Today in AFJ History

November 24, 2013  

1987: A battleship for the 21st century

Vice Admiral Mike Metcalf's dream dreadnought looks a lot like the Arsenal Ship proposed in the mid-1990s.

From AFJ’s archive: November 1987

Editor’s note: Non-ship geeks may best recall Adm. Joseph “Mike” Metcalf III as the guy who in October 1983 “was given less than two days to plan and start the controversial invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada.”

The Navy’s ‘Revolution at Sea’

The admiral’s “rudder orders” could not have been more explicit: “Everything we put into these ships will be worth nothing if it doesn’t contribute to putting ordnance on target. That’s why we have ships at sea! That’s why we have a Navy! If what we do doesn’t contribute to this goal in some way, then it doesn’t belong on a ship of the US Navy!”

The “what we do” V. Adm. Joseph Metcalf III was referring to was a comprehensive, wide-ranging analysis by the Navy’s Surface Warfare community intended to define a “family of warships for the 21st century.”

On numerous occasions even before his “Revolution at Sea” studies formally got under way in the late summer and early fall of 1986, Metcalf, who retired on Oct. 31 as the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Surface Warfare (OP-O3), hammered home the theme that the Navy is on the threshold of a revolution that will affect every aspect of war at sea. Furthermore, he challenged his fellow “surface warriors” to challenge themselves, to re-examine all of the old and venerable concepts that, from his perspective, shackled the surface Navy to the past, to traditions that constrained it from taking full advantage of what the future holds.

[U]nder the auspices of the OP-O3 Group Mike-Revolution at Sea initiatives, Surface Warfare is now moving to revolutionize the total ship. Clearly, Metcalf desired the best of both worlds: “Of course I want the revolution in combat system technologies that has brought us the Aegis system, the vertical-launch system, and the Tomahawk cruise missile to continue unabated. But I am set in my course to expand the revolution to the other major components of surface combatant design, engineering, acquisition, production, manning, and operations, to name only a few areas of importance.”

Metcalf made his fundamental philosophy unequivocally clear: “The next surface combatant we build is going to start with the sole objective of possessing sufficient ordnance and overall capability to accomplish its mission! If I had my way, this ship would be ordnance from bow to stern. If someone wants to put something else on board—office space, paper manual, or a signalman’s flag bag, he’ll have to justify it!”

One example—bordering on the metaphysical—used repeatedly by Metcalf is “the Bridge.” In his running diatribe on “religious issues,” Metcalf fumed that “we continue to design in our surface warships with large, expansive bridges. Why? What real purpose do they serve in war? Let’s do away with the ‘ballroom bridge’ concept—if not the bridge altogether, and keep the commanding officer in CIC [Combat Information Center], where he can fight his ship. We must assess all of the functions performed on the bridge and locate as many as feasible in CIC or elsewhere.”

V Alcazar
V Alcazar

Today, America needs Disruptive Thinkers like VADM Metcalf.  While more than a few Navalists and status quo thinkers in the U.S. defense community were/are perhaps put off by his approach, especially his turn of phrase, "religious issues", it is his message that in my view continues to resonate and therefore why it ought to be heeded:  in the presence of rising need to do things differently, why do organizations persist in conducting business as usual, especially organizations whose purpose is Peace and War?  Why do such organizations seem to continue to see matters exclusively through a binary lens; instead, of a multi-faceted approach better reflective of a world populated with an array of challenges and problem sets, that lack a convenient template and thus a single readymade approach?  While we opine about, and continue our love affair with disruptive technology, VADM Metcalf embodies something more subtle, sweeping:  it is and ever will be about The Better Idea.  Speaking only for myself, I continue to be motivated by his work and enriched by his example.  His outlook guided my work in Air-Sea Battle.  Thank you AFJ!