Surface Forces: Zumwalt Joins The Seawolf Club

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April 22, 2014:   On April 12th the U.S. Navy finally christened (named) the first of three DDG-1000 “Zumwalt” class ships. Each of these will cost over $6 billion. A year earlier the Zumwalt was launched and in a year it will enter service. The next year will be taken up with testing, sea trials and making any necessary modifications. The Zumwalt was formerly known as DD-21 or DD-X and was always meant to have features like a stealthy superstructure and a lot of other new tech. The navy says the stealthiness of the Zumwalt’s is such that the enemy will be able to spot it visually (through binoculars) before their radar will pick it up.

All the new equipment increased the size of the ship until it was big as a battleship, at least a battleship of a century ago. Battleships went out of fashion after World War II. The modern battleship rapidly evolved in the decade before World War I (1914-18) and early in the 20th century some weighed as much as the Zumwalt. Battleship design rapidly evolved through 1945 to the point where the last ones weighed as much as modern carriers. A few battleships continued to serve after World War II but no more were built. These huge vessels had outlived their usefulness and nothing really replaced it.

Radical new warships designs are rare and many fail for technical or financial reasons. Such was the fate of the radical new Seawolf SSN (nuclear attack sub). Designed at the end of the Cold War, there were to be 29 of these huge boats. But when the Cold War ended in 1991 so did the mighty Soviet Navy the Seawolf was designed to deal with. So only three Seawolf’s were built, in part because there were cheaper post-Cold War alternatives (the Virginia class SSNs). A similar fate befell DDG-1000, which began life as a 1990s effort to design a new destroyer for the 21st century. That meant lots of swell new tech, some of it not really invented yet. Like the Seawolf the DDG-1000 proved too expensive and the orders were cut to three. A similar fate is now unfolding for the new LCS (Littoral Combat Ship) design, which is basically a “frigate for the 21st century” and optimized for coastal operations. It cost more than expected, had more development problems than expected and, as expected, orders are shrinking.  

It’s less clear what future ships like the new Zumwalt will have. DDG-1000 is a 14,000 ton ship that is 194 meters (600 feet) long and 25.5 meters (79 feet) wide. The crew of 142 sailors operates a variety of weapons, including two 155mm guns, two 30mm automatic cannon for close in defense, 80 Vertical Launch Tubes (containing either anti-ship, cruise, or anti-aircraft missiles), six torpedo tubes, a helicopter, and three helicopter UAVs. The cruiser version (CGN, as Congress has mandated that these be nuclear powered) would drop one of the 155mm guns, as well as the torpedo tubes, but carry more vertical cells for missiles (especially anti-ballistic missile missiles). This would be a 20-25,000 ton ship. None of these CGNs will be built.

The DDG-1000 class destroyers ended up costing more than the navy could afford. It is feared that the inability to control costs will mean the navy won't be able to afford many new ship designs. Many senior navy officers are aware that the way warships are procured has changed in the last century, and apparently not for the better. Many other nations do not have the procurement problems the U.S. Navy is suffering from. But attempts to fix the procurement mess constantly run into political opposition

It was in 2009 that the navy decided to build only three of the new DDG-1000s (instead of 32) and instead resumed building older DDG-51 Arleigh Burke class destroyers. It was a matter of cost. The new DDG-1000 destroyers (and slightly larger versions designated as cruisers) would cost more than $4 billion each if built in large quantities. The Burkes cost $1.9 billion each. The last of 62 original Burkes was ordered in 2002 and the last of those entered service in 2011. But now, another 13 are on order and more may be ordered as well. The 9,800 ton Burkes are smaller, being 154 meters (505 feet) long and 20 meters (66 feet) wide. But even the Burkes have been growing, with the first ones weighing in at only 8,300 tons. In 1945, most destroyers were about 3,000 tons. This constant size escalation is something navies, especially the Americans, have had a hard time dealing with.

While the DDG-51 is much less expensive than the DDG-1000, some navy officials believe that in the long run the larger and more expensive DDG-1000 would be a better investment. The key problem here is the inability of the navy to control costs, and cost estimates, and the inability of the DDG-51s to provide space for new technologies. The navy hopes to overcome this by installing smaller versions of new tech in the DDG-51s and to upgrade other DDG-51s if the new stuff works out.

There are other problems as well, such as the costs of upgrades. Because of budget cuts (actual or expected), the navy plans to buy some time (about a decade) by upgrading dozens of existing destroyers and cruisers. This is a bitter pill to swallow, as in the late 1990s the navy was so sure about the new DDG-1000 that it accelerated the retirement of a dozen of the 31 Spruance class destroyers, in order to save the $28 million a year it would cost to keep each one of them in service. These ships were not just retired, they were all either broken up or sunk in training exercises. The dozen that entered service in 1979-83 could have been refurbished and been available until 2019. That's a lost opportunity. But what can now be done is to refurb the Burke class destroyers (which began entering service in the 1990s). Most of the Ticonderoga class cruisers (which entered service in the 1980s and 90s) can use the refurb as well, which could boost their service into the 2030s. This, plus building a dozen or more Burke class destroyers, will provide an adequate number of destroyers. There is a growing debate over just how many destroyers will be required and what they must be capable of but that has to take second place to budget constraints.

The current refurb policy costs about $200 million per destroyer (and 20-25 percent more for the cruisers). Normally, these ships get one refurb during their 30 year lives. This not only fixes many of the things that have broken down or worn out (and been patched up) but also installs a lot of new technology. A second refurb is expected to add another 5-10 years of serviceability. But this special refurb will do more than that. The navy wants to add some of the DDG-1000 technology to these older ships. In particular, the navy wants to install the "smart ship" type automation (found in civilian ships for decades) that will enable crew size to be reduced. The "smart ship" gear also includes better networking and power distribution. In effect, the ship would be rewired. This could reduce the crew size by 20-30 percent (current destroyers have a crew of 320, with the cruisers carrying 350). In addition to considerable cost savings (over $150,000 a year per sailor), a smaller crew takes up less space, enabling the smaller crew to have more comfortable living quarters. This is a big deal as far as morale and retention (getting people to stay in the navy) goes. Most other new items are not space dependent, except for some of the power based ones (like the rail gun). But these technologies are receding farther into the future. Right now the navy has to find a way to live within its budget, and refurbishing existing warships shows more promise than trying to build affordable new ones.

 


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