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The U.S. Navy's Titanium “Tin Can”

How the sea service transformed destroyers, its most common warship and once among the cheapest, into Frankenships
The $8 billion USS Zumwalt looks fearsome, until you realize its guns have no bullets. (Photo: U.S. Navy courtesy of General Dynamics Bath Iron Works/Released; Illustration: CJ Ostrosky / POGO)

If the U.S. war in Afghanistan were a ship, it would be a Navy Zumwalt-class destroyer: They’ve cost too much, done too little, and the Pentagon’s rhetoric on them falls far short of reality. The ships represent an object lesson in the risk of trying to cram nearly a dozen new technologies into a warship, most of which failed to get out of port. The bottom line: American taxpayers have bought a fleet of three warships—at a cost of $8 billion each!—that are still looking for a mission. Not only that: the ships are missing their key weapon, and Congress—which rarely rebukes the Navy—recently ordered the service to strike the two that have been delivered to the fleet from its roster of combat-ready ships.

Inside a Pentagon spending nearly $2 billion a day, it’s easy to lose sight of truly wasteful programs.

Inside a Pentagon spending nearly $2 billion a day, it’s easy to lose sight of truly wasteful programs. But as the Zumwalt class winds down—the last of the three ships is slated to be delivered in 2020—taxpayers can view, to their horror, the arc of the program from beginning to (nearly) end. The vessels represent a case study of a program run without adult leadership. Its contractors and admirals were blinded by ambition that had little to do with providing the fleet with enough hulls to patrol the world’s oceans, but everything to do with maritime hubris that didn’t pan out. “They just started putting all sorts of requirements on the ship without really understanding the cost implications,” argues Robert Work, who served as a Marine officer for 27 years before serving as the number-two civilian in both the Navy and the entire Pentagon during the Obama Administration.

The Zumwalt class (formally known as the DDG-1000 class) is a good military program to focus on because its path has been clear: it began with an outlandish wish list and ended up crashing on the rocks of reality. Too often, the Pentagon argues that a program’s fate is “too early to tell” before it becomes “too late to stop.” But the DDG-1000 is now all but finished and we need to think of it as a warship frozen in amber that we can study to avoid similar problems in the future.

This is an autopsy to try to identify the festering wounds that led the DDG-1000 to be put out of its misery after only those three ships. Unfortunately, the condition is contagious, and future U.S. warships are suffering from many of the same ills.

Cramming a lot of new technologies into one platform was just crazy—it was doomed from the start.

John Lehman, Secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration

The Zumwalt class is emblematic of a plethora of Pentagon pathologies, revolving around promises to produce technological marvels that fail to materialize as costs soar and schedules drag: While the Navy has no foes capable of challenging it on the high seas, it tried to cram 11 cutting-edge technologies into the Zumwalt class destroyer—triple the traditional three or four. “Cramming a lot of new technologies into one platform was just crazy—it was doomed from the start,” says John Lehman, who served as President Ronald Reagan’s Navy secretary for six years. “Incremental is always the way to go when you’re talking about big systems.” (Lehman, a naval aviator, led the charge to build a 600-ship Navy, and came close when the fleet crested at 594 vessels in 1987. But the number has plunged since then, falling to 359 in 2007 and 287 today, up from its nadir of 271 in 2015.)

The solutions for these woes are simple; it’s the political will to implement them that’s missing. The Navy, its contractors, and Congress—largely lawmakers with shipyards and Navy bases in their states and districts—have to demand realistic projections when it comes to costs, capabilities, and production schedules. This is particularly vital given the decades it takes to design, develop, and deploy a new class of ships. By the time the rose-colored glasses have been fogged up by reality, those responsible for the snafus are long gone and not around to be called on the carpet for the malfeasance that is salted throughout Navy shipbuilding.

And the program’s twists and turns are instructive for another reason: for decades, the Navy has hatched schemes to build numbers of ships it can never afford. Because the Navy has been biting off more than it can chew, budget-wise, that leads to rising price tags for each ship it does end up buying. That, in turn, leads to fewer ships in the fleet, but no concomitant reduction in their missions. That overwork has led to sailors working 100 hours a week, and a pair of at-sea collisions in 2017 that claimed the lives of 17 sailors. 

The Navy, its contractors, and Congress have to demand realistic projections when it comes to costs, capabilities, and production schedules.

The Zumwalt represents the Navy’s third try to build a new kind of destroyer in the past 25 years: The DD-21 was born in 1994 and became the DD(X) in 2001, before morphing into the DDG-1000 in 2006. As costs spiraled out of control, the number of ships to be bought fell from 32, to 24, to 16, to 7, to 3. In 2008, when the Navy threw in the towel and decided it would only buy three of the ships, it also had to spread the huge cost of multiple new technologies over the trio, driving the cost-per-ship through the roof.

Destroyers are important because, despite all the glory scored by aircraft carriers, they have been the “backbone” of American naval power since World War II (they currently account for 65 of the service’s 287 ships). Their crews affectionately called them “tin cans” back then because of their thin hulls. The nation’s shipyards built more than 200 of them during that conflict, and they helped turn the tide against Japan in the Pacific. Since then, the Navy has launched eight classes of destroyers, the latest of which is the USS Zumwalt and her two sister ships. But they’re not tin cans so much as over-larded, cruiser-sized, titanium canisters. The Pentagon’s latest estimate for the cost of the three ships is $23,492,500,000—which works out to $7,830,833,333.33 each.

A snapshot on the cost of the Zumwalt program.
(Source: GAO Report, "Weapons Systems Annual Assessment," April 2018, page 86)

The Zumwalt class began as a way to give Marines the floating firepower they lost when the Navy mothballed its last battleship in 1992. But there were doubts expressed about the ship and its mission 20 years ago when it was still known as the DD-21. “Underlying the DD-21's emphasis on land attack is the implicit notion that a naval force can project a new kind of military power, a sort of clean, no-risk influence with brute force, à la strategic bombing,” retired Navy commander T.J. McKearney wrote in the July 1998 issue of Proceedings, an independent journal that closely monitors the Navy.

McKearney said that the mission was “mushy” and wouldn’t change warfare much, despite its backers’ arguments. “Our overall strategic consciousness regarding the post-Cold War world has led to a belief that the next battle will be in some far-off corner just beyond the reach of U.S. land-based forces,” he wrote. “But does the DD-21 represent an astute understanding of what our joint war-fighting needs are, or does it represent a fear that if we cannot play in the latest game that there is no role at all for us?”

His comment, buried deep in an article read only by Navy professionals, revealed an uncomfortable truth: sometimes new weapons are sought by the military services not because the Pentagon needs them, but because an individual service wants them—and doesn’t want the other services to horn in on their turf. Whether it’s a space force, radar-eluding “stealth” technology, or hypersonic weapons, every year the Pentagon spends billions based on illusory needs and technological mirages.

The USS Zumwalt heads to sea in 2016 from the Maine shipyard where it was built.
(Photo: U.S. Navy)

Yet lawmakers are hardly careful stewards of the Pentagon purse either. Congress ordered production of the new destroyers to be split between two shipyards, General Dynamics’ Bath Iron Works of Bath, Maine, and Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Ingalls Shipbuilding of Pascagoula, Miss., to keep them both operating (final assembly takes place in Maine). That effectively turned the Navy into the ships’ prime contractor, with all the efficiency that suggests.

The Navy basically stepped back and let the contractors have their way. “This boat, whatever its parameters, is going to be designed almost completely by industry,” John Douglass, the Navy’s top weapons buyer, told Congress in 1998. The RAND Corporation, in a 2011 study, agreed, but not in a good way. “The reduced role of the Navy in the design of ship and mission systems and the increased responsibility and authority of industry” was a key reason for the DDG-1000’s skyrocketing cost, it said.

This boat, whatever its parameters, is going to be designed almost completely by industry.

John Douglass, Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Research, Development, and Acquisition), to Congress in 1998

The Navy and its contractors gorged when it came to outfitting these vessels with futuristic capabilities. As big as a cruiser—warship classes don’t stick to the rules so much anymore—its strange wave-piercing tumblehome design and special coatings were designed to give it a radar signature the size of a fishing boat. It would ultimately be crammed with twenty-first century weapons like laser cannons and electromagnetic rail guns. Instead of gunpowder, those weapons would be powered by electricity, tapping into each ship’s pair of huge Rolls Royce generators that would also power it atop the world’s oceans at 35 miles an hour. Each ship can generate 75 megawatts of electricity, enough to provide the power needed by more than 50,000 homes.

Given that pedigree, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Zumwalt is a colossus of complexity1,200 software developers from 30 organizations developed the ship’s brains, operated by an unprecedented 14 million to 16 million lines of computer code. More than 35,000 signals—monitoring everything from opening doors to the ship’s power plants—run through 16 railroad-car-size “electronic module enclosures,” each weighing 18 tons and packed with 235 cabinets full of electronics. Instead of a skipper with a grease pencil plotting heading, speed, and other critical decisions with help from multiple watch-standers, silicon does much of the work. It’s designed to ease the 18,000 tasks performed by the crew, meaning fewer sailors are aboard, theoretically reducing the cost of operating the ship.

The hype surrounding the nascent destroyer was overpowering. “The DDG 1000 is the Navy’s future multi-mission destroyer, designed to provide precision strike and sustained volume fires to support Joint forces inland and conduct independent attacks against land targets,” Admiral Mike Mullen, then the chief of naval operations, reported in 2007. “DDG-1000 will be armed with the Advanced Gun System (AGS), which fires precision-guided Long-Range Land-Attack Projectiles (LRLAP) up to 83 nautical miles.”

It was to be a superman of ships, able to perform multiple missions in a single bound. “With state-of-the-art network-centric information technologies, DDG 1000 will operate seamlessly with naval, ground, and land-based forces,” Mullen added. “The DDG 1000 program’s emphasis on ‘sensor-to-shooter’ connectivity will provide a naval or Joint Task Force commander with the multi-mission flexibility to engage a wide variety of land targets while simultaneously defeating maritime threats.”

This is what happens when there is no one around to say: “Are you nuts?”

And, as a special bonus for taxpayers, much of it didn’t work.

Bigger and Better Guns

“The approximately 100-nautical-mile range of this revolutionary gun system [the AGS] will expand the battle space to an extent that was impossible with traditional naval guns,” argued Marine Lieutenant General Edward Hanlon Jr., the Marines’ top combat tactician, in 2002. “The system’s high rate of fire and large ammunition magazines will enable it to deliver the volume fires required for success in ground combat.” The largest weapon to be designed for a warship since World War II, the LRLAP was supposed to be able to “defeat targets in the urban canyons of coastal cities with minimal collateral damage,” according to its manufacturer Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon’s biggest contractor. Unlike previous generations of ship-fired shells, the AGS was to be pretty accurate, sending half its puny 24-pound warheads into a target zone roughly the size of a football field. They’d be pushed there by a rocket and guided there by GPS.

But that 200-ton gun’s 100-mile range kept shrinking: by 2007, it had fallen to “up to 83 nautical miles” and now can “reach up to 63 nautical miles,” according to the Navy’s official description of the capabilities of the Zumwalt class (be careful here: a nautical mile is 1.15 times the length of a standard land-lubber’s—statute—mile, and can be the source of unending confusion. You can blame the Earth’s circumference for the longer nautical mile).

Even at the high cost, we still weren’t really getting what we had asked for.

Vice Admiral Bill Merz, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Warfare Systems, to Congress in April 2018

In 2004, Lockheed had low-balled the cost-per-round at $35,000, and its cost predictably skyrocketed due to its complexity and the shrinking stockpile the Navy needed because it had slashed to three the number of ships that could use it. The number of rounds per gun aboard each ship also kept shrinking, from a target of 750, to 460, to the eventual 300. But that became a moot point when the cost of the custom-built guns’ custom-built projectile soared to close to $1 million a round. That’s roughly the cost of a Tomahawk cruise missile, but with less than 10 percent its range.  

“Even at the high cost, we still weren’t really getting what we had asked for,” Vice Admiral Bill Merz, the deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems, told Congress in April. The 155mm (a hair over six inches in diameter) LRLAP round, 7.3 feet long and weighing 225 pounds, has been formally mothballed before the first ship slated to use it has officially joined the fleet. “The Advanced Gun Systems will remain on the ships, but in an inactive status for future use, when a gun round that can affordably meet the desired capability is developed and fielded,” the Navy said when it released its proposed 2019 budget in February 2018.

Bottom line: the Navy is buying guns and $8 billion holsters to hold them, but has decided not to buy any bullets for them.

While the ships are getting missiles instead, those are much more expensive than the traditional bullet-like shells shot from guns. Since they’re cheaper, shells fired by guns are able to put more steel on target. And a warship that runs out of shells can get more from a supply ship at sea, while new missiles have to be brought aboard in port. “There is not a plan right now for a specific materiel solution for the replacement round,” Captain James Kirk—yep, he has the same name and rank as the commander of the starship USS Enterprise in the Star Trek franchise—said earlier this year. The real Kirk served as the Zumwalt’s first skipper from 2013 to 2016.

The Navy is buying guns and $8 billion holsters to hold them, but has decided not to buy any bullets for them.

The neutered gunships also made it easier for the Navy to change the ship’s mission, conceding its emphasis on attacking shore-based targets was ill-aimed given the rise of the Chinese navy and its expansion in the South China Sea. “We're going to be looking at shifting the mission set for this ship to a surface strike, land-and-sea-strike surface platform,” Kirk said early last year, “in contrast with previous focus on a littoral volume suppressive fires, in close to land.”

But that’s not to say the Zumwalts will lack firepower. In fact, President Trump has ordered the Pentagon to consider putting nuclear-tipped cruise missiles on “everything from surface DDG-1000s” to three kinds of submarines, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, who as head of U.S. Strategic Command oversees the Pentagon’s nuclear forces, said earlier this year. “That’s what the President’s budget has requested us to go look at those platforms, and we’re going to walk down that path.”

Hull, Stealth, and Power

The ship’s stealthy design helped make it humongous: The Zumwalt’s unusual trapezoidal tumblehome hull, with its inward sloping sides above the waterline, makes it easier to elude enemy radars by shrinking its so-called radar cross section. It also required the ship to be a lot bigger with flat surfaces to confuse enemy radars. Instead of masts and spinning antennas atop the ship, everything is hidden inside flat surfaces to minimize radar returns. With a displacement of 15,612 tons and at 610 feet long, it is 64 percent bigger than the Navy’s 9,500-ton Aegis cruisers and destroyers—and the biggest non-carrier since the Navy bought the nuclear-powered cruiser Long Beach in 1957. And, like a submarine, it can sink on purpose—but only by about three feet, not underwater—by flooding its ballast tanks with seawater. Beyond making it tougher for enemy radars to locate by hiding more of the ship underwater, it also provides increased stability for firing its now-silent guns.

The unusual hull design has had its doubters. “‘Stealth,’ achieved through tumblehome for the entire length of the hull…has preempted all other considerations of sound hull design for survivability after battle damage and sea-keeping in adverse conditions,” retired Navy captain Richards Miller, a top Navy ship designer in the 1960s, warned in 2005. “The so-called wave-piercing bow that is a result of the tumblehome will ensure the deck will be swept by heavy seas frequently. I question whether sailors will be happy with the results.”

A civilian naval architect with decades of experience put it more crisply. “On the DDG-1000, with the waves coming at you from behind, when a ship pitches down, it can lose transverse stability as the stern comes out of the water—and basically roll over,” Ken Brower told Defense News in 2007. The Navy and its contractors disagree.

The 1,000-ton composite deckhouse is lifted into place on the USS Zumwalt at Bath Iron Works in 2012.
(Photo: U.S. Navy)

Part of the Zumwalt’s stealthiness was to build its four-story, 1,000-ton superstructure out of two-to-three-inch-thick balsa wood sandwiched between layers of carbon fiber for “reduced infrared and radar signatures,” the Navy said as the program began. “The choice of an all-composite superstructure has helped engineers fulfill those conditions, as well as reduce topside weight and total ship tonnage,” CompositesWorld, a trade journal, noted in 2010. But the Navy abandoned this radical effort in 2013, opting to build the deckhouse for the final Zumwalt-class destroyer out of steel, saying the ship had lost enough weight elsewhere to shift to the heavier steel topside.

Electric power improves a Zumwalt-class destroyer’s fuel economy (kind of like a briny Tesla), eliminates a long, design-complicating propeller shaft, and lets it operate with fewer sailors. It’s quieter on board and provides plenty of power for those hoped-for lasers and rail guns. Traditionally, Navy ships have had two power systems: one to push them through the water and a second to keep radars and refrigerators humming.

The USS Zumwalt arrives at its home port in San Diego for the first time in 2016, after a 10-day stop for repairs in Panama.
(Photo: U.S. Navy / Petty Officer 3rd Class Emiline L. M. Senn)

But the basics have been a problem for the ships. The Zumwalt broke down (for a third time) in the middle of the Panama Canal on its initial voyage to its home port in San Diego in 2016. The ship’s propellers froze up as it transited the Panama Canal in November 2016, after seawater leaked into oil coolers critical to relaying power from the ship’s engines to its 30-ton, 18-feet-in-diameter propellers (the same problem had occurred in September 2016 as the ship made its way down the East Coast from Maine to the commissioning ceremony, forcing repairs at Norfolk, Va.). In Panama, the ship drifted into the canal wall, causing what the Navy said was minor damage. Tugs had to be summoned to push it through the canal. It then docked, first at a former U.S. base at the Pacific entrance of the canal, and then a nearby Panamanian base, for 10 days for repairs to allow it to continue on to San Diego. The Navy had to cannibalize replacement parts from the second and third Zumwalt-class vessels to help the first one make it to its home port, where its combat systems will be tested and activated.

“Repairs like these are not unusual in first-of-class ships during underway periods following construction,” the Navy said at the time, but old salts were left scratching their heads over how such a traditional technology could go so wrong. ”What’s frustrated us with DDG-1000 is we’ve had lube oil coolers since Noah had an ark, so what’s the cause there?” wondered Vice Admiral Thomas Moore in 2017. “Even though the ships are complex systems, relatively simple things can cause these ships to have problems,” said Moore, who as commander of Naval Sea Systems Command oversees production of Navy ships.

The Navy often pays to fix construction defects that are the contractor’s responsibility.

Shelby Oakley, Director of the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) Contracting and National Security Acquisitions team

The USS Michael Monsoor—named for a Navy SEAL killed in the Iraq war and posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor—busted one of its two turbine engines during sea trials, and shipbuilder Bath Iron Works had to build a rail system to swap it out last summer ahead of its commissioning, scheduled for this month. The Navy took delivery of the Monsoor in April, despite knowing of the need for the new engine. That raised eyebrows at the Government Accountability Office. “The Navy often pays to fix construction defects that are the contractor’s responsibility,” Shelby Oakley, the GAO’s Navy-ship expert, told the San Diego Union Tribune in July, after word of the balky power plant was made public. “In the case of DDG 1001, it is unlikely that the warranty remains effective.”

The third and final ship of the class—the USS Lyndon B. Johnson—remains under construction, so it hasn’t sailed into any snafus so far.

Fewer Sailors

Cutting the crew size is one thing the Zumwalt class was able to do. The 2001 goal was a crew 25 percent the size of the previous Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, or about 100 sailors and officers. This was a key selling point, because most of a weapon’s cost isn’t in the buying—it’s in the operating. If you think ships are expensive, sailors cost even more. “We want desperately to reduce the size of crews aboard ship,” Admiral Donald Pilling, the Navy’s No. 2 officer, said in 1998. “If we can reduce a destroyer to 95 people we can save 70 percent of the life-cycle cost of the ship.” Cameras and other sensors would replace the chores performed for generations by flesh-and-blood sailors. The average active-duty member costs $108,307 in pay and benefits, a sum that triples to $330,342 when the per-troop costs of training and infrastructure are included.

And if you can slash operating costs, surely it makes sense to spend more on the initial hardware to realize those savings.

There is a downside to fewer sailors—there might not be sufficient hands on board to save the ship if it is damaged in battle.

So the ship trades brawn for brains, requiring fewer but smarter sailors. “It’s very complex and so it puts a high demand on technical expertise and the toughness of the individual sailor on running that engineering plant,” Kirk said in 2016.

The crew size has crept up. The Zumwalt-class ships are slated to go to sea with 175 sailors apiece, almost double the original goal but nearly a 50 percent reduction from the prior Burke class.

There is a downside to fewer sailors—there might not be sufficient hands on board to save it if damaged in battle. But a team from Bath Iron Works said technology can fill the gaps. “The Zumwalt design supports effective small crew response to damage events and fire with thousands of sensors and automation of extinguishing systems all controlled via the Total Ship Computing Environment Infrastructure,” it said in a 2011 report.

Cost Woes

The Navy’s credibility gap when it comes to estimating the cost of its future ships is nothing new. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported in 2008 that the Navy’s projection that its then-seven-Zumwalt fleet would cost $16.4 billion was off by a stunning $12.1 billion. The CBO estimate of $28.5 billion was nearly 75 percent higher than the Navy’s. The CBO raised an eyebrow at how the Navy’s projected cost savings changed over time. In 2005, the service had estimated that it would save 28 percent each year on operating costs by replacing a Burke destroyer with a Zumwalt model (the CBO said the savings actually would be about 6 percent). Three years later, the Navy scaled back its savings estimate to 10 percent.

The Navy also fudged its numbers to mask the ship’s cost growth. When Pentagon cost experts said the ships would be more expensive than the Navy estimated, the service had to adjust its estimates. But instead of doing so all at once—and triggering howls of outrage from military-spending-watchers inside and out of government—it slowly raised its estimates. It did so in “a series of incremental, year-by-year movements away from an earlier Navy cost estimate for the program, and toward a higher estimate developed by Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office within the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD),” the Congressional Research Service reported in 2018. The dodge worked: it avoided a sudden cost spike that would have required the Navy to explain the abrupt increase to Congress in a formal report. Such a so-called Nunn-McCurdy breach happens if a weapon’s cost jumps by more than 15 percent per unit, and a program must be cancelled if the cost spikes by 25 percent, unless the defense secretary reports the program is vital to U.S. national security and the flawed assumptions that led to the cost increases have been fixed.

The Navy’s projection that its then-seven-Zumwalt fleet would cost $16.4 billion was off—by a stunning $12.1 billion.

The Navy’s rose-colored glasses led to numbers that clashed with estimates beyond those of its Pentagon overlords. Take its projection of how much the ship’s command-and-control computer systems—the Zumwalt’s brain—would cost. “The Navy has estimated the cost of these combat systems to be around $200 million,” the Government Accountability Office noted in 2008, “while the contractor’s estimate is over $760 million.” Only inside the Pentagon could a gap that huge be called a difference of opinion. In the real world, it might be called fraud.

Cost concerns began appearing in the press in 2009, but the Pentagon insisted the DDG-1000 was on track. “There’s no basis for any projection that this ship is going to cost 5 or 6 or 7 billion dollars,” John Young, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, said. What was striking about his claim was that the program was then set to produce only two ships. That meant their true cost, including the research and development that made them possible (and which Pentagon officials routinely ignore when discussing weapons’ costs), would be far above the $2.2 billion to $2.5 billion he was projecting.

Meanwhile, nautical cheerleaders were lauding the ship’s promise with a precision totally absent from the Navy’s cost estimates: “The power supplied by an all-electric ship like DDG 1000 is sufficient to fire up to twelve electromagnetic projectiles per minute. A twenty-pound projectile could reach a target about three hundred miles away in about six minutes. Initially traveling 8,200 feet per second and striking its target at five thousand feet per second, that twenty-pound rail-gun projectile will penetrate tens of feet of reinforced concrete through its kinetic energy alone,” a pair of supporters wrote in Naval War College Review in 2010.

“Directed-energy systems provide several mechanisms for cruise missile engagement and destruction. These weapons give the defender a speed advantage of roughly six orders of magnitude, reducing the `time of flight’ required to reach an approaching missile. In the two to five seconds required to deposit laser energy on a target, a Mach 4 missile will travel only about 3.5 nautical miles; laser energy could destroy the attacker sixteen to eighteen nautical miles from the defending platform—more than twice the best distance attained with conventional systems.”

Not Ready for War

There is little appetite for oversight of Navy spending on Capitol Hill. In part, that’s because the seapower subcommittees of both the House and Senate, stacked with lawmakers from shipbuilding states and districts, are not eager to rock the boats. But Congress finally lost patience with the Navy and ordered it, in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act signed by Trump in August, to strike the two delivered-but-not-operational Zumwalt-class destroyers from its list of battle-ready ships. The Navy, allied with President Trump’s pledge to build a 355-ship fleet, had added the Zumwalt and the second ship of the class, the USS Michael Monsoor, to the list before they were battle-ready. Congress told the admirals that warships without working weapons can’t be counted as battle-ready (although the Zumwalt did help the Coast Guard rescue an ailing fisherman off the Maine coast during sea trials in 2015).

Congress made the goal of a 355-ship Navy official policy last year, up from Obama’s 308. (The Navy, of course, follows election returns just as closely as any ward boss. That’s why when Donald Trump was elected president, it took the Navy just 38 days to conclude that it would take—surprise!—355 ships).

How Did This Happen?

The Navy hasn’t been able to churn out new destroyers for years because of evolving threats, insufficient funds for what it wants to do, and internecine fights inside the Defense Department itself. Two months after 9/11, the Navy killed the DD-21 program, which had been in development since 1994, in favor of the DD(X). This second destroyer class was to be a radical warship based on advanced technologies that could be applied to future destroyers and other classes of ships. The George W. Bush Administration and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had concluded the DD-21 wasn’t “transformational”—a hyped buzzword that has generated scant improvements to U.S. weapons despite the $21.7 billion spent on the Army’s Future Combat Systems and the $3 billion invested in Marines’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. “President Bush has made transformation of the Department of Defense a high priority,” then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said on Nov. 6, 2001 as the DD-21 slipped beneath the waves. “Through DD(X), the Navy has charted a course to transformation that will provide capability across the full spectrum of naval warfare.”

Every year the Pentagon spends billions based on illusory needs and technological mirages.

Inside the Navy, the DD-21 had few backers outside of the service’s “ship drivers”—the surface warfare officers who command warships (informally known as “black shoes” for their footwear). The “brown shoe” aviators and “bubblehead” submariners (apparently for their focus on the bubble that tracks a sub’s movement up or down beneath the waves) viewed the ship as a threat, but not the same kind of threat that would frighten the enemy. No, they saw it as a threat to their new aircraft carriers and plans to shift the weapons aboard some submarines from long-range nuclear weapons to shorter-range cruise missiles and special-ops forces. “These service communities are dedicated to their platforms,” explains Todd Harrison, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They’re scared of being rendered irrelevant, and always want a better one.”

Unlike the DD-21, the DD(X) “will signal a profound transformation”—are you paying attention, Secretary Rumsfeld?—”within the fleet, creating new capabilities and competencies and yielding significant combat advantage at sea, in the air, and over land,” a pair of shipbuilding admirals said in 2002.

With help from then-Chief of Naval Operations Vern Clark, that decision was sleight-of-ship. While the DD-21 had been described as part of the Navy’s “low-end”—cheap—fleet, its rising cost made it impossible for it to label it that way any longer. So when the Navy shifted from DD-21 to DD(X), it also launched the Littoral Combat Ship program, instantly giving itself a new “low end” ship to replace its costly new destroyers.

“It was considered the revenge of the surface warfare community,” Work, the former Pentagon second-in-command, recalls. “In the Cold War, there were the nuclear submariners, then there were the carrier aviators, and then there were the surface warriors—in third place.” But once the Cold War ended, the ship drivers bellied up to the all-you-can-eat buffet table. “There was this sense within the surface community that, `Hey, this is the time for us to get the ships we really want!’”

“The `Requirements School’ within the surface and joint warfare communities quickly gained the upper hand during the ship’s design phase,” Work said in a 2007 report for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a year before becoming the Navy’s number-two civilian official, and seven years before he became deputy secretary of defense. “Members of this school typically argue that requirements derived from the expected demands of future naval combat should drive the size and shape of future ships, and nothing else.” The outcome “was an utter disaster: the blind pursuit of requirements largely unfettered by fiscal constraints.”

The program suffered from the Pentagon’s typical rush, according to a 2006 RAND Corp. study. “The DD(X) program shares some characteristics inherent in many modern defense acquisition programs: high technological complexity and a limited opportunity to employ competitive sourcing in the later phases where detail design and production costs frequently argue against multiple suppliers,” it said. “The program is further complicated by a mandate to support both Ingalls and BIW (the two remaining shipyards capable of developing and producing this class of ship) and by the fact that a third firm, Raytheon Systems (the developer/producer of the warfare system), adds as much value to the system as the ship producer.” Bottom line: the Navy effectively became the prime contractor on the program, which “leads to complex issues on how to structure and manage the program.”

The new destroyer was envisioned as the heart of the Navy’s surface fleet, operating close to shore where war planners were betting major future combat would take place. But by 2006, alarms were beginning to sound about the very reason for building the ship—the guns that would allow it to pound shore targets. “Although the ship’s centerpiece, its two advanced gun systems, would give the Navy the ability to provide sustained, high-volume fire support to troops ashore, that capability has not been in high demand in the United States’ past several conflicts,” the Congressional Budget Office reported that year. It would have been worthless in landlocked Afghanistan and of “very little use” in Iraq, where U.S. forces “moved rapidly out of range of the Zumwalt’s guns.” Well, Marines always harrumph: “What about protecting us when we have to conduct the amphibious landing that is the reason we exist?” Sorry, CBO said, that argument no longer carries much seawater. “The United States has not conducted such a landing in more than half a century,” it noted, “although it has had opportunities to do so.”

The DD(X) formally became the DDG-1000 in 2006, and ran aground two short years later when the Navy said it was buying the wrong warship for the twenty-first century. “I started looking at the DDG-1000,” Admiral Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations, told the Los Angeles Times shortly after he killed the program in 2008. “It has a lot of technology, but it cannot perform broader, integrated air and missile defense”—a stunning reversal. In fact, the Navy decided that its older Arleigh Burke destroyers are better suited to the service’s new missile-defense priority.

A destroyer in name only, the Zumwalt is the battleship that never was. Named for one of the Navy’s most controversial chiefs of naval operations, it is fitting—although perhaps not fair—that the class of warships that carries his name has ended up swamped in controversy too. It’s a sad legacy for Admiral Elmo Zumwalt Jr., who died in 2000 at age 79, after serving in World War II and the Korean War and commanding U.S. naval forces in Vietnam. He was the youngest officer ever promoted to rear admiral, at 44 in 1965. Five years later, he became the youngest full admiral to serve as chief of naval operations, the Navy’s top officer, until his retirement in 1974.

“These days, Elmo `Bud’ Zumwalt refers to himself as a former sailor—sort of like calling Henry Ford a former car salesman,” President Clinton joked when he awarded Zumwalt the Medal of Freedom in 1998. “He is also one of the greatest models of integrity and leadership and genuine humanity that our nation has ever produced.” 

Zumwalt “paid a deeply personal price” for his military service, Clinton said. He ordered the defoliant Agent Orange sprayed in Vietnam, where he and his family believed it contributed to the death of his son, Elmo Zumwalt III, of cancer at 42 in 1988, and the learning disabilities afflicting his grandson, Elmo Zumwalt IV. They were only two of the tens of thousands of Americans and, according to the Vietnamese government, some 3 million of their citizens, affected by the poison.

The Navy christened the Zumwalt—set it afloat—in 2013, in a scaled-down ceremony that had been delayed by budget squabbles in Washington. “It is incredibly unfortunate that we are being forced to cancel the christening ceremony for this great warship,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said at the time. “But the ongoing government shutdown prevents us from being able to honor Admiral Zumwalt’s memory with a ceremony befitting his and his family’s legacy of service to our nation and our Navy.”

Three years later, the Navy commissioned the Zumwalt in a Baltimore ceremony that officially brought it into the fleet. “This ship symbolizes our commitment to remain bold, to remain the world’s preeminent naval force,” Naval Surface Forces Vice Admiral Tom Rowden told members of Zumwalt’s family in attendance. “It has been said that Admiral Zumwalt’s forward thinking brought the Navy kicking and screaming into the 20th century. Indeed, it is only fitting that this ship’s forward design and innovative technology will set the pace for the 21st century as well.”

The admiral getting the ship was pleased, too. “We can’t get this technological marvel to the Pacific fast enough,” U.S. Pacific Command commander Admiral Harry Harris (who is now serving as the U.S. ambassador to South Korea) said at the commissioning ceremony.

Admiral Harry Harris, chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, speaking at the Zumwalt’s 2016 commissioning in Baltimore.
(Photo: U.S. Navy / Petty Officer 2nd Class Sonja Wickard)

But Pentagon overseers were less impressed. “Some issues, such as whether the Advanced Gun System will operate properly in a constant motion environment, will not be resolved before the first ship goes to sea,” the Pentagon’s testing office noted in 2005, suggesting it might become a sitting duck while firing (since it won’t be firing those guns, it’s no longer an issue).

“When it boils down to a fight between the program managers and the cost estimators,” says Tom Christie, who ran the Pentagon’s testing office from 2001 to 2005, “the program people tend to win.” Too often, he adds, those boosters rushed their pet projects into production “based on not just optimistic projections of technology maturity, costs and schedules, but what I considered outright fabrications,” citing the tri-service F-35 fighter and the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship, in addition to the Zumwalts.

For a ship powered by electricity, outsider experts found its electrical system shocking. “When electrical power is disrupted causing a loss of chilled cooling water, affected…Data Centers will shut down within seconds due to thermal overload, despite being powered by uninterruptible power supplies,” the Pentagon’s Office of Operational Test and Evaluation said in 2009. “Electrical power casualties that cause the loss of both…Data Centers (Deadship Condition) will require manual restoration of electrical power and cooling. It will take a significant amount of time to recover and restore basic command and control operations placing the ship at risk.”

And its self-defense guns couldn’t rid the operating quarters of toxic fumes when fired rapidly. “Personnel safety procedures require that the gun mount be purged of the toxic fumes before personnel may reenter the mount,” the 2009 OT&E report found. “This will preclude immediate reloading of the gun during extended engagements.”

In February of this year—more than a decade after contracts were signed to build the ships—the Navy went back to Congress seeking $90 million in its 2019 budget for missiles that will give it added punch against enemy warships (the Navy also plans to use some of that money for “replacing components of the ship’s computing systems that are becoming obsolete,” Defense News reported). “After a comprehensive review of Zumwalt class requirements, Navy decided in November 2017 to refocus the primary mission of the Zumwalt Class Destroyers from Land Attack to Offensive Surface Strike,” the Navy said in requesting the new money. “The funding requested…will facilitate this change in mission and add lethal, offensive fires against targets afloat and ashore.” Adding an improved Tomahawk to the ships carries an estimated price tag of $679 million and is at least four years away.

It cost $11.1 billion to develop the Zumwalt class, almost as much as the $12.6 billion it cost to actually buy them, the Government Accountability Office reported in April. More than half of the class’s 12 “critical” technologies remain unproven, the GAO said. The service has all but given up on the land-attack mission that was the ship’s justification when the LRLAP rounds’ price exploded and five possible alternatives failed to do the job. “Consequently, the Navy has decided not to pursue a replacement munition, guided or unguided, in the near term—effectively rendering the gun systems useless for combat operations in the foreseeable future,” the GAO reported.

Once that happened, the CNO had little choice but wave the white flag: the Navy decided in February that with its main gun AWOL, the service couldn’t pretend the ships would be much use attacking targets ashore. So it’s shifting its primary targets to enemy ships, which will push the Zumwalt’s first real-world deployment until 2021—five years after the Navy acquired it, the GAO said in April.

It will take the Navy five years of post-delivery work on the Zumwalt before it is ready to deploy.

Buying and building a U.S. Navy warship is no easy task, even for relatively simple vessels. There’s the launching, christening and delivery, followed by the commissioning, which the Navy says represents “the acceptance of a ship as a unit of the operating forces of the United States Navy.” In fact, the Navy commissioned the Zumwalt in 2016, “creating an unusual situation in which a ship was commissioned into service more than two years prior to its delivery date,” the Congressional Research Service noted in an October 2018 report.

The Navy misled both lawmakers and taxpayers. “The DDG-1000 design was not stable at lead ship fabrication start in 2009—an approach inconsistent with best practices—although the Navy and its shipbuilders reported otherwise at the time,” the GAO said in its April report. “Ongoing development and shipboard testing of technologies have resulted in design changes that have led to significant schedule delays and cost increases.” When the Navy took delivery of the Zumwalt in May 2016, it identified more than 320 “serious deficiencies” in a warship that lacked weapons.

The Navy has been so eager to get the Zumwalt class into the fleet that it “is pursuing delivery and post-delivery plans that deviate significantly from the Navy’s process for constructing more typical surface ships,” the GAO reported in October. The Navy “plans to rely on waivers or exceptions to its policy, allowing it to accept delivery of these ships from the shipbuilder in incomplete condition.” The Navy’s top officer issued 32 waivers for “unresolved starred deficiencies” when his service took delivery of the first Zumwalt, the GAO said. At the time, the ship lacked “several shipboard systems, such as the navigation system, the close-in gun system, the communications system, and advanced flight deck lighting,” the GAO said. “As a result of delays during construction of the hull and the two-phased approach, 24 required shipboard system certifications were incomplete at delivery, including the certifications for aviation and navigation.” The GAO found in a 2016 report that Navy contract language “usually results in the government paying for the correction of deficiencies.”

The Navy has permitted the Zumwalts to be delivered in a substantially incomplete state, placing the fleet at even greater risk of absorbing excessive costs and having to face unknowns about ship quality.

Government Accountability Office report, “Policy Changes Needed to Improve the Post-Delivery Process and Ship Quality” (GAO-17-418)

Under Congressional pressure, the Navy changed the official date it took possession of the Zumwalt from May 2016 to May 2018, after its combat systems were aboard and working. “Thus, the Navy has commissioned DDG 1000 and placed the vessel in active service, but it has yet to be delivered in accordance with the current definition of delivery for this particular ship,” the GAO said.

The Navy has permitted the Zumwalts “to be delivered in a substantially incomplete state, placing the fleet at even greater risk of absorbing excessive costs and having to face unknowns about ship quality,” the GAO said. That has happened because of the service’s “liberal use of the various exceptions to its [procurement] process,” which has allowed it to accept the ships despite the Navy’s policy that delivered vessels “should be defect-free and mission capable.”

This procurement rot has led to fewer warships, which is leading to concerns that the Navy isn’t big enough to protect vital supply ships needed in a major war. And Navy management of many of those supply ships is so poor that one “developed a hole in the hull” that kept it from ferrying Marine gear to an exercise last year, the Pentagon Inspector General reported in September.

The Navy spends at least $18 billion annually buying new ships, and there’s a key reason it can’t buy as many as it projects. Cost estimating at the Pentagon isn’t as precise as it might be. Military careers are made by officers able to push problems down the line; all the incentives are rigged to mask, rather than fix, shortfalls. When pushing the war-fighting envelope, cost overruns can happen, especially when they are rooted in unwarranted optimism when it comes to capabilities, cost and schedule. That’s why the Navy’s confidence in its DDG-1000 cost estimates is only 50%—typical for Defense Department programs.

The Pentagon’s confidence level in its cost estimating for the DDG-1000 is only 50 percent, which means it’s not confident they’re close to accurate.

But in 2016, Congress instructed the Pentagon to generate even squishier cost estimates based on “a discussion [of] program risks, and the potential impacts of risks on program costs,” according to a Pentagon assessment of the change. The move to the more optimistic estimates will allow the services to begin more programs than they can afford, Pentagon officials say.

Congress relaxed the rules for estimating weapons costs in 2016.

Is This Any Way to Run a Navy?

It’s important to acknowledge that the U.S. military is always responding to new and evolving threats, and that can often require developing new technology. But that push has to balance desires with needs and to acknowledge that every dollar spent on some pie-in-the-sky scheme is a dollar that can’t be spent on more prosaic things like boots, bullets and destroyers that work.

Sometimes, those in charge have to learn to say “no.” The Navy, for example, can never do all that the nation’s war-fighters ask of it. In 2015, in fact, it was able to meet only 44 percent of their requests. Political judgments are needed to weigh the risks the nation is willing to face when it trims its sails. The Navy has been trying to do more with less, leading to disastrous results highlighted by two collisions in the Pacific that killed 17 U.S. sailors in 2017.

Sound political judgments also need to be made about how complicated a twenty-first century warship needs to be—especially if the opportunity cost of chasing contractors’ dreams means forfeiting dozens of good-enough warships. In late September, the Navy awarded Bath and Ingalls—the two companies that flubbed the Zumwalt—contracts to begin work on 10 new-and-improved $2-billion-apiece Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. That’s the 30-year old design that the DD-21/DD(X)/DDG-1000 was supposed to replace.

With budgets stretched—they’re always stretched inside the military—we can’t afford to waste funds on aborted programs. The Navy likes to say that the lessons learned in DDG-1000 will be applied to future warships, perhaps salvaging some of the investment. But that’s a little like crediting the Titanic for having plenty of ice aboard.

The Navy also can keep its ships sailing longer. The service lusts after new platforms, and routinely retires ships early to free up funding for new ones. But the Navy, apparently recognizing the economic folly of such premature mothballing, announced in April that instead of retiring its Burke destroyers after 35 or 40 years, it plans to keep them steaming for 45. Retired Navy captain John Cordle argues that’s not good enough: The massive taxpayer investment in building warships means that the Navy should invest in maintenance and upgrades to keep them steaming for a full half-century. “Older ships cost more to maintain,” he wrote in Proceedings in September, “but still less than building new ones.”

In June, the GAO trained its heavy guns on the Navy and fired away in what it called a “special product“ based on its work over the past decade. “While the Navy is continuing to accept delivery of ships, it has received $24 billion more in funding than originally planned but has 50 fewer ships in its inventory today, as compared to the goals it first established in its 2007 long-range shipbuilding plan,” the GAO said. “Additionally, the Navy’s shipbuilding programs have had years of construction delays and, even when the ships eventually reached the fleet, they often fell short of quality and performance expectations. Congress and the Department of Defense have mandated or implemented various reform efforts that have led to some improvements, but poor outcomes tend to persist in shipbuilding programs.”

The Congressional watchdog highlighted a permanent Pentagon problem. “The Navy often initiates shipbuilding programs with weak business cases that over-promise the capability the Navy can deliver within the planned costs and schedule,” the GAO said. “As ship construction progresses and these initial business cases predictably begin to erode, Navy shipbuilding programs come under pressure to control growing costs and schedules, often by changing planned quality and performance goals.” While the Navy agrees “in principal” that this is bad and that it needs a smarter approach to building warships costing billions, the GAO concluded, it continues to ignore what everyone acknowledges is the best and right way to build complicated things.

No one has paid a price for the disaster that is the Zumwalt class; in fact, many were promoted.

No Accountability

But progress doesn’t happen without accountability. Navy officials continue to sing the Zumwalt program’s praises as if it were a success. Each time concerns were raised during its still-continuing gestation, admirals would explain why things weren’t actually so bad when, usually, they were worse.

The Navy isn’t known for second-guessing, although the Navy’s former number-two officer said green-lighting the Zumwalt class was his biggest regret when he retired in 2000. “We wanted a Ford pickup truck, and we got a Ferrari sports car,” Admiral Don Pilling said as he left the Pentagon after serving three years as the vice chief of naval operations, according to someone who heard the comment. Pilling died in 2008.

No one has paid a price for the disaster that is the Zumwalt class; in fact, many were promoted. The destroyer’s first four program managers—who were in charge when relatively minor adjustments could have led to major improvements in the ship—all were promoted from captain to admiral upon wrapping up their DDG-1000 stint. Retired Admiral Jay Johnson, the chief of naval operations from 1996 to 2000, ended up in charge of General Dynamics, which owns Bath Iron Works, from 2009 to 2012. The companies responsible for the Zumwalt—“designed almost completely by industry,” according to that top Navy civilian weapons buyer 20 years ago—continue collecting billions of dollars in Pentagon contracts annually, as if the Zumwalt were a smashing success.

The Real Price

The money the Navy routinely squanders in its shipbuilding accounts is dulling the ability of the service to continue its historic role of guaranteeing free trade on the high seas. As tensions continue to mount with China in the South China Sea, the Navy will struggle to deal with Beijing while simultaneously handling other maritime challenges.

Yet buying refreshed Reagan-era Burke destroyers and keeping an aging fleet steaming longer are only stopgap measures. Current Navy plans acknowledge the fleet won’t reach its goal of 355 ships until “beyond 2050,” which is the political equivalent of never.

That’s why the nation needs to keep its supership dreams in check. “As long as our President and you—the American people—have an insatiable appetite for security, then I have an insatiable appetite for the stuff to underwrite that security,” Admiral Harris said at the Zumwalt’s commissioning two years ago. “Stuff like this magnificent machine behind me.”

That should make every taxpayer nervous. After all, 25 years ago the Navy began what became the Zumwalt class when it launched what it called its Surface Combatant for the 21st Century effort. The Navy has recently begun work on its next generation of warships. This time around, the service is calling it the Future Surface Combatant program.