The U.S. Navy has decided that the Burke class destroyers reaching retirement age will be refurbished one more time so they can serve another five or ten years. The first ship to undergo this refurb is the Arleigh Burke (DDG-51), which entered service in 1991 and was scheduled to retire in 2026. The refurb will extend that to 2031 or 2036. Burkes were built rapidly during the first decade of construction, with 34 in service by the end of 2001. Candidates for the last refurb will be selected on a ship-by-ship basis and it is not yet clear how many of the first 34 will be worth refurbishing. With the 90th Burke entering service in 2027 or 2028, the refurb plan makes it possible for 90 Burkes to be in service for a few years before retirements begin to erode that number. In another decade the number of Burkes in service will be down to 70 or less. The navy still hasn’t come up with a suitable and affordable Burke replacement design. This problem has been at the top of the navy “things that must be done” list for nearly a decade. So far the interim solution has been more Burkes followed by refurbing some of the older ones that can handle it.
In 2020 the navy announced that it could not afford to refurbish dozens of older destroyers. This refurb plan was needed to maintain the size of the destroyer fleet until a new destroyer design could be developed and put into production. The navy budget can’t handle the refurb plan and still take care of more urgent shipbuilding requirements.
In late 2017, as the last of the three U.S. Navy Burke class “restart” ships entered service, the navy began working on a plan to extend the life of all Burkes to 45 years and continue to build Burkes. That meant the existing and future Burkes would have their planned service life extended five to ten years. This is not difficult because the Burkes were a good design that performed well since the first of them entered service in 1991. At the same time, new Burkes were under construction and the last of these won’t enter service until the late 2020s.
On the other hand, the first Burkes will have to retire in 2036 and 30 will be gone by 2046. The navy is still seeking a replacement design that is affordable and can be built soon enough to replace the retiring Burkes. The destroyer shortage is particularly acute because destroyers are literally the hardest working ships of the navy. They spend more time at sea (90 days a year on average) and, while built for that sort of heavy use, all that time at sea makes it difficult to extend the lives of these ships with a major refurbishment.
The Burkes were a Cold War era design that was supposed to have been replaced by a radical new design, the Zumwalt (DDG-1000) class. That did not work out because it took too long and cost too much to build the new Zumwalts. Meanwhile, it was noted that the Burkes remained a very effective design and a popular model for similar designs elsewhere, especially in East Asia where South Korea, Japan and China have built similar ships. In 2009 the U.S. Navy decided to resume Burke production. Up until that point, the Burke class was to end building when the 61st one entered service in 2012. But then the U.S. Navy decided to build only three of the new Zumwalt class ships and resume (actually continue) production of the older Arleigh Burke class destroyers instead. As of early 2023, there are 71 Burkes in service with three more entering service in 2023 and enough under construction or on order so that 90 Burkes will be built. Plans for some to be retired before the last of the “restart” Burkes entered service were abandoned. Construction of new Burkes would end at 90 ships but those approaching retirement age would have the option for another refurb and five or ten years more service until a replacement destroyer design is available.
Since 2014 the navy has been working on a more affordable (than the Zumwalts) replacement for the Burkes. This new destroyer is called the FSC (“Future Surface Combatant”) or DDG(X) and the first of these is not expected to enter service until after 2030. Much tech from the Zumwalts will be used and errors of the over-budget Zumwalts avoided. It looks like the DDG(X) will probably be based on the last of the restart Burkes. These proposed Flight III destroyers will max out the Burke hull but new propulsion systems and redesign of what goes in the hull will hopefully be enough for another successful destroyer design.
The navy is also considering designs for a new FFG(X) frigate, to replace the failed Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) class. There are four candidates and the two most likely choices were existing European designs; the Spanish F-100 and Italian FREMM. The FREMM design was the winner and FFG(X) became the FFFG-62 Constellation-class frigate with construction starting in 2022 and the first one entering service in 2026. These are 7,200 ton ships with about half the combat capabilities of a Burke-class destroyer and costing about a billion dollars each. three times what the last frigates, the Perrys cost. The LCS was supposed to replace the 71 Perrys, built between 1975 and 2004 but the LCS, like the Zumwalts, were a failure.
Continued production of Burkes and extension of their service life to 45 (or more) years was a matter of cost and bad politics. Reviving Burke production was only a stopgap because the latest Chinese DDG design is basically a Burke and the Chinese are already making some interesting upgrades. In one or two decades China will also have to decide what the next generation of DDGs should be and that will be when China has a chance to replace the United States as the leader in warship design and production. China can develop new designs more quickly and build them for less than the United States. The Burke situation is about more than replacing worn-out warships.
The DDG-1000 Zumwalt 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 the original Burkes was ordered in 2002 and entered service in 2012. But now more Burkes will be built as “Flight III” types that incorporate more of the DDG-1000 technologies and take the Burke hull as far as possible.
While DDG-51 is less than half the cost of 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 building costs and the inability of the DDG-51s to provide space for some of the new technologies. This is basically a political problem because Congress provides the money and “guidance” for how the Navy should spend it. That has led to inefficient shipyards building warships that are nearly all over budget, late and suffering from increasingly poor quality control.
There are other problems as well, such as the costs of upgrades. Because of budget cuts (actual or expected), the Navy planned to buy some time (about a decade) by upgrading dozens of existing destroyers and cruisers. This is a bitter pill to swallow, as 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 after 2005. 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. Refurbing older Burkes was thought to be an opportunity that would not be lost. Once crunching all the numbers, the refurb plan was found to be untenable. The primary cost problem is the finite size of the navy procurement budget and the urgency of getting the new Columbia class of SSBNs (ballistic missile carrying nuclear subs) into service on time. The current 18 Ohio class SSBNs entered service between 1981 and 1997 and the first of them will retire by 2029. The final design of the Columbias is expected by 2021 which will enable the first of twelve to enter service by 2030.
The Burke class destroyers were expected to evolve over decades. The first one entered service in 1991. This was called the “Flight I” design. It was an 8,200 ton ship and 21 were built, the last one entering service in 1997. There were then seven 8,400 ton Flight II ships with the last of them entering service in 1999. The rest were 9,800 ton Flight IIA ships with the first one entering service in 2000. Because over half the original Burkes were Flight IIA, this group evolved a lot during the 17 years they were being built. Then came the three “restart” Flight IIAs to be followed by over 30 Flight IIIs. These got more of the DDG-1000 technology. In particular, the Navy wanted 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 $100,000 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 or, like the railgun, fading away.
The navy has discovered that a lot of the desired new DDG-1000 tech won’t fit into a Burke, even the larger Flight III ones. The Burke extension program is also supposed to stay away from the overambitious (and often unworkable and over budget) new tech. Stick with what is already known and don’t give the shipyards an opportunity to delay work and jack up the cost. Concentrate on quality control and don’t let the refurbished Burkes return to service less reliable than before.
Above all the navy does not want yet another ship design and construction disaster. There have been too many of those in the last few decades including the Seawolf SSN, the LCS ”frigate” and the new Ford class CVN. There were several other near-disasters and some successes. But too many U.S. Navy ship design and construction projects were like the DDG-1000 Zumwalt Class. Also known as DD-21 or DD-X this design was too large and too ambitious to be a successful destroyer, The Zumwalts had a stealthy superstructure and were as big as a battleship, at least a state-of-the-art battleship from a century earlier. The DDG 1000 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 155mm guns, two 40mm automatic cannons 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). These would be 20-25,000 ton ships. All the Zumwalt proposals were too expensive and not affordable in a navy shipbuilding budget that had many priorities and very expensive Zumwalts were not possible.
The current replacement design for Burks is called DDG(X) and appears to be Zumwalt-lite. DDG(X) is a 13,500 ton ship with many Zumwalt features that worked as well as the best features of the Burkes. The first DDG(X) is scheduled to enter service in 2030 and cost about $2 billion each, half what a Zumwalt cost.
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. Now the United States is faced with the embarrassing example of China building similar ships more quickly, at much less cost and apparently up to world-class quality standards. There are lessons to be learned here and the navy is still trying to do that in a timely and cost-effective fashion.