Designing Warships for Sailors


By Vice Adm. Richard Hunt, USN Ret.

The US Navy is at the beginning of designing and building its future surface combatant force. This is more than simply replacing old ships with new ones, more than just fielding platforms with upgraded sensors and weapons. It is an opportunity to introduce proven, industry-best practices to create a foundation for sailors to excel.

In designing the next surface combatant, the Navy must always keep warfighting first, but also consider total-ownership cost savings, maintainability, and human-factors engineering to ensure sustainable operational effectiveness and safety. Additionally, new ships must be ready to operate in today’s environment of cyber threats. Warfighting relevance will depend on the ability to fight through strong cyber attacks.

Starting with the future frigate (FFG(X)) design, the Navy must deliver a much different state-of-the-art ship — one that is optimized for sailors, providing highly capable for combat power while also having the margin and adaptability to remain relevant in an era of rapid technological change. Taking full advantage of the latest advances in mechanical, electrical, computer systems, and production techniques is essential.

Future ships must be flexible with hybrid engineering plants, better safety features, quality-of-life habitability improvements, and significant improvement in maintainability utilizing condition-based maintenance. Failure to do so will yield ships with reduced combat capability, increased life-cycle costs, and shorter than useful service lives.

Introducing new ship designs always creates uncertainty and fear of change. To maintain our fighting edge, measured risk must be taken. Innovative change, especially that which has been operationally demonstrated in other applications, should be encouraged. 

Ultimately, sailors will embrace, and actually expect, new state-of-the-art capabilities across all systems in a new class of ship. With this in mind, in the designing and building of future surface combatants, the Navy should adhere to four innovative imperatives.

Warfighting Readiness

Warfighting readiness is dependent on the material condition of our equipment.  This is the basis for effective training and operational execution. There has always been a struggle to achieve the proper balance between operational requirements and material readiness. The Navy must assume that future ship operational tempo will be as high, if not higher, that it is today.

High-tempo operations necessitate that upfront design considerations address maintainability, arrangement and density of equipment, effective utilization of sailors’ time, and total-ownership cost management. Historically, these areas have been undervalued in US warship design. They are, however, just as critical to warfighting readiness as high-end weapons themselves. This is an area we must address now to ensure readiness, today and tomorrow.

Human-Factors Engineering: Accounting for, and optimizing, equipment arrangement and density will maximize ease of maintenance and operations, repairs, and upgrades. Removal routes for equipment and minimizing interferences greatly reduce cost and time. Designing for maintainability is a key factor for sustaining an effective, combat ready force.

Condition-Based Maintenance (CBM): The Navy is long overdue in revising its approach to maintenance and taking advantage of current technology. It needs to move beyond the current planned-maintenance system, which remains basically unchanged since being introduced in the 1970s. Little has been done to take advantage of today’s sophisticated embedded component-level sensors in our equipment. This can provide real-time, system-based condition monitoring and allow analytics-driven, predicted-maintenance requirement management directly to shipboard   sailors. Artificial-intelligence (AI)-supported CBM reduces both   sailors’ maintenance timeand associated costs. CBM is successfully used around the world to eliminate unnecessary maintenance, extend equipment service life, and streamline maintenance procedures.

Moving forward with a CBM-capability for FFG(x) is a low-risk, high-payoff addition. Future ships must be built employing CBM with the necessary sensors embedded from the beginning and supported by an AI-based management system. The resulting reduction in manpower demands will generate immediate savings.  This capability can, and must, provide information directly to our warfighting   sailors at sea to allow them to dynamically conduct maintenance to optimize operational readiness.

Intermediate/Depot Level Maintenance Scheduling: Data developed from CBM will provide insight to support intermediate and depot level maintenance availabilities and timely inclusion into work packages. Understanding overall systems performance and material condition greatly reduces discovery during the availability itself. Start and completion dates for availabilities will be more accurate than they currently are, which is very helpful in aligning availabilities with training and operational schedules.

The technology exists today to realize significant improvements in operational availability, real-time equipment readiness status, and reduced workload on the ship’s crew. CBM must be a high priority in designing future ships—it will be a game changer for the surface warfare community.

Margin for Adaptability

The world is changing more rapidly than ever, making it more difficult to anticipate capabilities needed for the future. Instead of trying to predict today, what Navy ships will need in ten to twenty years, the Navy must design platforms that are capable of adapting to unknown future requirements, with the margin for growth to maintain relevance. This can be done with a thoughtful holistic systems approach.

The use of “parent designs” as the starting point for the FFG(X) development provides great insight to best apply margin requirements to the most important areas. Understanding the “parent design” capabilities and limitations allows data-supported trades for assigning margin in areas to deliver enhanced lethality, survivability, and safety throughout the life of the ship.

Hybrid-Engineering Plant Margin and Flexibility: Historically, upgrading ships with more capable weapons, sensors and new systems has placed increased electrical power demands on ship engineering plants. To properly deal with this, new ships must be sized with sufficient electrical-power generation capabilityand flexibility to meet today’s and tomorrow’s needs.

Hybrid-engineering plants allow energy efficient diesel-power generation for propulsion at normal steaming speeds while concurrently providing electrical power to sensors, weapons, and ship’s service requirements.  Fuel consumption is optimized greatly improving range and on-station time for the ship. This is especially important for independent missions that frigates perform. Fuel burn rates at 2–3 percent per day level are achievable using speeds of 10–12 knots. The diesel-electric configuration is also extremely quiet, contributing greatly to antisubmarine warfare capability.  Increased demands for speed or electrical power can easily be achieved by bringing the gas-turbine engine on line.

Ease in prime-mover upgrades during future blocks of ship construction should also be considered in new ship designs. Properly sizing electrical propulsion motors allow flexibility in the future to draw additional electrical power from the gas turbine for use in the ship’s electrical grid. Space for larger diesel engines providing opportunity for block upgrades in ship construction with increased power capacity should also be considered in new ship designs.

Fuel efficiency, acoustic signature reduction, power flexibility and ease in increasing future capacity are a must in ensuring adaptability and continued relevance for our ships. On-station fuel consumption rates should be considered in addition to traditional speed and range requirements.

Directed Energy: Future mission requirements will drive the Navy toward employing directed-energy weapons, such as lasers, high-power microwave, electromagnetic rail guns, and active electronic-warfare capability. Each will require a significant increase in power. Engineering-plant flexibility and capacity, addressed above, are essential to meeting this demand.Beyond simply having electrical margin, there is the need to account for power conditioning, cooling, and energy storage to provide necessary firing rates. Space, located properly, is necessary for these functions and the associated fire control. The size, weight, performance, and cost (SWaP-C) for this space must be a design consideration from the conceptual phase to minimize installation time and cost. It should be included as a future adaptability requirement.

Unmanned Systems: Unmanned systems, including command-and-control and logistical support, are another rapidly evolving capability. Transporting, launching, and recovering smaller unmanned systems must be accounted for in the conceptual design phase. Control and interaction with both ship-launched and larger self-deploying vehicles will require dedicated command-and-control space for mission planning and execution, critical for supporting the Navy vision for Distributed Maritime Operations.

Design for Sailors

Quality of Life and Habitability: Today’s sailors have an expectation of high quality of life on board ships. This directly affects the Navy’s ability to recruit, and retain, its most important asset—people. A new ship class presents the opportunity to greatly improve habitability standards for   sailors. Outdated 30-person bunkroom accommodations can be redesigned to stateroom standards to include toilet and shower facilities. Four- and six-person rooms provide greater flexibility to address mixed-gender crewing and can easily adapt to changes in that mix.

Additionally, the noise and disruption generated due to work schedules and watch turnover in traditional berthing areas can be eliminated. Improved quality-of-life results in greater rest and better sleep, improving operational effectiveness. Fatigue was identified as a key factor in recent mishaps.

The opportunity to improve standard-of-living conditions on board new ships is here. It is easy and close to cost neutral to make these changes.  Most importantly, it is the right thing to do for today’s   sailors.

Bridge Safety: Environment Drives Performance. Beyond better training, well-rested watch teams, and operational equipment — the surface navy must fix the fundamental design of ship’s bridges. The physical design and equipment layout of spaces in which ship’s watch teams operate greatly determines how the team functions. Human-factors engineering has been an essential part of naval aviation and submarine design. Unfortunately, the surface warfare community has not demanded the same level of focus in its surface combatant designs. While this applies to all functional operational areas on board Navy ships, none is more important for the overall safety of the ship than the bridge.

The design of a ship’s bridge is a key factor in the performance of the bridge-watch team. The position of the equipment, availability and presentation of essential information, and visibility and degree of openness all contribute to bridge-team performance. A well-designed bridge provides for excellent visibility to the horizon around the ship. Physical obstructions, including equipment, must not block visibility. Information should be provided through an integrated-bridge system that allows operators to see the information they need without driving them to take their focus away from watching the sea and maintaining situational awareness. Flat-screen displays positioned slightly below the visible horizon and configured to optimize information for the watchstanders are essential. This yields a “heads-up display”-like environment in which to operate.

Current Navy bridge designs, including those of Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, obstruct watchstander visibility. Radar consoles are bulky and block the view of the sea. Pedestal displays drive watchstanders to look down, not out. Complicated electronics with little configuration control can cause confusion for   sailors. Bridges are also often crowded, contributing to the difficulty of movement and visibility of the officer-of-the-deck and conning officer.

The Navy has been conflicted in the design of bridges in the past. Bridges were designed to be tighter with smaller windows to increase personnel protection. Displays and consoles were then added to bridges, responding to sailors’ growing dependence on electronics. This resulted in sub-optimizing navigation and seamanship skills and reduced sailors’ ability to perceive inconsistencies when there were problems with the electronic information. This will only become a bigger problem in the future with the increasing cyber threat.

The bridge design must enhance a culture of getting “eyes on the water” — observing the environment and being aware of the position and movement of other ships in the vicinity, all while incorporating information displays that support the bridge team, not distract it. The Navy must break the habit of sailors watching bridge consoles at the expense of situational awareness developed by seaman’s eye. A good bridge facilitates the sailor’s ability to “See the Sea.” We must get this right.

Cyber Resilience 

Future warfighting will start, and possibly end, in the cyber domain. This is an area of increasing importance to warfighting. Offensive cyber capabilities continue to change and advance.  It is absolutely essential to account for this threat as we design our future ships.

Efforts to ensure cyber resilience are key to a ship’s ability to fight, survive, and defeat our adversaries.

While we are increasing our efforts to improve cyber capabilities, we must recognize this is an area evolving faster than the time it takes to build a new ship. It is therefore critical to approach our cyber defense by ensuring the foundation for resilience is solid and is viewed as integral with the operational capabilities throughout the ship. A robust and adaptive architecture must be put in place which can be upgraded by software. The supply chain must be ensured, pre-delivery testing validated, and executable plans to continue assessment throughout the ship’s life cycle put in place.

There is natural resistance to sufficiently address the cyber threat.  It is a new area not well understood by the operators. Program managers on both the acquisition and industry side are concerned about cost and impact on delivery schedules it can cause. It is difficult to establish criteria that is enduring. Warfighters must view cyber resilience on par with kinetic attack and demand the same level of rigor in ship survivability design. A solid cyber resilience foundation must be delivered and demonstrate its ability to detect and mitigate attacks. This may be the most understated area in FFG(X) requirements and could easily prove to be the most important. 

Warfighter focus here is critical.

Keep Innovating and Adapting

Innovation is core to the US Navy’s advantage over its adversaries. Innovate–adapt–execute has been key to its success for many decades. However, in the past decade, and perhaps longer, the Navy has shifted much of the risk from the acquisition community to the backs of the warfighters. Cost and schedule have become more important than best value. At times, the bar was lowered to minimize risk and ensure cost and schedule were achieved.

At the same time, U.S. adversaries are moving full-speed ahead and are now surpassing Navy warfighting capabilities in critical areas. The Navy must not let institutional resistance through the ranks minimize the opportunity to regain the high ground with the FFG(X) program and other future combatants. Thoughtful decision-making, and follow-up, is needed by Navy leaders to provide clear direction addressing warfighter needs to best balance programmatic risk, capabilities, and costs.

The areas addressed above have innovative, but proven, operational solutions which the surface warfare community must look at critically. Ensuring we deliver essential, uncompromised warfighting capability today while designing to easily adapt to evolving future needs is an imperative. Leaders must understand art of the possible and demand what is needed to ensure the US Navy remains the best, most capable Navy in the world.

This is the beginning of the Surface Navy of the future. Let’s boldly execute!

Vice Adm. Richard Hunt, USN Ret., is the president of Fincantieri Marinetti Marine and while on active duty served as the commander of Naval Surface Forces and director of the Navy Staff. He is also the president of the Surface Navy Association.

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