Defense Week September 7, 1999 Page 8


New Aircraft Carriers Sail Into The Information Age

By David Able

Rear Adm. William Cross, the Navy's program executive officer for aircraft carriers, has a small model of the CVNX aircraft carrier, which will succeed the current Nimitz class, in his office. The nuclear-powered carrier is sleek and as minimalist as a 100,000-ton ship can be.

Cross, formerly director of operations at the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany, says the coming carriers will employ far more sophisticated information technology than today's floating air bases. This technology, though costly, will in many cases substitute for the largest chunk of any ship's operating costs: the sailors.

In an interview at his Crystal City office with Defense Week reporter David Abel, Cross explained how the Navy plans to cut life-cycle costs for future carriers while enhancing their capabilities.

Defense Week: What's the status of the Ronald Reagan, CVN 76?

Cross: Today it's about 55 percent complete. And if you go down to the dry dock at Newport News, where they're building it, you can actually see the hull form. They don't have the flight deck yet. That will be the next to the last of the Nimitz-class carriers. The last will be CVN 77, not yet named. We've actually changed the designation just slightly to CVN 77X to designate an experimental status for that ship. It's more than just the last of the Nimitz class; it's the first of the new class of what we call CVNX, [where the N designates] nuclear propulsion.

But CVNX will be preceded by the last of the Nimitz class [CVN 77X], which will have a new integrated, knowledge-based warfare system .... We believe we have to leap into the information age with these new ships, starting with 77X and then moving on to the new class. That will incorporate knowledge and not just data and information, as we have done it in the past.

DW: Why can't you incorporate "knowledge" into current ships, or at least the CVN 76? And what do you mean by "knowledge" as opposed to "information?"

Cross: What I'm talking about is redesign in the internal functions, all the primary decision centers in the ship: the air operations center; the primary flight control, which is way high in the island where the guy that controls all the flying of the airplanes; the bridge, where the captain makes his decisions; the ready room, where the pilots plan their missions and make decisions on how they are going to fly their missions.

All of these things are going to be integrated with cyber-LANs. Also, the type of displays will not just give a person a great big collage of information ... It's how you present the information to someone so they can make a better decision. That's what knowledge is. It's the conversion of using intuitive, perceptive displays, artificial intelligence and voice recognition that will all be incorporated in these new systems. So we'll be able to make better decisions, even though we'll cut down dramatically on the number of people actually on the ship.

DW: What's the likely reduction in the number of sailors aboard the coming carriers?

Cross: From [CVN] 76 to 77, we believe 550 people will come off the ship. That's from about 5,500. And then we will take another about 350 off the next ship. So a total of 900 less than what we have today will come off on CVNX 1. And then the third of the series of ships we're going to build, CVNX 2. That won't be commissioned for quite a ways from now, 2018. (CVN 76 will commission in 2002, CVN 77 will be commissioned in 2008 and CVNX 1 in 2013.)

Anyway, [CVNX 1] will have a total of 900 people less. And then CVNX 2 will have a total of 1,500 people less, or essentially half the ship's crew [minus the air wing personnel]. The number 5,500 consists of both the ship's crew and the air wing that comes aboard the ship. Generally, the ship's crews are budgeted for 3,000. Right now we're running them with about 2,700 because of the manpower shortages .... This is a serious challenge for us.

DW: What have you learned about operating with fewer sailors?

Cross: You have to take the workload off the ship is what we've learned. The work has to come off before the people. Otherwise, you start heaping things on the back of the people that you have. That leads to problems in retention. You just can't do that.

There are three ways you take manpower out of a ship. The first way is you look at your policies, procedures and processes to make sure that they're the smart way of doing business and not just the old way of doing business with tweaks. Most of what you're going to get out of the workload is to revise the processes and procedures. About 50 percent of the workload will just come from that.

For example, the way we do administrative records on the ship. We have a total of about 50 people onboard that just maintain records and answer questions. Why have all these people doing that when you can link to a satellite back to a central processing place? ...

The second is design. Thirty percent will come out from the design of the ship. The third is technology. These are the technologies like the brand new firefighting equipment that can help put out fires much more quickly.

DW: How do you measure the savings of the fewer sailors?

Cross: Manpower is our biggest life-cycle cost by far. The second biggest piece is the maintenance we have to do. The maintenance is not only the equipment but also facility maintenance. This is a big hotel that we run. Just keeping it clean, keeping people fed and keeping their laundry done and that stuff is a big operation. We think the life-cycle cost cuts will be substantial. We think we can take somewhere between 33 percent to 40 percent out of the life-cycle costs of the CVNX 2.

DW: What's the status of CVN 77?

Cross: It's still a paper ship. But what's dramatic about 77X is that there's a new philosophy. This is a ship for the information age. All the ships we have designed, including the Reagan [CVN 76] to a certain extent, although the Reagan has made some big improvements, are what I call ships of the industrial age. These are manpower-intensive ships that we have the luxury of using people redundantly.

We also didn't have the huge information networks that we tap into in the industrial age. So we need to convert both to the new way of delivering information to people and better use of the people.

DW: Again, why can't you introduce some of these innovations into current ships? Why do you have to wait until you build a new ship?

Cross: It's expensive .... To go back and make changes at this stage can be done, but it's not a cheap proposition .... For example, if you want to use all fiber optic cable, which would allow you to pass much more information much more quickly around the ship, for a ship that's already been built, that can be done, but it's not cheap. Economically, you have to do it from the design stage.

DW: How much money is budgeted for the coming carriers?

Cross: We have a cost cap on CVN 77X of $4.875 billion. That's total procurement cost; not the life-cycle cost. It would have been more expensive than that. But that being the last of the Nimitz-class carriers, we have some extra equipment that we have kind of as spares. Well, now, since we're not building anymore Nimitz, we'll just take all the stuff we had on the shelf and put in for procurement. CVN 76 is about $5 billion, but I don't have the figures right in front of me. CVNX 1 and CVNX 2 are too far away to give numbers.

DW: What are the prospects for using electric drive for the coming carriers?

Cross: CVN 77 is not possible; nor is probably CVNX 1. These are huge, 100,000-ton ships that we have to propel at huge speeds, far greater than 30 knots. When you start messing with the propulsion system of these ships, you have to do it very carefully to make sure that you don't shoot yourself in the foot. So the design and maturity to drive this size of a ship with electric drive is something technically feasible, but there is going to have to be more studies done before we're ready to sign up for it.

DW: In some promotional materials the future carriers are described as incorporating stealth technology. Is it not an oxymoron to have a stealthy aircraft carrier?

Cross: You're never going to make this kind of ship stealthy. I think that's probably the wrong term. I think, though, there are times when you would want to make this ship less visible. In other words, make this ship look like other ships that might be in and around a given area. The question is not to hide it. The question is what you can do to it to not have it have a unique signature. So that everyone says, "There's an aircraft carrier."

DW: Finally, we have 12 aircraft carriers. Far more than any other nation. Why do we need to keep building more and why do we need so many?

Cross: I think if you look at the commitments around the world today, everybody screams for a carrier. There was never enough to go around .... If something kicks off wherever in the world, we have to surge [our] capability. We have some in maintenance all the time, some in training as well as those deployed.

So 12 is the absolute minimum.