The Freedom-class littoral combat ship USS Sioux City (LCS 11) transits the Atlantic Ocean, May 3. (US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Trey Fowler)

WASHINGTON — When the House Armed Services Committee released its markup of the annual defense policy bill, it included a surprising provision: one dictating the Navy should complete a ship’s design “100 percent” before starting lead ship construction.

On its face, the rule seemingly has the potential to delay the already infamously long shipbuilding process, or lead to ships launching into the water with obsolescent technology. But one key advocate for such language says the term “100 percent” would actually reinforce a several-year-old legislative requirement.

This week will mark an important milestone for the language, as the Senate Armed Services Committee is poised to release its own version of the National Defense Authorization Act. Should the SASC back the plan, it may well cruise into law; should they buck their House colleagues’ ideas, it will be a potential sticking point in conference negotiations later this summer.

However, Marine engineers, former Navy officials and defense analysts that spoke to Breaking Defense all expressed skepticism about the value of trying to govern the Pentagon’s shipbuilding process with such a blanket policy.

“What does 100 percent mean?” said Lorin Selby, a retired Navy rear admiral who served as the head of the service’s research and development enterprise as well as its chief engineer. “How are they going to define that? How are they going to measure that? And I think that in and of itself would be very problematic.”

Selby’s comments were echoed by multiple other sources, many of whom questioned whether the mandate would block the service from ensuring that new warships — which are usually conceived of years before steel touches water — incorporate state-of-the-art technologies.

“If you’re building something technologically complex, and you expect it to last in some form for 30, 40, 50 years, it’s not necessarily realistic to think that … you won’t make changes in design as the ship is built,” said Bradley Martin, a senior policy researcher at RAND.

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., speaks with gold crew Sailors during a familiarization tour aboard USS Kentucky (SSBN-737), Feb. 19. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Andrea Perez/Released)

Defining The Issue

For Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., a congressional Navy hawk and key lawmaker that spearheaded the provision, there is little ambiguity about what 100 percent means. Speaking to reporters in May, Courtney said the requirement is not meant to lock down every “nut and screw,” adding that changes for upgrades and modifications should be permissible for follow-on ships.

Courtney’s legislative push is based on a law passed in 2020 which mandated the Navy have a “complete” design prior to lead ship construction. The impetus for the new “100 percent” language is that ambiguity in the original provision led to the Pentagon interpreting the mandate in ways that Congress did not intend, a congressional aide told Breaking Defense.

The aide also said the law applies only to the “basic and functional design” of the lead ship, which is defined as setting the major hull structure, establishing the hydrodynamics and routing “major portions of all distributive systems of the vessel.”

Presented with the underlying statutes, most analysts remained skeptical.

Those parameters don’t “really change my view, except perhaps to highlight that ‘100 percent’ is a pretty subjective term,” Martin said.

“To have the design fully complete to every last detail is unrealistic,” Matthew Collete and Jonathan Page told Breaking Defense in an email. Collette and Page are both professors at the University of Michigan, one of just a handful of universities the Navy relies upon to produce qualified engineers capable of designing future warships. “Construction risk also changes significantly with different platforms — the correct standard for [a submarine, a destroyer or a rescue and salvage ship] may all differ.”

Collette added the definition was a “reasonable starting point,” but said that a project as complicated as a warship requires dynamic responses to what is working and what is problematic.

“The problem with any one size fits all approach on something as complicated as a ship is to make sure that we’re getting the response we want out and if we’re not in five or 10 years, figuring out how you make a special case or make an adjustment,” he said. “That would be my biggest concern going forward is to make sure that if we don’t get this 100 percent right, we can make some adjustments.”

In response to questions for this story about the ramifications of the policy, a service spokesman only said, “The Navy cannot comment on pending legislation.”

Getting the language into law will require agreement from the SASC. At least in early comments, two key committee members signaled they supported tightening regulations around Navy shipbuilding, but were hesitant to go as far as the House did.

Chairman Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said his committee wanted to craft language that will incentivize the Navy to have a “more fully designed” ship before beginning construction.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., chair of the seapower subcommittee, which oversees Navy shipbuilding, said he hadn’t seen the House’s language, but added “I think generally, that’s a good practice” when told of the policy.

“Are there circumstances where some emergency need may make it propitious to start to gather the materials and do some of the basic work that you know that you’ll need before the full design has finished?” he added. “As a general matter, I think that concept is fine, but I want to look at the details.”

Graphic rendering of the future USS Lafayette (FFG-65), named in honor of Marquis de Lafayette and his service during the American Revolutionary War. (Navy)

Constellation Class: An Aptly Timed Case Study

As lawmakers drafted their legislation, independent auditors at the Government Accountability Office in late May published their own report about the Constellation-class frigate, a relatively new shipbuilding program that has come under intense scrutiny over the Navy’s design choices.

GAO’s report excoriated the service for excessively fiddling with the ship’s design, despite the Navy frequently talking up its use of a parent design to reduce the risk of schedule delays. The new frigate and its parent design, the Italian FREMM, are nothing more than “distant cousins” in GAO’s estimation. Now, just four years out of the gate, the frigate program is staring down a potential three-year delay, according to Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro.

RELATED: GAO blames new frigate’s delay on Navy tampering with design, ‘botched metrics’

“To reduce technical risk, the Navy and its shipbuilder modified an existing design to incorporate Navy specifications and weapon systems,” GAO auditors wrote. “However, the Navy’s decision to begin construction before the design was complete is inconsistent with leading ship design practices and jeopardized this approach.”

To be clear, government auditors did not call for the Navy to adhere to the blanket policy that Congress is considering, although they did recommend the service complete the design of a given “grand module” prior to construction of that part of the ship. “Grand module” is the phrase the frigate program office uses to refer to the basic unit of construction for a ship. The Navy official who responded to GAO’s report agreed with that recommendation.

But GAO’s criticisms speak directly to the frustrations of lawmakers such as Courtney who are exasperated to see the same design issues that plagued the Littoral Combat Ship for years now surface early in the life cycle of its highly anticipated successor.

“I think it’s exactly the reason that Congress is thinking about imposing a 100 percent design requirement before starting construction on the ship,” Martin said of the problems GAO outlined with the Constellation class.

Proponents of the frigate argue that the US Navy’s shipbuilding requirements are unlike any fleet in the world, and as such, no parent design was ever destined to stay the same once it reached Navy Yard in southeast Washington. But while the service’s requirements may be unique, the role of a frigate inside any fleet is largely identical, Martin argued. The US Navy’s desire to over engineer their ships is the crux of what must change, he said.

A frigate “doesn’t do everything. It doesn’t look like a slightly descoped DDG-51,” Martin said. “Navy requirements generation, Navy platform centricity, Navy’s desire to always go toward the Death Star model is — unless that’s changed, shipbuilding will never get well.”

Something Must Give

Although most sources that spoke to Breaking Defense for this story were skeptical of the House’s policy, they also voiced their sympathy for the frustrations lawmakers have with the Navy’s shipbuilding record.

One former Naval Sea Systems Command official, who spoke to Breaking Defense on the condition of anonymity to be candid, bluntly said the House policy is “a bad idea,” asserting it will only serve to delay the start of construction “unnecessarily.”

“It’s not unusual for the hull design to be complete while the combat system/topside design is evolving,” this source said. “It’s low to no risk to get started with hull construction and in today’s world where the turn circle on changes in technology is so short it allows you to get the most up to date C5ISR systems possible.”

But that does not mean the Navy should get a pass for the delays that have ensued on Constellation and other programs.

“Having said that, the Navy should definitely be held accountable for making major design changes once the contract has been awarded,” they added.

Valerie Insinna contributed to this report.