131220-D-BW835-116Can rational DC people squelch those folks who traffic in “gotcha” stories?

Today’s AP story on Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus‘ travel habits–written by AP reporter Lolita C. Baldor–is just an outright smear-job. Shame on Secretary of the Army John McHugh and the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments’ Bryan Clark (color me shocked Bryan got involved in this story!) for playing along. Both those guys know better, and if they had any guts, they should have told Lolita exactly where to stick this story and sent her packing.

The story Lolita was chasing doesn’t help the nation. It didn’t help the Navy. Or the DoD. And, until somebody draws the line and says, “no more….and, by the way, you’re a @#!! idiot and here’s why”, reporters aren’t going to change. The only way to cure this is by a good public shaming of those who traffic in this sordid baloney and then ripping up that person’s press card. And then making sure they get sent to cover the winter happenings in Thule, Greenland. Then, maybe, folks will get the message.

web_131219-N-PM781-001Inspector General Leaks Are Dirty Career Killers:

Look, don’t get me wrong. I like the Department of the Inspector General. Under the right leadership, the Inspector General is instrumental in discovering wrong-doing, and digging through departmental problems. But, in the wrong hands, Inspector General investigators serve as career-ending judges, juries and executioners in a “guilty-until-proven-innocent” atmosphere.

Anyway…Throw in angry or politically-motivated investigators (who, like good prosecutors everywhere, always know their target is guilty!), administrators with grudges or the general high-schoolishism of the Washington Hand-Wringing Cocktail Party set, and America gets nothing but a bunch of good people tarnished with a front-page non “scoop” about a juicy scandal (that really didn’t get proven) but…hey, that’s never stopped a tabloid reporter, right?

So, in the end, to sell a few newspapers and banner ads, America sees good people tarnished, a good investigatory agency diminished, and waaaay too many DC people scheming as to how to use spurious “complaints” to harass (or end) rivals.

And what sucks is that everybody in DC knows this. And yet…nobody in DC dares to say anything.

Focus On Foolishness:090602-N-5549O-038

It’s just wrong when investigations that show no wrongdoing get equal coverage as those that show real evidence of a problem. That’s the case with the current “non-scandal scandal” over SECNAV Mabus’ travel. From the AP:

The Navy secretary has spent more than a full year of his five-year tenure on overseas travel, racking up more than 930,000 miles on trips that cost more than $4.7 million. Ray Mabus, the former Mississippi governor, has taken at least 40 trips outside the U.S as of July 2014, meeting officials and visiting sailors and Marines in more than 100 countries — travel he said is critical to his job in furthering U.S. and Navy interests abroad.

The inspector general investigated after receiving a complaint about his travel and cleared him of any wrongdoing, Mabus said, but his 373 days on the road contrast with those of Army Secretary John McHugh, who took fewer than half the trips at less than half the cost over the same time period.

I guarantee you that this story got more eyeballs than Stripes’ seriously serious story on a furious IG for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

McHugh and Clark should have shut this errant AP reporter down. Colorfully.

C-17 McMurdoDamn The Context!

First, this $4.7 million dollar travel expense is something that was expected by everybody who approved Ray Mabus’ appointment. SECNAV Mabus is a former ambassador, and he came into office when–guess what–there was this “1000-ship Navy” thing was still…a..thing.

Also–and it’s just a habit–Service Secretaries are always going to go to what they know, and, at the time, Mabus, as an ex-diplomat, was a perfect fit. And, for the diplomacy-heavy “forward-deployed” Navy, he still is. (Ok, and for all you red meat political partisans out there….who’d you rather have out “preparing the ground” for the future–SECNAV Mabus or Secretary of State John Kerry?)

Holding the SECNAV’s travel up against the Secretary of the Army makes for an interesting canard. SECNAV Mabus (D) was appointed six months before McHugh (R). McHugh is…an inactive Service Secretary (at best). I’m being presumptuous and unmannerly, but I’d say that a Army Secretary who has only traveled to an active Army war zone…four times in five years (!!) isn’t doing right by his Service (Contrast McHugh’s record with SECNAV/SECDEF James Forrestal–who was in the South Pacific in ’42, at Kwajalein in ’44 and landed on Iwo Jima on day freakin’ five).

If AP’s Lolita was really good, the report should have been an inquiry into why the Secretary of the Army is so darn sedentary when his war-engaged Service is going over the cliff and being tossed under bus all at the same time. That would, at least, cadjole Washington into a wider discussion of larger DoD policy issues like the direction/future of the U.S. Army.

But documenting “exotic” travel was easier, I guess.

Bjoenvedt-300x174And On Exotic Svalbard:

I love the juicy little “exotic” tidbits the AP reporter includes for the reader’s benefit. Take the SECNAV’s “snowmobile safari” on Svalbard. For the average reader in Dubuque Iowa, Svalbard means nothing but fun in the snow.

But…to any competent Defense reporter, Svalbard happens to be Ground Zero of Arctic intrigue. A frozen Vienna. Look–an agent of the Chinese Government is buying a nice big part of Svalbard to serve as his nation’s Arctic foothold!

And remember those NASA satellites that China hacked a few years ago?  They did it from Svalbard!

Oh, and then there’s this issue of Norway denying China their request to build a nifty sensor array….in Svalbard! Here’s more:

“The goal of the installation is to conduct research on the upper reaches of the atmosphere, but the technology also has other uses,” Anne Kristin Hjukse of Norway’s education ministry told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “After an overall evaluation, we don’t want such an antenna on Svalbard.”

Hjukse wouldn’t elaborate on what was behind the “overall evaluation” or on the other possible uses of what Chinese authorities were keen to build at their own expense.

I’d say that high level of Chinese interest merits a quick fact-checking safari, and…if that safari helped Norway stand up (at great cost!) to China, then…it’s a safari well spent (Had China built their sensor, I’m fairly certain it’d have cost the U.S. far more than $5 Million dollars in threat-reduction).

But then again, maybe Lolita C. Baldor was on a Chinese mission of her own. Or something. But I do hear the boys in Beijing pay reporters pretty well…

BfRsX7DCAAEdPdIAnd Then There’s Boca:

And if the Arctic adventure didn’t sufficiently resonate, Lolita included a tropical island gambit, noting SECNAV visited “Kiribati, Sao Tome, Palau, Micronesia and Tonga…” Again, this is outrage-bait for folks whose knowledge of the Pacific comes solely from a Hawaii honeymoon and Magnum PI re-runs.

But…Maybe it’s news for an esteemed AP Defense Reporter like Lolita C. Baldor, but it just so happens that Kiribati, Palau, Micronesia and Tonga are all something of a Ground Zero for Pacific intrigue. Kind of a sun-splashed Vienna. But these are all strategically important islands, that are all–unsurprisingly–enjoying a lot of attention from China. I’ve written about one of SECNAV’s visits out there before:

This Thursday’s visit to the Republic of the Marshall Islands by the SECNAV is primarily focused on an interesting renewable energy proposal for Kwajalein and the U.S. Army facility there. However, during a side-trip to Majuro, the SECNAV will visit the local Sea Patrol Surveillance Headquarters and get a better sense of the old-school maritime challenges facing the Marshalls–particularly as their 60-person Maritime Authority/Navy struggles to maintain control over a sprawling 2.1 million square mile EEZ.

Put bluntly, the SECNAV wasn’t visiting these islands for the surfing.

800px-thumbnailAnd Who Needs A Legacy, Anyway?

And then there’s that final dig, “Lined up along his Pentagon windows are six large glass jars filled with sand he’s collected from World War II battlefields he’s visited.” Oy. How snide can a reporter get?

Maybe esteemed AP Defense reporters don’t understand history, and this will be news to ‘em, but, guys, America doesn’t do enough–at least in the Pacific–tending of this country’s World War II legacy. At least SECNAV Mabus is trying (oh, hey, but that’d be too hard a story to, uh, you know, write up).

America’s good work in World War II–at least in the Pacific–hasn’t been remembered, and this largely positive legacy risks being forgotten. Which, as I’ve written before, is a strategic mistake. And SECNAV Mabus is about the only guy in the U.S. Government who is, at least, thinking about that issue.

But I guess AP reporters don’t get it. And until good DC folk push back–and push back hard–this sort of silly story will keep pushing real journalism aside.

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End The “Five Naval Shipyards” Meme

by admin on November 12, 2014

HII fabricatorA few decades and a couple defense cuts ago, some wise ‘ole marketer floated the concept that America’s national security depended upon the guaranteed health of the (then) six “large” U.S. naval shipyards: Northrop Grumman’s Avondale, Ingalls and Newport News yards and General Dynamics’ Bath Ironworks, NASSCO and Electric Boat acquisitions.

This idea of a “Grand Naval Shipbuilding Duopoly” was so appealing to Congress and the Navy, it stuck around for almost twenty years. Some shipbuilders even started believing their own hype, doing an enormous disservice to the Navy, the American shipbuilding industry and, ultimately, the nation.

Over the past few years, that toxic idea–that the big naval shipyards were irreplaceable–and therefore un-touchable–had, more or less, receded. But now, as we peer down the barrel of the Terrible ’20s and eye a catastrophically underfunded naval shipbuilding plan, the old meme is coming back!

Sigh. Things had changed. With the retirement of grand old pork-barrel shipbuilder Senator Trent Lott (R-Huntington Ingalls) in late 2007, the 2010 defeat of Gene Taylor (D-Huntington Ingalls), and the late 2010 closing of the “Big Shipbuilder’s” lobbying shop, I had thought that the “Big, Irreplaceable National Asset” meme had died and was pretty much forgotten.

Which was great.

I’m biased, of course. As a fan of small, hungry shipyards, I’ve been raging about the “Irreplaceable Shipbuilder” meme in various forums since 2007, helping to push the incompetent and wasteful American Shipbuilding Association–the “Big Six” lobbying house–out of business. A few years ago, big shipbuilders even rejoined the Shipbuilder’s Council of America, an industry association whose advocacy for the “little guys” helped cause the “Big Six” to storm out years ago. Things were looking good for American Naval Shipbuilding–the large guys had business, and a host of little yards were circling around, pouncing upon every opportunity the big yards let slip through their fingers.

10435539_906979052647811_9060054854301000841_nBut today, the “Big Five Shipbuilder” meme is back with a vengeance.

Read the transcript from the Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert’s  November 4 “fireside” chat at Brookings:

But to your point, I’d say — I worry about the shipbuilding industrial base….But more importantly, if we lose a builder here and there, and they’re some likelihood we lose one or two builders — and we only have five — then we lose that competition I mentioned earlier which gets you much more effective and efficient shipbuilding base, and it gets you the situation where if you need to reconstitute your ship account, if you will, you can put money in, but you only have so many builders…

When pressed to name the five, CNO Greenert responded:

Sure. It’d be Bath (ph) up in the northwest in Maine. Electric Boat in Connecticut. Down in the Newport News area, you have Huntington. And then you have Ingalls (ph) down in Gulfport, Mississippi. And you have NASCO (ph) out on the West Coast in the San Diego arena. So, those are the big ones. There are other shipbuilders, but those are the big ones that provide, if you will, our capital ships. The littoral combat shipbuilders are up in the northwest, in the Wisconsin area and down in the Gulf, in Mobile, Alabama.

Emphasis mine. There’s just so much wrong here.

asa_renewalWhat’s Wrong With Five?

First off, we all need to acknowledge the “Big Five” concept is not real. It is a lobbyist/marketing confection, based upon a number of mistaken perceptions. Here are a few:

The “Big Five” aren’t the biggest shipyards: I worked for a shipyard down in Alabama that employs more folks than NASSCO does (shocking, I know, I know…). A year ago, NASSCO employed about 3,100, while Austal employed hundreds more. From UT San Diego:

In 1970s, the company’s workforce peaked at 7,800 employees. But employment started to erode, falling to 5,200 in 1985 and 3,800 in 1990. The figure jumped back to 5,200 in 1995, then fell to 2,900 in 2000. NASSCO then received a contract to build 14 auxiliary ships for the Navy, sending employment to 4,100, a figure that began to fall in 2010. It now stands at about 3,100. But it should reach about 3,900 as the tanker program ramps up.

Size has nothing to do with the “Big Five”.

The “Big Five” don’t all make capital ships: You heard it from Admiral Greenert: “those are the big ones that provide, if you will, our capital ships.” Well. That might be the case for most of those yards, but not all. I don’t mean to pick on NASSCO, but auxiliaries are not capital ships. (They’re important, and becoming more so, but…they’re still not capital ships) NASSCO has built T-AFS, LSTs, T-AORs, ADs, T-ARCs, T-AKRs, T-AKs, T-AHs, T-AKEs….nary a capital ship among the lot.

The Big Five, in general, make big, large tonnage ships….but they’d certainly love to make small ones like, say, the LCS(Next) frigate, or the Offshore Patrol Cutter (which four of the five bid on). And I’d wager that the Big Five simply hate the idea of smaller yards cutting their teeth on small ship projects–and then using that experience to become a competitive threat, bidding for “larger ship” projects.

1280px-USS_Kitty_Hawk_at_YokosukaThe “Big Five” aren’t all “Effective and Efficient”: Again, you heard it from Admiral Greenert: The idea is that if America looses one of the five, America will “lose that competition…which gets you much more effective and efficient shipbuilding base…” Well, uh, no. Nope. If this “Five Shipyards” thing was such a panacea, why was Newport News Shipbuilding given a dead last, third-tier, dog-of-defense ranking in the new Superior Supplier Incentive Program? (Hint to the CNO: it’s not because Newport News is efficient or effective!)

By eliminating the threat of better, more efficient competitors, the “Big Five” idea is nothing more than an effort to promote…uh…a tacit duopoly. And that’s, well…not right.

Any “Big Five” Member Can Be Eliminated or Replaced: For all the gnashing of teeth, the Navy survived the closure of Avondale (that godawful pit of poor performance) and came out smelling like a rose. The LPD-17 program is back on track, and even Huntington Ingall’s overall performance as a company has gotten a lot better without the Avondale drain.

Imagine how much healthier the LPD-17 Program and Huntington Ingalls would be right now had we all dispensed with the “Six Yards” baloney and shuttered Avondale long ago?

Look, American shipbuilding should be an object lesson in good old U.S. Capitalism, but the moment the customer (or Congress) eliminates the threat of going “somewhere else” there’s no incentive to get better. I mean, if the past twenty years wasn’t enough to conclusively demonstrate to the Navy that their friendly naval shipbuilding duopoly failed to deliver effective, efficient shipbuilding…I don’t know what to say. But, please…instead of propping up non-performers (even if they’re mission-critical non-performers) let’s try to open the field a bit, instead.

There are a handful of hungry smaller concerns (BAE Southeast Shipyards, Bollinger, Eastern, Aker Philadelphia, Foss Maritime, and VT Halter…to name a few) who deserve a chance to pick off a poor performer. And if allowed, they will.

And the Navy will benefit.

At the end of the day, folks who promote the Big Five are all about constraining competition—leaving the rest of America’s innovative shipbuilders with nothing but tarry or briny leftovers from either Huntington Ingalls or General Dynamics.

And if the rest of America’s shipyards knew what was good for ‘em, they’d be hollering bloody murder at this resurgence of the “Big Five” meme.

Fred HarrisWhat To Do?

The Navy has a job to do. Here are a few suggestions:

Acknowledge that a Diverse, Healthy Shipbuilding Industry Is Good For The Navy: It’s natural to try and protect old, established systems in times of budget crisis.  But America must do more than just try to protect the “Five Shipbuilder” status quo–ultimately, the Navy and nation derives greater benefit (flexibility, supplier competition, workforce sustainment, R&D, etc.) from a healthy, competitive American shipbuilding industrial base.

The record accumulated over the past twenty years should be sufficient to demonstrate that a shipbuilding base artificially tied to supporting a General Dynamics/Huntington Ingalls Industries duopoly devolves to become a fragile, inefficient shadow of what it should be.

Assure Good Performers Of More Business: Worry about protecting performers and generating better performers. As I have written before, General Dynamics Shipbuilding performs–and if you don’t want to take my word for it, then look at the Pentagon’s Superior Supplier Incentive Program. General Dynamics Marine Systems is on top.

So…if solid performers (like, say, the Virginia Class SSN program) are given some goodies (better pricing, an opportunity to make better margins or more hulls or something like that), then that’s great (and if the goodies go away quick, at the first sign of poor performance, even better). But…if there’s no pressure for the chronically second-place Huntington Ingalls to perform, and the Navy is OK about letting HII kinda cruise along as America’s “second-tier first-tier” shipyard, enjoying their “irreplaceable” status as a CVN-builder, then we’re not doing the Navy any favors.

So let’s inject some competition there, at the low-end, to force competition and to keep the under-performing member of the duopoly from becoming too cozy.

images (1)Incentivize Capitalism: Give some of these emergent “not-so-large” commercial yards a chance at Government business. And if we’re going to give the big guys nice, stable block buys (like, say the Virginia Class SSN), then give the little guys–the poor fellas who, oh, took risks to expand and take on government business–some added support and contractual stability as well. (It’s only fair!)

If it’s all about competition, then the Navy needs to entice more shipbuilders into bidding for government business rather than, well, chasing them away.

Now….it’s perfectly OK for the Navy to celebrate the big yards. They’re all industrial showpieces that merit a good helping of national pride. But let’s be truthful about it. General Dynamics’ Fred Harris is a shipbuilding wizard, who made NASSCO one of the few yards capable of juggling both government and commercial business (a feat that is almost impossible nowadays). We should expect great things. Huntington Ingalls is getting leaner, and they have a monopoly on surface ship nuclear power–a key bit of industrial base that, in this day of energy-based weaponry, probably would benefit from additional government R&D into new reactor types and some Green Fleet support.

But they sure ain’t perfect. Giving these big guys a completely free pass is unfair.

USS Gerald R Ford CVN 78 Island Landing photo by Ricky ThompsonThis Worm Is Gonna Turn:

I’m as scared of the “Terrible Twenties” as anybody else. But, over the long-term, I’m bullish about American naval shipbuilding. As China develops her Navy, and as Chinese ships start to nose about the Gulf of Mexico, the West Coast and the Arctic, the American apatite for naval craft is going to increase.

In particular, it’ll be a small ship market. Naval tech in itself is getting smaller, and that’s going to change the industry (and I’ll talk about how the big guys have done their part to slow small craft development in a later post). But….if trends hold, U.S. demand for Coastal Defense craft, Exclusive Economic Zone patrol ships, ASW Coastal Subs and logistical support ships to support the small craft will grow. And, if prior experience is any example, demand for these ships will grow quickly, in the space of a few years (almost overnight in shipbuilding terms). The only way that America is going to be able to support such demand is to have a healthy shipbuilding industrial base that extends beyond the “Big Five.” And, to me, that means taking some time to tend the hungry “little guys” and supporting those with dreams of bigger things.

Starving the entire U.S. shipbuilding sector to support a cozy duopoly isn’t the way to go. It’s bad for the Navy and dangerous for the nation. So, please, let this “five shipyards” meme die and replace it with something more accurate, more pro-shipbuilding and, well, more, uh, American.

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Export Subs: Simplicity Can Sell

November 6, 2014

Conventional sub buyers have a lot in common with those pesky teenagers who think, in an iPhone 6 era, it’s tremendously gauche to rock a lowly iPhone 4. Computer guru Steve Jobs could have mined the arms business for ideas on how to build out Apple’s retail empire. Conventional sub vendors learned long ago that […]

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Easing Into Sub Building: Lessons For Future Proliferators

November 2, 2014

Let’s talk sub proliferation! It’s no secret that, for any “on-the-move” developing country, an operational indigenous submarine production capability is the “hot” “must-have” naval accessory. And that’s great. Done right, sub production is an audacious industrial achievement–an exercise in manufacturing mastery, where precision, quality and engineering innovation come together to ensure the survival of humans […]

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Have Migrants Saved A Navy?

October 29, 2014

After saving some 150,000 lives, Italy is rumored to be shutting down “Mare Nostrum“, an operation to interdict the flow of African migrants into Europe. If true (there are rumors the Italian Navy hasn’t gotten an order to stop), then that’s…unfortunate. This effort has done a lot to reinvigorate the Italian’s large, modern–and often ignored/mocked–Navy. […]

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RFA Argus As Ebola-Fighter–And Model For Future T-AH(X)

October 21, 2014

It will be quite interesting to see how the UK’s amphibious shipping/hospital ship hybrid, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Argus (A135), does in projecting biomedical support ashore in Sierra Leone. The ship is perfect for operations in an infectious environment–it is a 100-bed hospital ward, equipped to accept contaminated casualties, lashed to a right-sized aviation detachment, […]

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End Jo Ann Rooney’s Nomination For the Navy’s #2 Post

October 6, 2014

Look, I’ve been a big cheerleader for SECNAV Ray Mabus getting a full bench of rough-and-tumble Navy Department Managers, and an advocate for increasing the proportion of females working in defense leadership roles, but enough is enough. As Defense News’ Chris Cavas hints, it is high time for the long-stalled nominee for Navy Undersecretary, Jo Ann […]

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A Focus On The Basics Will Save Naval Ship Procurement

October 2, 2014

The American habit of cramming the functions of four to five legacy ship classes into a single, bespoke multifunction hull is–for now–over. With the U.S. fleet operating only a handful of core classes, and looking at one-for-one replacements of existing platforms (at best), the U.S. Navy is now free to get back to focusing on […]

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A Liberian Lesson For the Department of Defense

September 22, 2014

As the Africa-centric components of the Department of Defense turn from their normal terrorist-whacking duties to engage Western Africa’s Ebola fight (a disease outbreak which, sadly, seems to have taken the Pentagon somewhat by surprise), it’s worth taking a moment to remind the Department of Defense that Liberia is the only country in recent memory […]

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UCLASS: Bob Work Is Right to Reach for The High-End Solution

September 2, 2014

The fight over the Navy’s next-generation unmanned asset, the UCLASS, continues, with, as USNI’s Sam Lagrone reports, another delay: The final request for proposal (RFP) for the Navy’s planned carrier-based unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) has been delayed pending a review of the service’s information, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) portfolio as part of the service’s budget […]

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