‘Unmitigated disaster’: US Navy’s Zumwalt destroyer project blasted as wasteful & incapable
The Zumwalt project, or DDG-1000, was touted as an advanced stealth warship for the 21st century, capable of dominating the world’s maritime zones for decades to come. Of the planned 32 ships, 29 have been canceled due to ever-increasing cost blowouts.
The flagship, the USS Zumwalt, has experienced a series of embarrassing breakdowns both before and after its commission in October. As she was making its first voyage to San Diego, the destroyer had to stop engines in the Panama Canal and be towed on.
In an online publication on Monday, the popular National Review branded the project an “unmitigated disaster.” The article harshly criticized the rationale behind the Zumwalt design and its skyrocketing price, which was a result of procurement system that lacks accountability for waste and doesn’t prevent ties between military commanders and defense contractors.
The Zumwalt is an oversized destroyer built around stealth capabilities, which was meant to use advanced automation to reduce crew size along with operating costs. The initial estimate was that it would cost $1.34 billion per ship and have a crew of 95 instead of 400 to 600 sailors, which a regular ship of this size would require.
The present-day cost is $4.2 billion per ship. If the over $10 billion of development cost is divided between the three Zumwalt-class destroyers planned, the cost bumps to over $7 billion per ship, which is more than the $6.2 billion spent on the last Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, the National Review noted.
The drive to minimize crew size – which on one occasion would dispose of the ship’s cook in favor of pre-prepared meals that sailors would heat up themselves – was somewhat overturned later. The design team was forced to accept a crew size of 147 crew members, not including the air detachment. But even with that many people, “there is no chance it can conduct the kind of ship-saving and recovery operations that a Navy warship of this size should be able to execute after taking major damage,” the article says.
“Trying to create a such a large warship – capable of operating with such a tiny crew – was and is a gross waste of taxpayer dollars, because it radically increased the cost of the ship and reduced its capabilities with no realistic expectation of success,” the magazine’s contributor Mike Fredenburg wrote.
The article questions the merit of the one advantage that the Zumwalt undoubtedly has – its stealth capability. The 15,000-ton, 610-foot-long (186-meter) warship has a radar cross-section of a 50-foot fishing vessel. The article argues that this advantage is not as big as one may think, considering that the destroyers are likely to be deployed as part of battle groups along with non-stealth ships.
“Once the Zumwalt becomes part of a battle group, much of its stealth advantage disappears, because the other, less-stealthy ships show up on an enemy’s radar. I say ‘much,’ because anti-ship cruise missiles will probably go after the less-stealthy ships of the battle group, allowing the Zumwalt to execute a tactical retreat as the other ships soak up the damage,” Fredenburg said.
In littoral waters the ship could be spotted by ships and boats that are usually present near the coast in large numbers, he argued. And building a ship around its stealth feature was a trade-off that hiked its cost and forced designers to compromise in areas like hull stability and placement of equipment.
The article further blasts the Zumwalt’s Advanced Gun System. The navy canceled production of the rounds for the system because their cost soared from tens of thousands of dollars to at least $800,000 per round. Compared to the discontinued ammunition, the Tomahawk cruise missile delivers about 30 times more payload per dollar, with about 15 times the range, the article said.
The magazine compares the Zumwalt to Pentagon’s other big budget and underwhelming projects like the CH-53K helicopter, the Marines’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, the Littoral Combat Ship, the Osprey tilt-rotor program, the F-22, the F-35. Such projects continue on while nobody is held accountable for the cost ballooning.
“We see this pattern repeated over and over and over again. Not only is there zero accountability, but this behavior is rewarded. Indeed, in today’s military, successfully expanding a program beyond its initial budget is viewed highly favorably in terms of rank advancement, as well as being valued by defense contractors looking to hire ‘team players’ who can effectively wield influence with their former colleagues on their behalf,” the article said.
The scalding review comes a month before President-elect Donald Trump assumes office. Trump pledged to give the US Navy a significant boost, raising its current fleet of 272 ships to 350. But he also criticized several costly projects, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.