Profound Simplicity, Part I: Aegis as a High Reliability Organization
In the post-World War Two era, legendary and seminal aerospace projects like the aircraft programs of Lockheed’s Skunk Works, the missile programs Atlas, Polaris and Saturn V and the Aegis area air and missile defense system were enormous and complex engineering development undertakings. Amidst an environment of strategic urgency and competing bureaucracies, program and project managers had to master organizational and planning challenges as they successively integrated often unproven technologies into systems of increasing complexity. These developmental advances succeeded by dint of what organizational theorist Karl E. Weick characterizes as high reliability organizations (HROs) and the institution of programmatic cultures of profound simplicity. Citing Esalen Institute social psychologist William Schutz, who coined the phrase, Weick writes of profound simplicity in terms of the progress of organizational understanding that moves through three stages: from superficial simplicity, to confused complexity and finally to profound simplicity.
“HROs,” writes Weick, “strive for profound simplicity. They understand that the means to move toward profound simplicity is through doubting the completeness of their assumptions, through experimenting, and through experiencing a wider variety of possibilities. They realize that when they distrust their simplifications they will feel confused, but they will also know that out of their confusion may come fuller understanding of what they face.”
The late-Rear Adm. Wayne Meyer, the “Father of Aegis,” expressed profound simplicity in his own operationally-focused way: “Build a Little, Test a Little, Learn a Lot.” The culture that Meyer embedded into the Aegis program retains the best of the legacy of the previous Skunk Works, Atlas, Polaris and Saturn V programs. Today, the Aegis culture informs and guides the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (ABMD) program and beyond, cementing its place in acquisition history as a model approach for aerospace engineering development in the 21st century.
The Common Attributes of HROs
The Aegis program and its forebears share a number of common attributes. A strategic-level urgency motivated each program, whether generated by an adversary’s fielding of a game-changing warfighting technology or, in the case of NASA’s Saturn V program, the Soviet Sputnik launches that inaugurated the Space Age. With respect to Skunk Works’ jet technology development, the Army Air Forces’ warfare problem was to provide escort squadrons for the Eighth Air Force on strategic bombing missions against Germany with fighters that could continue to control the skies over Europe. In the spring of 1943, intelligence reports spoke of advancing German development of what would be the world’s first operational jet fighter, the Messerschmitt Me-262. Widespread deployment of Me-262s with their speed advantage over propeller-driven U.S. fighters threatened to shift control of the skies to Germany.
The Skunk Works’ U-2 requirement came from a 1955 report to President Eisenhower by his Killian Committee on strategic technological capabilities. Among other things, the Killian Report prioritized fielding an immediate means for intelligence collection on the Soviet capability for launching a pre-emptive strategic attack on the United States. Skunk Works’ follow-on SR-71 requirement came almost immediately after it became apparent that the Soviets were able to track the U-2 by radar, prompting the need for a new supersonic aircraft with a reduced radar cross section.
With regard to stealth, the 1973 Yom Kippur War presented Skunk Works with a new warfare problem when Soviet-supplied SAM batteries in Syria and Egypt downed scores of Israeli aircraft during the eighteen-day air war. By the mid-seventies, the United States, with only two air defense missile systems, the Patriot and the Hawk, realized that it faced a Soviet adversary that, with fifteen such missile systems, could deny much of the U.S. air warfare capability. This challenge drove the requirement for stealth technology development that led to the 1980s fielding of the F-117A Nighthawk attack aircraft.
The Atlas program for America’s first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) received strong endorsement in the Killian Report. The Report emphasized the need for a U.S. retaliatory capability to deter the threat of a surprise Soviet attack on U.S. strategic bomber forces, and led to the National Security Council’s (NSC’s) NSC Action (No. 1433) of that year stating that Atlas was a high-priority project to be built with maximum urgency. The Killian Report similarly put urgency behind what would become the Navy’s Polaris missile program with its recommendation for a sea-based intermediate-range ballistic missile.
The Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 prompted the United States to put together a space program and led the Army to engage Wernher von Braun to adapt the Jupiter-C, the basis for the Saturn V, to serve as a space launch vehicle. Its first application was for the launch of the Explorer I satellite in January 1958. Shortly thereafter, renamed as the Juno V program (subsequently the Saturn program), it was ordered to go into accelerated development. Two years later, the Eisenhower administration set a goal to land a man on the Moon and return him to Earth. This project got a DX rating as the highest national priority for overtime and materials. After Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made his flight in April 1961, President Kennedy made his pledge to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
These four HROs each had an autonomous program organization with strong sponsor support from a service or agency. Skunk Works’ service sponsor for wartime jet fighter development was Gen. Hap Arnold, the commanding general of the Army Air Forces. For the U-2 and SR-71, high-level support came from President Eisenhower and the agency sponsor, the Central Intelligence Agency’s U-2 project manager, Richard Bissell. For stealth technology, it was again at the very top with President Carter’s national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who recognized how stealth canceled Soviet investments in air defense and promised to be a game-changer for air warfare. Another champion was the Pentagon’s deputy director for research and engineering (DDR&E) William Perry.
The Atlas service sponsor was Trevor Gardner, the Air Force assistant secretary for research and development (R&D). As a priority national security program, Atlas development also had a more senior Pentagon sponsor, Donald A. Quarles, the first assistant secretary of defense for R&D. For Polaris, the service sponsor was the Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Arleigh Burke, who made the argument for a fleet ballistic missile submarine force that would serve as an interim retaliatory capability for assured destruction to serve as deterrence. The NASA sponsors for Saturn V in the early sixties were George E. Mueller, the head of the Headquarters Office of Manned Space Flight, and his Apollo deputy director, Air Force Brig. Gen. Samuel C. Phillips.
The four HROs had program cultures instituted by visionary administrators with political acumen and solid backgrounds in engineering and in some cases operations. The Skunk Works project management and workforce culture owes its origins to Lockheed engineer and aerodynamicist Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, the designer of the classic P-38 Lightning. Johnson’s legacy matured over several decades as Skunk Works continued developmental work that took it into Mach 3 and stealth technology. Ben Rich, Johnson’s thermodynamicist on the SR-71, succeeded him in 1975 and became known as the father of stealth.
Atlas culture was instituted by Brig. Gen. Bernard Schriever, the head of the Ballistic Missile Division of the Air Research and Development Command, the so-called Western Development Division (WDD). For Polaris, it was the program director, Vice Adm. William F. Raborn, and his technical director, Capt. Levering Smith, who headed the Polaris Steering Group that oversaw technical development. Similarly, Saturn V culture derived from the visionary Wernher von Braun, whose professional interest in space flight dated from the early 1930s, and his Saturn V Program Office director, Arthur Rudolph.
These HRO program cultures each strictly adhered to solving a concisely-expressed engineering development problem in response to a strategic-level urgency. To that end, their visionaries insisted that form follow function and that uniformed service and contractor managers, engineers and workforces be tightly integrated at every project and component level. Building on pre-existing technologies, rigorously-applied systems engineering informed cost, schedule and performance trade-offs. The object was feasible and accelerated development and fielding of an interim, initial prototype capability that anticipated future insertions, modernization and additional upgrades as technologies and operational concepts advanced.
Today, the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense program is building on the legacy of the original Aegis area air and missile defense system. Aegis BMD’s application of Wayne Meyer’s profound simplicity—Build a Little, Test a Little, Learn a Lot—is the predictor of future successful program outcomes and thus an apt model for other complex engineering development programs.
Aegis Program Culture: Form Follows Function
Several months after the 1967 Six-Day War, two Egyptian Komar missile boats attacked and sank the Israeli destroyer Eilat off Port Said by firing four Soviet SSN-2 Styx anti-ship cruise missiles. This event acted as the U.S. Navy’s wake-up call and put urgency behind its concept for shipboard area air defense, the Advanced Surface Missile System (ASMS). In 1969, the Navy renamed ASMS the “Aegis” project and established the Aegis Project Office (PMO 403) in the Naval Systems Ordnance Command (NAVORD). When PMO 403 awarded the Aegis engineering development contract to then-RCA’s Missile and Surface Radar Division, in Moorestown, New Jersey, thus began what some have called the “Aegis Movement.”
Capt. Wayne E. Meyer, a naval officer with broad operational and technical expertise in fleet missile systems, was the progenitor of this movement. When Meyer came aboard as the first Aegis project manager in early 1970, he inherited the basic characteristics of the Aegis Weapon System he was to develop: an integrated package of shipboard sensors, weapons and battle-management systems for area air defense. Meyer’s job was to fashion a detailed development plan with specifications for how to engineer and build it. In so doing, he established what would become the Aegis culture that remains intact to this day.
A legendary practitioner of systems engineering, Meyer bounded the complexity of his Aegis management task with a simple statement of the warfare problem:
The object of the Aegis Weapon System was to: (1) detect the presence of potential air and anti-ship missile threats, determining their location, course and speed; (2) control the weapon response by identifying the threats, discriminating those that were hostile from those that were not, making the command decision to engage and selecting the weapon; and (3) engage the threat and, depending on the outcome, decide the next course of action.
Prior to the establishment of the Aegis Project Office, the Navy had organized its air defense missile projects into separate program offices to address detection (radars), control (control systems) and engagement (weapons). The Naval Ship Systems Command (NAVSHIPS) had the detection and control programs; NAVORD had engagement. In line with his functionally-defined warfare problem, Meyer saw the need for an integrated Aegis organization. Within two years, he was able to get all eight critical Mk 7 Aegis elements under his authority, including the Standard SM-2 missile.
The 1973 Yom Kippur War sent the U.S. Navy another wake-up call. The Independence task group operating in the Eastern Mediterranean was suddenly confronted by a Soviet naval force of unprecedented size that included not only surface ships but also Charlie-class submarines armed with anti-ship missiles. The reaction time for an engagement had compressed from minutes to a matter of seconds. Moreover, given that the threat included submarines, the Aegis warfare problem required modification of the engage element to extend to antisubmarine warfare (ASW).
At the same time, the Navy came to accept that Aegis development would not support installation on some of the first ships of the so-called family of ships concept proposed in the 1967 Major Fleet Escort Study. In an effort to correct its surface ship construction woes, the service reorganized its systems commands in 1974. NAVSHIPS became the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), a single material command with the total responsibility for producing a fully integrated surface combatant. At the same time, the Aegis Project Office transferred to NAVSEA from NAVORD and was re-titled PMS-403. The Aegis Weapon System for area air defense expanded to encompass a multi-warfare, multi-mission system that would eventually include ASW and strike missions—the Aegis Combat System. Meyer thus had total responsibility to execute the design, development and engineering of the entire combat system aboard Aegis ships.
The following year, Meyer got a new and determined Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV) sponsor, Vice Adm. James H. Doyle, Jr., OP-03, the assistant chief of naval operations for surface warfare. Making it his business to rebuild a Navy surface warfare capability that was second to none, Doyle would serve until 1980, the longest serving OP-03 ever. During these years, the Doyle-Meyer partnership would cement Aegis and its culture. In his first year, Doyle made Meyer, then a rear admiral, the director of the Surface Combat Systems Division (OP-35).
At the same time, in his capacity as PMS-403, Meyer integrated the Aegis Project Office and the Aegis system contractor, RCA. In 1976, PMS-403 awarded the Combat System Engineering Development Site (CSEDS) contract to RCA, and Aegis work began in earnest. Replicating the detect/control/engage integration under the Aegis Project Office, the RCA Missile and Surface Radar Division became the Aegis combat system engineering agent and thus transformed itself from a radar shop to a system shop. Naval personnel and RCA employees co-located at Moorestown to achieve this transformation together. The following year, CSEDS would serve as the central node of what would be an extensive network of Aegis support facilities. Because the Navy had still not agreed on the characteristics of the first Aegis class of ship, CSEDS’ “ship in the cornfield” hosted the project’s engineering, test and integration work. CSEDS would integrate and design the combat system, validate computer programs, define and engineer system interfaces, test and exercise the system’s components, and develop and prove logistics plans.
Still, the issue was getting Aegis to sea. As the attempt to merge Aegis and the family of ships’ development proved, the Navy could no longer conceive of a surface ship as a “platform” onto which it would put its weapons systems. Ship construction and combat system engineering development both required concurrent development, integrated under a single organization to facilitate planning. To get Aegis to sea, Meyer’s project had to become a tightly controlled organization that promoted the integration of combat system and warship design with shipbuilding execution. In 1977, Doyle and Meyer thus merged the Aegis Project Office, PMS-403, with other NAVSEA offices to form the Aegis Shipbuilding Project Office, PMS-400. With Meyer in command, PMS-400 was able to build a consolidated project organization that could now control development and production of the Aegis Warfare System, Standard Missiles, the Aegis Combat System and Aegis shipbuilding. This arrangement enabled him to ensure the smooth integration of Aegis and development of Aegis ships. One NAVSEA commander said of PMS-400:
The sophistication and the complexity of the Aegis Combat System are such that the marriage of Engineering and Acquisition of Aegis and Aegis equipped ships demands special management treatment. In the foregoing context, ‘special management treatment’ includes the amalgamation and structuring of hull, machinery, systems, equipments, computer programs, repair parts, personnel, maintenance documentation and tactical operating documentation into a unified organization to create the capability.
Aegis Process Culture: Interim Capabilities via Baseline Upgrades
With all his elements now in the Aegis Shipbuilding Project Office, Meyer could make project decisions based on the best technical approach. To that end, he instilled in Aegis a rigorous systems engineering discipline. He established key performance factors, e.g., reaction time (priority number one). He defined them to be expressed quantitatively to serve as guidance for engineering trade-offs and compromises to address the detect/control/engage warfare problems. Together, they were the cornerstones of Aegis system engineering. These cornerstones required constant attention and were reflected in what Meyer called “people, parts, paper and computer programs.” Meyer’s cornerstones were translated into acquisition process principles that informed decision-making at every project and component level. The payoff was in getting Aegis to sea on budget, on time.
To keep Aegis system engineering development moving forward in advance of a Navy decision on ship design, Meyer employed the so-called Superset design and engineering approach. Superset called for integrating the largest set of combat system elements (sensors, control systems and weapons) and down-designing to meet specific ship suites when finally approved.
Aegis Weapon System Acquisition Process Principles
- Trade-off operating requirements against cost on a continuing basis.
- Establish the program schedule and funding profile with sufficient time and funding to accommodate inevitable development problems.
- Maximize simplicity and austerity of design.
- Treat cost as a principal design parameter.
- Use proven technology except when essential realistic need or potential cost benefits demand new technology.
- Always consider existing equipment or modification of existing equipment as alternatives to development of new equipment.
- Base progressive commitments of resources upon accomplishment (demonstration and tests) rather than calendar dates.
- Rely on equipment testing in preference to paper studies.
- Assess risk continuously and plan accordingly.
- Invest development dollars to save production and operating costs.
- Minimize development/production concurrency.
- Make engineering changes only to correct deficiencies, increase effectiveness, prevent production slippage or reduce costs.
Figure 3. An early 1970s poster found in project offices that summarizes the program philosophy that drove Aegis development. Cited in Hood in NEJ, p. 184.
Meanwhile, Doyle kept pushing for a ship design decision. Under Meyer and his OP-35 hat, he established OP-355 with Capt. Ted Parker to be the OP-03 sponsor for the Aegis Warfare System, Aegis Combat System, Aegis cruiser and Aegis destroyer. Finally, in 1978, Doyle’s team was positioned to make the first Aegis warship award for the DDG 47 destroyer to Ingalls. Meyer’s Superset approach made for integration efficiencies. Though in 1980 the class was re-designated as a cruiser class, Ticonderoga (CG 47) entered the fleet in 1983. The Aegis Shipbuilding Project Office thus delivered its first Aegis warship on time, on budget. Nine months after delivery, “Tico” deployed off Lebanon during its civil war and served as anti-air warfare commander, “Alpha Whiskey”. In 1982, the project office got approval for the first Arleigh Burke-class destroyer (DDG 51). Three years later, Bath began construction, also completing Arleigh Burke in 1991 on budget (though not on schedule, due to enforced changes in the acquisition plan).
Meyer’s project office opted to introduce initial, interim capabilities via continuous construction lines for cruisers and destroyers (rather than the expensive old way of introducing new ship classes with block upgrades) to accommodate major advances to Aegis. The engineering development approach that enabled this decision was a process practice called the Aegis Combat System Baseline Upgrade Program. Each Aegis baseline—focused primarily on the major systems and upgrades—was an engineering package of improvements introduced every two to four years. A major warfighting change, for example the introduction of the Mk 41 Vertical Launching System (VLS), Tomahawk land-attack missile and the integration of ASW into Aegis, would call for a new engineering baseline. The introduction of these three components in fact constituted Baseline 2. In addition, the Baseline Upgrade Program allowed for retrofits between baseline upgrades. Under the principle “Forward Fit before Backward Fit,” engineering and design focused on new construction ships while at the same time enabling cost-effective retrofits of Aegis ships already in the fleet.
A System of Systems: Men and Machine, from Design to Deckplates
Meyer empowered the Aegis Shipbuilding Project Office with full life-cycle responsibility for Aegis once it had gone to sea. The project office would not exercise this responsibility from Washington, however. It would do so in the field, where assessments of readiness were best achieved via the Aegis supporting infrastructure that provided in-service support, crew training, depot maintenance, in-service engineering and computer program maintenance activities. As Aegis ships made the transition to the Fleet and the waterfront support activity, PMS-400 assigned Aegis homeport representatives to assist the type commanders.
Meyer’s Aegis culture embraced a bottom-up concept that reflected operational practicalities. At one level, the position of combat system engineer, a senior operational officer reporting to the Aegis project technical director, was squarely in the middle of the system engineering process to provide an operational perspective. The bottom-up, “from the deckplates” orientation was evident also at CSEDS where enlisted personnel from the fleet actually operated equipment to inform engineers of the operational realities as to how the system was being used. Once Aegis made the transition to sea, CSEDS would conduct crew training and host such efforts to modify and upgrade Aegis as R&D, integration, cruiser and destroyer modernization upgrades, open architecture development and baseline improvements to the SPY-1 radar. In 1981, a CSED for in-service system-level engineering and crew training went to the Aegis Combat Systems Center at Wallops Island, Virginia. Additional key supporting infrastructure nodes included the Aegis Computer Center and Training and Readiness Center in Dahlgren, Virginia, and the Naval Ship Weapons System Engineering Station at Port Hueneme, California.
Meyer identified individuals worthy of trust to lead their organizations. He insisted that the engineering organization eliminate ambiguity in communications and remain connected to field operations. One breeding ground for future Aegis project leaders was the so-called war room, another Meyer innovation. War rooms were assemblages that tackled problems on a full-time basis. When solutions matured, the war rooms would make decisions. After two decades, the Aegis culture was firmly embedded in its processes and its people, such that it would survive amidst the organizational changes that would come in the 1990s.
Empirics—The Ground Truth that Puts Capabilities to Sea
Wayne Meyer trusted empirics and not analytics: “The real ground truth,” he said, “was from actual engineering or operational test data.” This Aegis verity was behind Meyer’s signature build-a-little, test-a-little, learn-a-lot philosophy. The urgency that undergirded Meyer’s warfare problem required getting an interim, initial Aegis capability into the fleet. As Rear Adm. Tim Hood, NAVSEA’s program executive officer for theater air defense in the early nineties, would say: “Detect, Control, Engage” identified the Aegis warfare problem; “Build a little, test a little, learn a lot” described the Aegis process; and the functional/performance Aegis cornerstones put numbers on the capabilities the Aegis engineers were striving to meet—all to achieve the end objective of putting Aegis to sea.
 Cf. Karl E. Weick Making Sense of the Organization; Volume 2: The Impermanent Organization (John Wiley & Sons, Chichester, U.K.: 2009), p. 20.
 Robert E. Gray and Troy S. Kimmel “The Aegis Movement” Naval Engineers Journal: The Story of Aegis, Special Edition (2009/Vol. 121 No. 3), pp. 37-69. Hereafter cited as NEJ.
 The first seven critical elements were the AN/SPY-1A radar, Command and Decision (C&D) Mk 1, Weapons Control System Mk 1, Fire Control System Mk 99, Guided Missile Launching System Mk 26, Standard Missile (SM) 1 and 2 and the Operational Readiness Test System Mk 1. The eighth element, the Aegis Display System Mk 1 came into the fold just before the Aegis went to sea.
 John Fass Morton Mustin: A Naval Family of the 20th Century (U.S. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis: 2003), pp. 346-48.
 Gray and Kimmel in NEJ, p. 43.
 Meyer and the Aegis Project Office’s responsibility was akin to those exercised by Kelly Johnson and Ben Rich at Skunk Works, Bernard Schriever at WDD with Atlas, Red Raborn and Levering Smith with the Polaris Special Projects Office (SPO) and Wernher von Braun and Arthur Rudolph for the Saturn V program.
 The integrated relationship between the Aegis Project Office and RCA was very similar to WDD and its relationship with Ramo-Wooldridge and later its subsidiary, Space Technological Laboratory (STL), SPO and its network of Polaris contractors and the Marshall Space Flight Center and its network of Saturn V fabrication and testing sites and contractors.
 Rear Adm. J.T. (Tim) Hood, USN (Ret.) “The Aegis Movement—A Project Office Perspective” in NEJ, p. 187.
 In the same vein regarding concurrent design and fabrication, Kelly Johnson insisted that his engineers physically locate closely to machine shop workers. Von Braun enunciated what he called his “dirty hands” approach that located his project managers close to his engineers.
 Quoted by Gray and Kimmel in NEJ, p. 47.
 Ibid., p. 41.
 This interim capability approach particularly refrains that of the Polaris program and the development, testing and delivery of the Polaris A-1, A-2 and A-3 missiles with respect to increased ranges and the introduction multiple re-entry vehicles (MRVs) to the A-3.
 SPO saw itself as providing not just fleet ballistic missile equipment, but a ballistic missile capability, having the responsibility for material, personnel and facilities to maintain the nation’s sea-based deterrence force.
 Similarly, Schriever saw WDD’s role extending to the training of Atlas missilemen.
 Under Johnson and Rich, Skunk Works and its workforce enjoyed autonomy from Lockheed management. Schriever got the authority to keep any officer assigned to WDD for the duration of the Atlas project and furthered the development of a new breed of patriotic, white collar engineers. Red Raborn inspired his workforce daily and was oft quoted as saying, “Our religion was to build Polaris.”
 Reliable communications were vital to Raborn’s Polaris organization. As his vector-check, Raborn relied on Vitro Laboratories and the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) to evaluate and monitor Polaris development. They reported directly to him and had no hardware interest. Raborn also monitored his technical director, Levering Smith, while getting independent assessments from his SPO chief scientist and the engineering consultant. In turn, Smith monitored technical branches and their contractors. Altogether, SPO benefited from cross-cutting and independent channels of communication. The competition among SPO contractors assured these channels were used.
 To a certain extent, the WDD’s Black Saturday monthly briefings to Schriever served the same purpose, providing a feedback loop on problematic issues. Raborn’s SPO control room also served a similar function. Called the Management Center, it measured project performance against approved plans and was central to the Polaris integration management control system. The Management Center served as a model for Arthur Rudolph’s Saturn V Program Office and its Program Control Center that provided integrated visibility for decision-making.
 Hood in NEJ, p. 194.