May 14, 2006:
News that the US Navy's new destroyer/cruiser replacement - DD(X) - has been axed comes as a major blow to the Navy and to the US military in general. DD(X) has been described as the Navy's "must have ship," to replace both the Burke-class guided missile destroyers and the Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers that have been the Navy's mainstays for the past 25 years.
DD(X) is not the only weapons program in trouble. Recently, the United States Government Accountability Office released a report that slammed the DOD's plan to build and field the Joint Strike Fighter (F-35) entitled, "DOD Plans to Enter JSF Production before Testing Demonstrates Acceptable Performance. " This March, 2006 report notes that the F-35 is planned to account for nearly 90 percent of all spending on US tactical aircraft in the foreseeable future and that since the Joint Strike Fighter program began in 1996, Congress has appropriated nearly $25 billion for its development and will spend $257 billion to develop and procure about 2,443 aircraft and related support equipment by 2027. An additional $347 billion is to be spent to operate and support these aircraft once they have been fielded. However, according to the GAO, the F-35 technology has not yet been proven to work.
Costs for DD(X) have reached low earth orbit with price estimates climbing past $7 billion per ship, versus the original $700 million per ship estimate from the late 1990s. Thus, on April 27, 2006, Congress abruptly voted unanimously to change the DD(X) program to that of a two ship "technology demonstrator " Thirty ships had been planned, later dropped to twelve. Now this. The proposed 2007 total defense budget submitted by the president is $439.3 billion. In another sign that Congress is becoming increasingly concerned about the cost of new systems in a time of non-traditional warfare, at the same time it cut DD(X) it added $3.2B for two additional Littoral Combat Ships and one more Virginia-class nuclear attack sub. It also mandated a minimum submarine force of 48 boats, up from the estimate of just 40 made by the Navy if funding cuts continued through 2028. The Navy currently has 54 combat subs.
DD(X) has been problematic from inception. Having gone through numerous iterations and name changes, it has apparently proven simply too hairy a new design at a time when blue water naval gunfire has suddenly found itself with little at which to shoot. DD(X)'s main selling point was the promise of precision gunfire support as much as 110 miles inland and within yards of the target in support of ground forces. However, DD(X) would have required a lot of technology not yet developed, including a new 5-inch naval rifle that could deliver such performance, a revolutionary main turbine-electric power plant, and a modular tactical systems configuration. With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan now expected to have cost as much as $200 billion by the end of the fiscal year, a new deep water surface combatant at $7 billion a copy and a new tactical fighter airplane like the F-35 with remaining major performance problems have become insupportable. That the Air Force has managed to get the F-22 into production in significant numbers is probably more a testament to its political expertise than to its ability to show how it would be used to defeat the Taliban Air Force.
The sudden demise of DD(X) suggests that other new programs may be in jeopardy. The Navy's plan to replace its remaining 200 or so P-3Cs with the 108 P-8As beginning in 2012-2013 is dependent upon affordability. The P-8A is to be a highly-modified Boeing 737-700ER, an aircraft significantly larger and heavier than the P-3 and the subject of mixed reviews by the squadron-level personnel that will have to fly it. While the P-3C has been discovered to be a great high-endurance, on-scene ISR aircraft over Iraq, providing commanders with real-time imagery, its former primary duty of anti-submarine warfare has been allowed to atrophy under current tasking requirements. Like mine-hunting, ASW has long been a poor stepchild to the Navy's main emphasis on carrier aviation, ships, and submarines - all of which have been almost completely overshadowed by ground combat since 2001. The Navy maintains that the P-8A is budgeted for $44B through its domestic production run, which is to provide 108 aircraft to replace its 200 or so P-3Cs (the P-8 is now budgeted for $6.28 billion through 2011, by which time several developmental aircraft will have been built and tested). The big drop in maritime patrol aircraft numbers is to be augmented by 50 unmanned aircraft under the Broad Area Maritime Support (BAMS) program. The initial development portion of the P-8 cost the Navy $3.9 billion. Eighteen months ago the fly-away cost of each MMA was estimated at $126 million per aircraft and $190 million per aircraft if all expenses were amortized over the fleet. Today, a more accurate estimate is likely to be $163 million per aircraft, or $247 million each including amortization. Based on the 2007 P-8 budget, this means a drop in aircraft from 108 to 89, or a decrease of about 18%. A more accurate forecast may be a total of 50 P-8s, divided between four active squadrons at NAS Whidbey Island and NAS Jacksonville, plus the Fleet Replacement Squadron at JAX. There may be additional P-8s built to replace the EP-3E since the Navy has recently dropped out of the joint Navy-Army ACS SIGINT replacement aircraft program that was to have used a modified Embraer 145. The BAMS concept is in constant flux. Last year the Navy stated that it would be a to-be-defined dedicated UAV. Recently, it suggested that Global Hawk - a UAV used extensively by the Air Force - may be chosen instead. Whether BAMS will, as originally conceived, be controlled from aboard an in-flight P-8 remains undetermined. - K.B. Sherman