March 1, 2008  

The big gamble

Like no other military service in history, the Navy is betting a very large — and expensive — chunk of its future fleet on untested technologies and practices. Large destroyers built to a hull design no one has ridden. Aircraft carriers that will launch their planes by a method yet to launch an aircraft. Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) operated in ways entirely new to any navy.

The projects have been in the works for years: more than a decade for the DDG 1000 destroyer, about that for the CVN 78 carrier and about five years for the LCS.

But now, all three projects are at something of a nexus: The service is about to begin building the destroyers, construction has just begun on the first of the new carriers, and the first LCS will take to sea in a few months. After years of existing only as promises and PowerPoint presentations, all three projects are about to turn into real ships. As George Allen, the 1970s coach of the Washington Redskins, used to proclaim, “the future is now.”

That the Navy is depending on so many untried designs at once is historically epic. And these new ships do not represent modest leaps: the Zumwalt-class DDG 1000 destroyer in particular is one of the most technologically advanced ships ever built, combining at least 10 major new technologies into one 15,000-ton package.

The introduction of new technologies often is incremental to minimize risk. The first nuclear-powered warship, Nautilus, for example, added a nuclear reactor to an otherwise conventional hull design in the early 1950s. The first Aegis combat system ships were based on an existing 1970s destroyer design then in production. The Navy’s first vertical launch systems for missiles replaced external launchers on the sixth ship of the Ticonderoga-class cruisers.

That step-by-step approach meant that teething problems with a new system didn’t negatively affect the entire design and provided a buffer in case a new technology failed.

One example of a new technology’s failure took place in the early 1960s when the Navy planned to operate DASH (Drone-Anti-Submarine Helicopter), a new, unmanned helicopter. Dozens of older destroyers were rebuilt to incorporate a small flight deck and hangar. But DASH encountered a series of technical obstacles, the system never became operational, and scores of ships were left with new aviation facilities too small to accommodate manned aircraft. The DASH program was a failure, but the ships retained enough capability to keep them in service another decade or so, although the unused flight decks remained an embarrassment.

Navy officials are routinely sanguine about the new ship programs, constantly reassuring Congress and other critics that the extensive design and development period for the destroyer and carrier minimizes the risk of failure or even of serious delay. But worries persist that the destroyer’s tumblehome hull design —so far tried out only in models — will be flawed, or that the carrier’s revolutionary electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) won’t be perfected before the ship is completed in 2015.

In terms of simple hull numbers, the potential effect of the new carrier or destroyer designs on the Navy’s 313-ship fleet plan is relatively small. The service plans to keep 11 carriers in service, building one every four or five years. Only seven Zumwalt-class destroyers are planned — although the tumblehome design is the Navy’s preference for 19 CG(X) cruisers, the first of which is to be ordered in 2011.

The success or failure of the new LCS concept has a far greater potential effect. Navy plans call for 55 of the ships, which ultimately will make up about one-sixth of the Navy’s fleet.


Putting out so many untried designs at once is called concurrent development, said Norman Friedman, a New York-based naval analyst and author of a series of design histories of U.S. warships. “It’s a major sin in acquisition. You’re not supposed to do it,” he said. “Each platform involves major, radical change. That suggests an optimism which past experience would indicate is misplaced,” Friedman cautioned.

Friedman decried the absence of a more deliberate approach to fielding new technology and concepts.

“There’s a fascination with radical change as a way of solving problems,” he said, noting that the depth of institutional knowledge in the Navy dropped dramatically in the 1990s with the cost-saving elimination of much of the technical expertise at Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), which oversees the design, development and construction of new ships. “The Navy has dumped most of its internal technological expertise,” he said. “These designs are creations of private companies.”

Northrop Grumman performed much of the design work on the new destroyer and carrier, and General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin are offering competing designs for the LCS.

“What you’re seeing is that we’ve privatized defense contracting to where there are very few players,” Friedman noted.


But another reason for so much change at once is that the Navy simply doesn’t build as many new designs as it used to. It costs billions to develop new ships — the research and development costs for the DDG 1000, for example, are said by the Navy to be about $6.5 billion — and NAVSEA is working to reduce the number of designs to a minimum to maximize efficiencies.

“This necking down isn’t the way to do it, but we don’t have much choice,” said Norman Polmar, a veteran naval analyst and author of “The Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet.” “The Navy has limited choices because of the cost of maintenance, training and personnel,” he added. “Necking down simplifies that.”

The scarcity of new designs also drives up the effort to pack as much of a wallop as possible into each new ship, he said.

“It’s not often that we start new ship designs these days,” Polmar said, noting that the last destroyer was designed in the 1980s and the previous carrier design dates from the mid-1960s. “When you only build a new type of ship every 20 to 30 years, you have to make it the biggest possible step you can.”

In addition to these ships, the Navy also is building new classes of submarines, amphibious ships and support ships, some of which — the San Antonio-class LPD 17 amphibious ships and the Virginia-class SSN 774 nuclear attack submarines — had developmental, design or cost issues of their own. Handling so much that’s new at once would be a major challenge for any organization, analysts say.

“The introduction of several new classes within a limited span of years poses an acquisition management and supervision challenge for the Navy, and an execution challenge for industry,” said Ron O’Rourke of the Congressional Research Service.

Polmar noted that decisions made years ago are difficult to change, even when problems arise.

“The Navy is on a train that’s racing down the tracks,” he said. “The tracks are going in the right direction, but they cannot easily change course.”

Where’s the risk?


Each of the new ship designs brings its own set of potential problems:


The CVN 78 Gerald R. Ford design features a number of new elements over the previous Nimitz-class carriers, including a new hull, new reactor plant and redesigned flight deck. A new dual band radar is being developed — the size of which is key to a much smaller island that enables new flight deck operation patterns — and the EMALS magnetic launch system represents a radical improvement. The Navy first planned to put off installation of the new launch system until later ships in the class but decided to move it to the first ship to placate former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s push for transformation. Although the EMALS passed a critical design review in November, trials of the new system so far have involved only so-called test articles. Real aircraft won’t be launched until 2009.

Potential worst case: The EMALS system isn’t ready when the ship is complete and the carrier operates without the ability to launch conventional fixed-wing aircraft.


The DDG 1000 Zumwalt advanced destroyer design incorporates 10 major new technologies. Although Navy officials publicly remain steadfast in their confidence that the design carries little risk, experts note that problems will likely occur in integrating so many new systems in a single platform. Concern also remains among a number of professionals that there might be stability flaws in the new tumblehome hull design, which has never been applied to a real ship. Those concerns might surface when the Navy begins open conversation about a new study of design alternatives for the CG(X) cruiser; a Center for Naval Analyses study reportedly is complete, but briefings have been closely held and public release of the study has been delayed several months.

Potential worst case: Cost increases limit the program to two or three ships. The hull proves unstable and results in a catastrophe at sea or severe restrictions.


Concerns about the LCS program have focused almost exclusively on the acquisition plan, which disintegrated over the past year because of cost overruns that have more than doubled the original $220 million per-ship price tag. But lost in the focus on the building plan is the fact that numerous concepts key to the LCS will need time to mature. The Navy will need years of real-time experience to work out problems with the multiple-crewing and mission detachment plans; proper employment of the mission modules and their multiple, complex parts; numerous command-and-control issues; systems integration problems; concepts of operations for the ships; and logistics and training issues. The two competing designs have differing qualities and the service will have only a relatively brief time to evaluate them before choosing a single design to build in 2009, and Navy Secretary Donald Winter said last year the final design could well incorporate significant elements from each competitor, in effect creating a new design. Another consideration: the General Dynamics design introduces an aluminum-hulled trimaran into the Navy, which has never operated a warship with that feature. Only a handful of commercial aluminum tri-hull ferries approach the size of the LCS, and none of those have been in service more than a few years. Long-term forecasts about the structural stability and integrity of the aluminum trimaran are based only on theoretical models.

Potential worst case: The current mission modules prove too complex and are simplified. The aluminum trimaran hulls fail after a few years in operation and are scrapped.

Affordability: Veteran government cost analysts outside the Navy have testified repeatedly to Congress that the Navy’s current 30-year shipbuilding plan is unaffordable. All forecast serious overruns for the carrier and destroyer, and they correctly predicted last year’s LCS cost jumps.