The U.S. Navy’s DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class destroyers are extraordinarily expensive. Since 2009, the cost of the ships has increased 34.4 percent, according to the Congressional Research Service. Each of the three Zumwalt’s being built will cost taxpayers around $3.4 billion. And, that’s on top of the more than $9 billion in research and design funding that has gone into this program.
Are they worth the price? The Navy didn’t think so in 2009 when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced the program would end with the procurement of just three ships, down from the 32 ships the Navy had initially planned to buy.
But, now that the first Zumwalt is actually in the water, there’s growing concern that this decision may have been penny wise and pound foolish, as it leaves significant voids in the Navy’s ability to adapt to future threats. Most notably, ending the Zumwalt program in favor of buying upgraded versions of the decades-old Arleigh-Burke DDG-51 destroyers limits the Navy’s capabilities without significantly reducing costs.
While the DDG-51 is designed to be a traditional destroyer that serves a largely defensive role, the DDG-1000 is an immensely powerful battleship. The epitome of this power is the ship’s two 155 mm guns, which are the largest guns fitted on any post-World War II ship. The blandly named advanced gun system can devastate targets up to 63 nautical miles away, three times as far as the DDG-51’s guns. There are 600 rounds of ammo on the ship, and the guns can keep firing while more ammunition is brought onboard, resulting in what the Navy calls an “infinite magazine.”
According to the Zumwalt’s commanding officer Capt. James Kirk, “She has got a flight deck almost two times the size of a Burke’s,” that can accommodate significantly more, and bigger, aircraft.
While its traditional weapons are extraordinary, the Zumwalt’s true power lies in its ability to generate, well, power. When the first-of-class Zumwalt lit-off its power generators late last month it became literally the most powerful destroyer in U.S. navy history, producing 78 megawatts, enough energy to power about 10,000 homes. Conversely, DDG-51s produce just 9 megawatts of power, with only 1.7 megawatts remaining when the ship is at speed, compared to the 58 megawatts a Zumwalt still has available when traveling at 20 knots.
This extra power gives DDG-1000s the ability to operate electrically powered weapons like the electromagnetic railgun, which uses nothing but energy to launch projectiles at speeds up to Mach 7.5, and has been described by the Office of Naval Research as, “a true warfighter game changer.” The DDG-1000s will also be able to use the Navy’s laser weapon system, which has a demonstrated ability to shoot down aircraft and swarm boats. With it the Navy will be “spending about $1 per shot on a directed-energy source that never runs out and gives us an alternative to firing costly munitions at inexpensive threats,” according to Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder. In contrast, the DDG-51’s surface-to-air missiles cost $165,400 per shot.
In addition to its power, the Zumwalt can accommodate these next-generation weapons because it has the space for them. Zumwalts are significantly larger than DDG-51s — approximately 100 feet longer, 13 feet wider, and displace over 50 percent more water. They also have plenty of what the Navy refers to as “growth margin,” which allows weight to be added to ships without excessively inhibiting performance. “The 15,000-ton ship has a 10 percent growth margin, equating to some 1,500 tons of potential increase that would enable the ship to host new sensors and weapons as technologies evolve,” according to an article in Naval War College Review.
Despite this added weight and space, DDG-1000s can operate in shallower, close-to-shore littoral waters compared to the DDG-51s, and their stealthy hull design makes them look like fishing boats to enemy radar. This allows them to travel into areas where the DDG-51s can’t safely go, like the Persian Gulf near Iran or the Yellow Sea near North Korea. They can also “provide the defensive support needed in littoral environments by a lower-cost littoral combat ship (LCS) with no defensive capability,” according to John Young, formerly the Navy’s assistant secretary for research, development and acquisition.
The problem with using DDG-51s in lieu of DDG-1000s is that they are “ill-suited to providing defensive cover for LCS or helping the Navy conduct operations in a coastal environment,” says Young.
Thus, it’s not at all clear how LCS will be able to safely operate in littoral waters given that, alone, it’s “not expected to be survivable in high-intensity combat,” according to J. Michael Gilmore, Defense Department director of operational test and evaluation.
The ability to use extremely inexpensive electric weapons is only the beginning of the DDG-1000s cost-saving advantages over the DDG-51. Unlike DDG-51s, DDG-1000s are equipped with a variety of new technologies that allow the ship to operate with a much smaller crew — roughly half that of the DDG-51s. Over the course of a 35-year service life this personnel difference could save taxpayers $280 million per ship, given that Defense Department estimates DDG-51 personnel cost at approximately $20 million per year/ship, compared to just $12 million for the DDG-1000’s crew, adjusting for inflation.
While we know that DDG-51s will cost more to operate, there’s less certainty about the purchase price of upgraded DDG-51s. The Congressional Budget Office projects that the upgraded “Flight III” DDG-51 destroyers will cost about $1.9 billion each, but there’s ample evidence from the Government Accountability Office that the price could be significantly higher.
Young warned more than six years ago that “the cost of a redesigned DDG-51 very likely will be equal to or greater than that of a DDG-1000.” Compound this with the higher operating costs of the DDG-51s, and the decision to procure them at the expense of DDG-1000s isn’t penny wise and pound foolish, it’s just foolish.
Given all of this, how could the Navy have possibly chosen the DDG-51 Flight III over the DDG-1000? In short: a flawed study.
The basis for the choice was the Navy’s 2009 Radar/Hull study, which the Government Accountability Office in 2012 explained “may not provide a sufficient analytical basis for a decision of this magnitude,” because it, “does not fully evaluate the capabilities of different shipboard combat systems and ship options under consideration, does not include a thorough trade-off analysis that would compare the relative costs and benefits of different solutions under consideration or provide robust insight into all cost alternatives, and assumes a significantly reduced threat environment from other Navy analyses.”
A Navy officer intimately familiar with the study told Aviation Week that parts of the study were “hijacked” and that “People who had an agenda kind of drove the study for a solution.”
Researchers at the University of Tennessee conducted an analysis of Navy destroyers that didn’t succumb to these errors and they found that, “when the DDG-51 and DDG-1000 are compared with respect to threat environment, the DDG-1000 … would be significantly more survivable. Even in smaller numbers, the more survivable vessel presents a more substantial capability throughout the threat envelope.” Similarly, CRS also argues that the DDG-1000, with upgraded radar and ballistic missile defense capability, is an acquisition option Congress may wish to consider.
All of these comparisons between DDG-51s and DDG-1000s belie the fact that the ships should not be competitors; they serve different, but complementary roles that are both essential for the future of the U.S. Navy. Fortunately, it’s not too late for Congress to act — the DDG-1000 production line is still hot. If we’re serious about having a Navy that can adapt to the threats of tomorrow, then we need to get serious about DDG-1000’s today. Ben Freeman, Ph.D., is senior policy adviser in the national security program at Third Way, a centrist think tank. Follow him on Twitter @BenFreemanDCPhoto Credit: Navy