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It’s ASNE time again, when the US naval engineering community gets together to figure out how to better spend the scarce resource that is taxpayer money in the defense of the nation. I wrote last year about the dynamics of the US shipbuilding industry—mostly military, a stressful balance of military, political and economic aims—and much of that remains unchanged. We’re getting closer on a lot of critical issues, like making procurement decisions based on a lifecycle view that incorporates construction and operations trade-offs; improving public/private cooperation and collaboration; and, fundamentally, keeping available and operational a fleet of assets that might have to last 50 years. These are long-term problems that won’t be easy to fix.  What was most heartening at the American Society of Naval Engineers’ ASNE Day 2015 was progress we seem to be making towards more affordable, flexible solutions that address both military and industrial issues.

Keeping the fleet at operational availability
Did you know that the US Navy submits a report to Congress every year, detailing its view of what’s needed for the next 30 years? The plan lays out new construction objectives for the 300-odd ship fleet the Department of Defense believes it needs to meet defensive and offensive needs.

Thirty years ago was 1985: the Berlin Wall was still up, Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” topped the Billboard charts and NASA flew 9 Space Shuttle missions. Fast forward: no Berlin Wall but a storm of militant insurgencies, “”Uptown Funk!” by Mark Ronson/Bruno Mars is #1 and the Apple wristwatch the hot thing, while our space missions go nowhere. Even the best minds in the Navy would have been hard-pressed to reconcile the world of 1989 with today’s much harsher and technological reality. (No comment on Madonna vs. Bruno Mars.)

And there’s the problem: the world changes so quickly that Navy assets are hard-pressed to keep up. Electronics, weapons systems, propulsion efficiency, stealth technologies, cyber-warfare defenses … All require upgrades that are hard to predict and schedule across the fleet, many of which are 20-30 years old. If you’ve ever tried to retrofit cables behind a wall in your house, you understand the problem — now expand that to miles of cabling on an aircraft carrier, and you’ll start to see the scope of the problem. (Wifi? Cyber-warfare issues.)

According to the 2014 (FY2015) 30-year report, the current battle force count is 289 (out of a required 306 by 2020). That 306 ship fleet breaks down to 60 submarines, 11 aircraft carriers, 88 large multi-mission surface combatants, 52 small multi-role surface combatants, 33 amphibious landing ships, 29 combat logistics force ships and 33 support vessels. To reach the 306 ship total, the Navy says it needs to add between 5 and 13 ships per year, every year from now until 2044 to maintain readiness. (We need to keep adding because ships are also being taken out of service: 14 ships in FY15, 7 in FY16, 6 in FY17 and so on — and, of course, all of this presumes no ships are lost outside of this plan.)

According to the Congressional Research Service, the 2014 plan “projects that the fleet would experience a shortfall in amphibious ships from FY2015 through FY2017, a shortfall in small surface combatants from FY2015 through FY2027, and a shortfall in attack submarines from FY2025 through FY2034.” Why build and build and still fall short, you may ask? Because it takes a long time to spec out and design these ships, award their construction, source all of the equipment, etc. — and the Congressional budget process keeps stopping and starting these projects. Sequestration wreaks havoc on the Navy’s progress and gives very little impetus to commercial designers and shipyards to invest in technology, infrastructure and people in advance of receiving the specific order. (It creates other problems, too.)

The Navy says the 30 year plan would cost “an average of about $16.7 billion per year in constant FY2014 dollars to implement.” The CRS thinks it would be roughly 13% to 20% more expensive, depending on how you look at inflation.

That’s a lot of money. One way to stretch those dollars is to look at the fleet as a whole, rather than as a series of individual ship programs. I learned that the Navy operates something like 50 different types of ships and aircraft, each with a service life of 20 to 50 years. Every year, the Navy decides how to replace two-ish types/classes of ship or aircraft that need to be retired — the natural starting point is always to go for an exact replacement, but with the latest revs of everything to meet new challenges. What if, instead, we were to look at the fleet as a system and figure out how to keep it at peak operational efficiency? Across all assets, at all phases of their lifespans? That’s incredibly had, but it’s where the smart thinking is going and it can’t happen fast enough.

Flexing to stretch further
Another way to stretch those dollars is to look at more flexible designs. In a perfect world, ships could be reconfigured as needed, for military missions against an identified enemy (think Cold War) or point conflict as we see today, but also for rescue and humanitarian missions when that need arises. Flexibility only goes so far, of course: you can’t turn an aircraft carrier into a submarine. And that’s the first, key decision in trying to make a more flexible fleet: what type of flexibility is really needed, and what are the bounds of that flexibility?

At ASNE Day 2015 we learned that the US is looking closely at the Danish style of frigate, called StanFlex. This is a modular mission payload system, where payloads may be weapons systems or something else. One Admiral said that StanFlex allowed the Danish Navy to put legacy weapons systems on the new frigate rather than having to develop and build new systems, as is typically done. But perhaps more importantly, one could swap out a non-functional system for a working one in a couple of days, without having to take the ship out of service or wait for a significant overhaul, saving time in port and returning the ship to availability more quickly.

This flexibility could extend into many areas of vessel. For example, defining zones (“margins” in Navy-speak) would ensure access to critical components, making it easier to swap heating and cooling systems, for example, or isolate systems to make software upgrades possible. Small, incremental changes rather than big, extensive overhauls. Days rather than months or years.

This is a cultural shift in the way the Navy thinks and plans — but, from a PLM perspective, it’s something we can already relate to. It comes down to managing data: which system, which rev, which components on each specific hull number? What does it need, when does it need it? How to schedule that change (and perhaps one or two others) in a port that can handle it? What to do now, and what to defer until a schedule maintenance session? If we think of ships as systems and subsystems and map bills of material or process, we can do this now, technologically. But it’s very hard to do, operationally (and we don’t seem to have the starting data for a lot of the older ships), and that’s where things get sticky.

This requires a fundamental change in the way ships are designed. Naval engineers need to build this flexibility into the design from the very start of a program. One attendee showed me how the Littoral Combat Ship has zones into which specific types of modules can be inserted (weapons in these two, but not these four — think Lego block assemblies, rectangular vs square). Not everything is interchangeable but everything is interrelated — if you use too much power for Module 1, you won’t be able to operate Module 3 without adding a generator in Module 6. That becomes an operations geek’s dream: optimizing each hull for a specific mission, given all of the parameters of available modules, weight, power, etc. Complicated but also completely doable if you have as-built information for the ships and the details for each module.

Flexible ships was also the theme of this year’s Global Executive Shipbuilding Summit, a meeting sponsored by Siemens PLM that runs alongside ASNE Day, and will continue to be a focus for 2015 for the GSES VI working group. Uniformed military, civilian procurement officials, industry and a couple of ringers like me brainstormed approaches to the concept, from organizational change and strong leadership to approaches to costing out the alternatives. I’d say there were a hundred people in the room; 30 of them want to keep working on the problem and report back at next year’s ASNE Days and GSES — that’s how important this is.

One retired Navy guy said it best: Our ships are compromises. Between the Navy and Congress. Between the operations and maintenance teams and the engineers. Between the people who design systems that are too complicated and the sailors who have to operate them. We often take too long to get all of these stakeholders on board because the ships are so expensive no one wants to make a mistake. But our biggest problem is making all of these decisions in isolation, without looking at the whole: the industrial base is losing qualified people because the work isn’t steady enough. Talented procurement officers are leaving public service because sequestration makes them feel undervalued. We sometimes seem to have too many of one type of ship and not enough of another. We need to consider our force as a whole, look at our industrial capability in its entirety and get them all working together.

That’s a paraphrase. I couldn’t write fast enough to get it all down. His frustration, though, was very clear. A flexible ship, well-designed, affordable, and manned by competent crews, is the answer to a lot of what’s ailing US Navy. It’s good for commercial enterprise too, opening it up to smaller, more agile competitors at the system/module level. More on that in another post. But

Siemens PLM graciously covered some of the expenses associated with my participation at the event but did not in any way influence the content of this post.

Image is of the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine U.S.S. Rhode Island. Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Kimber, U.S. Navy via the Congressional Budget Office report on the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2015 Shipbuilding Plan.