Loren Thompson, Forbes
16 September 2015
People have been building ships in and around Maine’s Bath Iron Works (BIW) for a long time. The shipyard’s Wikipedia entry says it was founded in 1884, but the first vessel built on the banks of the Kennebec River was launched over a hundred years earlier, and the iron foundry that was precursor to the shipyard was the biggest industrial employer in America on the eve of the Civil War (it had 4,500 employees).
So you could say folks in the Bath area have shipbuilding in their blood. Generation after generation has worked at the shipyard, and during much of that time the slogan “Bath Built is Best Built” was widely taken to be true in maritime circles. General Dynamics, which bought the yard 20 years ago, has invested billions of dollars in keeping Bath Iron Works on the cutting edge of shipbuilding technology (GD contributes to my think tank and is a consulting client).
Given its history and reputation, reports of delays at BIW in assembling the Navy’s Zumwalt destroyer are surprising. Traditionally, the shipyard would specialize in serial production of one or two warship designs, and work on getting the assembly process down to a science. Of course, the lead ship in a new class is always harder to build than the vessels that follow, because there is little prior experience to guide the various crafts engaged in assembling a new warship.
And Zumwalt – the DDG 1000 destroyer in naval nomenclature – is about as new as a warship can be. In fact, it is revolutionary. It was conceived to be a stealthy surface combatant whose guns could hit within 50 yards of targets 60 miles away, and its integrated electric power system could generate 80 megawatts of power — enough to drive not only the ship’s propellers and the on-board combat system, but also futuristic weapons like lasers and electromagnetic railguns. It was also a lot bigger than existing destroyers, displacing 16,000 tons (versus 9,000), and utilizing a wave-piercing hull design unlike anything the Navy had purchased in modern times.
A Navy factsheet captured just how ambitious the Zumwalt concept was with this description: “DDG 1000 will triple naval surface fires coverage as well as tripling capability against anti-ship cruise missiles. DDG 1000 has a 50-fold radar cross section reduction compared to current destroyers, improves strike group defense ten-fold and has ten times the operating area in shallow water regions against mines.”
Obviously, the Zumwalt was going to be a challenge for whatever shipyard got the job of building the lead ship. Recognizing the complexity of assembling such
a warship, the Navy’s Sea Systems Command decided it would be the integrator of the Zumwalt rather than the shipyard, and it would oversee management of contractors building key parts of the ship, such as the mission system made by Raytheon and the long-range guns made by BAE Systems.
Therein may lie the least-noticed contributor to the problems the ship subsequently encountered. The normal practice when buying major combat systems is to hire a prime contractor or “lead system integrator” that is responsible for managing all contractor inputs to the final product. That way, the government doesn’t have to maintain the internal expertise to deal with multiple suppliers on highly technical matters associated with ship outfitting and integration.
The Navy didn’t do that. It chose to deal directly with Bath Iron Works, Raytheon, BAE Systems, and Huntington Ingalls Industries, the builder of the warship’s composite deckhouse. This put the Navy in an unusual position, as a Government Accountability Office report noted last year: “As the integrator, the Navy is responsible for ensuring on-time delivery of products and bears the costs of schedule delays that affect another contractor.”
It is an open question as to whether the Navy had the skills and resources necessary to assume this role. The various setbacks and delays associated with assembly of the lead ship and two subsequent vessels in the class suggest it may not have. Of course, it didn’t help that the government decided to terminate the program after contracting for only three warships, and restart production of the legacy class of destroyers. That resulted in Bath gearing up for new production of an improved legacy warship before it had completed any of the three DDG 1000 vessels.
As Christopher Cavas observed in Defense News last month, assigning responsibility for the delays is “problematic” given the division of labor between the service and the contractors in managing the program. But past experience with putting the government in charge of integrating combat systems is uneven at best. For instance, the Air Force chose to be lead integrator on the B-1 bomber, and a subsequent RAND Corporation dissection of what happened found that military personnel lacked the experience or resources necessary to execute the role effectively.
Maybe the Navy is different, but common sense suggests that personnel not engaged in the day-to-day business of building ships may lack critical skills when put in charge of integrating the most sophisticated surface combatant in history. The service recently entertained the idea of being its own integrator on the replacement of the Navy-Marine Corps Intranet — the biggest intranet in the world – but then got cold feet when it began to grasp the difficulty of coordinating half a dozen different supplier teams.
With the same cast of characters now preparing to develop the even more complicated Ohio Replacement Program that will produce a successor to Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, it might be worthwhile for the Navy to consider what part its role as prime integrator on the Zumwalt destroyers played in slowing completion of the program. I’m not saying putting the Navy in charge of Zumwalt integration was a decisive factor, but if it contributed materially to shipbuilding delays, then the service might want to avoid a similar acquisition approach on its next class of submarines.