Surface Forces: The Zumwalts Are Fading Away


October 16, 2015: The American Zumwalt class destroyers may find its production run truncated yet again, as reports indicate that the third ship of the class, the Lyndon B. Johnson (DDG 1002), is on the budget chopping block. The result would leave the Navy with two of the advanced destroyers. Initially these radically new destroyers were meant to replace four Iowa-class battleships and 31 Spruance-class destroyers. The Zumwalts proved too expensive and mass production was cancelled.

DDG 1002 was already slated for some changes from the first two units of the class (Zumwalt and Michael Monsoor). DDG 1002 was to receive a steel deckhouse as opposed to the composite deckhouses used on the other two ships. This was meant to save money. There had also been a chance that one of the 155mm guns would be replaced with an electromagnetic railgun on DDG 1002. The electromagnetic railgun is another expensive navy effort that may see introduction delayed a long time because of cost considerations.

The Zumwalt class was planned to include 32 ships – more than enough to replace the 31 Spruance-class destroyers that were retired early in the 1990s and early 2000s. Armed with two 155mm guns, and 80 VLS cells while reaching a speed of up to 56 kilometers per hour, the 14,000-ton ships specifically designed to replace the Spruances in the land attack mission, which they had shifted to after the end of the Cold War. But it soon became apparent that many aspects of the Zumwalts were too ambitious. For example they were originally intended to have the Mk 110 57mm gun, but the Navy instead elected to install the cheaper and less capable Mk46 Bushmaster II, a 30mm cannon. The Zumwalts’ also incorporate a lot of automation and require a crew of only 150 but increased development and construction costs more than expected.  

The Zumwalt class was also hit hard by the navy budget crunch caused by so much money being shifted to the army after 2001 for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even before construction of the lead ship was funded in 2005, the class had been cut, first to 24, then to 7, then to 3, as costs kept climbing and navy requests for larger budgets went unanswered. The thing is, cutting the production run had the perverse effect of making the Zumwalt’s cost problems increase. Spreading the R&D cost of $9.6 billion over the original 32 ships would have only added $300 million to the price of each ship. By cutting the program to three units, each ship now shoulders $3.2 billion of the R&D costs.

Would the Zumwalt class have been a success? Two other high-tech programs that were truncated early, the F-22 and Seawolf-class submarine, indicating the answer might have been “Yes.” Instead, the Zumwalt will be widely derided as a failure, when the blame rests not on the designers or the Navy, but instead the budget-cutters. Meanwhile, the Navy will have a hard time finding enough hulls in the water to handle the many missions it will have. – Harold C. Hutchison





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