If the U.S. war in Afghanistan were a ship, it would be a Navy Zumwalt-class destroyer: They’ve cost too much, done too little, and the Pentagon’s rhetoric on them falls far short of reality. The ships represent an object lesson in the risk of trying to cram nearly a dozen new technologies into a warship, most of which failed to get out of port.
The bottom line: American taxpayers have bought a fleet of three warships—at a cost of $8 billion each!—that are still looking for a mission. Not only that: the ships are missing their key weapon, and Congress—which rarely rebukes the Navy—recently ordered the service to strike the two that have been delivered to the fleet from its roster of combat-ready ships.
“Inside a Pentagon spending nearly $2 billion a day, it’s easy to lose sight of truly wasteful programs.
Inside a Pentagon spending nearly $2 billion a day, it’s easy to lose sight of truly wasteful programs. But as the Zumwalt class winds down—the last of the three ships is slated to be delivered in 2020—taxpayers can view, to their horror, the arc of the program from beginning to (nearly) end. The vessels represent a case study of a program run without adult leadership.
Its contractors and admirals were blinded by ambition that had little to do with providing the fleet with enough hulls to patrol the world’s oceans, but everything to do with maritime hubris that didn’t pan out. “They just started putting all sorts of requirements on the ship without really understanding the cost implications,” argues Robert Work, who served as a Marine officer for 27 years before serving as the number-two civilian in both the Navy and the entire Pentagon during the Obama Administration.
The Zumwalt class (formally known as the DDG-1000 class) is a good military program to focus on because its path has been clear: it began with an outlandish wish list and ended up crashing on the rocks of reality. Too often, the Pentagon argues that a program’s fate is “too early to tell” before it becomes “too late to stop.” But the DDG-1000 is now all but finished and we need to think of it as a warship frozen in amber that we can study to avoid similar problems in the future.
This is an autopsy to try to identify the festering wounds that led the DDG-1000 to be put out of its misery after only those three ships. Unfortunately, the condition is contagious, and future U.S. warships are suffering from many of the same ills.
“Cramming a lot of new technologies into one platform was just crazy—it was doomed from the start.” John Lehman, Secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration
The Zumwalt class is emblematic of a plethora of Pentagon pathologies, revolving around promises to produce technological marvels that fail to materialize as costs soar and schedules drag: While the Navy has no foes capable of challenging it on the high seas, it tried to cram 11 cutting-edge technologies into the Zumwalt class destroyer—triple the traditional three or four. “Cramming a lot of new technologies into one platform was just crazy—it was doomed from the start,” says John Lehman, who served as President Ronald Reagan’s Navy secretary for six years.
“Incremental is always the way to go when you’re talking about big systems.” (Lehman, a naval aviator, led the charge to build a 600-ship Navy, and came close when the fleet crested at 594 vessels in 1987. But the number has plunged since then, falling to 359 in 2007 and 287 today, up from its nadir of 271 in 2015.)
The solutions for these woes are simple; it’s the political will to implement them that’s missing. The Navy, its contractors, and Congress—largely lawmakers with shipyards and Navy bases in their states and districts—have to demand realistic projections when it comes to costs, capabilities, and production schedules. This is particularly vital given the decades it takes to design, develop and deploy a new class of ships. By the time the rose-colored glasses have been fogged up by reality, those responsible for the snafus are long gone and not around to be called on the carpet for the malfeasance that is salted throughout Navy shipbuilding.
And the program’s twists and turns are instructive for another reason: for decades, the Navy has hatched schemes to build numbers of ships it can never afford. Because the Navy has been biting off more than it can chew, budget-wise (planning on buying more ships than it can ever afford), that leads to rising price tags for each ship it does end up buying.
That, in turn, leads to fewer ships in the fleet, but no concomitant reduction in their missions. That overwork has led to sailors working 100 hours a week, and a pair of at-sea collisions in 2017 that claimed the lives of 17 sailors.
“The Navy, its contractors, and Congress have to demand realistic projections when it comes to costs, capabilities, and production schedules.
The Zumwalt represents the Navy’s third try to build a new kind of destroyer in the past 25 years: The DD-21 was born in 1994 and became the DD(X) in 2001, before morphing into the DDG-1000 in 2006. As costs spiraled out of control, the number of ships to be bought fell from 32, to 24, to 16, to 7, to 3. In 2008, when the Navy threw in the towel and decided it would only buy three of the ships, it also had to spread the huge cost of multiple new technologies over the trio, driving the cost-per-ship through the roof.
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