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Review: Six Frigates

six-frigates-coverReview by Thomas Hone

Tom Hone served as an assistant director of the Office of Force Transformation from 2003 to 2006 and then taught in the Military Operations Department of the Naval War College before retiring from federal service in 2010. He has since worked briefly under contract to the U.S. Navy.

Six Frigates focuses on the building of the first powerful warships—USS Constitution and her sisters—of the United States and their operations in peace and war. As Ian Toll reveals, however, the story of how the ships were created is just as interesting as how they served at sea. It might surprise readers of Six Frigates to learn that the sorts of problems that challenge today’s acquisition professionals also plagued their predecessors of the 1790s.

President George Washington asked for the ships in 1794 to force the Barbary States of North Africa to stop capturing American merchantmen and enslaving their crews. Because at that time there was no United States Navy, Congress gave the task of procuring the ships to Secretary of War Henry Knox. Knox, however, was not given a free hand. The authorizing legislation required four of the ships to have 36 guns and two 44 guns; the law also specified the numbers of officers and enlisted sailors for the frigates, as well as their ratings. Congress “laid out details of pay and rations” and gave President Washington the authority to appoint the ships’ captains.

Finally, the authorization required the Secretary of War to halt construction of the ships if the Barbary States agreed to cease capturing American vessels. No builder could have confidence that work once begun would be completed.

Secretary Knox began by choosing to build new ships instead of converting existing merchant ships. He rejected the argument that conversions would be more (to use current terminology) cost-effective. But he then had to accede to President Washington’s decision to construct the six ships in six different ports in order “to spread the financial benefits” and to prevent the shipwrights in Philadelphia from monopolizing warship construction. Knox was aware that spreading the work as Washington wished would increase the cost of the six-ship program, but he proceeded to lease six available shipyards and then hired “master builders” to oversee the work in each. There was no way that Knox could avoid managing his “industrial base.”

How should the ships be designed? Ideally, they would be well armed, fast enough to run away from more powerful ships, and handy enough under sail to outmaneuver their opponents. Joshua Humphreys, a Philadelphia shipwright, proposed building ships “superior to any European frigate,” and put forward his own design. But other shipwrights differed with Humphreys, leaving Secretary Knox with the unenviable task of making a difficult choice in a field where he was anything but an expert.

Once begun, construction of the ships was hampered by a lack of the right building materials, adequate guns, and the lack of a “well-established principle to guide shipwrights in the masting and sparring of ships.” As a result, no two ships were identical. Each captain selected “mast and spar dimensions for the frigate under his command,” and each also learned through trial and error how best to sail his particular ship. “Configuration management” didn’t exist.
Six Frigates documents classic acquisition dilemmas, from how to manage competition among potential vendors to shielding actual work from interference by members of Congress intent on pressing for their own special agendas. The book also goes on to cover the operational histories of the ships. It is indeed “an epic history,” and the first 200 pages are of special interest to those engaged in military acquisition today.


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