Dr. Delores Etter, the U.S. Navy’s senior acquisition official, submitted her resignation Oct 5/07. “I have held the position of Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition for almost two years… We have accomplished a great deal in that time, but after deliberating with my family and staff, I have decided to resign from my position. This decision allows me to return to my teaching post at the United States Naval Academy in time for the spring academic semester there.” Alabama Press-Register | Defense News.
Dr. Etter’s has made a significant but under-appreciated contribution via the mainstreaming of “open architecture” ship electronics into current and future combatant classes. The difficulty and expense involved in upgrading their electronic systems for modern threats was part of the motive behind the early retirement/sale of many US Navy FFG-7 Oliver Hazard Perry Class frigates. Open architecture systems promise to alleviate many of those issues in the future fleet, which relies on platforms with a generational lifespan of 50 years, vs. a generational lifespan of about 3-5 years for their electronics.
On the other hand, the US Navy’s current problems stem from shipbuilding costs, not the R&D issues which have always been Dr. Etter’s strength. The new CVN-78 Gerald R. Ford Class carriers and DDG-1000 Zumwalt Class ‘destroyers’ have both been on the receiving end of well-grounded and pessimistic reports from the GAO and Congressional Research Service, doubting their ability to meet their cost targets. The Littoral Combat Ship program, meanwhile, has experienced cost growth to a point that is threatening the program. The emerging worst-case future is a US Navy that finds itself unable to build enough high-end ships to fill key roles due to stratospheric costs, while building low-end ships at a medium-tier price that can’t perform key naval functions like fleet anti-air defense or anti-ship combat. Forestalling that future will be job #1 for Dr. Etter’s next 2 successors, as force-shaping decisions are made for the US Navy over the next 5 years.