New Ships are Breaking The Bank So the Navy is Fixing its Old Ones
The ballooning costs of new ships are forcing the Navy to reevaluate its plans to boost the fleet size from 280 to 313 ships in the coming decade.
Having acknowledged that buying all new ships to replace aging vessels is financially unrealistic, Navy officials are weighing the possibility of extending the service life of dozens of surface combatants that typically would have been decommissioned.
As cruisers and destroyers reach their midlife years, the Navy plans to upgrade those ships so they remain in the fleet for their full 35 years, officials say.
“The upgrades to the destroyers and cruisers are absolutely key, as far as our ability to attain 313 ships,” says Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations.
The Navy has had a checkered history of decommissioning surface ships well before the cruiser and destroyer hulls have attained their full service life expectancy of 30 years and 35 years, respectively. The first baseline Ticonderoga-class cruisers were taken out of service before they reached 20 years because the Navy could not afford to modernize them. Likewise, the entire Spruance-class destroyers were retired early. “There was a lot of service life left in those ships,” says Vice Adm. Paul Sullivan, commander of Naval Sea Systems Command.
Decommissioning ships years before their scheduled service retirement means the Navy has been throwing away the millions of dollars it invested in those hulls. Officials hope that by modernizing the current surface fleet, they can sustain the ships through their full service lives and meet the goal of a 313-ship fleet.
To modernize a surface combatant costs a fifth of what it takes to build a new ship. A new destroyer costs about $1 billion. The price to upgrade a destroyer is about $180 million and for a cruiser is about $200 million, says Cmdr. Michael Van Durick, the surface combatant division director for Naval Sea System Command’s surface warfare directorate.
Navy officials say it is possible to extend the service life of the ships by five more years.
“As long as you maintain the combat system relevance, as long as you fully fund your modernization and maintenance and keep the hulls in the right shape, there should be no reason why we can’t extend that five years,” says Rear Adm. James McManamon, deputy commander of Naval Sea Systems Command’s surface warfare directorate.
The Navy, in its 30-year shipbuilding plan, is counting on that five-year extension for its destroyers to help close the shortfall in surface combatant numbers in the 2020s, when many ships will be retiring.
In previous shipbuilding plans, the Navy had shown a long-term shortfall in the number of cruisers and destroyers in its fleet. It currently operates 22 cruisers and 55 destroyers. The current plan eliminates that shortfall and even shows a slight surplus by assuming a five-year extension of the service lives of the DDG-51s, says Ronald O’Rourke, a naval analyst at the Congressional Research Service.
“The Navy’s report on the 30-year plan acknowledges that extending the service lives of these ships will require additional maintenance work, and that the cost of this work is not included in the estimated cost of the 30-year plan,” he says.
Naval Sea Systems Command is studying options to extend by five years the service life for non-nuclear surface ships, including cruisers, destroyers, frigates and amphibious vessels. But the command will not address the budgetary implications of those upgrades.
“It’s not nirvana to go extend a ship’s service life of 35 years to 40 years,” Sullivan tells reporters. “There’s a price to pay for that. It’s going to cost a lot of money to do that extension.”
In recent testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, O’Rourke questioned whether the Navy actually will be able to extend the service lives of the DDG-51s and operate them in a cost-effective manner for 40 years, given the wear and tear that might accrue on the ships in coming years.
He points to the shipbuilding plan, which projects that ships may require more upgrades in the future.
“A single mid-life modernization is no longer adequate for CG-47 and DDG-51 class ships due to the evolving threat environment, mandating periodic updates to keep them effective and to sustain engineering plant capacity,” it states.
At one of the shipyards that repairs and maintains the Navy’s surface vessels, officials have observed some of the wear and tear when ships come in for service.
“We’re seeing that the ships are run very hard, but they’re very well maintained,” says Bill Clifford, president of BAE Systems Ship Repair, based in Norfolk, Va. The company is the lead integrator for the Navy’s cruiser modernization program.
The shipyard has discovered cracks in the ships’ superstructures. The yard is working with Pittsburgh-based Alcoa Inc., an aluminum producer, and metallurgists to help solve the problem on future ships, officials say.
An integrated production team consisting of shipyard, Navy and Alcoa representatives is coming up with better ways to identify where the stresses and the corrosion are in the aluminum. That way, when a ship comes in, workers are not searching for the cracks — they’re laying out a plan to fix them, says Clifford.
“We are in the hunt for better ways to weld and repair aluminum,” he adds.
In February, the USS Bunker Hill pulled into BAE’s San Diego shipyard to begin a yearlong process to upgrade its hull and its mechanical, electrical and combat systems. It’s the first Ticonderoga-class cruiser to receive the combat systems upgrade, which includes new battle management and command and control computers, air dominance and force protection packages, integrated bridge systems, electronic navigation capability and machinery control systems. Three other cruisers have had their hulls upgraded and the Navy will ramp up the process in the coming years.
The Navy also is planning upgrades to its DDG-51 destroyers to enable smaller-size crews to sail them out to their full service life of 35 years — and potentially beyond. Because the final two ships of the class have yet to be built, the Navy is in the unprecedented position of being able to upgrade its oldest ships with technologies being developed for the newest hulls. That will reduce risk for the Navy, says Dave Shikada, of Lockheed Martin Corp., which is designing a new digital machinery control system for the final two Arleigh Burkes.
The company is replacing the engineering consoles with a universal control console that has a touch screen interface to allow a single sailor to operate multiple stations, says Steve Farrow, director of maritime programs. That technology will be incorporated into the hull, mechanical and electrical upgrades on the older destroyers, which will help reduce the crew size.
“What we’re doing is reducing workload principally by automating functions that humans perform today in the DDG,” says Shikada.
Part of the mandate in the destroyer modernization program is to reduce crew size through new technologies that are coming on line for the Navy’s next-generation classes of ships, such as the DDG-1000 destroyer and the littoral combat ship.
“There’s no question that our crew sizes have to come down,” says Roughead.