When the Navy decided to kill its next-generation DDG-1000 destroyer and continue producing the legacy Burke class during the waning days of the Bush Administration, it wasn’t a big surprise. The new destroyer seemed like a mixed metaphor — equipped with the latest digital sensors and networks, but built around two 155 mm guns designed to provide fire support to Marines ashore. The Marines had vigorously pushed for the guns when the warship was first conceived because they wanted the Navy to deliver high rates of precision fire in expeditionary operations, and that’s just too expensive to do using missiles. But when the gun requirement resulted in a destroyer displacing 14,000 tons and costing $3 billion per vessel, the Marines began to back away from the program. The Navy too grew uneasy about putting such a valuable asset near enemy shores, despite the promise of a new combat system capable of coping with any undersea, surface or overhead threat.
So the Navy decided to build only two Zumwalts, and then continue buying much smaller Burkes equipped with an upgraded version of the highly effective Aegis combat system. Proposals from Raytheon to adapt the combat system it was developing for the Zumwalt class to emerging missions were rebuffed, leading company officials to complain that the “Aegis mafia” had strangled a more capable solution to future naval warfighting needs in its cradle. Raytheon executives were despondent over termination of DDG-1000, since it offered a rare opportunity for the company to break through to the first tier of naval system integrators. The company had been largely excluded from work on the Aegis combat system, and by most accounts it was doing a very good job on the Zumwalt’s successor system.
But notices of the DDG-1000’s demise may be premature. First, congressional pressure forced the Navy to commit to construction of a third Zumwalt destroyer. Second, the Navy elected to build all three Zumwalts at Bath Iron Works in Maine, which the Naval Seas Systems Command currently regards as its most capable conventional shipyard. Third, by building the ships in Maine, the Navy concentrated most of the work on DDG-1000 in the nation’s most Democratic region — New England — at a time when Democrats were taking control of Congress and the White House. Fourth, the service decided to build most of its upgraded Burke-class destroyers at the Ingalls shipyard in Mississippi, which has been beset by problems since Hurricane Katrina.
These facts by themselves would give the Zumwalt class a fighting chance to survive beyond the third ship. With the combat system being integrated in Rhode Island, the system integrator headquartered in Massachusetts, and the shipyard building the vessel located in Maine, the construction plan virtually guarantees the emergence of a regional voting bloc in favor of buying additional Zumwalts. By the time the very capable workforce at Bath Iron Works gets done building the third DDG-1000, it will be far enough down the learning curve to offer big savings on a fourth or fifth vessel in the class. And then there are the intrinsic appeals of the DDG-1000 design, which include greater volume for future growth and greater automation of shipboard operations resulting in a much smaller crew than on the Burke class. So while Raytheon and Bath Iron Works owner General Dynamics aren’t planning on building more than three DDG-1000 destroyers, there is a real possibility that could happen.
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