Now Hear This - ‘The Future Surface Combatant: Quo Vadis?’
By Rear Admiral Philip A. Dur, U.S. Navy (Retired)
In a Proceedings article with the same title almost 50 years ago, then-Commander Elmo Zumwalt outlined the case for a destroyer that would field advanced defensive capabilities and a state-of-the-art propulsion system. He wrote when the threat was seen as requiring large numbers and many classes of surface combatants. Today a class of ships named for him is nearing completion—but has been criticized and truncated in the name of economy.
Then–Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates argued in 2010 for a smaller Navy and a less-expensive surface-combatant force, citing an anti-access threat in the Pacific. Clearly the challenges to which he referred are not met by Littoral Combat Ships. In the Navy’s original concept of operations,Zumwalt (DDG-1000) destroyers provided the area antiair and antimissile cover for the LCS. In short, we have a misplaced investment for ships that will contribute very little in the threat scenarios postulated.
At $3–$6 billion a copy, Gates declared the Zumwalts unaffordable. This deserves renewed attention, with a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study under way. The DDG-1000 represents $11 billion of R&D invested over the past two decades. Because this will be amortized across three hulls in the current program, the cost of 3 ships ballooned beyond earlier cost estimates when 32—then 24—then 7—ships were planned.
But only the Zumwalt can survive and fight the growing access-denial threats. It is stealthier than the Arleigh Burke class in radar cross-section, infrared, and acoustic signatures; it is a bigger hull, with volume and displacement margins to accommodate future weapons; it has five times the electrical-generating capacity, critical for very high-powered radars and in the transition to high-energy weapons and railguns.
Some argue that the ship is limited by the types of missiles she can accommodate in her vertical launch cells. This is absurd, but has not been seriously challenged. Similarly, the contention that the dual-band—and higher-frequency—hull-mounted sonar limits her antisubmarine warfare capability is specious, since she has a sophisticated towed-array system and superior aviation-support facilities for ASW helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles. The Zumwalt also features a stern-launch capability for unmanned surface vehicles.
She is quieter than the Burke, and her automated systems and peripheral vertical launchers make her far more survivable. Automation in the damage-control systems and the integrated computer networks permit a crew of fewer than 150 sailors, as opposed to 275 in the Burke.
One notable shortcoming is her limited area antiair capability and a combat system that will not support ballistic missile defense. Restoring her dual-band radar would redress one deficiency, and the prime contractor for theZumwalt’s Total Ship’s Computational Environment estimated at less than $600 million the nonrecurring cost to modify the radar suite, develop the computer code to support BMD, and modify missile-launcher systems to support the SM-3 missile. Apparently the Navy was not impressed by the offer to undertake this work in a fixed-price contract.
However, a cost-conscious Congress will note that the Navy is planning a major upgrade to the Burke design, Flight III. This will probably be a “plugged” or “stretched” DDG-51, with a larger hull and superstructure to accommodate an improved radar suite, the Advanced Missile Defense Radar, greater electrical-power generation, and more cooling to service the radar suite. She will feature more automation and possibly a hybrid propulsion system. Indeed, she will incorporate many of the improvements—but not the stealth—already in the Zumwalt. Every drawing will have to be revised, every system redesigned. Thousands of systems and components will have to be contracted anew at fixed pricing.
This attempt to pass what will be a new ship class as an “upgrade” may pertain to avoiding the scrutiny and delays of new-start programs. It certainly has to do with artfully managing costs. BMD upgrades to the Aegis fleet were not entirely paid from the Navy budget; the $4 billion-plus came from the Missile Defense Agency or its predecessor.
When the Flight III design is completed, we will see nonrecurring costs in the billions of dollars, and sail-away costs approaching those of an improved Zumwalt. These issues have gained visibility, and the GAO will soon publish an independent estimate of the costs of the DDG-51 restart program.
We need modern naval systems to operate with a high probability of survival. Forces may be smaller, but the capabilities of each ship should be the best this country can produce affordably. For surface combatants, this means the Zumwalt.
Rear Admiral Dur, a retired surface-warfare officer, commanded the Aegis cruiser USS Yorktown(CG-48), Cruiser Destroyer Group Eight, and the Saratoga Battle Group. He later served as president of Northrop Grumman Ship Systems. He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard.