"The U.S. Navy destroyer program is at a crossroads," according to an Aviation Week Intelligence Network investigation by Mike Fabey.
The Navy began its current course by deciding to forego further procurement of the next-generation DDG-1000 Zumwalt destroyers in favor of resurrecting the DDG-51 Arleigh Burke production line and retrofitting it with a new radar system and enhanced ballistic missile defense.
It’s expected that a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, due out in January, will be critical of this decision. Naval analyst Norman Polmar tells Fabey that there’s a very good chance this will lead the Navy to buy more Zumwalts. But, many analysts are asking if this is the right decision.
Which Ship Should Sail?
For myriad reasons, there is significant disagreement about which of these ships is the best option going forward.
First, there aren’t accurate estimates of the true procurement costs for either of these ships. The newest and most sophisticated version of the Burke destroyer, the Flight III, will cost significantly more than prior models because of all the upgrades and modifications the new ships require. As Aviation Week notes, the Congressional Budget Office claims that the Flight III’s will cost 25 percent more than the ships currently coming off of the restarted Burke production line, and “Navy figures put the price tag for the proposed vessels at $2.3 billion each.” The Flight III is set to be available in 2016.
The Zumwalts are even more expensive. Aviation Week reports that “program officials say the production price is about $3.1 billion per ship.”
While the production price advantage goes to the Burkes, at least based upon current estimates, procuring them may be penny-wise, pound-foolish according to many experts and Navy personnel Fabey spoke with. Over the lifetime of these ships, the Zumwalts are expected to be far less costly to taxpayers because of significantly lower needs for fuel, manning, and maintenance. And, these savings are, purportedly, obtained without sacrificing firepower or capabilities.
Which raises a larger, second point: in terms of capability, the Zumwalt destroyers are vastly superior to the Burkes. According to the Aviation Week investigation, “The Zumwalts promise greater radar protection against most missile threats and more capability to launch Special Operations Forces and helicopters and a much greater ability to operate and survive in the littorals, where the Navy says most of its future missions will be.”
As the figure below* indicates, the Zumwalts can operate in coastal areas, like those in China and Iran, where the Burkes simply cannot go.
A big reason for this is that the Zumwalts appear 50 times smaller to radar than a Burke, according to Admiral (Ret.) Vernon Clark, former Chief Naval Officer, and other Navy officials.
The Zumwalts are intended to be able to perform like cruisers and even be used as command ships, which the Burkes weren’t designed to do, according to the Aviation Week investigation.
While these capabilities might seem beyond reproach, critics of the Zumwalt—which are numerous—rightly point out that the only thing the ship has proven is its potential. The first ship has yet to set sail. In fact, it isn’t even fully built yet. Thus, there is considerable uncertainty about whether the Zumwalt will actually be able to deliver these capabilities without suffering from the dramatic cost growth that has plagued other Navy procurements, like the littoral combat ship (LCS). Naval personnel told POGO that the plethora of problems discovered on the LCS during testing are symptomatic of a larger problem with the Navy’s quality assurance system, and this quality assurance deficiency will undoubtedly plague the Zumwalt as well. Until the Zumwalt begins testing, its true capabilities and costs will remain unknown.
The level of uncertainty surrounding the cost of the revamped Burkes is even greater because their design isn’t even complete. So, they too might not be delivered at cost, according to the Aviation Week investigation. John Young, former Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, wrote in a letter to Congress that “the cost of a redesigned DDG 51 [Burke] very likely will be equal to or greater than that of a DDG 1000 [Zumwalt].” If this is true, opting for revamped Burke would yield the Navy a much less capable ship with higher operating costs and no initial cost savings.
These issues make it difficult to say what the best option is for the Navy. One of the only things we know with absolute certainty is that we need to know more. Thus, POGO recommends that the Navy conduct a true analysis of alternatives for its destroyer program, and then decide on the best path forward.
As the Congressional Research Service has noted, the Navy’s history of starting, stopping, and restarting fleet plans is costly and raises a question “as to whether there is adequate stability in Navy planning for acquisition of surface combatants.” In the current fiscal climate, neither the Navy, nor politicians with influence over it, have the luxury of wasting money through indecision. It’s time to set a course and sail it true.