Wednesday, March 20, 2013

General Board and BuShips

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 Columbus has known this and yet the Navy failed to include bridge wings in the LCS-2 design.

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.


  1. Having experienced old soldiers around can be an advantage, but it can also be a catastrophic disadvantage.

    The UK started the First World War with 8 Machine guns per battalion.
    It ended with 36 per battalion.
    Field Officers wanted more before the war, but the retired staff officers wanted mobile infantry divisions, and that meant rifles, not machine guns.

    Battleships without air defences, massed infantry charges against a fortress, and on and on and on.

    I think there is a workable middle ground however.

    Retired Admirals are too out of touch.
    They might be experts on strategy and doctrine, but it will be a decade since they fired a rifle or commanded a destroyer.

    I'm not sure how it works in the US, but my understanding of UK operations is that roughly two thirds of Colonel level officers leave the service at that level.

    Who better to oversea the introduction of a new rifle, or artillery piece, or missile, or fast jet, or frigate.

    1. TrT, you make a potentially good point, however, the General Board operated in practice as more of a central clearing house for ideas that would eventually coalesce into a design specification. The Board solicited feedback from the active fleet, formulated design concepts, sent them back to the fleet for further comment, and after several iterations settled on a final design. The Board was not operating in isolation from the operating fleet but, instead, was quite active in soliciting feedback from the commanders in the field. It worked out quite well and culminated in some truly outstanding ship designs in WWII.

      The strength of the Board lay in the fact that they had the time to pursue the designs through repeated iterations as opposed to the serving commanders who had other responsibilities.

      All that said, you are quite correct about the tendency of older commanders to become stagnant in their thinking. I think this is where the Board excelled by incorporating the fleet's feedback to such a large extent. If you haven't, you should read one of Freidman's design histories. He gives a great sense of the Board's role in ship design.

  2. Of course I agree with much of what ComNavops has written.

    I would make one argument in defense of the elderly. Certainly we all lose brain cells as time goes on, but the correlation between age and stagnant thinking is a hypothesis that has yet to be proven--Kissinger, Nitze, and Kennan all come to mind as exceptions to the rule, although I think a reconstituted General Board-like entity will probably not have folks in excess of 80 years old on it! I would say, though, that these men were at an age where we often see people peforming at their peak intellectually, in their 50s and 60s. Also, I think the relationship between stagnant thinking by officers is more a function of promotion than age, that stagnant thinking is something of a constant, whether one is 20 or 70. So enough with the bias against age--as we old guys say: "youth is wasted on the young."
    Full disclosure, I am 56, so I am looking ahead to my best years for thought and reflection according to the counter hypothesis I have presented above.
    John T. Kuehn
    author--Agents of Innovation: The General Board and the Design of the Fleet that Defeated the Japanese Navy.

    1. You agree with "much"? Not "all"?? I'm going to have to try harder!

      Seriously, John, it's an honor to have you comment on this. As a blog post, I can only provide the most cursory coverage of this topic. In addition, my knowledge of the subject doesn't even begin to approach the scholarly levels required to write a book.

      If there's some particular aspect of this subject (or any other subject) that you'd like to address in more detail, I'd be happy to host a blog post from you! If you have any interest, let me know. Otherwise, I won't pester you further beyond simply saying thank you for stopping by.

    2. ComNavops, my email is Contact me, I have all sorts of things in "the hopper."
      Here is my latest, no longer in the hopper, though.

      best, John

  3. I think the General Board served the Navy well but it had weaknesses. From 1906-20 the Board kept asking for new battleships every year that were just larger versions of the previous year’s. The Nevada’s all-or-nothing armor scheme was revolutionary, but each class afterwards had no real change until the South Dakotas. The Standard Type (Nevada through Colorado classes) had as much if not more to do with Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels as with the Board, as he alone imposed strict limits on size and growth that led to a homogenized set of battleships post-WWI.

    The Bureau of Construction and Repair and the Bureau of Ordnance nearly crippled the Iowa class battleship when miscommunication between the bureaus led to the wrong diameter being used for the main battery turrets and barbettes.

    C&R also varied the torpedo scheme between the battleship classes of the Standard Type with little rationale or empirical evidence. The speed at which new battleship designs were coming out at that time didn’t leave much room for testing, had the effort even been made beyond some small-scale efforts. Yet total depth of the torpedo defense system and number of bulkheads changed from class to class. That left these ships for the most part saddled with possibly deficient bulkheads for decades.

    And from an intelligence standpoint the General Board should have been screaming in the 1930’s onward about the lack of information of even a basic nature of the Japanese fleet. The re-gunning of the Mogamis, the higher speed of the Kongos, and the Yamato giants come to mind. Yet the corresponding American designs (Brooklyn, Alaska, North Carolina, and South Dakota) were designed on really sketchy intel about the enemy they would fight.

    I’d be curious to see how a new General Board would deal with ship classes that are measured in decades rather than yearly. No “Spring Styles” for destroyers and submarines!

  4. I believe that the former capability of the Navy to build 'in house' was also a factor in proving out designs before many were built at contracted yards. Building one yourself provides a pool of inspectors to go out the the civilian yards and insure that standards are met.


  5. "I’d be curious to see how a new General Board would deal with ship classes that are measured in decades rather than yearly. No “Spring Styles” for destroyers and submarines!"

    Thats why I want to go a few grades lower.
    A Colonel equivalent could, at 45 years old, be made project leader of almost any project, and sit on it for 10, 15 or even 20 years.
    Or even better, a team of colonels.

    Another problem being than an artillery colonel in charge of the next generation 155mm howitzer is likely to skew the program towards counter battery at the expense of supporting the advancing forces ect.

    1. TrT, of course, that's why the Board historically had a variety of people and backgrounds so that there wouldn't be only one prevailing view. Also, the Board was advisory. They weren't actually in charge of a program though they did follow the program progression to observe the outcome.

      Also, remember that the Board was composed of people at or near the end of their careers so as to minimize the political gamesmanship. Young (45 yrs old) officers would still have careers ahead that would influence their decisions unless they were retired early.

    2. "Young (45 yrs old) officers would still have careers ahead that would influence their decisions unless they were retired early."

      That was the point, unclear I know, the project officers would be those who didnt or didnt want to make the cut for flag officer.
      I'm not sure how it works in the US, but in the UK, staff officers will be rotated between project development roles, but they might serve two years in charge of a 60 year project.

  6. Might I suggest an alternative based on a current event here in the UK?

    Our government wants to introduce a new press regulating body in order to avoid future problems such as the big phone hacking scandal involving NewsCorp. This approach fails to understand that NewsCorp were acting illegally anyway and that a new regulator will not help that. We have laws against all the bad things newspapers are accused of getting up to (such as libel). They just need a little strengthening. We don't need a new body, we need to tweak what we already have.

    I wonder if the same might apply to you guys and your NAVSEA? Don't through the whole thing out and start again, just adjust what you already have to make it work better?

    1. Chris, your suggestion is appealing, however, NAVSEA, which is supposed to be the group that ensures the quality of construction and maintenance, has failed miserably. Giving them more authority is only going to increase the scope of their failure. I think the reason they've failed is that they are in the chain of command and are, therefore, subject to pressures from above, if not outright orders, to accept substandard quality in the name of political expediency. I suspect that one of the strengths of the General Board is that they were outside the chain of command and, to a large degree, independent and could act without undue influence.

  7. Could you not move NAVSEA outside the chain of command? Or assess (in depth) why they are making the mistakes they do? Doesn't necessarily mean they need more power, might just be a case of altering the way they work?

    1. Chris, NAVSEA is not making mistakes. They are being pressured to accept incomplete ships, shoddy workmanship, and so on so that the Navy can claim that ships are being delivered on schedule and on budget. For example, the LPD-17 was accepted with many thousands of man-hours of work left incomplete. LCSs are being accepted with unfinished compartments and known serious flaws. These are not mistakes. They're policy failings from the highest levels of Navy leadership.

      Would placing NAVSEA outside the chain of command help? Undoubtedly.

      Will the Navy ever allow control over NAVSEA to get away? Never - otherwise, it would become obvious how bad our acquistion and construction programs are.

      Is there precedent for a group like that to be outside the Navy chain of command? Yes. DOT&E is the DoD testing group that verifies the performance of the military's weapon systems. It's one of the few DoD groups that actually performs its mission and performs it quite well.

      Your idea is excellent but the Navy will never allow it.

      Thanks for the comment!


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