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The Navy loves its Mega Weapons. Be it the Aircraft Carrier, the F-35, DDG-1000, or even the Littoral Combat Ship, the future of the Navy has increasingly been tied into large production, complex engineering projects. These projects span decades from initial concept, to engineering prototype, to intial production run, to full operational capability. They nearly always, with the notable exception of the Virginia submarine program, come in late, over budget, and with so many ad hoc additions to it that it may not even look like the original concept.

Those responsible for future of cryptologic systems should be cautious when considering building a single program that can do all things. Those programs tend to have critical flaws that can be exploited by the adversary – much like the thermal exhaust duct of the of the Death Star.

Below we will discuss the Littoral Combat Ship and what it started as when initially proposed by VADM Cebrowski and CAPT Hughes. I will as tip you off to a great article by Dan Ward comparing Star Killer Base in Star Wars The Force Awakens (spoiler alert) to the Department of Defense’s obsession with Mega Weapons. I will wrap it up with a comparison to our Cryptologic Systems, and a vision for the future of our Cryptologic Systems. Lets begin:

Littoral Combat Ship – The Streetfighter that could have been.

LCS is a prime example of a solid strategic concept that lost its way.  LCS started out as a disposable, corvette to be a produced in large quantities and equipped with weapons systems that gave them an assymmetric punch. The strategic goal was to mitigating the A2/AD threat through sheer numbers. LCS evolved into a standard frigate, undergunned, undermanned, and too heavy to meet its speed requirements. It is now “survivable”, multi-mission (though the modules aren’t all funded and take 2 weeks to reconfigure), and will be taking the place of the Oliver Hazard Perry Guided Missile Frigate. The LCS as originally imagined wasn’t “mega” enough.

Now, it is too expensive to be produced in large enough numbers to support VADM Cebrowski and CAPT Hughes’ orginal “Streetfighter Concept.” The LCS concept can be traced back to their November 1999 Proceedings Article “Rebalancing the Fleet.” In it, the authors lay out the concept for what would become the LCS:

“Streetfighters – based on modular adaptability that revitalizes the traditional naval advantages of surprise, surveillance, and the power of platform numbers, and that capitalizes on the increase in combat power and survivability at the platform level made possible by network-centric warfare.”

When employed they are supposed to be:

“…tightly manned, numerous, and when in the most demanding threat environment, operated in swarms.”

Any question of inherent survivability is addressed:

“Foremost, Streetfighter will be able to clear out the clutter and sort friend from foe. In that risky work, we must expect them to suffer wounds, some of them fatal. Accordingly, they should be designed and trained for that difficult fighting environment.”

Unfortunately, LCS will never be employed as originally conceived. To make them survivable, the Navy collectively made decisions that drifted away from an agile, cheap, responsive, and distributed platform, to a smaller sized capital ship, now too fragile and expensive to be sacrificed.

Star Wars and Mega Weapons

Dan Ward, author of F.I.R.E.: How Fast, Inexpensive, Restrained and Elegant Methods Ignite Innovation and The Simplicity Cycle recently wrote an article on the blog “War is Boring“, “Star Wars Mega Weapons Make Awful Bureaucratic Sense.”

“What stood out in Episode VII as particularly realistic is not just the fact that the Death StarStarkiller Base is unable to contribute much to the fight before it is spectacularly reduced to a smoldering cloud of space debris, although that is of course the most likely outcome. No, the most realistic thing in this latest film is the fact that the bad guys built another mega weapon.

Sure, the previous attempts did not work out very well, but in a bureaucratic acquisition environment, the first two failures are no reason to cancel plans for a third version. In the unassailable logic of large enterprises, the losses of Death Stars #1 and #2 only serve to justify making #3 larger, because clearly the problem with the earlier designs is that they weren’t big enough. If our moon-sized space stations don’t work, surely the next step is to build one the size of a planet.”

Dan Ward has proposed in the past to “Build Droids, not Death Stars” His point being that fast, inexpensive, restrained, and elegant methods win out when compared to large, expensive, complex, and legacy methods.
“There are all sorts of ways to simplify a design, to reduce a set of requirements to the bare minimum, to make sure we build what we can afford. Don’t believe such a thing can be done? That is why you fail. But those who do believe will find the system they built just might be “the hero of the whole thing.”
If we believe we can do no better than what we are currently building right now, we are likely right. We are also waiting for a nerf herder to throw a missile down your thermal exhaust port.
We currently have the technology to build modular, rapidly reconfigurable, cheap, and effectively disposable C4ISR systems, and yet we do not. The systems we continue to build are large, proprietary, and may be as small as 3 full racks of equipment… unless you want the full version.
We should be looking for something the size and complexity of a droid, not doubling down on the Cryptologic equivalent of the Death Star because, “If we just build it a little bigger it will work.”
We can also revise our aquisition programs to be more modular and responsive. If we shift from a spiral development model, where all portions of a system are developed together in a spiral, to a product line architecture model, where each portion of the system is developed at its own rate, and combined through a set of shared integration standards when needed.


At the current rate of aquisitions in the Department of the Navy, the Cryptologic Community can expect one major revision of the major Programs of Record every twenty years. The decisions we make during this critical “tipping point” will have far reaching effects. Our business is Defense of the Nation, and so a wrong decision at this point could be as critical strategically as consolidating all our assets into the Super Death Star of Cryptology. A better way is to go the way of the orginial Street Fighter concept that became the LCS, having a distributed network of cheap and reconfigurable platforms that are not designed to last for 30 years, but are resilient through their ability to be replaced in large numbers, cheaply and rapidly. This will require a significant departure from our current architectures. We will have to start with a clean sheet of paper.
Fortunately, VADM Tighe and company at TENTH FLEET and FLEET CYBER COMMAND are thinking this way. Her strategy supports a Distributed SIGINT Operations Concept, which is this humble blogger’s chosen way forward.
We need to have the fortitude to cut ourselves out of the business of building Death Stars, and invest in building Distributed SIGINT Operations. We need to have the discipline to keep it simple and cheap. To win the war, we need to reject Mega Weapons and choose Modular, Distributed, Low Cost, Open Architecture, systems designed on Product Line Architectures.
The Defense Aquisition University agrees.