WASHINGTON ― The U.S. Navy is looking at extending the life of its surface ships by as much as 13 years, meaning some ships might be 53 years old when they leave the fleet.

Here’s the main problem: keeping their combat systems relevant.

The Navy’s front-line combatants ― cruisers and destroyers ― are incredibly expensive to upgrade, in part because one must cut open the ship and remove fixtures that were intended to be permanent when they were installed.

When the Navy put Baseline 9 on the cruiser Normandy a few years ago, which included all new consoles, displays and computer servers in addition to the software, it ran the service $188 million.

Now, the capability and function of the new Baseline 9 suite on Normandy is staggering. The cost of doing that to all the legacy cruisers and destroyers in the fleet would be equally staggering: it would cost billions.

So why is that? Why are the most advanced ships on the planet so difficult to keep relevant? And if the pace of change is picking up, how can the Navy stay relevant in the future without breaking the national piggy bank?

Capt. Mark Vandroff, the current commanding officer of the Carderock Division of the Naval Surface Warfare Center and former Arleigh Burke-class destroyer program manager, understands this issue better than most. At this week’s American Society of Naval Engineers symposium, Vandroff described why its so darn hard to upgrade the old ships and how future designs will do better.

Here’s what Vandroff had to say:

“Flexibility is a requirement that historically we haven’t valued, and we haven’t valued it for very good reasons: It wasn’t important.

“When you think of a ship that was designed in the ‘70s and built in the ‘80s, we didn’t realize how fast and how much technology was going to change. We could have said: ‘You know what? I’m going to have everything bolted.’ Bolt down the consoles in [the combat information center], bolt in the [vertical launch system] launchers ― all of it bolted so that we could more easily pop out and remove and switch out.

“The problem was we didn’t value that back then. We were told to value survivability and density because we were trying to pack maximum capability into the space that we have. That’s why you have what you have with the DDG-51 today. And they are hard to modernize because we valued survivability and packing the maximum capability into the minimum space. And we achieved that because that was the requirement at the time.

“I would argue that now as we look at requirements for future ships, flexibility is a priority. You are going to have to balance it. What if I have to bolt stuff down? Well, either we are going to give up some of my survivability standards or I’m going to take up more space to have the equivalent standards with an different kind of mounting system, for example. And that is going to generate a new set of requirements ― it’s going to drive design in different directions than it went before.

“I suppose you could accuse the ship designers in the 1980s of failure to foresee the future, but that’s all of us. And the point is they did what they were told to do. Flexibility is what we want now, and I think you will see it drive design from this point forward because it is now something we are forced to value.”