Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Navy’s New Zumwalt Class Destroyer

I think it is time for me to weigh-in on the Navy’s new “super destroyer”, the Zumwalt class DD (X) class destroyer program. First the “pros” (from the Defense Insider):

The prime missions of the new DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class destroyer are to provide naval gunfire support and next-generation air defense in near-shore areas where other large ships hesitate to tread, possibly even as the anchor for an action group of stealthy Littoral Combat Ships and submarines. The estimated 14,500 ton (cruiser sized) Zumwalt-class will be fully multi-role, however, with undersea warfare, anti-ship, and long-range surface attack roles. That makes the DDG-1000 suitable or another role – as a “hidden ace card,” using its overall stealth to create uncertainty for enemy forces.

That all sounds pretty impressive and this new concept coud be badly needed for 21st century operations, especially in the face of increasing challenges from China. But, at over $3 billion per ship for construction alone the program faces significant obstacles. The program could well face the same fate as the ultra-sophisticated, ultra-expensive SSN-21 Seawolf Class submarines. In fact, that may have already come true, with news of the program’s truncation to just 3 ships.

Maine's Bath Iron Works has already cut 44 salaried positions as design work slows down on the next-generation Zumwalt destroyer. Spokesman Jim DeMartini says the lead ship is now 50 percent complete, so much of the design work is finished for the new-generation destroyers. Bath plans to build three of the Zumwalts before construction shifts back to Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. He says the job cuts are necessary "to meet our Navy customer's changing requirements within their available funding."

I am strongly in favor of exploring new design concepts combining new technologies with new capabilities. This process is absolutely necessary to maintain our Navy’s ability to defend Americas interests around the world. The Pentagon, including the Navy Department, has never impressed me, however, in it’s ability to evolve effectively.

This program may be a perfect example. At an estimated cost of over $3 billion per ship (and we all know what happens to estimates), the Navy originally went whole-hog for the idea and hoped to build 32 of these ships. The order, with only one about half finished, has already been cut to 3. The problem, in my view, is that the concept and technology sounds impressive, but concept and practical application do not always work, especially when it comes to an environment dominated by wind, wave and water.

Building one hull platform to test the design and the different weapons and stealth platforms (in other words, build one that works at sea, under all conditions first) would seem to me to be a better course of action. Yes, it may take a little longer, but you can refine the details and get a working, proved, design before committing to a program of 32 ships at a cost of over $96 billion (tax payers) dollars.

If you think I am being too cautious, just look at the Navy’s new San Antonio Class Landing Platform ship (LPD) program ( like the USS New York). They built several of them and had continuing and costly problems, including cracked hulls, defective weapons systems and chronic electrical malfunctions before perfecting the design because it was not adequately tested and refined with problems corrected before the first ships were completed. Those mistakes cost the Navy a great deal of of money and lost time.

As I said earlier, I like the idea of th new Zumwalt-class destroyers and I think they are sorely needed. But, I just think the Navy needs to slow down and get it right for a change. Let’s just take a little more time to perfect the design and concept before building a dozen ships which can not be relied upon to fulfill their intended role.

Live Long and Prosper....

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