Armed with a WIB press pass and an Amtrak ticket, I dropped in on West 2011, the 20th annual defense technology conference put on by the Armed Forces Communication Electronics Association and the U.S. Naval Institute. The three-day conference, one of the largest defense gatherings on the West Coast, took place in perfect weather at the San Diego Convention Center, where a much different crowd will gather in July for Comic-Con. Brighter bulbs than me have already weighed in with first takes on the Littoral Combat Ship discussions and other key news; what follows here are some synoptic ruminations on the event.
It was Sir Winston the Endlessly Quotable, as usual, who got both the first word and the lasting word at West 2011. Vice Admiral Richard Hunt of the Third Fleet opened the event and his remarks with Churchill’s advice to “let our advanced worrying become our advanced thinking and planning.” Along with the former First Sea Lord’s other remark, “when the money runs out you have to start thinking,” it was the theme of the three-day conference, as speaker after speaker emphasized the need for creativity, cleverness and flexibility in a prolonged era of tight resources. Just as the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard had to innovate and improvise their way through the lean years of the 1920s and 30s, and find their way in the new environments of the 1950s and ’60s, so must they now navigate the uncertain waters of the world after the Long War.
Communication, and the lack thereof, was fundamental to all the greatest challenges discussed at West 2011. This perhaps should not entirely surprise, given the host organizations’ primary missions; however, this theme emerged organically again and again out of panel discussions and the comments of disparate thinkers. China and the U.S. now stir with feelings of “strategic mistrust,” in retired admiral Timothy Keating’s phrase, in part because of poor communication between Chinese and American individuals and organizations, and in part due the obscurity of each nation’s medium- and long-term intentions,. This strategic mistrust creates a vacuum in which prudence requires a contemplation of worst-case scenarios. Asked about China’s long-term plans, Dr. Xinjun Zhang of Tsinghua University, Beijing, gave listeners pause when he replied, “There are none.” Deng Xaoping’s legacy of pragmatism, the famous black and white cats who both catch mice, has apparently led to a gulf looming in the Asian-Pacific future.
Undersecretary of the Navy Robert Work gave a spirited defense of the Littoral Combat Ship program both in his prepared remarks and in comments to the audience and press. Such a new kind of ship, he argued, with its designed and emergent capabilities, and its potential for experimentation, acquired by the Navy in cost-efficient contracts that sustain the industrial base, is the look of this century’s Navy. Much of the disgust surrounding the LCS program, he believes, was due to the messy origins of the concept. Give it a chance and let’s see, Work said, noting the great improvements in capabilities between the first and later flights of Arleigh Burke-class ships.
In the panel session entitled “Flat and Declining Budgets,” Navy Captains Stuart Munsch and Mark Hagerott argued compellingly for great astuteness in personnel and program cuts. Too clumsy a slice and the already brittle industrial base loses abilities and capacities; too narrow a sieve for retention and promotion can lose “genetic variability” available for future novel circumstances. Those specialists and integrators with skillsets that don’t fit neatly into org charts need better ways of passing through the personnel system, so that their efforts are valued. “Let’s not,” Capt. Hagerott said, “lose the next Rickover.”
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