A naval vessel has always been a complex instrument of war. Whether a sail-powered ship-of-the-line, coal-fired dreadnaught, oil-burning battleship or a modern nuclear-powered submarine or aircraft carrier, they have been a challenge to build, operate and fight. In addition to the growing complexity — and cost — of power plants, combat suites and operating equipment, there are the additional challenges associated with running a carrier air wing, deploying aircraft and helicopters on large deck amphibs and most recently employing unmanned aircraft such as the Navy’s Fire Scout and new small tactical unmanned aircraft systems.
Because most of us have always viewed naval vessels as very complex systems of systems, it is perhaps hard to appreciate just how much more sophisticated and complex they have grown in recent decades. The move from analog to digital electronics has been a major force multiplier. So too has the broader IT revolution. Now it is not just the weapon systems, sensors and combat information centers that are digitized and interconnected but power plants and other machinery. Even lowly water pumps now have their own electronic sensors and controls. One reason for doing this is the Navy’s interest in reducing its long-term personnel costs through increased automation. The Navy is interested in moving to all-electric propulsion (now on the DDG-1000 and planned for the newest aircraft carriers and the future Flight III version of the DDG-51) in order to generate the power needed for the further explosion of IT-based systems as well as to provide the energy for such advanced capabilities as the Air and Missile Defense Radar, electrically-driven catapults and rail guns.
With increased investment in IT and networks comes additional cost, even though the net result is a ship that is both more cost-effective and able to operate across a broader spectrum of missions than its predecessors. The growth in signals generated by machinery control systems is a useful surrogate for overall complexity and sophistication. On the original CG-47 Ticonderoga-class Aegis cruiser, there were none. The first DDG-51s had 4,000 and the new DDG-1000 more than 30,000. Similarly, the older Wasp-class LHD assault ship (numbers 1-7) produced a little over 100 signals, the more recently-built LPD-17 generates around 6,700 and the newest Wasp-class LHD 8, almost 13,000. With all these sensors and control devices comes a massive increase in the requirements for cables and fiber optic lines, computers and, of course, power. These changes are in addition to ongoing improvements in combat systems such as that for the Aegis ballistic missile defense system or the Virginia-class submarine’s bow-mounted spherical and wide aperture lightweight fiber optic sonar arrays.
Building ships with lots of IT in them requires more man hours and costs more money. In addition, the lead or first ship in a class costs more than those that follow because of the lack of experience. When that lead ship also incorporates a lot of new technologies, some of which have not even been fully developed and tested when construction on the hull began, the problems can multiply and the costs escalate. For example, the new Ford-class carrier will have a new electronic power plant, advanced elevators and arresting gear, a state-of-the-art dual band radar and an electromagnetic launch system for aircraft. Much of this equipment is government-furnished and has to be integrated on the ship along with the thousands of sensors, processors and control devices. Because the Navy is building the Ford’s hull at the same time it is designing and testing many of the new technologies, there are lots of change orders which drive up the vessel’s final price.
Navy warships are complex and costly creations. Costs can be managed to some extent through the use of block purchases with limits on change orders. But modern warships will never come cheap.
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