“The Ship that Never Was” from “Skunk Works” by Ben R. Rich

Skunk Works” by Ben R. Rich is a worthy sequel to Kelly Johnson’s “Kelly: More Than My Share of It All.” It brings the story of the Lockheed Skunkworks, founded by Johnson, up to 1995. There are a number of lessons for technology entrepreneurs.

“The Ship that Never Was” from “Skunk Works” by Ben R. Rich

Skunk Works by Ben RichSkunk Works” by Ben Rich is a candid and very funny memoir by the second leader of Lockheed’s Skunk Works. It was published in January 1994, a year before Rich’s death from cancer in January of 1995. It’s well worth a read for a sense of what it’s like to work on impossible and unthinkable products. Rich had many successes during his leadership of the Skunk Works, notably the F-117 NightHawk stealth fighter. This post concentrates on his unsuccessful efforts to sell breakthrough systems that leverage stealth to the Navy.

In THE SPRING of 1978, while we were developing our model for the first stealth airplane, our project photographer stopped me in the hall to complain about defects in a new Polaroid camera we had recently purchased. “I’ve been taking instant view shots of the stealth model, and I’m getting very fuzzy pictures. I think I’ve got a defective lens,” he remarked. ”

Skunk Works” by Ben R. Rich

What looks like an anomaly or an accident can be an indicator for a significant opportunity. Instead of assuming the photographer did not know how to operate the new camera, Rich realized that represented a phenomenon they could incorporate into the design of surface ships and submarines.

I slapped my head, knowing we had accidentally stumbled onto an exciting development. “Time out! There isn’t a damn thing wrong with your new camera,” I insisted. “Polaroid uses a sound echo device like sonar to focus, and you are getting fuzzy pictures because our stealthy coatings and shaping on that model are interfering with the sound echo.

I was always on the prowl, looking for new ideas to expand or exploit technologies we were developing. A stealth airplane was our goal. But how about a stealthy submarine that would be undetectable on sonar? If we had avoided the sonar device built into a Polaroid camera, why couldn’t we avoid sonar returns against submarines or even surface ships specially treated and shaped to escape detection? I had a couple of our engineers buy a small model submarine, put faceted fairings on it, and test it in a sonic chamber. Even with such a crude test setup, we discovered that we had reduced the sonar return from that model sub by three orders of magnitude.

So we decided to design a stealthy sub; the cigar-shaped hull was shielded by an outer wall of  flat, angular surfaces that would bounce sonar signals away and also muffle the engine sounds and the internal noises of crewmen inside the vessel. We ran numerous acoustical tests in special sound-measuring facilities and obtained dramatic improvements. If nothing else we had rendered null and void the favorite cliche of a lot of World War II naval action movies about a submariner sneezing or dropping a monkey wrench at the critical moment when the enemy destroyer’s sonar search pings ever closer. The flat outer wall effectively eliminated any noises.

Skunk Works” by Ben R. Rich

Three orders of magnitude cut the return by a factor of a thousand. That’s somewhere between an impossible and an unthinkable breakthrough. So far, so good. But Lockheed was not a favored Navy contractor and had developed this on their own nickel without input from the Navy.

Armed with high hopes, I took our  design and test results to the Pentagon office of a Navy captain in charge of submarine R & D. […] He frowned at my drawing and backhanded my concept. “We don’t build submarines that look like that.” He admitted that our test results were “interesting” but added, “Your design would probably cost us two or three knots in speed.” I countered, “But why care about losing three knots, when you are invisible to your enemy?”

He ignored me. “This looks more like the Monitor or the Merrimac from the Civil War,” he said. “We’d never build a modern submarine that looked like that.”

Skunk Works” by Ben R. Rich

It’s such a breakthrough in effect that it cannot succeed when judged by the standards of the last generation. Rich was not responding to a request, so he was also a potential disruption to their current plans. I wonder if he would have been better served to approach Specials Forces and offer to build some small, stealthy submarines. He never addresses it directly but I also wonder if these same principles could be applied to torpedo design. But a submarine is a bigger ticket item.  Needless to say, after this response, he pivots and looks to apply the same effects to a surface ship. The Skunk Works designs a stealth ship based on the SWATH (Small Water Area Twin Hull) or catamaran concept that offered speed and better stability in heavy seas.  Lockheed already had success with the stealth fighter, so he goes where he is respected.

On my next trip to Washington for a meeting on our stealth airplane design with Defense Undersecretary Bill Perry, who was the Carter administration’s czar of stealth, I mentioned the idea of a model stealth ship. I told Dr. Perry that the catamaran would provide a perfect test of the effects of stealth shaping and coatings for surface vessels. We also wanted to test the effects of seawater on radar-absorbing iron ferrite coatings. Dr. Perry agreed and ordered the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to authorize a study contract with us.

Skunk Works” by Ben R. Rich

Lockheed build prototypes that prove the stealth advantages of the design and build a full-scale prototype for sea trials. And Rich has a hypothesis that it may help the Navy address an emerging weakness of carrier tasks forces to Soviet long-range fighter-bombers firing missiles with look-down radar.

Our ship was the most unconventional seagoing vessel ever to come off a drawing board. There was a definite family resemblance to our stealth fighter. Only the floating version had no wings. It was a series of severe flat planes at 45-degree angles that sat above the water on struts connected to a pair of submerged pontoons. […] This wasn’t exactly a ship of classic design, but my hunch was that we could really fill an important niche in the Navy’s defensive needs.

NATO war games played out by computer had triggered alarm among the Navy brass about the vulnerability of our carrier task forces to enemy air attack. The premise of the game was that the Soviet Union had attacked Western Europe and that the U.S. Navy had quickly reacted by steaming a backup carrier task force into the North Atlantic. Unfortunately, Soviet long-range fighter-bombers using new look-down, shoot-down radar-guided missiles caused worrisome losses to our carriers and escorts in the computerized warfare exercise. To counter this threat, the Navy was crashing production of a billion-dollar missile frigate that would fire the new Aegis ground-to-air missiles designed to destroy incoming cruise missiles.

I thought, Why go after the arrows? Go after the shooter

To the chagrin of the billion-buck Aegis frigate backers, our SWATH boat would cost only $200 million. We could arm it with sixty-four Patriot-type missiles and send it out three hundred miles ahead of the carrier task force as an invisible, amphibious SAM missile site. We’d shoot down the Soviet attack aircraft before they got in missile range of the fleet. And because they couldn’t see the stealth ship electronically, they’d literally never know what hit them We did an analysis and determined that the entire U.S. Navy carrier fleet could be protected by only eighteen of our stealth defenders armed with SAMs. Since our ship would knock out most of the incoming air armada trying to attack our carriers, we would make the Aegis more effective by dramatically decreasing the number of incoming missiles it would be called upon to try to destroy at one time.

Skunk Works” by Ben R. Rich

Go after the archers, not the arrows, represents the creative thinking that Rich displays throughout his career. I don’t think he appreciated how much of a shift in thinking would be required of the Navy to accept his proposed strategy of employing a picket line of stealth ships three hundred miles from the task force to take out the attacking aircraft. Again, the Navy was focused on close-in defense against the missiles. But here again, a change in technology enables a change in methods, this time adding an outer layer of protection that was synergistic with the close-in defenses already deployed. The picket line would also dramatically alter the risk equation if the opposing force might lose a substantial portion of its attacking air wing before they could get in range of their target.

Sea Shadow was made of very strong welded steel, displaced 560 tons, and was 70 feet wide. Our ship had a four-man crew — commander, helmsman, navigator, and engineer. By contrast, a frigate doing a similar job had more than three hundred crewmen.

Mewed from head-on the ship looked like Darth Vader’s helmet. Some Navy brass who saw her clenched their teeth in disgust at the sight of the most futuristic ship ever to ply the seas. A future commander resented having only a four-man crew to boss around on a ship that was so secret that the Navy could not even admit it existed. Our stealth ship might be able to blast out of the sky a sizable Soviet attack force, but in terms of an officer’s future status and promotion prospects, it was about as glamorous as commanding a tugboat. At the highest levels, the Navy brass was equally unenthusiastic about the small number of stealth ships they would need to defend carrier task forces. Too few to do anyone’s career much good in terms of power or prestige. The carrier task force people didn’t like the stealth ship because it reminded everyone how vulnerable their hulking ships really were. […]

The admirals who ran the surface fleet were displaying little enthusiasm for going any speed ahead. “Too radical a design,” they told me. “If the shape is so revolutionary and secret, how could we ever use it without hundreds of sailors seeing it? It’s just too far out.” There were sexier ways of spending naval appropriations than on a small secret ship that would win few political brownie points for any admiral who pushed for it. Although the Navy did apply our technology to lower the cross section of submarine periscopes and reduce the radar cross section of their new class of destroyers, we were dry docked before we had really got launched.

Skunk Works” by Ben R. Rich

Rich does not display a lot of empathy for the Navy. Earlier in the book, he laments that Kelly Johnson did not have much respect or empathy for the air force generals that Lockheed was selling to, making as many enemies as friends with his blunt style. But from Ben Rich’s recounting of his interactions with Navy brass, it’s not clear he had much respect for them. Justified or not, it’s unlikely the admirals would choose to work with someone who disdained them. So I think there are some other lessons here.

The low crew count worked against a peacetime admiral championing the approach. They needed to find a peacetime niche application where this would be less of a hindrance.

We may be on the edge of another revolution in naval warfare, but it’s not clear what the new paradigm will be. In the early 20th century, an earlier revolution in naval warfare  saw wooden sailing ships with cannons obsoleted by metal dreadnoughts with long-range guns of calibers of 12 inches or more. Combat was now possible at longer ranges but was initially similar (although over time gunnery officers gained status). But the dramatically increased accuracy and range of the new guns made it clear that the older model was over. Elting Morrison documents this very well in “Men, Machines, and Modern Times” in the “Gunfire at Sea” chapter. Morrison says of that revolution:

[The innovators] were opposed on this occasion by men who were apparently moved by three considerations: honest disbelief in the dramatic but substantiated claims of the new process, protection of the existing devices and instruments with which they identified themselves, and maintenance of the existing society with which they were identified.

Elting Morrison in “Men, Machines, and Modern Times

And so it was with Ben Rich and the stealth ship  Sea Shadow.

In the WW2 era revolution that saw a transition from the battleship as the most potent weapons platform to the aircraft carrier, wartime combat results made it clear battleships had been superseded. There might have been an argument before Pearl Harbor, but there was much less after. I worry that it may take the loss of a carrier group or two to show the value of novel architectures for warships that embrace stealth.

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