Zumwalt-Class Destroyer Saga Warrants A Rethink Of Naval Policy

Harold Hutchison | Freelance Writer

With recent reports that the Lyndon B. Johnson (DDG 1002) may be on the DOD chopping block, it’s time to maybe wonder if the Zumwalt-class destroyers – and by extension, the U.S. Navy – have been given a raw deal.

These high-tech vessels were to serve not only as a replacement for the Spruance-class destroyers as general-purpose warships, but they were also meant to replace the Iowa-class battleships as fire-support assets. With 80 VLS cells, two 155mm Advanced Gun Systems, stealth technology, and new radars, these ships were meant to be the backbone of the U.S. Navy. Now, if DDG 1002 gets axed, that “future backbone” will be cut down to two ships.

In one sense, this has been a huge problem for the Navy since the 1990s. During that decade, the Navy retired eighteen older guided-missile cruisers, 23 Charles F. Adams-class guided missile destroyers and ten Coontz-class guided-missile destroyers, a total of 51 ships. The Arleigh Burke-class destroyers were supposed to replace those vessels, but then had to also fill the gap caused by the early retirement of 31 Spruance-class destroyers and five Ticonderoga-class cruisers, not to mention the sale of four Kidd-class destroyers to Taiwan. In essence, 62 vessels are being asked to replace 91 – and while the Arleigh Burke ships are capable, they are incapable of being in two places at once.

The Zumwalt class was supposed to be 32 ships – and had it been purchased, the 91 vessels retired in the 1990s and early 2000s would have been replaced on a one-for-one basis with three vessels to spare. Yet the planned Zumwalt procurement dropped, first to 24, then to 7, then to 3. The procurement cuts eventually triggered Nunn-McCurdy provisions, because the sunk costs of R&D were being spread over fewer hulls. Nunn-McCurdy requires that the DOD notify Congress if unit cost exceeds estimates by 15%, and call for the termination of a program if the unit cost exceeds estimates by 25% unless the Secretary of Defense explains that certain provisions have been met.

The big problem is that Nunn-McCurdy doesn’t take into account the possibility of unit cost increasing due to a cut in a production run – and the Zumwalt is a classic case. The  R&D for the Zumwalt class was roughly $9.6 billion. The sail-away cost for these ships – before factoring in R&D – was about $3.8 billion. Had the buy been kept at 32 hulls, each ship would have borne $300 million of the R&D, for a total cost of $4.1 billion. The R&D costs would have come out to $400 million per ship had the class been kept at 24 vessels – making the total cost of a Zumwalt $4.2 billion per ship.

The reduction to a seven-ship class caused the R&D costs per vessel to skyrocket to $1.371 billion per ship – making the total cost per vessel $5.171 billion. This increased the cost by $971 million, and triggered the notification requirements from Nunn-McCurdy. Then came the current plans. Under current procurement plans for three hulls, each vessel is bearing $3.2 billion of the R&D. That took the total cost to $7 billion per hull, pushing the unit cost 95% higher than from the original plans. Again, the Nunn-McCurdy provisions kicked in – this time requiring termination of the program.

The Zumwalt-class destroyer is not the only system to have been hit by this. Nunn-McCurdy also killed the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) after the Marines cut their planned purchase from 1,013 to 573. By nearly halving the purchase total, it jumped the unit cost higher, and eventually, the EFV was cancelled – and the Marines were stuck with the aging AAV-7.

It’s obvious that there is a need for Nunn-McCurdy reform at a bare minimum. The R&D costs for the advanced weapon systems the United States will need to maintain superiority over likely adversaries aren’t going to go away. Our troops deserve the best equipment possible, and if Nunn-McCurdy is making it harder to provide them that gear, reform or repeal that provision.

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