Creative Tension in Ship Construction

As the Coast Guard builds it’s Acquisitions Directorate it may be useful to consider some ship building history. It’s almost two years old now, but Norman Friedman reflected on the “creative tension” that once characterized both American and British naval ship building in the July 2008 issues of USNI proceedings.

“In the past, warship procurement was very much a triangular process, marked by what might be called creative tension. The points of the triangle were the operational navy, the professional in-house designers, and the programmers responsible for paying for the fleet. Typically the operational navy (Office of the Chief of Naval Operations or OPNAV in our Navy) thought of what it would like, without much feeling for the technological (or cost) implications of what it wanted. Its ideas were reflected in tentative (“single-sheet”) ship characteristics. The Preliminary Design section of Naval Sea Systems Command sketched a corresponding ship. In effect it estimated what the stated requirements would cost and whether they were practicable at all.

“OPNAV found out that this was not really what it wanted. If some requirement, such as for example radar cross-section, was reduced a bit, what would the impact on the ship be? How much did speed or endurance really cost? A bit later, issues of actual cost would be faced (the programmers naturally pushed for minimum unit costs). The result was the usual design compromise. In retrospect the results were often excellent, but at the time they were associated with tension and argument. Naturally, OPNAV almost always felt that the designers were too conservative; surely they could have done better. The designers, though, prided themselves on standing up for what they saw as reality.

“This process has been discarded. Typically OPNAV draws up requirements then puts them out to bid. Its first inkling of the implications of the requirements comes when the bids arrive. The assumption is that competition unleashes creativity that can solve virtually all problems but the fact is that physical reality limits creativity. Moreover, if problems occur once a contract has been written, it is extremely expensive to back track on any of the requirements. For that matter, if contract terms are badly written, the developers’ emphases may be quite unexpected. That is not always disastrous. The contract for the U.S. Spruance class rewarded silencing, so the ships were given submarine-style engine mounts, which made them exceptionally good ASW platforms, which had not been the intent in the first place. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine that OPNAV realized that the stealth requirements levied on what is now the Zumwalt class would equate to a displacement of 15,000 tons or more, or to a need for active stabilization of a hull that may not be inherently stable under all conditions.

“The bidders cannot possibly reply that the requirements are flawed. Under a free-enterprise system they must accept what they are offered or go out of business. If OPNAV or its British equivalent posits what amount to self-deceptive design requirements, there is no longer any independent voice, equivalent to the old in-house design organizations, to say so before the bidding process begins.”

I remember this creative tension when the 270s were being designed. It may have been that a very frugal Naval Engineer had too much influence on the design. It certainly could have been a few feet longer, but we did end up with useful ships that the Coast Guard could afford.

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