Weapons systems cost too much, take too long to be designed and built, and then are often a nightmare to modernize and maintain. This is why the Obama Administration has made acquisition reform one of its top management priorities. However, the track record on such reform efforts is not good.
There is a major acquisition program that has broken with the “tradition” of slow and expensive work and proven that it is possible to build more with less. It is the Virginia-class submarine. The program delivered its last ship, the USS New Hampshire, $90 million under budget and eight months ahead of schedule. The construction times have been reduced from 100 months to around 60 and the amount of labor required, which translates directly into costs, has been reduced by 3.7 million man-hours per ship. The program has reduced the cost of a Virginia-class to $2 billion apiece, allowing the Navy to move from one to two ships a year. It is not surprising that the program demonstrates improved performance over time; this is the learning curve effect. What makes this program remarkable is that every submarine is built by two companies, General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman, in two different shipyards.
The Virginia-class program has employed a number of techniques, including advanced computer-aided design, modular construction techniques and production affordability initiatives, to improve performance while reducing costs. The GD-Northrop team pioneered the concept of spiral development. The program’s Design for Affordability (DFA) effort implemented over a hundred major design changes to reduce costs and improve production performance while not compromising any of the platform’s capabilities.
The Virginia-class program accomplished all these feats while also producing the world’s most advanced attack submarine. One of its unique features is the advanced photonic masts with multiple color cameras — capable of gathering visual, low-light and infrared images — and a laser range-finder. Unlike any previous class of submarines, the photonic masts eliminate the need for hull-penetrating periscopes, thereby allowing the Virginia-class to optimize the size and location of the control room. Another innovation is the highly automated fly-by-wire systems that allow improved ship controls and reduce all the hardware associated with hydraulic control systems. The Virginia has a new, larger lock-out chamber to improve its ability to deploy and recover Seal teams. Finally, the DFA process led to more recent platforms incorporating two large bow payload modules instead of the current 12 individual vertical launch tubes. These modules eliminate the restrictions on weapons and other payloads imposed by the standard 21-inch torpedo tube.
Finally, the program is tackling the challenge of reducing life-cycle costs. Using computer-aided design, the program has identified ways of conducting maintenance on or even replacing major ship components without the requirement to disassemble parts of the ship. Also, the Virginia-class’s unique command and control center may become a model for the Ohio-class SSBN replacement program. A common command and control suite would reduce the cost of logistic support for computers and other parts and also reduce the cost of training operators.
The U.S. Navy is desperately trying to find ways of making its current shipbuilding program affordable. Some observers have suggested reducing the yearly acquisition of Virginia-class submarines from two to one and using the nominal savings for less successful programs. This would be a catastrophic mistake. Rather than punishing its most successful shipbuilding program, the Navy needs to reinforce success. If anything, it needs to apply the lessons of the Virginia-class to its other major ship construction programs.
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