Built in Sub Time

The scene is a familiar one: a sweat-drenched captain draped over a periscope scans the sea above. The scene is also obsolete: new design principles, new construction practices, and new technology make submarines faster, smarter, and better.

“This is a computer simulation of what would happen to the command center if a depth charge exploded in close proximity to the sub,” says Fred Harris, 55, VP of programs at Electric Boat Corp.(EB), the primary contractor that is designing and constructing the U.S. Navy’s new nuclear fast-attack submarine. On a giant screen at the front of the room at EB’s Connecticut headquarters, the sub’s 250-ton command center gives a nightmarish lurch as it begins to rock back and forth. “It’s not the explosion that kills you,” Harris explains. “It’s the shock wave. In this case, the ship is whipsawing around, experiencing 100 Gs of force. But inside these structures, the equipment and the people feel only 15 Gs maximum — about what a PC experiences during shipping.”


Imagine a sub that is practically as upgradable as a desktop computer: a sub with joysticks, instead of steering wheels; with high-tech photonics masts, instead of mirror-and-lens periscopes; with a central-information hub, instead of disparate sonar, weapons, and radio-control rooms; and with touch-screen stations that give everyone in the command center access to information from all systems, interchangeably. Imagine a sub where the infrastructure is designed to support better, faster, group decision making by maximizing the flow of onboard information and by offering the captain and the crew the right data at the right time.

If everything goes according to schedule, the Navy will have such a sub — dubbed the Virginia — come 2004. The Navy has contracted with EB, the General Dynamics subsidiary that builds nuclear-powered subs, to produce a total of four Virginia-class subs, two of which have been authorized by Congress and are now under construction. At a projected cost of $1.7 billion apiece — plus additional research-and-development expenses — these machines don’t come cheap. Yet even in the world of government contractors and cost overruns, new-economy principles steer the ship. In fact, they do much more than steer it. They design it, manufacture it, maintain it, and will ultimately disassemble it. Says Harris: “We not only changed the ship itself, but we also changed the philosophy of how we go about designing and building the ship.”

Thinking Outside the Tube

A submarine is made up of tens of millions of components. In the case of the Virginia class — the very first submarine to be designed entirely by computer — every nut, bolt, valve, and mount has been modeled virtually. There’s even a virtual sailor named Jack, who changes color if you try to cram one of his hands into a too-tight workspace.

Twice a week, EB ships a backup of the mammoth database — a couple of terabytes big — to Iron Mountain, a high-security storage facility in Rhode Island. “The database is the jewel,” says Harris. For him, the database represents a revolution not only in technology but also in the way that work is conceived and organized.

In the past, the Navy used what were conventional Industrial Age techniques: Engineers would use pencil, paper, and wood models to design submarines and then “throw the plans over the wall” to the shipbuilder. The shipbuilder would then execute the plans, parceling them out according to department — electrical, piping, air conditioning, and so on. Each department would install its system through the length of the tube. If the shipbuilder needed to alter the ship’s design even minutely, that change had to go through a laborious approval process. No one who actually worked on the boat day-to-day had any authority over its design.

The Virginia class, on the other hand, reflects the best practices of the Information Age: It is being created by the people who get their hands dirty — the shipyard workers, the sailors, the maintenance workers, the commanding officers. “Bringing the stakeholders in at the beginning may be time-consuming, but it has a profound impact on the solution,” says Tim Smith, 47, the original design manager for the Virginia class. “That way, you get it right from the beginning, and you avoid mistakes late in the game. It may take more time to develop the correct design solution by committee, but the end result is that you won’t have a lot of change.”


Ideas on Board

The genesis of the Virginia class came about in the early 1990s, when a half-dozen Navy program managers and engineers, together with EB, decided to revamp the way that submarines were built. At the time, Boeing was pioneering computer-assisted design and design-build processes with its 777 airplane. The Navy decided to model itself after that program, as well as after similar programs at Caterpillar, Chrysler, and Northrop Grumman.

At EB’s suggestion, the Navy agreed to relinquish control of the design in favor of a more collaborative process. EB then reconstituted its departmental structure into 11 cross-functional teams, each one corresponding to a vertical slice of the submarine: stern, engine room, reactor compartment, bow, and so on. Each team included piping experts, electricians, engineers, navy engineers, waterfront supervisors, key vendors and suppliers, and officers. Taking a lesson from Boeing’s inclusion of flight crews on the 777’s design-build teams, the Navy and EB made the fleet — those who drive, build, and maintain the ship — part of each team. The old model of leadership gave way to the new model — one based on collaboration, dialogue, and collective responsibility.

Information gathering and participation were top priorities. In 1992, before the Virginia class even had a name, Captain Paul Sullivan, then cost, producibility, and COEA (Cost Operations Effectiveness Analysis) team leader, started what came to be known as the Good Ideas Database. Working with EB, he sent out a call for ideas to the entire submarine fleet. “We collected 1,200 ideas in all,” says Sullivan, 48. “We got ideas from the shipbuilder, from the design agent, from the combat-systems designers, and from looking at past classes of ships — what went wrong, what was continually going wrong.”

Design for Upgrade

It’s a scene from just about every old submarine movie: The officer of the deck “hangs on” the periscope and peers through a maze of mirrors, prisms, and lenses. The navigator plots his course using paper charts, pencils, and straight edges. The sailors who drive the boat use airplane-style hydraulic steering wheels. The sonar, radio, power-plant control, and weapons stations are stretched rooms apart, down long corridors and through bulkhead hatches. Sailors sit at a bank of switches, dials, and levers, while one supervisor relays information to the commanding officer through a headset system that connects ranking officers only.

Those old-style submarines were outfitted with Navy-designed, heavy-duty electrical components built to withstand the shock of an explosion. The system was durable — too durable, in fact. As technology evolved, the old way proved too inflexible, unable to keep up with the pace of change. The Navy realized that its onboard systems had to be faster, flexible, more modular. The sub, the Navy realized, had to be reinvented as a vehicle for change.

The Virginia class is the result of that reinvention. Instead of building heavy-duty equipment, the Navy now builds a heavy-duty, shock-absorbing internal frame that flexes at the joints to absorb stress. The electrical equipment itself is as sensitive as a desktop PC — and virtually as upgradable, because it is made from mass-produced, off-the-shelf commercial elements. The Navy can order its circuit boards, processors, video displays, and keyboards from a catalog. The cabinetry that houses the electrical equipment is plug-and-play. All of the cooling and wiring is in place; just rack out the old system, and rack in the new. Even the photonics masts — which have replaced the old-style periscopes — can be swapped out in 72 hours.


This upgradability means that the Navy can make ongoing improvements — and that input from the fleet is a valuable source of operating feedback. As the sub is updated, the database evolves. Shipyard terminals make the information available to workers on-site. EB is also working closely with the group that disassembles submarines to structure its information-tracking system. Every part of the submarine is cataloged so that workers know where potential hazardous waste is located and how to dispose of it.

Surfacing Information

So what’s the most radical change in the submarine’s design? Information flow and access are at the center of the design philosophy. While the Virginia class’s maximum speed and total weapons capacity are lower than that of its predecessor, its information-gathering suite is unparalleled. Its combat systems will be linked to external targeting and intelligence grids as part of a concept that the Navy calls Network Centric Warfare, a network in which submarines are considered key “nodes.”

If the Virginia class is an information conduit, the command center is its convergence point — where 23 different functional areas come together. The commanding officer stands in the focal point of the chamber, surrounded by key people and controls: sonar to his left; combat control to his right; ship control in front of him; and a flat navigation table, where CD-ROM maps scroll in real time beneath a submarine icon, directly behind him. The periscopes have been replaced by joystick-controlled photonics masts containing several high-resolution color cameras — each one equipped with infrared, low-level light and range-finding enhancement features — that send visual images to screen displays in the ship’s control room. Punch in your desired course and depth, and the sub steers itself. The control systems operate as a network. All of the touch-screen monitors in the room are interchangeable, and everyone has equal access to information: Surface images, for example, are no longer exclusive to the periscope operator.

“When a commanding officer wants to see something, it can be projected on two vertical screens at the front of the room,” says Captain Terry Haid, 44, who is in charge of designing c4isr (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance). “It’s like Captain Kirk in his fancy chair, driving a starship around. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re getting closer to that concept.”

Information also circulates to key locations inside the ship. For the first time, the commanding officers’ and the executive officers’ staterooms are outfitted with vertical touch-screen monitors on which they can view any information from the terminals in the command center. The ward room — the area where the officers eat — is similarly equipped.

“We’ll need to get used to having that much information,” says Haid, “and we’ll have to figure out how to use it most effectively. How will we be sure that we’re focused on the right data and not let ourselves micromanage, or be overwhelmed by all of the information that’s available? It’s a great opportunity — and a great challenge.”


Jill Rosenfeld ( is a Fast Company senior writer. Learn more about the Virginia by visiting the Web ( and clicking on the “submarine centennial” button.