When It Comes to the Navy’s Destroyers, It’s a Numbers Game
Providing the coverage the Navy believes it needs to patrol the world’s oceans is being made more complicated by a chronic shortage of destroyers, analysts have said.
And budget uncertainties are only complicating the problem, a February Congressional Research Service report penned by Ronald O’Rourke noted.
The Arleigh Burke-class DDG-51s in their current and future iterations, along with three Zumwalt-class DDG-1000s — still under construction — are all in the Navy’s fiscal year 2013 30-year shipbuilding plan mix.
A Navy Department report to Congress on combatant vessel force structure requirements calls for maintaining 88 total destroyers and cruisers for the next three decades. That is down from the projected need for 94 ships that was stated in 2012. Despite the downward estimate, the service will still be chronically short of destroyers, especially over the next 10 years, O’Rourke said.
It won’t be until 2023 to 2028 until it has enough of the ships to carry out all of its missions.
The Navy has four different destroyers included in these long-term plans. The Arleigh Burke-class DDG-51s were first produced in the 1980s. There are two versions of these sailing today, the Flight I and Flight IIs. An upgraded version, the Flight IIIs, are slated to be commissioned beginning in 2016.
The Zumwalt-class DDG-1000 program was capped at three ships when the Navy ended the program in 2010 citing cost overruns. That same year, its next-generation cruiser concept the CG (X) was scrapped in favor of the Flight III.
Lawmakers have several decisions to make, O’Rourke pointed out. One overarching question is whether Congress should take action to mitigate the projected shortfall of cruisers and destroyers over the next 30 years.
Of more immediate concern are the effects of sequestration and the continuing resolution, he said.
“Decisions Congress makes concerning these programs could substantially affect Navy capabilities and funding requirements, and the U.S. shipbuilding industrial base,” O’Rourke said.
Mike Petters, president and chief executive officer of Huntington Ingalls Industries, one of two builders of Navy destroyers along with General Dynamics Bath Iron Works, said that the government isn’t saving any money by not funding these programs on schedule.
“Delaying the start of any shipbuilding or overhaul program invariably makes it more expensive because the work is precisely coordinated across numerous departments and with suppliers. All of that has to come together in a very synchronized way. And when you start moving things around, you upset that synchronization,” Petters said.
He expected the Navy to announce the next DDG-51 multi-year ship award of either nine or 10 ships — split between Huntington Ingalls and Bath Iron Works — this year, which is past when it was expected.
“The destroyer program was a bid that we put together last summer. My view is the Navy would’ve been able to evaluate those bids and make those awards before the end of last year, but because we had a [continuing resolution], they had to push that off until the end of March or April,” Petters said in a conference call with investors Feb. 27.
One of the solutions put forth to address the destroyer shortfall is extending the service lives of some of the earlier Flight I and IIs to 40 to 45 years instead of 35 to 40.
That takes a lot of planning, and an investment in engineering and assessment, said Joe Carnevale, senior defense advisor to the Shipbuilders Council of America. He spent a good portion of his Navy career working on destroyer programs before retiring as a rear admiral. The question is whether there will be funding to do the preliminary work needed to keep the ships running, he said.
“Clearly the key to doing that is to do the engineering work that lays out the maintenance plan and modernization plan that will get you there. That takes an investment,” he said.
The funding being available to do that is questionable when sequestration, brought on March 1 by the Budget Control Act, has prompted the Navy to cancel overhauls.
“You don’t get there by canceling all third- and fourth-quarter availability as they are facing right now,” said Carnevale. “That is exactly what you don’t want to do. That will shorten the service life.”
Retired Navy Capt. Wayne Hughes, professor of practice at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., said numbers matter.
“Not mathematically, but logically. If one ship is sunk, it loses its offensive capability, its defense capability, and is no longer there to serve as a target, which is part of its role,” he said.
The shift to Asia-Pacific is appropriate, he said. “But we aren’t actually moving very quick in that direction. We need a maritime strategy.”
If the Navy doesn’t have the necessary number of ships to cover the region, then they simply don’t. There isn’t anything it can do to make up for the shortfall.
“That means we are going to really struggle to have an appropriate presence in places around the world,” he said.
Carnevale said: “With our shift to the Pacific Rim as a focus area of both military and economic interest, there is the tyranny of distance when you start deploying ships to the Western Pacific.”
Hughes advocated simpler, less expensive destroyers.
Modern destroyers have moved beyond their first roles in World War II when they were primarily escorts for aircraft carriers, convoys in the Atlantic and amphibious assault missions. They evolved at the tail end of the war into small, lethal night combatants during the Solomon Island campaign.
Over the years, they have taken on more roles, he noted.
The Navy now uses them for anti-air warfare employing the Aegis system, open ocean anti-submarine warfare, and, lately, ballistic missile defense.
Although there hasn’t been a sea battle since World War II, Hughes doesn’t rule one out.
“We have gotten in the habit of not being attacked,” he said. The rise of China and Iran makes this a possibility, which is why he believes the destroyers should be simplified, and their numbers boosted, he said.
“If my ship is three times more potent and three times as sturdy, [and] if you have three times as many of the cheaper ships, you have parity with me. If the two fleets fight, it will be a draw,” he said.
“The more single purpose destroyers the better … if you lose one capability, you don’t lose it for all missions,” he added.
Meanwhile, destroyers are being used for anti-piracy missions, he said. “We should be using Coast Guard ships. But the Coast Guard is too busy doing what it is supposed to be doing.”
O’Rourke said another major question that needs to be asked if the Navy attempts to extend the service lives of DDG-51s is whether they have the capacity to be fitted with future subsystems that might be larger or require more power than what is found on the ships today.
This so-called “growth margin” is normally built into the first generation ships in anticipation of future needs. The question is what will be required three or four decades out?
Hughes said it is folly to try to predict destroyer requirements so far in advance. No one in 1970 could have seen what the world is like today. “There are just as likely to be just as many unexpected situations — both technological, and geopolitical — 40 years in advance. You can’t see that far,” Hughes said.
One probable requirement on the horizon is a larger radar for ballistic missile defense, O’Rourke said.
The Navy canceled the CG(X) cruiser program in part because it believed the Flight III DDG-51s could augment its air and missile defense radar — still in development — with other sensors from sources off board the ship. There is a risk that these supplementary sensors won’t be up to the task, O’Rourke said.
The DDG-51s could be lengthened to accommodate bigger radars. But that would be an expensive proposition, and could result in reduced procurement for other destroyers, thus exacerbating the shortage problem, he added.
“The Flight III DDG, while it will have a larger radar, I don’t believe will have a radar as large as the Navy would like to field, which requires something like a cruiser size,” Carnevale said. Clearly, the Navy wants a larger, more powerful radar to even more effectively accomplish the ballistic missile defense mission while at the same time conducting area air-defense, he added.
The DDG-1000 hull might take larger radar. It would be a major redesign or a new design, he said, and it would be a significant endeavor, he said. That suggests that a new cruiser-sized ship will be in the cards someday.
Overall, Flight III is a “solid program” and the Navy will eventually transition to the new ships, he said.
“How quickly they can get to that transition remains to be seen, given the budget constraints that are out there. There may be delays, but I think the new radars, new systems, new technologies that they want to implement in Flight III are essentials and the Navy will ultimately get there,” he said.
Photo Credit: Navy