Navy slow to adopt modern ship-designing tools, GAO finds

Navy slow to adopt modern ship-designing tools, GAO finds

One reason the U.S. Navy is behind on its shipbuilding goals is that it’s been slow to embrace the kinds of digital-design tools that have revolutionized the process of building commercial ships and military aircraft, the Government Accountability Office says in a new report.

Such tools—3-D modeling, digital twinning—have helped the Air Force fast-track the design, prototyping, and experimentation of new platforms.

“Navy shipbuilders’ use of these tools remains more limited overall than what we found for commercial builders,” the GAO wrote in “Navy Shipbuilding: Increased Use of Leading Design Practices Could Improve Timeliness of Deliveries,” which was released on Thursday.

It’s not a small issue. The United States will be heavily reliant on new ships to deter China from attacking Taiwan or other countries in the Pacific. But China right now has a larger Navy with more than 370 platforms and “is expected to grow to 395 ships by 2025 and 435 ships by 2030,” according to the Defense Department. The U.S. Navy, by comparison, expects to maintain its fleet of around 290 battle force ships through 2030. 

The report lays out instances where the shipbuilders and maintainers are using that digital twinning in the commercial world, such as Chevron, which uses digital twins to model the potential effects of grounding and other accidents and Damen, which uses it to verify new designs. Shipbuilders are also eager to employ new technologies like augmented reality and especially high-fidelity 3-D design rendering into practice according to the report. One big obstacle is the Navy. 

Specifically, the Navy is slow to provide vendor-furnished information, or VFI, data that’s necessary to feed digital models, GAO found. 

“Navy shipbuilders cited the timeliness of VFI receipt as an additional challenge for 3D modeling completion. Specifically, Navy shipbuilders told us that their ability to capitalize on the opportunities that design tools offer to expedite ship design maturity is predicated on the timely receipt of reliable VFI, which regularly is not achieved.”

Also, the data for many older ships is in the wrong format or is in 2-D. The shipbuilders cite “continuing use of 2D design information for legacy ship classes, such as Arleigh Burke destroyers and Virginia class submarines,” as a challenge. “These programs used less sophisticated digital design technologies or methods to document their ship design before the rise of 3D modeling capabilities.”

The shipbuilders also want the Navy to be more explicit in demanding the use of new digital tools in design and cite “one challenge to expanding their design tools is building the business case to support the investment required to acquire and implement them.”

These among seven other recommendations for the Navy and for lawmakers that GAO makes in its report. For its part, the Navy essentially concurred with the recommendation as well as most of the others, which include things like requirements validation.

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