mm359: The Navy’s ferry tale — unhappy ever after

MUDGE’s Musings

The U.S. Navy has long been a favorite subject for yr (justifiably) humble svt, long before he became your svt, quite long before.

The elemental battles of men against the implacably overwhelming forces of nature, while simultaneously battling to the death a human enemy, has always captured the imagination.

Lord Nelson at Trafalgar; Monitor going where no ship had gone before (thus tweaking our simultaneous lifelong interest in the history of technology ); Morison’s epic of the U.S. Navy in the four years of its Second World War: all these read as a kid, reread as an adult, and by the by, picked up by my older son, perhaps pointing him toward his own Navy career.

Now, that’s a cautionary tale! Parents! Be careful what reading material you leave around for your kids to find! Or, maybe, turn off the TV and read a book or two — you are influential beyond your ken.

Faithful reader might recall a couple of recent posts with the Navy as the theme (here and here).

In these unfortunate times of general governmental ineptitude, cultivated by an administration that consistently over-controls what should be left alone (found any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq yet?), and leaves alone too many negligible details (such as: armor for Humvee personnel carriers!), why should the Navy be left out?


Lesson on How Not to Build a Navy Ship

By PHILIP TAUBMAN | Published: April 25, 2008

With the crack of a Champagne bottle against its bow, the newly minted Navy warship, bedecked with bunting, slid sideways into the Menominee River in Wisconsin with a titanic splash.

Moments before the launching on Sept. 23, 2006, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chief of naval operations, told the festive crowd of shipbuilders, politicians and Navy brass assembled at the Marinette Marine shipyard, “Just a little more than three years ago, she was just an idea; now Freedom stands before us.”

Not quite. The ship — the first of a new class of versatile, high-speed combat vessels designed to operate in coastal waters — was indeed bobbing in the river, just four months after the promised launching date. But it was far from finished. In fact, the ship floats there still, work continuing day and night.

A project heralded as the dawning of an innovative, low-cost era in Navy shipbuilding has turned into a case study of how not to build a combat ship. The bill for the ship, being built by Lockheed Martin, has soared to $531 million, more than double the original, and by some calculations could be $100 million more. With an alternate General Dynamics prototype similarly struggling at an Alabama shipyard, the Navy last year temporarily suspended the entire program.

This isn’t $600 hammers (read all about that myth here). Anyway, we conspiracy theorists always felt that the explanation for those gold-plated hammers was more on the order of, Hammer: $4; Operations we want to fund off the books: $596.

Nope, this is just flat out mismanagement on the government’s all too typical $billion scale.

Lockheed Martin is demonstrating a most typical fallacy of the world of business. We’re expert defense contractors: we can build anything. You’ve got funds left after buying our airplanes? Sure, we can build new-fangled littoral warships; piece of cake! And we’ll use the COTS —Commercial Off The Shelf– concept so in vogue during the less is more Rumsfeld days, rather than design so expensively from scratch.

A most typical fallacy of the world of business. Many long years ago, in one of many former lives, I toiled in the small family business my father established while I was a teenager; in fact his business was my first high school summer job.

Employing just a few sales people and a tiny support staff (me and the bookkeeper), the marketing organization never grossed more than $2-3million a year, at a broker’s margins. It supported us but hardly made us rich. But my dad was a really great salesman, as is my younger brother who worked with us.

A weakness of great sales people: it’s very easy to sell them.

One day my dad heard from the general manager at a longtime small customer, a chemical manufacturer of drain cleaners and polishes. The owner had died, the business was up for auction. You’re a smart businessman, why not buy it and run it out of the extra space in the large garage behind your office?

So my very smart Dad did buy the business, brought in my very sharp sister-in-law to help run it; later my mother, equally sharp but in different ways, replaced her when she retired to have my niece. The fast-talking general manager of the place, the persuader, split promptly for points unknown. Dad bought: a couple of locally known brand names, a pretty good formula for a cleaning product of a type that nobody buys any more, an alcoholic plant manager, and trouble.

We knew how to sell packaging for products. Didn’t know enough, as it turned out, about manufacturing those products cost-effectively; marketing consumer products in a time when big manufacturers were beginning to have to buy shelf space from big retailers; managing factory workers with sordid private lives (alcoholism the least of the issues).

The lesson, Mr. Lockheed Martin: an expertise in business does not automatically make you an expert in ALL business. Brilliance in warplane design and manufacture may NOT be the qualification required to design and build on a fixed price contract a new class of warships, designed for the asymmetric battle conditions of the 21st Century, where a small motor boat put a destroyer out of commission for years, killing many and maiming more.

Soon after the Navy committed to the project, and Lockheed Martin brought in partners who might actually know how to build marine craft, the trouble began. Lockheed based their design on a new class of very fast commercial ferries, going for speed, maneuverability, the critical ability to work effectively in shallow waters (to respond to the need for an effective tool to conduct littoral warfare, a foundation of the 21st Century Navy’s deep thinkers), and a commercial size crew.

But the Navy began to realize that commercial craft might not meet its needs, trivial matters such as weathering “perfect storms” and surviving battle damage.

The underlying principle behind the decision, Admiral Sullivan said, was that the new ships had to be able to “hang tough in a storm and take some battle damage and still survive long enough” for the crew to be rescued.

A military expert said the Navy had badly miscalculated.

“They were eager to take advantage of commercial practices and the lower cost of buying off the shelf, but they did a lousy job of understanding the war-fighting requirements,” said the military expert, who asked not be named because he was involved with the program. “It was like, ‘You mean you want to put wheels on that car?’ ”

Adm. Gary Roughead, the current chief of naval operations, said: “We had thought that the commercial variant would not be that far away from what we needed. I’ll tell you, that was underestimated.”

The NYTimes story is lengthy, but will reward the careful reader with indigestion.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Lesson on How Not to Build a Navy Ship – New York Times

Maybe I’m being too hard on Lockheed Martin, treading in over their heads, as it were. Turns out that one of Lockheed Martin’s big competitors, General Dynamics, which if memory serves, might know a thing or two about building ships, is in the same troubled waters so to speak with their competing project.

Gotta hand it to the Navy. Send two contractors off on a wild goose chase. Why should we be surprised that they both came up with wild geese (nice to look at, if not to stand under, but hardly warships!), instead of competent military equipment?

It’s it for now. Thanks,


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3 Responses to mm359: The Navy’s ferry tale — unhappy ever after

  1. […] a history of technology guy; I even alluded very briefly to that a couple of posts ago (featuring one of yr (justifiably) humble svt’s favorite headlines, if I may be so […]

  2. […]   mm359: The Navy’s ferry tale — unhappy ever after […]

  3. седельные тягачи вольво…

    […]mm359: The Navy’s ferry tale — unhappy ever after « Left-handed Complement[…]…

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