As the US Navy prepares to christen the lead Zumwalt-class destroyer, DDG 1000, it would be useful to review the program’s history and evaluate past and present decisions. Critics of the value of a gunship to a Navy of the future completely missed the big picture. Building on the vision of prior chiefs of naval operations, Adm. Vern Clark described a future Navy with more efficient and more survivable destroyers and cruisers. What happened along the way?
■ Technology. Skeptics were concerned about a ship that relied on several new technologies: automated fire suppression to enable smaller crews, electric drive for fuel efficiency and electrical power, stealth, acoustic quieting, infrared suppression, etc. However, the DD(X) program — before its name was changed to DDG 1000 — was well-structured and relied on engineering development models for all of the key systems.
Despite projections from critics, DDG 1000 has delivered multiple new technologies without the cost growth associated with other DoD development programs. The program has confirmed the importance of technology maturation and prototyping.
■ Operational requirement. Many people questioned the utility of a gunship in modern warfare. Advocates promoted smaller ships for interdiction and coastal missions while others focused on sea-based missile defense. These discussions culminated in a meeting between Navy Secretary Gordon England, Clark, Defense Undersecretary Edward Aldridge and myself, which birthed the coherent long-term plan for LCS, DD(X) and CGX.
Importantly, DD(X) would provide the defensive support needed in littoral environments by a lower-cost littoral combat ship (LCS) with no defensive capability. The DD(X) hull would also evolve into a future cruiser.
■ Industrial base. DDG 1000 is a large ship, roughly 15,000 tons. The additional size and the refined finish to lower the radar signature require more construction labor hours. The ship was estimated to take about 7 million man hours at rate production compared with roughly 3 million for the 9,000-ton DDG 51-class destroyer.
DDG 51s were built at roughly three to five ships per year to meet early Navy inventory requirements and to efficiently load shipyards. DDG 51 production rates of one to two ships per year are inefficient and inadequate for the industrial base. The manufacturing labor required for DD(X), and the future CG(X), suggested that one ship per year could provide adequate labor loading for two destroyer yards.
Thus, there was a coherent and carefully considered strategy that favored DD(X) as a key element of a long-term plan for a Navy shipbuilding program. The DD(X) program would create a new hull design that reduced acoustic, radar and infrared signatures, meeting the demand for the Navy to operate in the near-shore environment and providing survivability against future threats.
The DD(X) hull provided growth capacity, supporting larger radars necessary for evolving missile defense missions.
The plan was largely derailed by a coalition of pundits who bear no responsibility for the nation’s future naval capability and garner attention through sensational forecasts. The Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Budget Office and the Congressional Research Service all forecast a $5 billion DDG 1000 destroyer. Acting on these assertions, and possibly concerned about buying gunships, the Navy changed course and decided to restart DDG 51 production. Let’s review these forecasts and decisions.
Bath Iron Works has done a remarkable job building the lead DDG 1000. The lead hull will not be anywhere near $5 billion. There is a prospect that a rate-production DDG 1000 could be $2.3 billion, roughly the price forecast in the early days of the program.
In contrast, after buying the final DDG 51s under a multiyear contract at about $1.2 billion per copy, the first new production-restart DDG 51 will cost about $2 billion. The DDG 51 restart adds to a full inventory of hulls that are well-suited to blue-water naval battles and ill-suited to providing defensive cover for LCS or helping the Navy conduct operations in a coastal environment.
The last part of the coherent plan was to remove the guns from the DDG 1000 hull and add more vertical launch tubes to create a new cruiser offering a much smaller crew, stealth, quietness, fuel efficiency and growth. The electric drive system offered the potential to support electromagnetic weapons — game changers in terms of range, speed and offensive and defensive capability. Restarting the DDG 51 program provides none of these benefits, nor a path to a cruiser.
Further, the Navy will probably need to build three DDG 51s per year to provide affordable prices and stable workload for two destroyer yards.
The course change undermined a coherent, long-term naval strategy that sought to provide the Navy with the capability to execute missions in a hostile littoral environment, to evolve to a fleet of more survivable and capable cruisers, and to sustain a stable industrial base. Sensational projections about DD(X) technical risk and cost have proved inaccurate.
There may still be time for the Navy to review these decisions as they learn from the highly capable new DDG 1000 destroyer.
John Young is a senior fellow and member of the board of regents at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. He previously served as the US Navy’s assistant secretary for research, development and acquisition, and he is currently the principal in JY Strategies LLC.