Former Sub Designer Tells Naval Architects to Have Curiosity, Perseverance in Their Work

By Kelley Stirling

John Leadmon, a former submarine designer, spoke about the history and future of submarine design for the second Rear Adm. David W. Taylor Naval Architecture Lecture Series at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division, March 8, in West Bethesda, Maryland.

Leadmon was the director of submarine design and systems engineering for Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA 05U) from 1995-2007. Currently, he is a consultant to several organizations on strategic planning, program management, engineering and technology development of underwater vehicle design.

The new, monthly Taylor lectures are proving to be popular, and Leadmon’s talk was another standing-room only event. In February, Carderock Commanding Officer Capt. Mark Vandroff spoke about his experience as the former program manager for the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer (DDG 51) program.

“The goal of these lectures is to get people in that have historical experience; lessons learned,” said Jeff Hough, Carderock’s distinguished engineer for ship design and organizer of the Taylor lectures.

Leadmon started by describing what he thinks are the attributes of a submarine naval architect and engineer, with some of the obvious ones being a team player, and having attention to detail, technical rigor and a sense of urgency. But curiosity, perseverance and a good reputation are characteristics to strive for, as well, he said.

“I learned something new every day of my life working in submarine design and submarine naval architecture,” Leadmon said of being curious. He described perseverance as “a steady persistence in the course of action or purpose, especially in spite of difficulties, and there were plenty of them; obstacles, and there’s plenty of those; and discouragement by people who would say ‘You can’t do that.’ You hear all that, but you must persevere through it.”

During his career with NAVSEA, Leadmon led the technical aspects of the Virginia-class submarine program from design to build. He noted that prior to the Virginia class, the traditional spiral design process had been used for decades. While it was a successful iterative process that produced the Los Angeles and Seawolf classes of submarines, he said there were many disadvantages such as longer design times and greater levels of re-work, mostly due to the process stopping for review at the different levels of design.

“It had the throw-it-over-the-wall mentality,” Leadmon said, meaning once a level of the process was complete, it’s given to the next level without collaboration. “There was minimal participation by the people who ultimately do the manufacturing, and it’s difficult to keep the workload uniform over the time of the design because of the stops.”

When starting the Virginia-class submarine design, he said a question from a senior leader made him rethink the way they had done submarine design in the past. That question was, ‘How do other people do complicated things?’ Leadmon hadn’t been asked that question before, and the basic premise was instead of doing things the way they always had, find out if other people are doing it better or easier. So, he did, and they were. He came back with the seamless design process, which they called integrated product and process development, and used new terminology such as the engineering and specification development phase.

Leadmon said this new design process brings all the stakeholders in early, including contract personnel and builders, making it a much more collaborative event.

“It’s beginning with the end in mind,” Leadmon said of the new process. “We want to establish ownership with the producers as opposed to tossing it over the wall to them.”

One of the main things Leadmon wanted to convey to the naval architects in the room is that they have to continue to change with the times, especially given the rate of change. Thinking back to when submarine designers used slide rules and pencils, he noted that little changed between 1930 and 1985, but it did change slowly with the onset of nuclear-powered submarines. He said there has been significant change since 1985 with the development of different tools and technology, specifically computer-aided drawings and computations. He said he expects there to be revolutionary change into the future, and it will happen fast.

“When you talk to your shipbuilders and other people that will be involved in designing your future submarines, they talk about the digital transformation and the digital revolution, where everything is digital, all their tools and methodologies, including concept design,” Leadmon said.

Leadmon said that while the rate of change in the way submarines are designed is increasing, the timeline for the submarine design from concept to construction start also seems to be increasing. He said he thinks it’s the responsibility of the future designers to get a handle on that, especially with the rapid pace of technology development.

“It is up to you folks to change that,” Leadmon said, addressing the naval architects in the room. “If it can be done faster, you need to use your curiosity, your perseverance, and desire to be ‘known for something’ and figure out how to do that.”

Leadmon ended with further guidance for the up-and-coming designers of submarines.

“Take the initiative yourself. When someone tells you it can’t be done, find out why and make sure it still applies. If you don’t understand the technical details, go learn them. Surround yourself with people who are a lot smarter than you. Don’t stand around waiting for the future vision to come down from on high, go create it, and help those above you understand it and embrace it. When you see a hole, instead of complaining, go fill it.”

The next Taylor lecture is scheduled for April 12. The guest speaker is Bob Keane, formerly the director of ship design and systems engineering at NAVSEA, who will talk about the history of U.S. Navy surface ship design.