaching block obsolescence in the face of a growing Soviet submarine threat (itself a consequence of the virtually all-new fleet the Navy found itself with in the late 1940s).

Shipbuilding budgets were not going to keep pace with replacements, so the Navy developed the Fleet Rehabilitation and Modernization Program (FRAM), where about 130 older destroyers received significant upgrades with new weapons and sensors allowing them to remain moderately effective against improved Soviet submarines.

In the 1980s the Navy was anxious to field the then-new Aegis combat system, significantly more capable than previous combat systems. But the primary platform, the Ticonderoga-class cruiser, was hugely expensive and simply not being built fast enough. The New Threat Upgrade (NTU) program was developed to update a large number of existing missile-armed cruisers and destroyers with a combat system rivaling Aegis in its effectiveness. The ships upgraded with NTU were back in service in only a few months rather than the several years needed to build new ships.

Other upgrade programs intended to produce relatively limited results turned out to be more successful once they were implemented. A recent example might be the ballistic missile defense (BMD) upgrades applied in the 2000s to Flight I Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, which when built were to be replaced after about 30 years largely due to the absence of helicopter hangars on the ships. Navy BMD, relying on upgrading the Aegis system to a threat never intended when Aegis was developed, turned out to be considerably more effective than originally envisioned, and the ships remain in demand and in front-line service, even as Aegis systems throughout the fleet undergo continual upgrades.

There are dozens of other examples from recent and older history where existing ships, submarines and aircraft were upgraded to extend their effective service lives in face of tight new-construction budgets.

But such themes are few and far between in the latest budget submission. This is all the more astonishing given the stark reality that new platforms are not forthcoming in anything like the kinds of numbers the Navy wants. And yet the Navy wants to throw away relatively-new ships and assets, including hardly-used littoral combat ships and patrol boats, in the name of reinvesting in shiny new objects that are years away from being deployable. While the rhetoric speaks to the need for urgency, the budget reflects anything but.

There is no requirement for everything to be new. What all service leaders have is a mix of new things (replete with all their developmental problems), middle-aged assets with clearly understood capabilities but less-than-the-latest systems, and older platforms. It is the responsibility of managers to provide those older systems with a measure of effectiveness over the course of their scheduled service lives – not to complain and toss them aside before their usefulness has ended.

The Navy has a rich history of getting more out of what it already has. But that is one legacy that already seems to have been divested.

13 Jun 21

Email chriscavas@gmail.com

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