OPNAV found out that this was not really what it wanted. If some requirement, such as for example radar cross-section, was reduced a bit, what would the impact on the ship be? How much did speed or endurance really cost? A bit later, issues of actual cost would be faced (the programmers naturally pushed for minimum unit costs). The result was the usual design compromise. In retrospect the results were often excellent, but at the time they were associated with tension and argument. Naturally, OPNAV almost always felt that the designers were too conservative; surely they could have done better. The designers, though, prided themselves on standing up for what they saw as reality.
This process has been discarded. Typically OPNAV draws up requirements then puts them out to bid. Its first inkling of the implications of the requirements comes when the bids arrive. The assumption is that competition unleashes creativity that can solve virtually all problems but the fact is that physical reality limits creativity. Moreover, if problems occur once a contract has been written, it is extremely expensive to back track on any of the requirements. For that matter, if contract terms are badly written, the developers' emphases may be quite unexpected. That is not always disastrous. The contract for the U.S. Spruance class rewarded silencing, so the ships were given submarine-style engine mounts, which made them exceptionally good ASW platforms, which had not been the intent in the first place. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine that OPNAV realized that the stealth requirements levied on what is now the Zumwalt class would equate to a displacement of 15,000 tons or more, or to a need for active stabilization of a hull that may not be inherently stable under all conditions.
The bidders cannot possibly reply that the requirements are flawed. Under a free-enterprise system they must accept what they are offered or go out of business. If OPNAV or its British equivalent posits what amount to self-deceptive design requirements, there is no longer any independent voice, equivalent to the old in-house design organizations, to say so before the bidding process begins.
The U.S. Navy once used much the same process for aircraft design. The process would begin with an in-house sketch design conducted by Naval Air Systems Command (or its predecessor the Bureau of Aeronautics), as a test of whether the design requirements made sense. This sketch, unlike its warship equivalent, never became the basis for an actual aircraft design. It was in effect a sanity check. The result was an unusually good run of excellent aircraft, typically far more affordable than the Air Force's, which were bought under a process more like what the Navy currently uses. The Navy dropped its classic process when the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) decided in the 1990s to unify procurement practices across the services.
There was another factor in the change. The naval architects typically were concerned with hull and propulsion, not with the details of weapon systems. From the 1950s on, those details became increasingly dominant. The stress was probably greatest in surface warship design. It must have seemed that it would be better to turn the design process over to commercial organizations which were developing the new weapons, sensors, and command and control systems so as to unite them.
Back to the Old Ways?
It may be time to return to the earlier division of labor. Weapon and sensor development is stabilizing, so that a new ship design can reasonably be equipped from a fairly limited menu. If that is not done, if each new ship is treated as a totally new integrated system, there are likely to be serious consequences for training and logistics in a fleet operating numerous classes simultaneously. If that seems theoretical, remember that the Soviets followed a very different process, in which each generation of systems (for a new generation of ships) was developed anew, with little or no connection to previous systems. One consequence, revealed after the fall of the Soviet Union, was that different generations of ships—which might well operate together—could not exchange digital data. It never made much sense to reinvent the wheel constantly, and perhaps we ought to acknowledge that.
In effect OSD argued that the only way to contain costs was to constantly demand new technological solutions—a theory of continuous technological revolution. The reality seems to be that all technologies follow S-shaped curves. They run through periods of really fast change, then settle down. Once a technology has settled down, it is wasteful to keep pouring money into it. Shouldn't we be able to exploit this reality? Was the new hull form in the Zumwalt class really worthwhile? Shouldn't we make a greater effort to distinguish technologies into which it is worth putting resources? We cannot expect those who build our ships, aircraft, and weapons to answer such questions, because the answers may be very much against their rather natural desire to survive commercially. In-house experts will have their own prejudices, but they are likely to give more balanced advice.
Too, the war we are now fighting seems to require large numbers of relatively simple warships to enforce maritime presence and to interdict illicit traffic. The current process inherently encourages over-sophistication. It is, if anything, too cooperative—there is no one to say, "this can be done more simply," or "that level of performance will be rather expensive." There is a world of difference between the current British characterization of naval constructors who make the Ministry of Defence "an informed customer" and those who, in the past, could comment on what was wanted before it became a basis for bids. The informed customer can tell whether what is offered is practicable, but it ought to be better placed to decide whether a particular approach makes sense in the first place. To be fair, the ministry conducted very (some would say excessively) extensive studies before deciding what sort of carriers it wanted (orders have just been placed).
At least in theory, ship design should draw on operational experience: the responsible organization should span multiple classes. Putting out each class to bid circumvents that experience. Is it worthwhile to force the Navy to develop a mechanism for intensive review of the bidder's products? We do that for airplanes, but only because aircraft design is far too complex to be done in-house. Right now the leaders of the design teams offering ships to the U.S. Navy are former Navy preliminary designers. They personally embody the sort of experience the Navy built up. What happens when they are gone?
In Britain, the relationship between the in-house designers and the Royal Navy was fraught because many operators felt short-changed. The reason, that the Royal Navy was badly under-funded, could never really be addressed. Instead, successive British governments sought ways to build adequate warships on the cheap. This process culminated in the late 1970s when two British commercial naval architects promoted the "short fat ship" as a solution for surface combatants. The Royal Navy's in-house experts, including D. K. Brown, rejected it as the absurdity it was. A British government imbued with the idea that civil servants were too stuffy to welcome anything new rejected their advice. The in-house constructors won, but the victory was Pyrrhic; the official design organization lost its primacy. Are we about to find out what would have happened had the constructors lost that battle?