A good business strategy must answer the question, “What are we going to be good at?” and equally as important, “What are we going to be bad at?” You can’t be great at everything, and trying to do so makes you worse at everything. Companies that do this the best and have their strengths aligned with something customers will pay for rise to the top. Strong focus allows companies to say no to opportunities that would be distracting and put their resources only towards what will make them successful. In VP land we’ve long been at the game of trying to do everything without a real strategy that addresses our very real constraints.
A well-known example of focus and tradeoffs can be found in Apple. What are they really good at and focused on? High-end design and the quality manufacturing of consumer electronics. What are they bad at? They have high prices and pretty limited variety of products with limited flexibility in what you can use their products to do. When Steve Jobs returned in the late nineties to a nearly bankrupt Apple, he cut their product line by 70% down to 4 core products. That is focus.
Apple trades off cost against quality, which are natural tradeoffs – it’s hard to do both well, and it’s better to focus on one or the other. The much-maligned F-35 program is a good example of how a desire to everything great (i.e. lack of focus) costs a lot of money and ensures that you are never that great at anything.
What are all the things that VP tries to do well? Starting with our mission set, we do ASW, ASUW, ISR, C2, MIW, SAR. For the sake of brevity I’ll leave it at those missions, but you could break them down further by weapon type, over-land vs. maritime, etc. Outside of the missions, we do aircraft maintenance, ordnance handling and loading, admin, Intel, IT support, classified material handling and storage, legal, mission training, MWR, geedunk, medical, scheduling, NATOPs, Safety, and on and on and on… This post aims to provide 3 ways we can be more focused.
1. Organizational Focus:
A VP Squadron has one core mission: put maritime patrol aircraft on station, on-time, and execute the mission. A VP Wing’s core mission is to support the VP Squadrons under it. If I wanted to put more of our constrained resources towards our core mission at the squadron level, I would start by getting rid of legal, admin, IT support, and the geedunk. All of these functions could be centralized at the Wing level. There would be a lot of tangible benefits to doing this: economies of scale, increased standardization, freeing up resources of the squadron… But even better is that the strategic advantage would be to put these support functions where they align with the core mission of their parent organization.
There would be growing pains in that you’d lose some responsiveness and customization, but I’d argue that VP squadron doesn’t need or want to be great at these functions anyway, but the VP wing does. The functions mentioned above are just a starting point. Safety/NATOPs could be the ending point. There’s really no reason why that function needs to be duplicated in every squadron.
2. Mission Focus:
On the mission side, the VP community has allowed our core competency of ASW to be diluted by requiring competency in ever more complex, diverse, and disparate missions. There might be good reasons to diversify our capabilities, but focus would demand us to have an honest discussion about what we’re going to be great at. Start with the actual utility of some capability and compare it to how difficult that capability is to maintain. Then look for overlap with other capabilities to get some scale economies. For instance, ASW and MIW have some overlapping training and execution requirements. If we’re good at ASW, it doesn’t cost much for us to be good at MIW also.
However, if we want to also be good at Maritime Air Support, which is a totally different skillset from ASW, it costs a lot more. Add enough of these disparate missions to the requirements and you’ll eventually run out of resources to attain any sort of excellence.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing, it could be a hybrid model. For example, half of our squadrons could be great at ISR and ASUW, half of our squadrons are going to be great at ASW and Mining. You’d get better tactical performance but trade off against only having half the global capacity for either mission.
3. Competency Focus (be ready only when you need it):
But maybe the Navy needs us to be the jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none. After all, the original name for the P-8 was the Multi-mission Aircraft. Because our missions are too dissimilar and require high levels of specialized training, it’s foolish to think every aircrew could be good at every mission, all the time.
One could logically say it’s a waste to be ready for 100% of our mission set when we only utilize 10%. For example, getting ASW ready only to deploy to El Sal or the Middle East is wasted effort. An even bigger waste of resources is to try to maintain an unutilized capability during high op-tempos (EMATTEX in the Arabian Gulf comes to mind as a giant waste of time and morale-killer). And if there is one certainty, it’s that the VP Navy can’t predict which mission set will be most utilized.
Rather than try to be great at all these disparate missions all the time, which is extremely costly, we could change what we define as our core competency. It’d be much more effective to be great at rapid training, ramp-up, and capability deployment as needed. In simpler terms, we should be great at adapting to real-world situations by making our core competency to be ramping-up aircrews and airplanes for specific missions really fast.
Of course, there are some missions that require too much training to be able to ramp up quickly (like ASW). And we’d need to be competent in the missions required for our deployments. And if we wanted to rapidly train our crews, we’d probably need trainers to train and possible serve as rapid response teams while the rest get up to speed. I think the Wing’s WTU and/or the MPRWS could fill those roles quite nicely.
- Focus allows for excellence in something by trading off against something else
- VP Squadrons can focus on mission performance by trading off their support functions to the Wing
- VP Navy can focus on specific missions by reducing the number of missions (i.e. no more ASUW) or by reducing the number of aircrew required to be competent in each mission (i.e. half ASW, half ASUW)
- VP Navy could be ready for a wide variety of missions only when needed, not all the time. To accomplish this best, redefine our core competency as the ability to rapidly train and deploy capabilities as needed.
We’ve been guilty of not having a coherent strategy for too long. Rather, we’ve just been blindly following our marching orders: be combat ready at an ever-increasing number of diverse mission sets, and transition to a new aircraft. Meanwhile our P-3s get older, our budget is uncertain year over year, our adversaries are improving and other platforms are outperforming us at everything. I’ll add that the P-8 is not going to solve the fundamental problems within our community. The P-8 is only solving surface level issues – without focus, without strategy, we’ll be left scratching our heads as to why P-8 squadrons don’t seem to be performing that well.