Once upon a time (hey, that’s how any good fairy tale starts), the Navy designed ships in-house. They debated needs and requirements, collected opinions from the fleet, settled on specifications, and drew up designs. The designs were then offered to industry to bid on the actual construction. Along the way, the Navy’s in-house experts monitored the progress of construction, compared the product to the specifications, and eventually passed judgment on whether the product quality was acceptable. Because of the in-house knowledge and expertise, the Navy knew exactly how the ship should be built, what materials were appropriate, and how the ship would perform. There were two groups largely responsible for this approach to ship procurement: the General Board and BuShips.
The General Board of the Navy was established as an advisory group in 1900 and disbanded in 1951 by order of then CNO Forrest Sherman. The board consisted of senior admirals and others, often near the end of their careers or retired who had a wealth of experience, relatively little politicking left to do, and sufficient time to consider issues facing the Navy. While they were tasked with contemplation of any issue brought before them, their greatest value lay in the guidance and direction they provided for the Navy’s shipbuilding programs. Anyone who has read any of Norman Friedman’s series on the design history of the various classes of ships will be well familiar with the role the General Board played in evaluating the various ship design proposals and then establishing the final requirements. It is worthwhile to note that the General Board was abolished by the office of the CNO which viewed the Board as a threat to the CNO’s power.
|The General Board - The Navy's Best Hope?|
The Navy’s Bureau of Ships (BuShips) was established by Congress in 1940 and consolidated the Bureau of Construction and Repair and the Bureau of Engineering. The Bureau was responsible for the design, construction, procurement, maintenance, and repair of ships as well as establishing relevant specifications for materials, fuel, etc. BuShips was eliminated by order of the Dept. of Defense in 1966 as part of a general reorganization of the Navy and was replaced by what is now known as the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA).
Beginning somewhere around the time of the Spruance class procurement, the Navy decided to farm out its design responsibilities to industry. The Spruance was the result of a general set of wishes provided to industry with industry allowed to design the ship. On the plus side, the Navy hoped that this would lead to more unconventional designs and cost savings. On the minus side, there was no guarantee that any of the industry designs would turn out to be acceptable. As it happened with the Spruance, a fairly good design did result. Also on the minus side was the loss of ship design expertise and familiarity with the specifics of the design. Thus, the Navy no longer had in-house experts who could evaluate a design and recognize good from bad. Further, the Navy had no person or group intimately familiar with the details of a given ship class’ design. The Navy would have to depend on industry to understand the details – the Navy knowingly and willingly abandoned the concept of attention-to-detail. This trend of farming out design responsibilities to industry has continued to this day and has given us the LCS, LPD, DDG-1000, and other notable failures.
Here’s a simple and minor example of what happens when no one inside the Navy is responsible for, and knowledgeable about, ship design. The Navy just recently announced that it would retrofit bridge wings to the LCS-2’s that have already been built or are under construction. Apparently, bridge wings are necessary for vision when maneuvering the ships in tight spaces. Of course, every sailor since
has known this and yet the Navy failed to include bridge wings in the LCS-2 design. Columbus
Not to pick on the LCS, but consider the corrosion problems due to galvanic corrosion, a phenomenon that has been well understood for centuries. The lack of in-house naval engineers with responsibility for the design led to a fundamental oversight that shouldn’t have happened.
I could go on with example after example but you get the point.
The lack of in-house technical and engineering expertise is bad enough but there is another, equally serious, problem resulting from the absence of a dedicated design group. The people who are nominally in charge of developing requirements and overseeing the ship designs don’t stick around long enough to see their work through and take responsibility for it. Instead, they serve their short term assignment and move on. The people supposedly responsible for the LCS are long gone. There is no continuity or accountability and attention to detail suffers. Wouldn’t we all like to ask the originators of the LCS design what they were thinking? Compare that model of ship design to the BuShips approach. With BuShips, the designers worked in the Bureau for years and were readily accountable for their designs. Further, for naval engineers BuShips represented the pinnacle of their careers rather than a short term stop on the way to other career paths.
I mentioned NAVSEA which replaced BuShips. Shouldn’t they be performing the same responsibilities? Sadly, no. NAVSEA does not design ships. In fact, as I understand their function, they don’t even get involved with a ship design until it’s already built. NAVSEA verifies that the newly constructed ships meet the contract specifications but by then it’s too late to improve the design. Worse, NAVSEA doesn’t even do this properly. The first few LPDs were accepted by NAVSEA despite the fact that the ships weren’t even remotely close to being completed – they required thousands of post-acceptance man-hours just to physically complete the construction. Similarly, the LCSs have been accepted with entire compartments incomplete. NAVSEA’s acceptance evaluations have become a joke and a political and public relations tool of a politicized Navy leadership.
The Navy urgently needs to reconstitute both the General Board and BuShips if it is to have any hope of living happily ever after.