NAVSEA ship experts say history should inform the future in naval shipbuilding expansion

June 18, 2019 – Lessons learned from history helped focus the nation’s shipbuilding efforts moving into World War II and beyond, according to Dr. Norbert Doerry and Dr. Philip Koenig, both from Naval Sea Systems Command. The two men were the June speakers for the monthly Rear Adm. David Taylor Naval Architecture Lecture Series at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division, in West Bethesda, Maryland, on June 13.

The lecture, titled “Naval Shipbuilding Expansion: the World War II Surface Combatant Experience,” took the audience through four eras that the two speakers identified as being instrumental in the successes of the U.S. Navy expansion efforts during the second world war. Although World War II was the primary focus of the lecture, Koenig said it was equally important to discuss the years prior to have a better understanding of the U.S. Navy during and after World War I.

“They say you can learn a lot from failure,” said Koenig, director of NAVSEA’s Industrial and Economic Analysis Division. “So we want to look at the failed World War I industrial expansion, and then see what happened correctly in World War II.”

Koenig began with the World War I era, going up to 1922, followed by the treaty period from 1922-1936. After that was the pre-World War II era of 1936-1941 and finally World War II from 1941-1945, the latter of which was covered by Doerry, technical director of the NAVSEA Technology Office. According to Doerry, World War II was the last “industrial war” for the United States, but he said the current international landscape could possibly require the nation to be able to navigate a modern version of such.

“There’s nobody in the government who has experienced our last industrial war, and most of those people who have aren’t even alive now,” Doerry said. “We would be closer in tune to the World War I experience in terms of the people in leadership within the Navy and industrial practices.”

During the World War I, the Navy acquired 273 destroyers. Only 41 of those vessels made it to sea before the end of the war, with the rest being commissioned after the war. In the time between the first and second war, 105 of those ships were lost or scrapped, and the rest served during World War II, Koenig said.

At the time, the biggest challenges for the Navy were that preparations for the mass production of ships was not a priority because there was no precedent for World War I. Furthermore, the ship types that were actually needed in combat differed from what was built in the pre-war era. Following World War I, naval treaties slowed the production of sea vessels, but when the treaty restrictions ended and a second world war was on the horizon, the Navy became proactive and Congress authorized the construction of over 180 new destroyers. Because the shipbuilding process takes time, the Navy was composed mostly of ships built in the World War I and treaty eras going into the first year of World War II.

“Those World War I destroyers were the best destroyers in the world in 1916, but this is 1941,” Doerry said. “(Secretary of Defense) Donald Rumsfeld said in 2004, ‘You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.’”

By year three of World War II, at least a quarter of the Navy’s destroyer fleet consisted of more ships that were modern, although the biggest bulk of vessels were pre-war era ships that were still in construction during the first two years of the war. It was not until the final year of the war that the fraction of commissioned destroyers authorized between 1942 and 1943 approached half the destroyer fleet. However, in the seven-year span from the end of the pre-war era to the end of World War II, the number in gross tons of steel merchant ships produced per year skyrocketed from a nearly negligible amount to almost 13 million tons at its peak in 1943.

Most of the heavy losses of destroyers in the war happened in the first few years when the fleet was still mostly outdated ships and according to Doerry, there are very few exceptions where ships designed during the war entered prior to the end of fighting. He said that production of ships was not an easy feat, but a doable one with the right allocation of efforts.

“High-volume production will not happen without expansion in industrial capacity, both in the shipyards and in their supply chains,” Doerry said.

As the demand for faster-produced ships increases in today’s world, Doerry and Koenig stressed the importance of the Navy being able to adapt with the rapidly evolving technologies that go into shipbuilding. From design features to weapons and computerized systems, they said a slow response to a threat will put lives at risk. U.S. military conflicts since the Cold War have been primarily land fights, deemphasizing the nation’s need to expand the fleet. Since then, Doerry said the naval ship acquisition processes have changed and with the onset of this Great Power Competition, the Navy must ensure that the new approach to fleet expansion draws from the lessons of previous failures and successes.