Skip to comments.To Sell U.S. Combatants Overseas–Follow the French!
Posted on 08/01/2014 11:00:09 AM PDT by sukhoi-30mki
U.S. naval ship vendors could learn a thing or two from the French, as theyve thus far fought off extensive American efforts to intrude on Frances niche market in small surface combatants.
Its almost embarrassing. Despite American efforts to sell the Littoral Combat Ship, the French Gowind-Class corvette family of ships has quietly taken big bites out of the LCSs international market. With the Gowind ships, France has simply out-hustled the LCS program, picking up two big orders from Malaysia and Egyptand DCNS is actively looking to seize other key markets.
The United States should take a good long look at Frances Gowind program, and ask why the French have been so successful.
If youre not familiar with the LAdroit and the Gowind Class, as patrol craft go, the DCNS-built Gowind Class is pretty simple. It is an EEZ patrol craft, that, in the platforms simplest variant, focuses on the basicsbeing an economical and seaworthy platform for ISR and small law enforcement/special operations activities. The Gowind Corvette program offers more complex variants, but the first-in-class built-on-spec platform is the base no-frills model. Built by DCNS, the first platform, the LAdroit, was effectively loaned to the French Navy in 2011 for three years of assessments and marketing.
Here is why the Adroit is making sales:
France KnowsAnd AcceptsThe Patrol Mission: The first reason that France is carrying the low-end in the littorals is because theyve focused on that mission. Boasting one of the worlds largestand one of the most widely distributedExclusive Economic Zones, France has been doing the maritime EEZ patrol beat for a long, long time (some of my prior discussions of Frances maritime territories are here and here). Even if Frances patrol ships arent survivable, the French know what they are doing, they have a good strategy that uses low-end ships as tripwires, and, as far as the low-end patrol combatants go, theyve kept their ships deliberately simple and seaworthy.
Earlier patrol craft like the Floreal Class Surveillance Ships are great because theyre nothing specialthey boast a gun, some anti-ship missiles, a helicopter, quarters for special operators and some negligible anti-aircraft capabilities, these slow diesel-powered civil-spec wonders sail like corks and travel all over the world. Theyre perfect for what they do, and France, I think, knows that. (Not that there havent been failuresthe La Fayette Class, Frances flirtation with a higher-end patrol combatant, has had something of a rocky service record with foreign customers.)
But, at the end of the day, there was (and is) no institutional bickering about the vesselthe LAdroit was a non-threatening offering, slotting right into into a CONOPS that was already developed and ready, while the LCS rode headfirst into a self-defeating doctrinal storm. And, with LAdroit being on a temporary loan, any institutional concerns over unusual practices could be dismissed as LAdroit was merely and experimental platform.
DCNS Kept It Simple: The LAdroit, a prototype on loan to the French Navy, is simple. There is nothing on the thing but a sea-frame and electronics. Its just a ship with potentialand rather than being distracted with combat tasks, the commander and crew were free to focus on maximizing the reliability and potential utility of their modest vessel. Rather than wrestle with lots of weapons and modular systems and modules and everything else, DCNS kept it simplequickly integrating a UAV, demonstrating seaworthiness and robustness. Heres the mission set:
With two French Navy crews rotating every four months, LAdroit will offer a high level of at-sea availability, spending 220 days a year on operational missions.
Over the next three years, the French Navy will be thoroughly testing the new ship and its advanced equipment and systems: UAV, commando boat launch ramps, panoramic bridge and single enclosed mast for 360° visibility, teleconferencing facilities, long-range acoustic devices, etc. With these high-tech systems, the ship is ideally equipped for current and emerging maritime safety & security missions, including fisheries surveillance, counter-piracy, drug interdiction, environmental protection, humanitarian aid, and search & rescue.
Basic stuff. LCS became a pawn in a large and complex battle over over systems-of-systems and about what company might gain an entrance into the U.S. Navys combat systems market, and, despite the rhetoric about starting simple (Flight Zero?) the program bit off a lot more than it could realistically chew.
DCNS Moved Fast And Structured the Procurement Correctly: DCNS designed and built the LAdroit in less than 24 monthsFrance meant to beat LCS to the field, and, by god, they did.
By building the ship on spec, DCNS had the appropriate incentive to get it right firstand then, by retaining ownership, it was far easier for DCNS to cover the few things that didnt go so well.
My opinion is that the speculative nature of the LAdroit venture paid enormous dividends. Far too many in the U.S. naval shipbuilding community adhere to a model that can be articulated in a single sentence:
Theyre going to pay us to build it and then theyre going to pay us even more to fix it later.
With that kind of attitude, you get first-in-class ships that dont work. A spec boat has to work. Rather than grin as obvious mistakes in government build-specs are inculcated into the design, shipbuilders working on a speculative platform are appropriately incentivized to get stuff right.
Theres just too much at stake to fail. And DCNS certainly didnt fall flateven though everything else around the production side of the house (first in class, first patrol boat for yard, etc) suggested the ship was going to be a disaster.
The Marketing Was Done Right: If the primary purpose of the ship is that it be sold to other countries, it is easier to build a ship that isnt burdened by persnickety requirements, testing irritants and so forth. Put another way, if the builder defines the requirements, the ship will (shockingly!) be a smashing success every single time.
As a marketer, its so much easier to show up with a ship and ask the user What can you do with it? To contrast, American procurement is too hung up on regulatory minutiaeand then the test and trials community spends waaay too much time asking (after the bloody platform is built, no less!) Does this meet my requirement? (and then they go and compound the problem by engaging in self-affirming chest thumping upon discovery of infractions). The American test-and-trials process rips ships apartand while that may be a good thing for the sailors, it sucks for overseas marketing of new platforms.
France Government Supports International Marketing: Compared to France, the U.S government really struggles to sell new naval ships. Its something of a lost art.
Aside from Frances subsidies to their shipbuilding industry, and aside from Americas reputation-bruising process of getting new ships into service, it is very difficult for American shipbuilders (particularly the small ones) to actually get in front of foreign customers.
First, shipbuilders need to plod through the country-specific licensing and marketing authorizations required to actually go to market. If you dont get a license to market in country X or Y, you cant market.
The licensing process itself is a long and bureaucratic mess. There are too many different constituencies that need to be appeased (and who pride themselves inmy opinionon running their own little independent and unmanaged economic and policy shops) to allow for a swashbuckling lets pursue any lead approach to ship marketing. If the primary ship vendor doesnt have months of lead-time, the project wont be authorized. It is my sense that France leans far further forward, and commits the whole of government to support foreign ship sales (of course, one might use the excesses involved in selling the La Fayette Class to suggest that France can lean a little too far forward ).
Then there is the sale itself. With the American Foreign Military Sales process, the vendor isnt selling the shipthe U.S. Government is selling the shipwhich makes for a convoluted, time-consuming experience even in the best of circumstances. And rather than simply focus on the ship itselfand making the salethe U.S. FMS process gets far too distracted by going and including things like sustainment and training and injecting (lots and lot) of ancillary equipment into the mix. Thats all valuable (and it can add billions to the overall sale price), but, still its a needless distraction from, well, making the sale (and sometimes it totally antagonizes the potential buyer, too).
Ship FMS deals need to focus on the ship. Make the sale and the rest can come later. That is, at least, my sense of how France has approached ship sales in the past.
And then theres just general encouragement. The American Navys Foreign Sales Office is a relatively sedate place populated by lots of folks on their way out of the Navy. On the other hand, in France, there seems to be far more energy and commitment to selling ships overseas. Take the Gowind manning schemethe LAdroit was built on spec, and then, essentially, given to the French Navy for three years of marketing duty testing. The U.S. Navy, today, would never agree to such a schemeyoure stuck with marketing an in-service combatant, but, without high-level help, theyre not going to make it easy for the builder. Its hard enough to eke out an idea of where a U.S. combatant might be from one day to the next, let alone trying to educate key sailors and coordinate a marketing-oriented visit for the platform. And that, I think, is a shamebecause a current, in-uniform user/operator is far more effective as a marketer than even a recently-separated veteran.
Again, I think the LAdroit experiment paid off by forcing the Navy to work hand-in-hand with DCNS. And while the collaboration must have been quite a challenge, with the Navy personnel probably confronting some real difficulty in preparing the ship for both operations and marketing work, the officers and sailors on board now have a much stronger understanding of what is needed to make the sale. After developing a cadre of in-uniform ship salesmen, its going to make France that much more effective in selling other vessels.
Americaand the American Navyneeds to come to terms with the fact that the country cant sell new combatants well.
Thats a shame, because everybody in the Navy would love to see American shipbuilders get more business. So. To make the U.S. a more competitive marketplace for naval ships, I humbly suggest the Navy study the LAdroit case and work to:
1. Calm the arms sales bureaucracy or take steps to reform some of the more onerous bureaucratic requirements. It would be great if the Department of Defense and State could make the initial marketing approval process easiermaybe by offering a uniform global marketing approval scheme (authorizing marketing in a blanket list of countries), so shipbuilders need only apply for initial marketing approval once or twice.
2. Realize that aircraft marketing (which the U.S. does very, very well) is very, very different from ship marketing.
3. The Navy needs to decide if selling ships is a strategic priority. If so, then, the Navy needs to work to build all-of-government support for such ventures.
4. Support prototype and market-development platforms. Id love to see some of these small and hungry yards (Bollinger? Dare ya!) build a spec combatant that fits into one of the 1000-Ship Navy sweet spots. Lets develop a naval cadre (future FAOs?) to man and market prototypes that encourages the shipbuilding sector to take LAdroit-like risksand if future Navy ships came from these prototypes (hey, look, a US-built conventional sub!), then wed have already worked through a lot of the issues and concerns BEFORE they became a program of record.
5. Frankly, Id encourage an all-out effort to introduce theatre-wide, uniform NATO-like standard designs to the Pacific. Lets start with the small Pacific Patrol Boat initiative, and go from thereId love to see Canada, Japan, Australia, South Korea and the US come together (in whatever ad-hoc group that can) to develop low-end designs for naval tugs, rescue and salvage, replenishment, ice-breaking and patrol craft. Such an initiative would drive strategy discussions, lower costs and make Pacific operations so much easier.
America should be selling Navy ships right and left. But a lack of vision and imagination is killing us at the marketplace, and, until something changes, well cede the market to cheap, simple ships from energetic, hungry and well-supported ship sellers from France, China, Spain and beyond.
Which genius came up with the idea of only one gun on a naval vessel? Do you know how many guns were on a Fletcher-class destroyer?
These things make it look to the unmilitary eye as if a country has a robust coastal defense. They will not survive combat. They are peacetime decorations.
Modern naval guns are much more accurate so one gun is capable of the same amount of firepower as the Fletcher.