Alumni Spotlight: VADM (ret) Paul Sullivan (SM ’80)

by Alissa Mallinson


Vice Admiral Paul Sullivan

For Vice Admiral Paul Sullivan, USN (Retired) (SM ‘80), a graduate and later an Associate Professor of Naval Architecture of what is today MechE’s 2N program in naval architecture and marine engineering, the crafts of naval architecture and ship design are as important now as they ever were.

With 283 ships in the Navy, several classes of ships currently under construction, and some new designs on the way, there is plenty to do.

“I love the process of starting a ship design from scratch, but those opportunities are rare. More often we’re taking a class of ships and trying to convert it to a new mission. That’s pretty challenging too,” he says.

According to Vice Admiral Sullivan, the Navy is always looking for ways to improve its ships and submarines – stronger materials, more powerful engines, more powerful mission systems, and reduced costs.

“There is always new technology to add to our ship designs,” he says.“The new aircraft carrier is a great example. We shifted from steam catapults to electromagnetic catapults so that we’re now launching the aircraft using a linear induction motor. The physics are simple, but the engineering of actually getting it into the ship and getting it to work time after time as we throw these 20-ton aircrafts off the deck at 150 knots is no small chore.”

Vice Admiral Sullivan is well acquainted with large chores. Turning an interest in boats and ships – which started at a young age when his mother bought a Sunfish sailboat – into a passion, and then turning his passion into an education and a career, he’s worked hard to get to where he is.

“As a teenager, I read magazines associated with sailing and that got me interested in performance sailing, which got me interested in designing sailboats for performance sailing,” he says. “At that time the Navy was experimenting with hydrofoils. Anything that went fast in the water, I was interested in it. And that got me on an engineering bent. I thought, ‘Wow, you mean people can actually design and build these wild things?’”

As an undergraduate, Vice Admiral Sullivan was accepted to both MIT and the Naval Academy, and decided to attend the Naval Academy to study mathematics. After he graduated, he went out to sea, as all Academy graduates do. One day, a notice about graduate curriculum came across his desk. He had regretted his decision to major in mathematics instead of naval architecture as an undergraduate, so he lunged at a second chance.

“As a graduate student in MechE’s 2N program (formerly Course 13A), I had a very difficult time my first year because my undergraduate math major was too theoretical. I found that the average sophomore undergraduate at MIT knew more engineering calculus than I did, even as a math major from the Naval Academy. I showed up with a very deficient education to go into a really heavy-duty engineering program, and my first year was awful.

But by the second year I had caught up, and in the third year I was as good as anybody. That’s not unheard of for Course 2N students.”

After graduation, Admiral Sullivan became an Engineering Duty Officer at a shipyard, overhauling aircraft carriers, surface ships, and submarines. Because of his ship design background and recent experience with submarines, his next assignment was as Deputy Ship Design Manager on the SEAWOLF program.

The assignment that followed, though, was quite a surprise.

“I got a call from the Admiral, and he said, ‘Do you still want to go to MIT and teach?’ And I said, ‘Yes, sir, I’d love to do that some day.’ And he said, ‘I’m not talking about some day.’

Vice Admiral Sullivan moved from Washington, DC., to Cambridge, Mass., that year and became an Associate Professor of Naval Architecture in MechE’s 2N program. He taught for three years.

“I had a wonderful time,” he says. “I had learned my trade well executing on the SEAWOLF design, but I learned it even better teaching it to very bright Navy students. You need to know twice as much to teach it because you have to be able to answer all the hard questions. You need to be able to demonstrate a deep understanding of the material.”

Vice Admiral Sullivan – who later sat on the MechE visiting committee from 2003-2005, leaving his chair when he was nominated for his third star – left his post as associate professor in 1989 and headed to the waterfront in Groton, Conn., to build OHIO class submarines, then transferred to LOS ANGELES class submarines. His final move was to the Naval Sea Systems Command in 1992, where he stayed for many years.

One of the jobs he performed at the Naval Sea Systems Command brought him back to the SEAWOLF program as the Program Manager, this time delivering the first ship of the class.

“It’s very instructive to design a ship early in your career, then have to correct all your design mistakes and deliver on the final product,” says Sullivan, who adds that the most difficult part of the delivery was certifying the submarine for her initial sea trials.

“It’s the same thing as certifying a space shuttle,” he explains. “It was more exciting because it was the first ship of a class. When you’re on the 58th LOS ANGELES class submarine, you more or less know how that sea trial is going to go. But with the SEAWOLF, there were many new things on the ship. You needed to go back to first principles, and you needed to think through each new problem.”

His next assignment was working on another first class submarine, VIRGINIA. By this time, he was in his third assignment as a Navy Captain, and worked as the Program Manager of the VIRGINIA’s design and construction. After VIRGINIA, Vice Admiral Sullivan was selected to flag rank and assigned as the Chief Engineer of the Naval Sea Systems Command and later as the Commander, retiring in 2008.

“The 2N program set me up for success,” he says. “Some people ask why we send our Navy officers to MIT and not somewhere else. It’s because MIT teaches you how to think. When you’re designing the next Destroyer, you can’t just go look at the last one for your inspiration. We want to be on the cutting edge of technology, from electronics to materials to physics, and to do that you’re required to think through problems that no one has ever thought through before, and that’s why you send people to MIT. That is its strength.”