The US Navy can expect an electric future, according to rear admirals on an MIT panel exploring research and education in ship design. And that, in turn, spells challenges for the shipbuilding industry and for MIT's program in naval construction and engineering (Course 13A).
Last Thursday's panel also included Professor Chryssostomos Chryssostomidis, head of the Department of Ocean Engineering; Professor Harvey Sapolsky, director of MIT's Security Studies Program; and Dr. Millard Firebaugh, a vice president for General Dynamics/Electric Boat Co. The panel was one of several events in a two-day symposium celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 13A program. More than 200 people attended.
"We're moving toward an all-electric warship," said Rear Admiral Jay M. Cohen, chief of naval research. He noted four key areas that will be affected by that trend: propulsion, auxiliary systems, antennae (which will be replaced by flat-panel displays) and high-energy weapons. While the challenges involved are "daunting," he noted past successful transitions such as the jump from propeller tactical aircraft to jets.
To better prepare students for this future, Admiral Cohen suggested new Course 13A courses that "look at the application of electronics and electricity to the marine environment."
Rear Admiral (select) Paul Sullivan, program manager for the USS Virginia (the Navy's new attack submarine), echoed those thoughts. "The primary challenge of the next 30 years is the integration of electronics on our ships," he said.
Commenting on an audience question about the need for stronger advanced&endash;computing components in a naval engineering education, he replied, "Most of the problems I have in getting a new ship out are getting 23 subsystems to talk to each other." As a result, "the whole management and engineering of developing, integrating and sustaining those [advanced computing] systems in a ship will make or break us in the next 15 years."
Professor Chryssostomidis dwelt on the teaching end of ship design. To that end, he graded the Course 13A program on what he believes are the three components of a good education.
For example, he gave the program a high grade -- "say nine or 10 out of 10" -- for teaching the fundamentals of the discipline and for teaching a student how to maintain an education for a lifetime. The second component -- a faculty that's actively involved in the profession "to bring that experience back to the classroom" -- scored a seven or eight.
But the third component -- a vigorous research program -- fared only a six or seven. Professor Chryssostomidis explained that to raise that grade, 13A needed more real-world research projects. He was encouraged by Admiral Cohen, however, who assured him that he had several real-life projects he'd love to "get into the university to inspire students and faculty."
Admirals Sullivan and Cohen and Dr. Firebaugh, all alumni of Course 13A, emphasized their high regard for the program. Said Admiral Cohen: "It's a national treasure."
MIT's graduate program in naval construction and engineering is intended for active-duty officers in the US Navy, US Coast Guard and foreign navies who specialize in the design, construction and repair of naval ships. Currently there are 19 US Navy officer students in the program. Other students are from the US Coast Guard (two), the Hellenic Navy (four) and the Chilean Navy (two).
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 25, 2001.