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Zombie Zumwalt: The Ship Program That Never Dies

Two ships have been ‘delivered’ but don’t exactly work as planned

The US Navy’s new guided missile destroyer DDG 1000 USS Zumwalt is moored to a dock on October 13, 2016, in Baltimore, Maryland. The Zumwalt is the lead ship of a class of next-generation multi-mission surface combatants and is named for Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt, former chief of naval operations. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
The US Navy’s new guided missile destroyer DDG 1000 USS Zumwalt is moored to a dock on October 13, 2016, in Baltimore, Maryland. The Zumwalt is the lead ship of a class of next-generation multi-mission surface combatants and is named for Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt, former chief of naval operations. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

In 2006, Congress started funding construction of the first of three Navy destroyers named after the late famed Navy chief Adm. Elmo Zumwalt. But nearly a dozen years later, none of the Zumwalt ships is ready to fight.

None will be for years. And hundreds of millions more dollars will be required to get there. The ships, known as DDG 1000s, may yet become capable and, with enough additional money, they may even become warships of unprecedented lethality. But the extent of the program’s problems to date — and the remaining cost to make things right — has not been fully appreciated even among many defense experts.

For starters, no Zumwalt-class ship is ever expected to perform the primary mission it was built for: striking land targets with artillery. The guns the Navy and its contractor built the ships around do not work well enough and the rounds they would fire cost too much.

As a result, late last year — more than a decade after the first contracts were signed to build the ships — the Navy said the vessels would have a new primary mission: “surface strike,” which mainly means attacking enemy ships at sea with as yet undeveloped cruise missiles.

The Navy and the program’s supporters in Congress have still depicted the program as a success story. The first two Zumwalts have been “delivered” from the shipbuilder, General Dynamics Bath Iron Works in Maine, to the Pacific Fleet in San Diego, the Navy announced.

But the ships lack a functioning combat system, the brains of any warship, among scores of other shortfalls, and they are years from demonstrating even rudimentary capability, even before the cruise missiles or other possible new weapons are integrated.

“The Navy is now pursuing a new mission for the Zumwalt class that requires them to demonstrate new capabilities,” said Shelby Oakley, a director in the national security acquisitions auditing team at the Government Accountability Office. “However, the Navy hasn’t even demonstrated the current basic capabilities of the class. Doing so will require several more years and significant additional funding.”

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The Navy now projects that designing, developing and building the three ships ultimately will have cost at least $23.5 billion — or nearly $8 billion on average per vessel. That makes the Zumwalts the most costly and time-consuming ship project, aircraft carriers aside, in recent memory, analysts say.

According to Bryan Clark, an expert on Navy issues at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, each of the Zumwalts has cost about twice as much to build as an Arleigh Burke, the Navy’s other type of destroyer, even when non-recurring design and engineering costs are subtracted.

What’s more, the first ship in the Zumwalt class took twice as long to build as the first Arleigh Burke.

Thus far, the Zumwalt costs twice as much to operate, too, budget documents show. This is the case despite the Navy’s longstanding promise that the Zumwalts would have lower operating costs than ships of older vintage because the highly automated Zumwalts, officials have said, need smaller crews.

“The program made most of the mistakes that the acquisition manual tells you not to make,” Clark said.

Superhero ship?

The new ships are futuristic. They are sleek, svelte and stealthy. Everything from the ships’ propulsion to weapons to computers will be powered by an integrated electric power system — the first of its kind.

“If Batman had a ship, it would be the USS Zumwalt,” said Adm. Harry Harris, the commander of U.S. Pacific Command during the Zumwalt’s 2016 commissioning ceremony.

But Batman would be outgunned in the Zumwalt right now.

The ship was designed to be a latter-day battleship, capable of attacking land targets from upwards of 75 miles offshore with rocket-propelled shells from ultra-modern artillery.

Yet the guns now lay idle, and will remain so indefinitely. That’s because the round they were going to fire costs almost four times initial estimates, or as much as $915,000 apiece, the Navy said late last year.

Besides, officials and analysts now say, the system isn’t reliable and cannot meet range requirements.

So it’s on to the next mission: surface strike, enabled by the new Tomahawk, the Navy recently said.

But that missile is four years from fielding, assuming all goes as planned, and it will cost $679 million in the next several years, the Navy says. The service is considering replacing the defunct guns with still more missile launchers — but that would add still more to the cost.

Meanwhile, other new ideas for the ship abound and each of these would also add to the ship’s price tag.

These proposals include lasers and electromagnetic rail guns, which fire high-speed projectiles — technologies that are still in development and would require even more time and money than the new Tomahawks, experts say. A new nuclear-tipped cruise missile soon to enter development might also be a candidate for the Zumwalts.

Normally, appropriations for constructing ships such as a destroyer occur over a year or two, not more than a decade. And the costs after the first year or two are typically in the tens of millions of dollars per ship, not in the billions.

But the Zumwalt is not a typical program.

The administration plans to request just over $1 billion in additional funding for the three-ship class in the next five years — starting with $522 million in fiscal 2019 — a sum that covers integrating the new Tomahawk.

Despite the three ships’ minimum $23.5 billion price tag, the program has been an afterthought in the last decade’s annual debates on the Navy’s ship budget. At Navy hearings on Capitol Hill, the Zumwalts typically come up only when a lawmaker from Maine asks about them.

Yet, since procurement of the ships began in fiscal 2007, the Navy has spent upwards of $1 billion on the program in some years.

The cost hikes show no signs of abating. Last year, the Senate Armed Services Committee, in the report accompanying its version of the fiscal 2018 defense authorization bill, noted the Navy’s estimate for the total remaining procurement costs for the three ships had gone up in each of the last three budgets, from $572.9 million to $914.3 million to $1.1 billion.

The senators lamented the “continued significant cost growth in this program across the fiscal year 2016 to 2020 period.”

‘Delivered’ but incomplete

Bath Iron Works has already “delivered” to the Navy the first two of the three ships in the Zumwalt class, the Elmo Zumwalt (DDG 1000) and the Michael Monsoor (DDG 1001), the service says. The third of the ships, the Lyndon B. Johnson (DDG 1002), is not far behind.

That the ships have arrived at their homeport sounds like good news. But it’s not.

The first ship arrived at the Navy’s Pacific Fleet headquarters in San Diego in May 2016 with “320 serious deficiencies that could impact ship operation or safety,” according to the April GAO report.

Most importantly, the first Zumwalt was delivered without its combat system. Two years later, the combat system has been installed. But it is still not activated. And the program has yet to test other key ship systems in an integrated way, according to GAO.

The Navy calls it a “two-phase” approach to fielding a ship. But the Armed Services Committees are having none of it. Congress cleared and the president signed a defense authorization law in 2016 specifying that, for any ship to be considered delivered, it needs to be fully built. 

Regardless, the Navy issued a press release in mid-April of this year announcing that the second ship in the Zumwalt class, the Michael Monsoor, had been “delivered,” too — even though, as the press release acknowledged, that ship also still lacks a combat system.

It is normal for U.S. ships to prove themselves in testing only after the contractors send them to the Navy. But the Zumwalt program is leaving an unusual amount of work to be done after the ships arrive in government custody and before they can join the operational fleet.

According to the latest plan, the first Zumwalt-class ship will not be ready to deploy until 2021, fully five years after it was “delivered.”

These delays were not reflected in the glowing assessment Vice Adm. William Merz, the deputy Navy chief for warfare operations, gave to a Senate Armed Services panel in testimony last month.

“We think the ship is very well built and ready to join the fleet,” Merz said.


The Zumwalt’s future may yet be bright. Once it gets the new maritime Tomahawk and the Standard Missile 6 — a killer of aircraft, cruise missiles and surface targets — the Zumwalt will be an offensive force. Its unique shape reduces radar signature, making it hard for enemies to detect. And the high-powered electric system would come in handy for rail guns and other purposes.

“I will tell you that we are learning more lessons from Zumwalt every single day about the capability that ship brings, whether it be power generation, the role of stealth, the volume that the ship brings, the capability of the ship to bring down very sensitive communications etc.,” said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Richardson, at a Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee hearing in April.

Maine’s senators, Republican Susan Collins and independent Angus King, said in a joint statement that the Zumwalt is “an extraordinary, cutting-edge warship designed to meet the demands and threats of the 21st century.”

Certainly, the Zumwalt literally has room to grow. The ship is about 64 percent bigger than an Arleigh Burke (15,600 tons versus 9,500). All that space creates room for new weapons, including unmanned aerial and underwater vehicles, says Bryan McGrath, a former destroyer commander, now a consultant and analyst with the Hudson Institute think tank.

“There’s so much potential there,” McGrath said.

Lt. Lauren Chatmas,  a Navy spokesperson, said the Navy sees “a tremendous opportunity with this ship class in terms of having the most advanced capabilities of any surface ship fielded to date. The return on investment will be realized once the platform is deployed as a surface strike asset in the years ahead.”

The Zumwalt ships will be able to fire fewer cruise missiles than an Arleigh Burke (80 launchers versus 96) and will lack the Burkes’ missile defense capabilities. The Zumwalts also have a less capable radar than originally planned — a cost-cutting move.

Each of the Zumwalts will still have more weapons punch than an attack submarine.

Submarines are completely stealthy, not just partly stealthy like the Zumwalts. That invisibility has advantages. But sometimes so does being visible — when coercive diplomacy is required in places such as the South China Sea, one of the waters in which the Zumwalts may be deployed.

The ship would be “a great big middle finger” to China, McGrath says.

Lowball budgets

Development of the Zumwalt class began in the early 1990s. But as the Cold War ended and the program neared its construction phase, the Navy had begun to reconsider the initial plan to buy 32 Zumwalts.

At the time, the Navy’s fleet was shrinking and admirals knew their budgets were unlikely to be as high as they had been in the 1980s. The premium, then, was on less expensive ships, and the Zumwalt did not qualify, said Clark of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

In addition, the brass had an inkling that the future might require the Navy to fight other navies in open ocean more than to attack land targets, another demerit against the Zumwalt.

In 2008, with two of the ships under construction, the Navy announced it would halt production of new ones.

After years of saying the Zumwalt was the destroyer of the future, the brass began saying the destroyer of the present, the Arleigh Burke, was more cost-effective.

Congress added a third Zumwalt destroyer in fiscal 2010, with many lawmakers saying they were motivated by ensuring enough workload at Maine’s Bath Iron Works.

The so-called truncation of the Zumwalt class caused all the development costs to be apportioned to three ships, not 32, making each one on average cost more than any similar ship ever had.

“Engineering challenges are common for the first in any new class of ships, particularly one as advanced as the DDG-1000s,” said Collins and King in their statement. “These challenges in the Zumwalt program were exacerbated by the Navy’s decisions over time to reduce the total number of ships procured from 32 to three.”

But the reduction in quantities wasn’t the only factor driving up costs. The task was also more complex than the Navy had foreseen.  And it was far harder than the Arleigh Burke class, some of which are built by Bath Iron Works and some by Huntington Ingalls Industries in Mississippi.

The budget problems were largely of the Navy’s own making, though, and not just because of the service’s cut to the quantities.

In particular, the service chose to budget to its own relatively low-cost estimates for the program, not the historically more realistic estimates of the Defense secretary’s cost-analysis office. Kenneth Krieg, then the Pentagon’s acquisition chief, acquiesced in that decision.

Congress has had to appropriate $2.3 billion more to reflect the reality of the ship’s higher costs, as opposed to the Navy’s sanguine projections.

While the development costs were a factor in higher estimates, so too were procurement costs, which have risen 45 percent in the last nine fiscal years, or about $4 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The shipyard’s troubles have included problems developing and building the vessel’s first-of-its-kind electrical system.

What’s more, costly redesigns were required, experts say, because the Navy failed to hew to best practices in acquiring the new ships.

In 2005, at the start of the so-called detailed design phase, a critical juncture in shipbuilding when technical goals and means should be largely set, only one of 11 critical technologies had proven mature. Later, when the ship’s systems were further developed and tested, redesigns were required that delayed schedules and drove up costs, GAO reported.

Even today, with two of the three ships “delivered,” most of the key technologies are not yet mature, GAO said last month.

The next class

The Zumwalts were the product of Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, which prioritized leap-ahead technologies under the rubric of “transformation.”

But trying to simultaneously incorporate unprecedented technologies ended up being too big a leap.

Back in 2005, Rep. Gene Taylor, a Mississippi Democrat, asked the Navy chief at the time, Adm. Vern Clark, a question that resonates today: “Is it wise to have a dramatic change as opposed to an incremental change to the existing platform?”

As the Navy turns its attention to designing in the next few years a new class of destroyer and cruiser warships, the service will use technologies tested on the Zumwalts and may even use the Zumwalt as the basis for the new ship’s design.

The Navy is intent on not only gleaning the good from the Zumwalts but, perhaps more importantly, avoiding the bad.

Richardson, the Navy chief, said after the April Senate Appropriations panel hearing that an important lesson of the Zumwalt program is the importance of “stability of requirements and stability of design.”

In other words, the Navy wants to ensure it knows what it wants from the ships and sticks to that, that it does not reach for more than it technically can achieve and, critics would add, does not cut corners in development.

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