From a post to Baen's Bar BuShips dated June 2, 2004:

Shipyard types

    So, we're having another debate with fiercely held positions based on what is obviously only partial information, are we?

    Okay. First thing. People are using the wrong terminology. It isn't "hard yards" versus "soft yards;" it's "centralized yards" or "nodal yards" versus "dispersed yards."

    No one builds ships in pressurized building slips. The notion, if you'll forgive me for saying so, is just plain silly. At one point, Hephaestus had over 30 superdreadnoughts simultaneously under construction, which gives you a combined length of around 100 kilometers and a combined beam of roughly -- what? 18 kilometers. Even if you built them all in a single cylindrical "space dock", you'd be talking about a cylinder which would be roughly 1,100 kilometers long by around 4 kilometers wide (not allowing for any separation between the hulls under construction), which by my admittedly imperfect math comes to roughly 27,646 cubic kilometers of enclosed volume. That's one heck of a lot of pressurized space. Besides, I have never described a ship under construction or repair which was enclosed inside a pressurized building space. Go back and look at every description of every space dock gallery I've ever given. The gallery is enclosed and pressurized; the ship is always "floating in crystalline vacuum." It's never been any other way.

    What Hephaestus and the other Manticoran space stations provide is pressurized fabrication space, living quarters, and a nucleus of heavy building equipment which services the open-to-vacuum building slips associated with the space station. The workers who do the actual construction -- or, at least, who supervise the mechanized remotes who do most of the construction -- are still required to wear suits and spend most of their working days in vacuum. It is the proximity of the support equipment which lowers the cost of warships in terms of man-hour-per-ton of ship. It does not appreciably lower the financial cost of construction (except inasmuch as wages are concerned; by this I mean that the raw materials, transport, etc., are roughly equivalent); it simply means that a higher total number of man hours are required to build a ship than would be required if the ships were being built in close proximity to the shared central hub of heavy machine shops and mechanized materials-handling equipment. The ships under construction are not protected by armor or any defense of systems associated specifically with the building slips themselves. They are protected by the point defense of the space stations and are close enough to the stations to be enclosed in the circular sidewall "bubbles" Hephaestus, Vulcan, etc., can generate. In that regard, they are "harder" yards than the dispersed facilities. And, it's probably worth noting, that Hephaestus is also a central node for civilian industry and ship construction, as well as military construction. And it's also probably worth noting that there have been references in the books to non-Hephaestus construction sites in the Manticoran home system at places like the Hauptman Cartel's Unicorn Yards. In other words, don't get too fixated on the notion that all Manticoran naval construction was even initially concentrated solely in Her Majesty's space stations or that those space stations were purely dedicated to military uses.

    The huge advantage of the dispersed yards is that you can have as many of them in production at any one time as you like so long as you have the manpower and economic resources to support them. People are to some extent over-refining on the comments I made in Echoes of Honor. Here is the relevant section:

    Caparelli started to say something more, then closed his mouth with a click and gave White Haven a fulminating glance. The Earl only smiled back blandly. He'd passed on the information when it came to his attention the better part of nine T-months ago, but it had been evident from several things Caparelli had said that no one had routed a copy of White Haven's report to him. Well, that was hardly the Earl's fault. Besides, the shock of discovering just how far advanced the Grayson Navy really was ought to be good for the First Space Lord, he thought, and returned to his consideration of the differences between Grayson and Manticoran approaches to shipbuilding.

    The biggest one, he thought as their pinnace drifted closer to the ship Matthews was still describing, was that Grayson yards were far more decentralized. The Star Kingdom preferred putting its building capacity into nodal concentrations with enormous, centralized, and highly sophisticated support structures, but the Graysons preferred to disperse them. No doubt that owed something to the crudity of their pre-Alliance tech base, he mused. Given how incredibly manpower-intensive Grayson shipbuilding had been (by Manticoran standards, at least), it had actually made sense to spread projects out (as long as one didn't get carried away about it) so that one's work force didn't crowd itself. And one thing any star system had plenty of was room in which to spread things out.

    But even though the Graysons now had access to modern technology, they showed no particular intention to copy the Manticoran model, and as White Haven could certainly attest from personal experience—not to mention discussions with his brother, who ran the Star Kingdom's Exchequer—there were definite arguments in favor of their approach. For one thing, it was a hell of a lot cheaper, both financially and in terms of start-up time.

    The Graysons hadn't bothered with formal slips, space docks, or any of dozens of other things Manticoran shipbuilders took for granted. They just floated the building materials out to the appropriate spot, which in this case was in easy commuting range of one of their huge asteroid mining central processing nodes. Then they built the minimal amount of scaffolding, to hold things together and give their workers something to anchor themselves to, and simply started putting the parts together. It was almost like something from back in the earliest days of the Diaspora, when the colony ships were built in Old Earth or Mars orbit, but it certainly worked.

    There were drawbacks, of course. The Graysons had saved an enormous amount on front-end investment, but their efficiency on a man-hour basis was only about eighty percent that of the Star Kingdom's. That might not seem like a very big margin, but considering the billions upon billions of dollars of military construction involved, even small relative amounts added up into enormous totals. And their dispersed capacity was also far more vulnerable to the possibility of a quick Peep pounce on the system. The massive space stations of the Royal Manticoran Navy were at the heart of the Manticore Binary System's fortifications and orbital defenses, with enormous amounts of firepower and—especially—anti-missile capability to protect them. The Blackbird Yard depended entirely upon the protection of the star system's mobile forces, and the incomplete hulls would be hideously vulnerable to anyone who got into range to launch a missile spread in their direction. On the other hand, the Graysons and their allies had thus far successfully kept any Peeps from getting close enough to damage their yards, and the people of Yeltsin's Star were willing to throw an incredible number of workers at the project, which more than compensated for their lower per-man-hour productivity.

    Okay, what did I say here? I said that the Star Kingdom preferred "nodal concentrations with enormous, centralized, and highly sophisticated support structures" whereas the Graysons preferred "to disperse them." In the next paragraph I said that the Grayson approach was "a hell of a lot cheaper, both financially and in terms of start up time." And in the final paragraph I said "their efficiency on a man-hour basis was only about eighty percent that of the Star Kingdom's."

    At no point did I say that "nodal concentrations" equated to enclosed building slips, because they don't. The difference, as I meant to emphasize by the verb "disperse," is not a matter of "hardness" or "softness," but of proximity to that "nodal concentration." I said that the Grayson approach was "a hell of a lot cheaper," and at no point did I say that that cheapness factor went away over the lifetime of the yard. And I said that the Graysons' "efficiency on a man-hour basis was only about eighty percent that of the Star Kingdom's." I did not say that it was only about eighty percent that of what the Graysons could have accomplished with a nodal yard. In fact, ships built under similar circumstances using Manticoran technology and building practices in dispersed yard come much closer to a break even than would be the case for the Graysons' work force at the time High Admiral Matthews is showing Hamish and Willie the yard. Remember that the Graysons are still spinning their entire technological and industrial infrastructure up (that is, bringing their work force up to Manticoran standards), even as late as War of Honor. Their efficiency rate is still climbing. It is probable that Manticore's dispersed yards (which were being used all over the Manticoran home system as of the end of Ashes of Victory) is closer to 90 percent than 80 percent of the efficiency of the centralized yards. As Hamish observes to himself in Echoes, given the size of the naval budgets involved, even a 10 percent difference is going to amount to enormous financial savings. But if it lets you build a vastly higher number of ships simultaneously, then the economic cost penalty is more than worthwhile.

    There's also the question of how you prioritize your available resources, manpower, and funds. During the long period of "King Roger's Build Up," the huge competing priorities were (1) mobile units for the battle fleet; (2) fixed fortifications for the central wormhole junction and the infrastructure around Manticore and Sphinx; (3) infrastructure expansion. Because they weren't actively at war, and because the forts' construction was effectively completed fairly early in the build up process (it had a very high initial priority), infrastructure expansion at Hephaestus and the other home system space stations was almost equal in priority to construction of starships "below the wall." Once the actual war began, priorities shifted. At that point, what was needed was the greatest possible number of ships built as quickly as possible. Initially, the Navy's building budgets were limited by the total amount of funds available, and the building slips associated with the existing space stations sufficed for all of the shipping the Cromarty Government could afford to lay down in the earlier period of the war. Money which had already been appropriated for infrastructure expansion was also raided for the new construction programs, but the expansion programs continued, albeit at a slower rate, which also expanded the available building slips supported by that infrastructure.

    All of this was supportable as long as the Navy was talking in terms of traditional, conventional ships of the wall, of which Manticore already had large numbers, if less than the Star Kingdom would really have preferred. But when Manticore and Grayson decided to have the "Dreadnought revolution" in the midst of a shooting war, the traditional financing practices were insufficient. So the Cromarty Government passed the new, draconian war taxation, which brought in an enormous flood of funds, sufficient to build a much, much higher number of hulls than they could possibly have built in the slips available at Hephaestus, Vulcan, etc., even if those slips had not already in many cases been occupied by ships in various stages of completion. So they turned to dispersed yards, both in the Manticore System and at Grendelsbane, because it let them build the ships they needed. The Graysons actually turned ships out faster at Blackbird than the Manticorans did at Hephaestus. Their efficiency per man-hour was lower, but they threw sufficient additional bodies at the building task to more than compensate for that lower individual efficiency. The dispersed yards the Manticorans were operating, with almost the same level of manning and with a workforce which boasted a higher percentage of fully trained and experienced workers accustomed to using the latest techniques and tools, were able to better even the Graysons' building times. In light of those realities, all spending on infrastructure increases at the nodal yards was discontinued during the run-up to Operation Buttercup because of the need to concentrate on the actual construction of the warships required for the campaign.

    Following the cease-fire, the High Ridge Government did not reinstate spending on the expansion of the shipbuilding capacity of its space stations. The sudden abrupt drawdown in naval construction rates provided more than enough unused capacity for all civilian construction needs. Besides, the High Ridge Government was much more interested in passing out government contracts and lucrative "building incentives" (which amounted in many cases to free government giveaways of valuable concessions) to the private industry concerns doing most of the rebuilding at Basilisk. The government's direct role in the reconstruction [at] Basilisk was primarily restricted to the construction of the new fixed defenses, which are actually on a smaller scale than those which predated Giscard's attack on the system, since -- as everyone in the High Ridge Government kept pointing out -- there was no Havenite threat any longer.

    So, when hostilities broke back out, the Alexander Government and the White Haven Admiralty, found themselves faced with large but limited amounts of "nodal" building capacity, and far less dispersed capacity in other star systems than Manticore had possessed at the time of Operation Buttercup. At the same time, they found themselves with an even greater need to build the largest possible numbers of the new types they possibly could. They know how they solved the problem once before, and they will undoubtedly do it the same way this time. First, they will fill all of the available slots in the nodal yards. Then they will begin building additional units in dispersed yards, up to the limit their resources and manpower for crews will permit. And they will not spend limited funds and manpower on further expansion of the main space stations at a time when the need for new hulls is paramount.

    I understand that there has also been some debate about just how Haven's building practices differ from those of Manticore and/or Grayson. The short answer is that they have always used a sort of hybridized system. Most Havenite shipyards traditionally have consisted of a central industrial complex (somewhat more dispersed than, say, Hephaestus, but not as dispersed as Grayson has settled for at Blackbird) where their limited numbers of really experienced and skilled workers (who aren't actually all that skilled, compared to Manticoran standards) provide support for huge numbers of relatively unskilled workers who do the grunt work of assembling ships in the dispersed yards. The industrial complexes actually prefabricate entire sections of hulls which are then tractored out to the building slips where they are assembled and "stitched into place" by the less skilled workers. A "relatively" small cadre of highly skilled "finishers" then moves from slip to slip doing the delicate work of connecting circuitry runs and similar jobs. The inherent higher cost in manpower associated with this dispersal, coupled with the lower skill levels of most of their workers, is the primary reason why their construction rates have always lagged behind those of Manticore and/or Grayson.

    Even under Shannon Foraker, this remains the norm for the majority of Havenite shipbuilding centers, because they are still so much in the process of bringing their labor force up to the standards of, say, Grayson, far less the Star Kingdom. Bolthole is a bit of a special case. Whereas the huge shipbuilding facilities in the Haven System itself are very much of the traditional hybridized approach, making up by sheer size for their relatively lower manpower efficiency, Bolthole was intended from the beginning to be much more of a "Manticore-style" operation. The building slips there are still more dispersed than was the case for the pre-war RMN, but they are far less dispersed than those at Haven, and the "central industrial complexes" are very much "hard-sites," with defensive systems and weaponry incorporated to protect the critical fabricating and support nodes.

    I hope this makes the available construction techniques and options clearer than they apparently were.