Can the Navy Afford the New Destroyers?

BY Herschel Smith
9 years, 6 months ago

The Strategy Page has an interesting rundown on the current state of affairs within the DoD naval complex, and this rundown is both informative and incomplete at the end in its analysis.  I will have to duplicate the article at length in order to comment on the conclusions.

April 15, 2007: Whatever happened to the destroyer? They seem to be disappearing. Part of the reason is cost, but there’s also the political correctness angle. Warships called destroyers appeared a century ago and by the end of World War I they were ships of about 1,000 tons armed with a few guns, some torpedoes and anti-submarine weapons. By World War II, destroyers had grown to about 3,000 tons. There were also “Destroyer Escorts”, which were half to two-thirds the size of destroyers. The larger types of surface warfare ships were cruisers, weighing in at between 6,000 and 12,000 tons, and battleships, which were 30-40,000 tons. Half a century later, all that’s left for surface warfare are destroyers and frigates, plus the usual assortment of smaller coastal patrol boats that have always been around. For whatever reason, the modern frigates perform the same mission (and are about the same size) as the World War II destroyers. However, most Western navies don’t even like to use the term, “destroyer” any more. Warships displacing 3-5,000 tons are increasingly called frigates. Sounds less warlike, or whatever.

Meanwhile, the modern destroyers have grown to the size of World War II cruisers. Actually, some of the larger destroyers are called cruisers, even though they are only 10-20 percent bigger than the largest destroyers. The latest ships in the U.S. Navy’s Burke class destroyers weigh 9,200 tons, cost $1.5 billion each to build, have a crew of about 330 sailors, carry 96 (a combination of antiaircraft and cruise) missiles. There’s only one 5 inch gun, but two helicopters. These modern destroyers could take on any World War II cruiser and win, mainly because the cruise missiles have a range of 1,500 kilometers. A Burke class ship could probably defeat a World War II battleship, although we’ll never know for sure since one of those heavily armored ships never got hit by a modern cruise missile. In effect, the U.S. Navy has settled on just three major combat ship types; aircraft carriers, destroyers and nuclear submarines.

The original cruisers of a century ago displaced less than 10,000 tons, but by World War II, that had increased by 50 percent. Two decades ago, the U.S. Navy reclassified its Ticonderoga class destroyers, which eventually displaced 10,000 tons, as cruisers. Now the U.S. wants build a new class of destroyers, the DDG-1000, that displace 14,000 tons. These ships will be 600 feet long and 79 feet wide. A crew of 150 sailors will operate a variety of weapons, including two 155mm guns, two 40mm automatic cannon for close in defense, 80 Vertical Launch Tubes (containing either anti-ship, cruise or anti-aircraft missiles), six torpedo tubes, a helicopter and three helicopter UAVs.

The problems is that these new “destroyers” will be very large ships, and will cost over $2 billion each. At the same time, the new LCS (Littoral Combat Ship) is sort of replacing the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates. The Perrys are 4,100 ton ships that would cost about $200 million to build today. The big difference between the frigates and LCS is the greater use of automation in the LCS (reducing crew size to 75, versus 170 in the frigates) and larger engines (giving the LCS a speed of about 90 kilometers an hour, versus 50 for the frigates.) The LCS also has a large “cargo hold” designed to hold different “mission packages” of equipment and weapons. The Littoral Combat Ship is, simultaneously, revolutionary, and a throwback. The final LCS design is to displace about 3,000 tons, with a full load draft of under ten feet, permitting access to very shallow coastal waters, as well as rivers. This is where most naval operations have taken place in the past generation.

Max range is 2,700 kilometers. Built using commercial “smartship” technologies, which greatly reduce personnel requirements, the LCS is expected to require a crew of about 50 in basic configuration, but will have accommodations for about 75 personnel. The ship is designed for a variety of interchangeable modules, which will allow the ships to be quickly reconfigured for various specialized missions. Crews will also be modularized, so that specialized teams can be swapped in to operate specific modules.

All this is happening at a time when the U.S. Navy is increasingly unhappy with the performance of American ship builders. Costs are rising sharply, quality is down and the admirals can’t get satisfactory answers from the manufacturers. For example, the new class of destroyers, the DDG-1000 class destroyers have also faced ballooning costs, up to as much as $3 billion per ship, as opposed to original planned costs of $800 million each. The current Arleigh Burke-class destroyers only cost $1 billion each. The LCS was planned (a few years ago) to cost $200 million each. That price has now doubled.

The LCS is, what the original destroyer was. A small, inexpensive vessel that could do a lot of dangerous jobs the more expensive ships could now avoid. But unless the navy gets its shipbuilding costs, and quality, under control, it won’t be able to afford a new class of destroyers. Unless, of course, it has an attack of common sense, and calls the LCS destroyers, and the DDG-1000 ships cruisers.

As always with the analysts at the Strategy Page, this is a most informative and interesting article, but we should rehearse what I said in an article on September 15, 2006, entitled High Tech Warrior Versus New Ships:

Regardless of the less rational reasons for or against retirement of the battleships, the history of the engineering and construction of these huge ships, and indeed, the very nature of engineering and construction, argues for the continuing viability of these vessels and against wholesale replacement.  This is true regardless of whether destroyers are constructed and commissioned.

Whether it is a bridge, large building, hydroelectric project (such as the Hoover Dam), nuclear power plant, or large sea-going vessel, these things end up being once-in-a-lifetime, unparalleled projects that can never be precisely duplicated.  First of all there is the so-called “tribal knowledge,? or things that are not writtten down, codified, or even necessarily passed on to successors, that contributes to huge projects.  This tribal knowledge has to be re-created and re-learned with each new project, especially with projects that are separated in time 50+ years.

Second, there is the well-known demise of the steel and shipbuilding industry in the U.S.  Many large steel components, including ships, are now constructed in the Rotterdam Shipyard.  Battleships literally could not be constructed in the U.S. today (at least, not without re-training, re-tooling and significant changes and modifications).

Retirement of Battleships is profoundly unwise, but here we need to hedge a bit in how we aim at the future.  The shipbuilding industry in the U.S. is not only in a dire condition, it may not survive without the infusion of defense dollars to — yes, you guessed it — build things like new destroyers.

We are in the unenviable position of saying that we need to find middle ground.  The Battleships should not be mothballed, but defense dollars should be found for newer, well-armed destroyers, even if not in the numbers that the Navy has requested.

Anything as complex as the engineering behind shipbuilding cannot be long sustained if a country is not actively engaged in the process.  Certainly, contractors who bid the jobs believed that procedures for doing dye penetrant and radiography on welds were the same as before, and protocols for QA had not changed since the last time ships were constructed.  Engineers are, after all, plug-and-play, white jumpsuit experts at everything under the sun, and also certainly the technology can be rapidly learned and applied by new, young engineers straight out of school, or who had been the understudy of engineers who had done this work before.

Only, none of this is exactly true.  The mistake that the Strategy Page makes, and other DoD representatives, whether military or civilian, is to frame this merely as a problem of “cost overruns,” with the Navy in need of getting control of its contractors.  To be sure, accountability is the order of the day, and strict management of costs will be necessary for the Navy to be allowed to move forward with its Destroyer program.

But shipbuilding is a lost science in the U.S., and recapturing it as an institution will be difficult and fraught with hidden problems for the DoD to deal with.  This is not so much an issue with the Navy, or what they call the ‘Destroyers’, or how much they control the contractors, as it is with the fact that the U.S. has lost the ability to do large scale steel projects and shipbuilding.  Starting this up again is vital to our national security, and hopefully, the congress will be willing to fund the programs.

You are currently reading "Can the Navy Afford the New Destroyers?", entry #495 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Department of Defense,Navy and was published April 18th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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