130911-N-ZZ999-001It has been great to see Virginia Class sub builders race each other to drive down cost and schedule. But when these competitive pressures start to impact crew safety, we all need to step back, take a few deep breaths, and re-evaluate.

For the PCU North Dakota, the pressure to make schedule–and improve upon the Virginia Class build time record of 62 months–has been particularly acute. It was more than just a race for efficiencies. PCU North Dakota builders and designers were protecting future sub production–and their jobs–from Washington budget-cutters.

To a casual observer or Congressional policymaker, the North Dakota builders seemed to be doing pretty well. Throughout 2013, their performance helped keep the Virginia Class Submarine Program healthy, and won the Program a big new multi-year block buy–and a big slice of the Navy’s shrinking shipbuilding budget. But behind the scenes, the PCU North Dakota evidently suffered. And now, just a few days after the boat was set to embark upon Alpha Trials, the PCU North Dakota’s problems became public, with NAVSEA canceling the planned May Commissioning date, citing problems with the boat.

Media outlets are focused on the Commissioning delay. But that’s not the real story. The real story is that a stressed Program, facing performance and budget pressure, seems to have come darn close to sending an unready, unsafe boat to sea.

A race for efficiencies almost became a literal race to the bottom.

What Happened?

virginia_1News reports suggest that the Virginia Program is facing an unspecified set of design-related problems with the Flight III’s new bow (sporting the new large-diameter Virginia Payload Tubes and the new sonar, in particular) and some parts-quality-related issues throughout the first Flight III, the PCU North Dakota.

The problems have forced the cancellation of the planned May 2014 Commissioning–but what was really cancelled were the Alpha, or “builders” trials. You know, the ones that can lead to a Thresher-like incident.

Not good. From the news, it feels like an ugly grab-bag of issues came to a head just as the PCU North Dakota was undergoing builders trials on the 14th. That says to me that there was something materially unsound with the sub–something that would have had Admiral Rickover out hunting scalps. While it is good SUBSAFE worked, and somebody forced the trials to stop, the fact that the clock was allowed to run down to this point should make observers worry that something is out of step between production and safety.

Any way you slice this, it isn’t good. And with the Flight III serving as a foundation for a more significant design changes down the road, this is a tough break for the program.

A Black Eye For Sub Builders

101230-N-8423B-021This stands as a rare rebuff to General Dynamics Electric Boat. But before Huntington Ingalls executives start the gleeful process of using this event to chip away at General Dynamics’ dominance in undersea platforms, it might be worth remembering that the bow design change was a joint project, with design and build shared between the two companies.

It was all supposed to be a success. Twenty percent of the existing design was changed in the Flight III’s, and the changers were going to shave some $100 million bucks from the total sub cost. Stars and Stripes, in an excellent November 2013 article by Jennifer McDermott, even got Rear Adm. David C. Johnson, the program executive officer for submarines, on record in November, saying:

It shows how well Electric Boat and Newport News worked together on that, and it shows that we got the redesigns right because it did actually make the ship easier to build,” he said in an interview.

We shall see if the tight team can survive, or if it will self-destruct, just as the DDG-1000 teaming agreement did.

A Partnership In The Balance:

NNS-HIII’ve written about the sub workshare split before, and, given that HII Newport News is responsible for the stern, habitability and machinery spaces, torpedo room, sail and bow (Electric Boat–the sole Virginia Class prime–builds the engine room and control room), Newport News might be sweating some supplier issues right now.

Both yards work on the reactor plant and alternate on the final assembly, vessel test, outfit and delivery piece, so it could be that General Dynamics, charged with final assembly of the North Dakota, got stuck with some bad modules.

But material issues aside, Electric Boat apparently had a bit of trouble with the bow redesign, too. In the November article, Stars and Stripes got Kurt A. Hesch, EB’s vice president who manages the Virginia-class program, to make a revealing admission:

Historically, he said, EB has changed submarine designs to add capabilities, rather than to cut costs, and the first submarine with changes would take longer to build and would cost more. The challenge with the North Dakota, Hesch said, was “breaking that paradigm.”

In retrospect, that’s a cringe-worthy comment from an organization that normally runs a really tight PR ship. Just. Yikes.

Nobody in the Virginia Class Submarine Consortium is coming out of this a winner. Both loose. And it has a feel that somebody, somewhere took great pains to engineer the simultaneous revelation of faults with both of the two sub-builders, to help keep everybody sweet.

We’ll see how it goes.

You Can Only Squeeze So Much:

sub christeningTrouble in the Virginia Class production line was a somewhat foreseeable event. The constant drumbeat to build subs faster! For less! stops only when something in the system collapses–usually the only thing that turns things around is a catastrophic accident.

If the Virginia Program office and the head honchos running the General Dynamics Electric Boat/Huntington Ingalls Industries partnership were really foresighted, they’d have all long been busy deflecting narratives like this one articulated by Congressman Joe Courtney (D-Electric Boat) in November 2013:

EB previously delivered the USS Mississippi to the Navy in 62 months. Its shipbuilding teammate, Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, built the USS Minnesota in 63 months.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said EB’s performance is the most powerful argument for Congress’ continued support of the program.

“It just eclipses all of the potential obstacles to getting funding for two submarines a year, because it’s a program where its performance, not its hype, is demonstrating that it’s a really solid investment for the American taxpayer,” he said.

Hesch said EB must continue to improve on its past performance, especially now that the Defense Department budget is shrinking.

But, with all the competition between the two sub-building frenemies, I can’t help but wonder if there may be fear that if one company admits stress, the other will take full advantage of the situation.

We need to be mature, and drive awareness that, at some point, you can’t get more efficient without cutting corners. And in subs, that is almost always fatal.

When Did The Problems Start?

subonedebondeddetailPeople had to know there were problems with the PCU North Dakota. You don’t have a trials-delaying issue without a good number of folks knowing many, many months ahead of time that something was wrong.

So why didn’t this all come out? Why wasn’t it fixed? Well, I expect that, in 2013, a lot of people ran out the clock, keeping production and design problems under wraps or “in house”. For better or worse, it is standard practice for troubled Programs to employ a bit of legerdemain to keep everything negative about a Program hidden away until the budget is protected and anything related (i.e., the SSBN(X)) is safe.

Now, I speculate, but there may have been signs that something wasn’t going quite right at Electric Boat back in September 2013. That is when a solid Jeff Geiger–a former surface-ship builder who, against long odds, filled the GD Bath Ironworks yard–was, after a September announcement from General Dynamics, shifted to lead Electric Boat, replacing 40-yr veteran Kevin Poitras in November (all while GD turned to another 40-yr veteran, shipbuilding king Fred Harris, to run the rest of the business).

Things were obviously slipping. General Dynamics and the Navy were, back in November, publicly planning to deliver the North Dakota in January, or, at the latest, February. From Stars and Stripes:

If the tests at sea can be done before Christmas and there are no major issues, EB will deliver the North Dakota to the Navy in January after 59 months of construction, which would be the shortest construction period yet for a Virginia-class submarine.

A February delivery also would accomplish the goal for which EB has been striving, to cut the construction time for each submarine to 60 months. EB was not expected to reach that milestone until it built the 15th member of the class, the Colorado.

“The work of the more than a thousand shipyard craftsmen and engineers who built this boat has helped make the fleet stronger and our nation safer,” Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said in a statement. “Their dedication and expertise has the world’s most advanced submarine on track to deliver in early 2014, giving the North Dakota the shortest construction span of any Virginia-class submarine to date.”

131102-N-UM744-003Not good. For Ray Mabus to say that back in November…it suggests either the problems were either not known, not revealed to the Navy customer, or that the scope of the problems were not fully fed up the Navy’s command chain. None of those options mean anything good.

By January, the delivery date had quietly, and with little fanfare, slipped to April or May of 2014, making a May Commissioning even more unlikely.

But the Navy just kept plowing along, as if nothing was amiss. In January, a May 2014 Commissioning date was announced, and in March, the Navy dispatched Rear Admiral Richard Breckenridge to North Dakota to drum up enthusiasm for the May commissioning.

So why the dust-up now?  Obviously, trials dates had been quietly pushed back for months, with little or no public impact. Maybe pushing the boat right up to the brink of a builders trial was the only way to really identify quality and design issues. I dunno. It never should have gotten to this point.

Admiral Rickover’s Ghost must be livid.

UPDATE–ASN(RDA) Sean Stackley must be a tad irked, too.  Here’s his April 10 Testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee: “The next ship, North Dakota (SSN 784), fully encompasses the Design for Affordability efforts begun in 2005, which include a completely redesigned bow section, and is expected to have the shortest construction span for a VIRGINIA Class submarine.” For those of you keeping count, 62 months is the current record (USS Mississippi), and the North Dakota hit that in April.  It boggles my mind that Stackley would go on record suggesting that a sub would go through Builders Trials and Acceptance trials, AND be delivered in less than twenty days?  That’s….madness.

A Few Final Questions:

web_131102-N-SF554-046As I said before, it has been great to see Virginia Class sub builders race each other to drive down cost and schedule. But when these competitive pressures start to impact crew safety, we all need to step back, take a few deep breaths, and re-evaluate.

The Navy needs good subs, quickly. But a major accident would derail everything–and put at risk everything the Submarine community has done to become such an important–and well-funded–facet of the modern Navy.

If competitive pressure and a constant drive for efficiencies is endangering sailors or degrading the safeguards put in place to prevent another Thresher-like incident, then we have gone too far, and we must start exploring other approaches to reducing cost than those currently used by, say, Walmart.

I urge the Navy to study the design and construction of the PCU North Dakota, convening experts from outside the Virginia Program Office to help determine if, in this case, the race to become more efficient and protect the Program aversely impacted PCU North Dakota crew safety and sub quality.

If a quest for efficiency is threatening to undermine the submarine community’s longstanding focus on safety, then it is time to do some hard thinking about the way ahead.

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131028-O-ZZ999-103The LCS and DDG-1000 are both very different, and yet, they are also very similar–each sports controversial non-traditional hull-forms, minimal crews, no bridge wings, non-traditional hull materials, as-yet undeveloped hi-tech weapons and cost-growth. And while the LCS gets kicked around for these qualities/faults/weaknesses, the DDG-1000 always gets a pass. Every time.

It’s amazing. Even with something as mundane as a shift in the usual Christening ceremony, the LCS was beat up while the DDG-1000 sailed along, unperturbed.

Don’t believe me? Let’s take a closer look. The USS Independence (LCS-2), like the DDG-1000, is based on an innovative hullform–and neither are “slipped down the ways” like the ships of old–you either Christen on land or you Christen pier-side.

Both LCS-2 and the DDG-1000 were Christened in the water.

lcs_2_frontLCS-2 is a trimaran. Now, take a moment to think about the challenges of Christening a trimaran. It’s pretty hard to pull off if the ship is afloat. Not only is the tip of the central hull narrow and hard to reach, but, thanks to the trimaran shape, that bow stands well away from the pier.

And as somebody who has done it, let me tell ya, it’s a minor engineering feat to get an entire Christening party out there. And kind of pricey, too.

So, in the interest of saving the taxpayer a few bucks, LCS-2 defied tradition, and the bottle was smacked on the deck, by the main gun (see the photo below).

And it became a scandal.

081004-N-5549O-113Navy Times‘ Phil Ewing (who now works for Politico) gleefully treated the LCS-2 Christening to a full-on hit piece, with a story “LCS-2: Unusual Ship, Unusual Christening“.  The snark was wonderful…Here’s a snippet:

“This particular ceremony would be the equivalent of the minister or priest dunking the baby’s tummy in the christening font, or sprinkling the water there instead of on its head,” said naval expert A.D. Baker III, a former analyst in the Office of Naval Intelligence and editor of “Combat Fleets of the World.”

Baker, who helped oversee ship christenings when he worked for Navy Secretary John Lehman, said he never saw a champagne bottle broken on a ship in a position comparable to the one on Independence.

Amazing, no? After that…there was much NAVSEA clucking and hand-wringing–and, by all reports, outright fury in the higher ranks–and since then, by God, all subsequent Independence Class Christenings have been on the bow, taxpayers be damned.

140412-N-PM781-002Now, let’s turn to the DDG-1000, the mighty Zumwalt, which was Christened this weekend. Due to the innovative tumblehome hull-form, Bath Ironworks followed the LCS-2 example….the bottle was broken well aft, just in front of the big, boxy main gun (Look closely and you’ll notice the little “Z” in front of the gun).

But, like any good, well-behaved guests, nobody commented on the breach of naval tradition. Navy Times merely noted the bottle was smashed “near” the bow, and moved on, using the occasion to shill for the vessel, writing a glowing story that included these little bon mots:

Among the 15,000-ton warship’s cutting-edge features are a composite deckhouse with hidden radar and sensors and an angular shape that officials say will allow it to be confused for a small fishing boat on radars. It also sports wave-piercing hull designed to reduce the ship’s wake. It’s the first U.S. ship to use electric propulsion and produces enough power to one day support the futuristic electromagnetic rail gun, which will be tested at sea in 2016.

Inside, sailors will have more space to work and live because the Zumwalt will only require about half the crew of the current generation of destroyers. Meanwhile, fewer sailors will need to stand watch because of cameras and video monitors that show what’s going on outside.

zumwalt bottle smashSo…aside from the gentle passover of the christening location, notice how up has become down? The very qualities that are, right now, sinking the LCS are spun as DDG-1000 positives.

Let’s dig a little deeper:

Manning: DDG-1000 Sailors get more space because a crew that is, oh, barely twice the size of the LCS crew are being asked to operate a ship with a 5-times larger displacement?  And a far more complex battle-management task?

How is that going to work, exactly? When, pray tell, will they sleep?

Bridge Wings/Visibility: Notice, in the piece above, how naturally the author accepts the ship must rely on cameras to sail, since it–in part–doesn’t have bridge wings (To the DDG-1000′s credit, I really like the bridge layout and how the camera feeds will be integrated into it). To compare, sailors were so upset over LCS not having bridge wings (one LCS sailor told me, “I trust a Mark 1 eyeball over a !@$%ing camera”), they’ve back-fitted bridge wings on LCS-2–big Gucci ones too, with Big Eyes, an ashtray and more (see the photo below).

Radar signature be dammed, small-ship sailors have gotta have their bridge wings so they can survive, what? Mooring? And, yes, the lack of bridge wings got the LCS-disparaging Navy Times Treatment, too, in 2010:

Engineers and designers may like the sleek profile and low radar signature of a superstructure without bridge wings, but the design drives surface warfare-types crazy, said a retired cruiser commander who asked not to be identified because of an ongoing relationship with the Navy.

On paper, cameras and sensors seem like they’ll give the same information as human eyes and ears, but in practice, that seldom proves true especially when sensors replace a human.

“If someone falls over the side, how are you going to see them?” the former cruiser skipper asked, worrying that a sailor could be lost at sea if he went overboard in a blind spot between topside cameras.

And if mooring Independence is tricky with no bridge wings and only roll-down windows, mooring a Zumwalt-class destroyer could be even harder: All of its bridge windows are designed to stay sealed, to maintain the positive pressure inside the ship, the cruiser skipper said.

But that won’t last long, he said, because captains won’t stand for it.

`They’re going to say, `You mean, every time I come into port I’ve got to just sit there and be pushed onto the dock by tugs, and I’ve got no say in that? No way I’m going to disable the positive pressure and open the windows so I can see out.’

indy bridge wingsSurvivability and Hull Material: Oh, and then there’s the DDG-1000′s exquisitely expensive composite, balsa-wood core deckhouse. How durable and survivable will that actually be?  I mean, for all the yelling about aluminum in fires and LCS survivability (I won’t link, just do a search), I simply can’t wait to see how composite holds up to a good rocket-fuel fire. I hear the fumes are a killer. And balsa?  In seawater?  Yikes. (If interested, here’s a discussion on how hard it was to fight the composite-fueled B-2 fire–note the amount of water they needed to put it out–but it is also worth noting that the aircraft–in an epic engineering feat–has been totally repaired and is back in service)

But survivability aside, let’s put it this way–imagine if the LCS had a deckhouse that, for some reason, was found to be unsuitable, and was replaced with a steel model–which, in turn, required the shutdown of an entire yard…It happened with DDG-1003. If that happened to LCS, why, there’d be a huge amount of screaming and no more LCS. Clear and simple. The program would be done.

arsenal_72Price: Senator John McCain, in his regular “get off my lawn” treatment of the LCS, is quick to remind everyone that the first, off-the-cuff estimate of the LCS cost was $250 Million. Who recalls that the original estimate of the arsenal ship was $450 million as a fixed, sailaway cost? But that’s been lost as the program re-jiggered and re-baselined itself into a $3-billion dollar colossus. By the time DDG-1002 is Christened, Bath will be crowing to Congress about how successful it has been in (cough) controlling cost.

To conclude, the DDG-1000 program is getting pass after pass after pass. I don’t know why–perhaps this is the consequence of having a program big enough to keep everybody happy–mixing old tech and new, spreading the wealth between several different big contractors. And, also, let’s not discount that the DDG-1000 has had an epic birthing process that spans from, oh, the Cold War-era, battleship-replacement arsenal ship of old.

To the DDG-1000′s credit, the program has gone through the PR grist-mill. I mean, as a program, it was canceled so many times, the basic concept became something of an infamous joke, one of those zombie ideas that just wouldn’t die. If the Marines weren’t screaming for a Zumwalt-esque ship as a fire-support platform, the missile defense folks were yelling for it. It became the ship of dreams, with a little bit for everybody, transformers and old-school alike (while the LCS–like any small warship–became an exercise in compromise).

The sense of relief that this program is underway is both generational and palpable.

But many of the problems we have already identified with the LCS will also impact the DDG-1000. And it is high time we started thinking about them. We better, because, if I know the new General Dynamics chief shipbuilding honcho, we’ll be building a heck of a lot more of ‘em (oh, and you think we’re only building three? Riiiight). But at $3 Billion a pop, the Navy and our sailors might benefit if the press gave DDG-1000 a little more than “shock, awe and fawning” media scrutiny.

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