21 July 2008

Next Generation Cruisers and Destroyers Scrapped

There are indications that the U.S. Navy has given up on a prompt replacement of its destroyers and cruisers. The Zumalt DDG-1000 was so profoundly over budget and beyond the mission of existing destroyers (it was really more of a battleship) that the program has been stopped after only a couple of prototypes. Enthusiasm for a new class of cruisers (possibly of two designs, one for missile defense and another for more traditional aircraft carrier escort roles) has likewise waned. Instead, existing ships will be refurbished and kept in service:

The refurb policy will cost about $200 million per destroyer (and 20-25 percent more for the cruisers). Normally, these ships get one refurb during their 30 year lives. This not only fixes lots of things that have broken down or worn out (and been patched up), but installs lots of new technology. A second refurb is expected to add another 5-10 years. . . . the navy wants to install the "smart ship" type automation (found in civilian ships for decades) that will enable crew size to be reduced. The "smart ship" gear also includes better networking and power distribution. In effect, the ship would be rewired. This could reduce the crew size by 20-30 percent (current destroyers have a crew of 320, with the cruisers carrying 350). In addition to considerable cost savings (over $100,000 a year per sailor), a smaller crew takes up less space, enabling the smaller crew to have more comfortable living quarters.

This is a good move. The U.S. Navy's blue sea surface fleet has few real rivals, yet is vulnerable to submarine and advanced missile threats. The current fleet is more a product of World War II driven backward thinking in the Reagan era than actual military need. Taking on enemy surface ships is generally something better done by our own submarines, missiles and aircraft. Yes, there is a place for some robust U.S. naval force in the U.S. military. But given the immense cost of building ships of new designs, and the relatively modest benefits associated with doing so, pausing this effort makes sense. The Navy's scarce warship procurement funds are better spent keeping the Littoral Combat Ship program, which fills an important gap in existing capabilities, on track.