The $3.5 Billion Migraine That Also Shoots Stuff

Concept art for USS Zumwalt.
Concept art for USS Zumwalt, presently under construction at Bath Iron Works in Maine.

The American defense industry dreamed up a cutting-edge destroyer that could command the seas for the next fifty years. Uncle Sam got really excited and ordered 30 ships. But the price skyrocketed just as Washington tightened its belt. Now, instead of 30 warships, Uncle Sam will buy only three. Welcome to the wonderful world of military procurement.

Building a modern warship is remarkably complex. The price tag changes whenever the plan changes. Switch from plastics to carbon fiber, add a stronger sheath to your cable trunks, use a newer mechanism for a lift, try a different paint scheme, change the lids on all the toilets, or install thicker washers in the engine room. . . it’s like building a billion-dollar house that shoots stuff. This is a frustrating process in a time of dramatic fiscal upheaval and a quasi-post-war downturn. Even back in 2009, a report from the Government Accounting Office was not very optimistic about the destroyer program:

The Navy may have exhausted its options for solving future problems without adding money and time … Remaining funds may not be sufficient to buy key components and pay for other work not yet under contract. The Navy has already requested funding for a third ship and plans to contract for this ship with options for four more ships in fiscal year 2009. The Navy will not have enough data then on the actual costs of the lead ships to develop realistic prices for follow-on ships.

When money is tight, and you’re still evaluating a superior weapons platform, you’ve got to keep things under control. In other words, the Navy has to balance cost and capability with the snafus you get from building complicated ships. The overall price tag has jumped off the ledger and will hound the Pentagon long after the first vessel has put to sea. USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000) will cost $3.5 billion. Its sister ship, USS Johnson, will run for about $2.5 billion. The third ship of the class will cost less.

These migraines are shared by the other branches. But future warfare may easily involve more affordable weapons with decent efficiency, sort of like buying a Toyota Camry instead of a Lexus ES. Three years ago, Navy brass told Congress that the threat picture had changed and that they were perfectly happy using existing Arleigh Burke-class destroyers instead. (Perhaps a convenient statement after the fallout.)

This is an evolution of economy and construction. You have to sympathize with contractors and military coordinators who want to make a quality system that can outfight and outlast anything on the battlefield. Shipyards and manufacturing plants also equal jobs. Unfortunately, this isn’t the best time to build expensive toys. The next age of military procurement will show different ways of designing and building critical systems for the military. Until then, senior officers and industry execs will dream of the days of Cold War spending, back when money was no object.

Photo source:  U.S. Navy


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