Surface Forces: An American Tragedy

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November 4, 2019: The U.S. Navy has encountered still more delays in getting the first of three new DDG-1000 class stealth destroyers into service. The current date for being fully operational is September 2021. The delays stem from continued efforts to deal with a list of 320 “serious deficiencies” compiled after the navy completed sea trials in early 2016. All this increases costs and those costs for completing the ship have risen for 11 years in a row. Those unanticipated (but not unexpected) increased costs have totaled $4 billion since 2010. At this point the total cost for the DDG-1000 program will be over $23 billion, meaning each of the three DDG-1000s to enter service will cost about $8 billion. This includes $10 billion in research and development, which was to be spread over 32 DDG-1000s. Even so that would have been $312 million per ship. Among its many failures, the most notable one was the inability to get its two 155mm guns operational. The DDG-1000 was designed mainly to provide gunfire support for marines but technology passed the DDG-1000 by in that department. That, plus cost overruns mean the DDG-1000s will enter service with the two 155mm guns still there but not operational. Sad but very symbolic of the DDG-1000 project and U.S. Navy shipbuilding efforts since the 1980s.

In 2017 the navy found a new purpose for the DDG-1000; anti-ship warfare. This is being accomplished by spending about $100 million to upgrade the DDG-1000 fire control systems to handle the new RIM-175 SM-6 anti-aircraft missiles. The DDG-1000 was built to be multi-purpose (anti-air, anti-sub, anti-ship and land attack). That last item, land attack, was to be carried out by two 155mm guns firing GPS guided shells. These shells could hit targets over a hundred kilometers inland with great accuracy. Through a series of misadventures, the Navy found it could not afford the ammo for these 155mm guns and could only afford to buy three DDG-1000s. The two 155mm guns are still useless but the latest changes make DDF-1000 much more effective against other ships as well as aircraft.

The key to this DDG-1000 is the new SM-6 (an upgrade of the existing SM-2), which can do everything better, especially the way it handles surface targets. This was a recent development as it was in 2017 that the Block 1A upgrade of the SM-6 passed its first tests. These missiles were fired from a land-based facility. The SM-6 performed just as well when fired from VLS cells on a ship. One test was conducted against a retired U.S. frigate and the SM-6 sank the ship with one missile. Block 1A improvements are largely about the guidance system, especially the new anti-ship capability. SM-6 entered service in 2011 and anti-ship capability was added later. The initial order for SM-6 was for 1,200 missiles and it will eventually replace all the older SM-2s (entered service in 1979) and SM-3s (an advanced version of SM-2 that shoots down ballistic missiles). The SM-2 ER, which entered service in 1980, was also capable of being used against ships. SM-6 has a longer range and more effective guidance (and resistance to countermeasures like jamming) than the SM-2 and is meant to deal with aircraft, cruise missile and ballistic missiles more effectively as well. Max range of the SM-6 is given as 240 kilometers (soon to be increased to about 340) . The longer range and higher speed of the SM-6 make it particularly effective against other ships. The SM-6 is basically the existing SM-2 anti-aircraft missile with the more capable guidance system of the AMRAAM air-to-air missile, as well as general improvements in the electronics and other components.

The DDG-1000 upgrade will also enable the ship to use the Maritime Strike variant of the Tomahawk cruise missile. This version gets a new guidance system that enables Tomahawk to hit moving ships at sea. This version can also hit land targets as well and has a range of 1,700 kilometers. The anti-ship version needs some other ship or aircraft to determine the general area where the target is. DDG-1000 has 80 VLS (Vertical Launch Tubes) containing either anti-ship, cruise or anti-aircraft missiles. Now the mix of missiles will be SM-6, SM-3 (the anti-missile version) or Tomahawk.

The new destroyer (DDG-1000/Zumwalt Class, also known as DD-21 or DD-X) design has a stealthy superstructure and is as big. The new destroyer is a 14,000 ton ship, 194 meters (600 feet) long, and 25.5 meters (79 feet) wide. The crew of 150 sailors operates a variety of weapons, including two inoperative 155mm guns, two 30mm automatic cannons for close-in defense, six torpedo tubes, a helicopter, and three helicopter UAVs. DDG-1000 has sonar, Aegis radar, electronic warfare equipment, and the ability to shoot down ballistic missiles.

Alas, because of the flaws of the American warship procurement system, DDG-1000 proved too expensive to build in the quantities desired. Many other nations do not have the procurement problems the U.S. Navy is suffering from. Attempts to fix the U.S. Navy procurement mess constantly run into political opposition and that is another matter altogether. In 2009 the navy decided to build only three of the DDG-1000s instead of 32. To cope with the loss of new destroyers the navy 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 by 2019 the new Burkes were entering production with 67 new and old Burkes in service with five under construction and at least ten more planned. The DDG-51 is less than half the cost of the DDG-1000, but 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.

Cutting the DDG-1000 order to three ships meant the GPS guided shell for the 155mm guns was too expensive (about a million dollars a shell). For the moment the 155mm guns are inoperative. The Navy could convert them to fire unguided ammo as that would be the cheapest option. Replacing the six 155mm guns on the three DDG-1000s would be too expensive. The first DDG-1000 was supposed to enter service in 2016 and the initial sea trials were promising. But the problem began to appear in the many new systems and technologies in the DDG-1000. At this point all three are not expected to be in service until 2025.

Experience with the DDG-1000, the Seawolf SSN, Ford class carriers and LCS (3,000 ton littoral combat ship) indicate that the navy has not yet fixed its fundamental inability to design and build new ships. The navy plays down how serious this problem is but the seriousness of the problem is only made worse by the Chinese success at building new ship classes much more quickly and on budget. The U.S. Navy used to be able to do this and the loss of that capability continues to be the most serious threat the navy faces and the one too many navy leaders are willing to take on.

 


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