Navy’s Slow Adoption of Digital Design Tools Hurting Shipbuilding Programs: GAO Report

The US Navy’s slow adoption of digital design tools is impeding its shipbuilding efforts, according to a new report submitted to Congress. 

The Government Accountability Office report comes as the Navy faces criticism for delays in its marquee shipbuilding programs. The GAO report notes: “The Navy’s recently acknowledged shortfalls with its in-house ship design capability further contribute to its timeliness challenges for design decision-making.”

Without action, the report says, the “Navy will be significantly challenged in its ability to rapidly confront evolving maritime threats with new ships that have the capabilities to combat those threats.”

To write the report, “Navy Shipbuilding: Increase Use of Leading Design Practices Could Improve Timeliness of Deliveries,” the GAO analyzed documentation and conducted interviews with Navy and commercial shipbuilders and military representatives. 

Benchmarking the Navy against commercial shipbuilders, the GAO found:

Big delays and unplanned costs

Navy ships can take years longer to deliver compared to commercial ships, complicating planning and budgeting. While commercial ships get delayed too, the length and cost overruns are multiple times longer and pricier with the Navy. 

Digital immaturity

Compared to commercial shipbuilders, the Navy has been notably slow adopting digital engineering technologies like 3D modeling and digital twins. 

Inefficient design and construction

The report emphasizes the Navy’s shortcomings compared to commercial shipbuilders who use iterative and flexible design practices.

Problematic requirements practices

The Navy sets requirements before achieving design stability, frequently leading to design changes, increased risk, and extended project timelines.  Conversely, the commercial sector’s digital maturity ensures faster and more predictable outcomes. 

The Government Accountability Office recommends several changes, including:

  • Adopting practices in line with commercial industry to manage and oversee shipbuilding investments.
  • Improving inh-ouse design capabilities to reduce reliance on outdated methods.
  • Invest in digital design tools to accelerate development cycles.
  • Streamline decision-making processes. 

Last month, the Navy released its new roadmap aimed at steering shipbuilding programs in the right direction. In the Navy Science and Technology Strategy, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro emphasizes the need to fast track integrations and improve collaboration across teams. 

The roadmap calls for integrating digital twins into wargaming to better explore defense systems before they’re ready for the physical world. 

Defense system digitalization has become a top priority. 

In late December 2023, the Department of Defense established a new policy framework regarding digital engineering in the development and sustainment of defense systems. DoD Instruction 5000.97 requires new programs to use detailed digital models as the primary method of communication instead of traditional documents. 

The digital engineering framework consists of digital models, digital twins, digital threads, and digital artifacts. The digital framework connects all phases of the system lifecycle, ensuring the development of technically accurate virtual systems and twins. 

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