Push for naval ‘interchangeability’ will require help from industry

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ARLINGTON, Va. — The U.S. Navy and its closest allies and partners continue their quest to become interchangeable — a step up from previous calls to be interoperable — but they say they can’t do it without international supply chains joining the effort.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday rattled off a list of examples of international navies tactically approaching interchangeability, including:

“We are trying to entice our high-end partners to go beyond interoperability into interchangeability,” Gilday said at the Surface Navy Association’s annual conference last week. “It’s a push to put us in a position where, if we do have to fight tonight, we’re not stumbling.”

But one Australian officer said allies and partners need to go beyond tactical interchangeability; there needs to be more work on the strategic side, and an inclusion of industry.

Commodore Darren Grogan, the naval attache at the Australian Embassy in Washington, said the U.S., Australia and other close Pacific partners already have common aircraft, such as the F-35 fighter, the P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft and the MH-60R helicopter.

However, he added, “I still can’t embark these on my ship, I can’t land one of those [MH-60] Romeos on my deck. They’re the challenges we need to overcome.”

During remarks at an international navies panel at the conference, Grogan said that, ideally, if one of his MH-60Rs broke down and the nearest repair facility was an American one, he could bring the broken helo there, fly away with a recently repaired one, have the repair facility work on his aircraft, and then the navies could swap out the airframes at a later time to avoid operational hindrance.

But today, that would face roadblocks: U.S. Navy personnel and parts are funded to maintain U.S. Navy aircraft, not allied ones. And though the helicopters are the same, each country has different suppliers providing spare parts, and engineers may need to certify the swapping of parts.

Grogan told Defense News that the MH-60R program is one of the most successful partnerships between the U.S. Navy and Royal Australian Navy — and it’s perhaps the closest they are to interchangeability.

“The more we work together, the closer we’re going to get with that. We still have, obviously, issues with the parts; there’s American parts and Australian parts,” he said.

During the panel, Grogan noted “this is a really lofty job” that may not be accomplished during his naval career, but added that leaders must think about these issues now.

During the 2022 Rim of the Pacific exercise in Hawaii, the two navies took a significant steps toward interoperability and interchangeability when they embarked a pair of MV-22B Ospreys on the Australian amphibious ship Canberra for an at-sea drill.

American CH-53s, MV-22s and MH-60 helicopters, as well as Japanese MH-60s, also landed and took off from the flight deck at sea to increase interoperability.

Still, this falls short of the call for interchangeability, which might see American MH-60s embark on the Australian ship, while the two countries share maintainers and spare parts.

Col. Henrik Rosen, the naval attache at the Swedish Embassy in Washington, said during the panel discussion that Sweden, Finland and NATO have done much in a controlled environment and exercises to show they can share target tracks and other data to fight together.

But in reality, he said, they need to build up a common stockpile of weapons. One nation’s missiles must fit in another’s missile tubes to create deeper magazines, more robust supply chains and a better competitive edge over adversaries. Rosen said it would take a while to make this a reality, and so nations need to start work now.

“We can’t become interchangeable without industry; we need to bring industry along,” Grogen added during the panel discussion.

The head of the U.S. Navy surface force, Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener, said in separate remarks at the conference that the fleet is becoming more interchangeable from a tactical perspective. For example, a Japanese ship recently participated in advanced predeployment training for U.S. Navy vessels off Okinawa, he said.

But recently, after finding out about some industry and supply chain concerns — including the ability to use other’s parts and system commonality — he’s now looking into those further. He’s also eyeing an increase in ship repairs at foreign yards, and conducting repairs on foreign ships in American facilities.

In the meantime, Rosen and Grogen each pointed to policies and practices that can bolster trust among allies and partners in the short term, even as the technical interchangeability and industry pieces are addressed over the longer term.

Rosen pointed to the 2019 BALTOPS exercise in the Baltic Sea, where Sweden embedded one of its intelligence officers with NATO staff on the U.S. Navy command ship Mount Whitney. This involved working with lawyers ahead of time, Rosen said, but Sweden’s military intelligence in Stockholm was able to inform and be informed by the operations of 50-some ships at sea, rather than just the two Swedish vessels participating in the exercise.

Rosen described this as a significant development that deserves expansion.

Grogen said that last year U.S. Pacific Fleet created a new job — deputy director of maritime operations — that is filled by an Australian two-star admiral. If the director were to be on leave or otherwise out of the office, the Australian leader could conceivably direct U.S. naval operations, which Grogen called a huge leap of faith that requires accepting some risk.

“He’s going to hit so many brick walls, it’s insane. He’s going to keep banging his head against the wall, and the good admirals there who are amazing leaders who have got the vision will go, ‘OK, let’s see if we can get him around that wall’ — and that’s how” the navies can make process toward interchangeability, the commodore said.

Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.

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