Politics & Policy

How the Navy’s Zumwalt-Class Destroyers Ran Aground

USS Zumwalt arrives in its homeport of San Diego. (Photo: Petty Officer Third Class Emiline L. M. Senn)
Billed as the Navy’s stealth wonder-ship of the future, the USS Zumwalt destroyer has turned into a procurement boondoggle.

On November 22, while the world watched, the U.S. Navy’s newest, most complex warship ground to a stop in the middle of the Panama Canal, both propellers seized, leaving the ship dead in the water. The warship, the USS Zumwalt, DDG-1000, had to be towed out of the canal. While not as embarrassing as watching our sailors being taken hostage by Iran and then publicly humiliated, nonetheless it was pretty embarrassing. Yes, all new classes of ships have teething problems, but this is at least the third major “engineering casualty” that the USS Zumwalt has experienced over the last few months, and it is emblematic of a defense-procurement system that is rapidly losing its ability to meet our national-security needs.



The Zumwalt was going to be the United States’ 21st-century, cruiser-sized, super destroyer that would allow us to dominate the world’s oceans and littorals for the next 50 years. The Navy made big promises: The two overarching goals for the program were that the ship would be very stealthy and that it would set new standards in reducing crew size. Another major element of its raison d’être, was that it would be able to supply the Naval Surface Fire Support (NSFS) capability the Navy has been promising the Marines since it retired the last of the modernized Iowa-class battleships in 1992.

This really big warship was going to anchor the Navy’s ability to project power into the littorals. Its 15,000 to 16,000 tons of displacement would be crammed full of new and revolutionary technologies such as the Integrated Power System, the Linux-powered Total Ship Computing Environment Infrastructure (TSCEI), and, of course, the Advanced Gun System. Its massive generating capacity would allow it to power the energy-hungry lasers and railguns of the future. Its defining glory, its stealth, would allow the Zumwalt to undertake missions that other less stealthy ships could not.

Skyrocketing Costs, No Accountability

The Zumwalt destroyer program grew out of the 1994 SC-21 program, the goal of which was to develop the Navy’s surface-combatant warships of the 21st century. This destroyer program, PMS 500, went through several name changes, the DD-21, the DD(X), before finally, in 2006, the program was renamed to DDG-1000, the Zumwalt class.

Based on the Navy’s 1999 assurances that each ship would cost just $1.34 billion and that the whole 32-ship program would come in at $46 billion, Congress committed to fund the program. But by 2001, cost growth prompted the Navy to lower the projected class size to only 16 ships. And by 2005, with the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimating costs of well over $3 billion per ship, the Navy decided to drop the number of ships to be built to just seven. Flash-forward to today and the Navy has capped production at just three ships, with each costing over $4.2 billion in construction costs alone. Toss in over $10 billion for development costs, and you end up at more than $7 billion per ship. Amazingly, this is actually more than the $6.2 billion we paid for our last Nimitz-class aircraft carrier.

To make matters worse, this cost is still rising — the Navy actually took delivery of, and commissioned, a ship that is far from complete and years away from being ready for combat. To obfuscate this fact, many future “modernization costs,” new threat upgrades, and the like will appear, all funded under new programs with the goal of pumping more money into the Zumwalt to get it to where it should have been when it was commissioned. Unsurprisingly, as of May of 2016, the GAO reports that only three of eleven critical technologies the Zumwalt relies upon were considered mature.

Adding insult to injury, absolutely no one has been held accountable for this budget-busting debacle. In fact, every one of the Navy’s four original project managers were almost immediately promoted from captain to admiral upon completing their stint in charge. And the lead contractors for the Zumwalt program — Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, and General Dynamics — have received additional hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of defense contracts — even as costs soared, schedules slipped, and capabilities declined.

Adding insult to injury, absolutely no one has been held accountable for this budget-busting debacle.

Unsurprisingly, the chief of naval operations, the Navy’s senior uniformed naval officer, who played a major role in getting initial support and funding for the new destroyer program, went on to become CEO and chairman of General Dynamics, which during his tenure secured billions of dollars directly related to the Zumwalt program. Of course, none of the congressional representatives who carried water for these same defense contractors have paid any price whatsoever for continuing to support funding the Zumwalt — despite overwhelming evidence the project was a loser.

As we look across a range of big-budget defense programs, such as the CH-53K helicopter, the Marines’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, the Littoral Combat Ship, the Osprey tilt-rotor program, the F-22, the F-35, etc., we see this pattern repeated over and over and over again. Not only is there zero accountability, but this behavior is rewarded. Indeed, in today’s military, successfully expanding a program beyond its initial budget is viewed highly favorably in terms of rank advancement, as well as being valued by defense contractors looking to hire “team players” who can effectively wield influence with their former colleagues on their behalf. It should go without saying that whistle-blowers are not considered “team players” by senior military commanders and the defense-contractor executives who increasingly happen to be former senior military commanders.

Was Reducing Crew Size Really Such a Good Idea?

From the very beginning, the Zumwalt program suffered from unrealistic goals and a flawed concept of operations. Senior Navy leadership and the lead defense contractors wanted a revolutionary 21st-century warship that would be a shining example of stealth and the Navy’s minimal-manning initiative (later renamed “optimal manning”), an initiative intended to reduce the Navy’s shipboard-manpower requirements — and thereby reduce long-term costs. In their eagerness to get their new high-tech wonder-ship funded, technical risks were ignored or grossly understated. From the outset, the program’s cost and goals were completely unrealistic. Yet Congress chose to buy into the ridiculous $1.34 billion per ship low-ball estimate initially put out by the Navy.

By reducing crew size, more money could be put into the capital side of a ship’s total lifecycle cost. Obviously, this was and continues to be very attractive to our military’s vendor-dominated procurement system — as it theoretically shifts money from the operations bucket to the capital-acquisition bucket. To this end, it was announced with much fanfare that the cruiser-sized Zumwalt would not require a crew of 400 to 600 sailors but instead, through smart ship design and brand-new automation software yet to be developed, it would require only 95 crew members.

Shockingly, according to an anonymous former program analyst I interviewed, no actual analysis had ever been performed by anyone suggesting that a 95-person crew would have a snowball’s chance of effectively operating the Zumwalt. Yet this number was routinely cited by senior Navy leadership, including the chief of naval operations, as being attainable. It turns out that the only justification for publicly pushing such a small crew size is that it would reduce the estimated total life-cycle cost for the Zumwalt — making it appear to be a more attractive program for funding. After something of an internal revolt by some key Zumwalt design-team leaders, the Navy leadership was forced to back away from its claims about the adequacy of a 95-person crew.

Still, senior Navy leadership was determined to push minimal-manning and eventually the design team was forced to accept a crew size of 147 crew members, not including the air detachment. Even with that increase, there is no way the Zumwalt can conduct the kind of sustained up-tempo operations one expects from a major surface combatant. And there is no chance it can conduct the kind of ship-saving and recovery operations that a Navy warship of this size should be able to execute after taking major damage. That is, if the Zumwalt suffers major damage, hull breaches, etc., its chances of survival are far less than past Navy warships of a similar size; it simply will not have enough crew members to do what is needed to save the ship. Perhaps most astonishingly, at one point Navy leadership got so extreme about reducing crew size, it even pushed to eliminate the ship’s cook. In lieu of freshly prepared meals, the Zumwalt would put out to sea with pre-prepared meals that the crew could warm up for themselves.

Trying to create a such a large warship — capable of operating with such a tiny crew — was and is a gross waste of taxpayer dollars, because it radically increased the cost of the ship and reduced its capabilities with no realistic expectation of success.


The Perils of Designing a Warship around Stealth

The other major cost driver for the Zumwalt program was making the Zumwalt as stealthy as one could possibly make a 15,000-ton, 610-foot-long warship. Here the Zumwalt program succeeded. The Zumwalt’s radar cross-section is roughly the same as that of a 50-foot fishing vessel. This is no doubt an amazing technical feat. The ship is certainly much harder to see and track on radar than is a more conventional 600-foot ship.

But there are some big disadvantages to designing a ship around stealth. First, it is extremely expensive to build a stealthy ship the size of the Zumwalt — and it costs a lot more to maintain it. Second, the stealthy tumblehome hull design of the Zumwalt is naturally less stable than the convex hull of more conventional warships. Further, when it comes to mounting guns, sensors, communications arrays, and other equipment found on a real warship, stealth is a harsh mistress — such equipment degrades a ship’s stealth if not mounted properly and at great cost. In fact, as a cost-cutting measure, a decision was made to have the Zumwalt go with less stealthy externally mounted sensors and antennas similar to those of the Arleigh Burke–class destroyers, rather than having them built into the superstructure. Just as stealth on an aircraft has capability tradeoffs, so does stealth on a ship.

Just as stealth on an aircraft has capability tradeoffs, so does stealth on a ship.

Still, even with the aforementioned costs and tradeoffs, stealth should be an advantage. But upon closer examination, one finds that is not as big an advantage as we would want given just how much more it costs in terms of dollars and reduced capabilities. As you will recall, the Zumwalt was meant to dominate the littorals, the close-to-shore areas of the seas and oceans. Inconveniently, in most cases, strategically and tactically important littoral waters will be crowded with fishing boats, freighters, tankers, pleasure craft, and foreign naval ships, submarines, and aircraft, both civilian and military. So while the Zumwalt might be harder to see on radar, its 610-foot-long, 15,000-ton bulk has a very large visual signature.

Even if it is able to position itself out of the way of prying eyes and is not noticed by enemy radar operators, once it begins firing its 155-mm guns, its stealthiness will be severely compromised, i.e., sustained naval-gunfire-support missions and stealth are mutually exclusive. Further, the Navy considers the Zumwalt to be highly vulnerable to submarines. So would the Navy really want to place a hugely expensive ship in hostile littoral waters without a defensive screen of ships?

This brings up another weakness: Once the Zumwalt becomes part of a battle group, much of its stealth advantage disappears, because the other, less-stealthy ships show up on an enemy’s radar. I say “much,” because anti-ship cruise missiles will probably go after the less-stealthy ships of the battle group, allowing the Zumwalt to execute a tactical retreat as the other ships soak up the damage.

The Failure of the ‘Advanced Gun System’

As costs have exploded and the class size has gone from 32 ships to just three, the Zumwalt’s much touted Advanced Gun System (AGS) seems to be on its way out, as the price of its 155-mm Long Range Land Attack Projectiles (LRLAP) have soared from tens of thousands of dollars to at least $800,000 per round. These soaring costs have prompted the Navy to cancel plans to buy any more LRLAPs. So, for the foreseeable future, the Zumwalt will not be able to count on using its biggish, extremely expensive guns as promised.

#related#To be sure, the guns were a disappointment. At their outset they were going to be able fire the same 155-mm, $700 M795 rounds used by our Marines and Army. These rounds would have given the Zumwalt the capability to engage in high-volume surface-fire-support missions for which precision guidance adds little to no value. Unlike other long-range naval guns that could have been installed on the Zumwalt, the AGS cannot even attack other ships and is limited to indirect fire. While current range estimates for the LRLAP vary from 60 to 80 miles, it was originally sold as having a range of about 115 miles (100 nautical miles).

At its current cost of $800,000 per round, the LRLAP delivers the same 24 pounds of high explosive as the aforementioned $700 M795 round. Sure, the LRLAP has vastly superior range and accuracy, but at a cost 1,100 times that of the M795. The Tomahawk cruise missile, with its 1,000-pound warhead and $1 million price tag, delivers about 30 times more payload per dollar, with about 15 times the range than that of the LRLAP. Factor in the Advanced Gun System’s massive volume-consuming automated magazines and its Rube Goldbergian automated ammunition-handling system, and you have an unreliable weapon system that delivers a truly tiny bang for the buck.

A Ship without a Mission

The Zumwalt is an unmitigated disaster. Clearly it is not a good fit as a frontline warship. With its guns neutered, its role as a primary anti-submarine-warfare asset in question, its anti-air-warfare capabilities inferior to those of our current workhorse, the Arleigh Burkeclass destroyers, and its stealth not nearly as advantageous as advertised, the Zumwalt seems to be a ship without a mission.

If that’s the case, how will the Navy use the Zumwalt? Eric Wertheim, author and editor of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Guide to Combat Fleets of the World, noted that “with only three ships, the class of destroyers could become something of a [very expensive] technology demonstration project.” He is not alone in this verdict. Admiral Elmo “Bud” Zumwalt Jr. deserved better.


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