May 5, 2018: In October 2017, as the last of the three U.S. Navy Burke class “restart” ships entered service the navy was already working on a plan to extend the life of all Burkes to 45 years and continuing to build Burkes. This means the existing and future Burkes will have their planned service live extended five to ten years. This is not difficult because the Burkes were a good design that performed well since the first of them entered service in 1991. Another twelve new Burkes are under construction and the last of these won’t enter service until the late 2020s. But the first Burke will have to retire in 2036 and 30 will be gone by 2046. Thus the navy is hustling to come up with a replacement design that will be affordable and can be built soon enough to replace the retiring Burkes.
The Burkes were Cold War era design that was supposed to have been replaced by a radical new design, the Zumwalt class. That did not work out because it took too long and cost too much to build the new Zumwalts. Meanwhile it was noted that the Burkes remained a very effective design and a popular model for similar designs elsewhere, especially in East Asia where South Korea, Japan and China have built similar ships. So in 2009 the U.S. Navy decided to resume Burke production. Up until that point the Burke class was to end building when the 61st one entered service in 2012. But then the U.S. Navy decided to build only three of the new Zumwalt (DDG-1000) class ships and resume (actually continue) production of the older DDG-51 Arleigh Burke class destroyers instead.
Continued production of Burkes and extension of their service life to 45 (or more) years was a matter of cost and bad politics. Reviving Burke production is only a stopgap because the latest Chinese DDG design is basically a Burke and the Chinese are already making some interesting upgrades. In one or two decades China will also have to decide what the next generation of DDGs should be and that will be when China has a chance to replace United States as the leader in warship design and production. China can develop new designs more quickly and build them for less than the United States. The Burke situation is about more than replacing worn out warships.
The DDG-1000 destroyers (and slightly larger versions designated as cruisers) would cost more than $4 billion each if built in large quantities. The Burkes cost $1.9 billion each. The last of original Burkes was ordered in 2002 and entered service in 2012. But now another 14 are on order with the first three basically the same as the last of the original 62 Burkes. But the next ten or so Burkes will be “Flight III” types that incorporate more of the DDG-1000 technologies.
While DDG-51 is less than half the cost of DDG-1000, some navy officials believe that, in the long run, the larger and more expensive DDG-1000 would be a better investment. The key problem here is the inability of the navy to control building costs, and cost estimates, and the inability of the DDG-51s to provide space for some of the new technologies. This is basically a political problem because Congress provides the money and “guidance” for how the navy should spend it. That has led to inefficient shipyards building warships that are nearly all over budget, late and suffering from increasingly poor quality control.
There are other problems as well, such as the costs of upgrades. Because of budget cuts (actual or expected), the navy plans to buy some time (about a decade) by upgrading dozens of existing destroyers and cruisers. This is a bitter pill to swallow, as the navy was so sure about the new DDG-1000 that it accelerated the retirement of a dozen of the 31 Spruance class destroyers, in order to save the $28 million a year it would cost to keep each one of them in service after 2005. These ships were not just retired, they were all either broken up or sunk in training exercises. The dozen that entered service in 1979-83 could have been refurbished and been available until 2019. That's a lost opportunity. But what can now be done is refurb the Burkes. Most of the Ticonderoga class cruisers (which entered service in the 1980s and 90s) can use the refurb as well, which could boost their service into the 2030s. This, plus building a dozen or more Burke class destroyers will provide an adequate number of destroyers. There is also a growing debate over just how many destroyers will be required and what they must be capable of.
The Burke class destroyers were expected to evolve over decades. The first one entered service in 1991. This was called the “Flight I” design. It was an 8,200 ton ship and 21 were built, the last one entering service in 1997. There were then seven 8,400 ton Flight II ships with the last of then entering service in 1999. The rest were 9,800 ton Flight IIA ships with the first one entering service in 2000. Because over half the original Burkes were Flight IIA this group evolved a lot during the 17 years they were being built. Then came the three “restart” Flight IIAs to be followed by over 30 Flight IIIs.
Then there are the refurbs. A lot of new tech is added to DDGs when they get the one refurbishment during their 30 year lives. The refurb not only fixes many of the things that have broken down or worn out (and been patched up), but installs lots of new technology. The navy now plans to use a second refurb that is expected to add another 5-10 years of serviceability. But this second refurb will actually do more than that. The navy wants to add some of the DDG-1000 technology to these older ships. In particular, the navy wants to install the "smart ship" type automation (found in civilian ships for decades) that will enable crew size to be reduced. The "smart ship" gear also includes better networking and power distribution. In effect, the ship would be rewired. This could reduce the crew size by 20-30 percent (current destroyers have a crew of 320, with the cruisers carrying 350). In addition to considerable cost savings (over $100,000 a year per sailor), a smaller crew takes up less space, enabling the smaller crew to have more comfortable living quarters. This is a big deal as far as morale and retention (getting people to stay in the navy) goes. Most other new items are not space dependent, except for some of the power based ones (like the rail gun). But these technologies are receding farther into the future or, like the rail gun, fading away. Right now the navy has to find a way to live within its budget, and refurbishing existing warships shows more promise than trying to build affordable new ones that use untried tech. The navy has discovered that a lot of the desired new DDG-1000 tech won’t fit into a Burke, even the larger Flight III ones. The Burke extension program is also supposed to stay away from the overambitious (and off unworkable and over budget) new tech. Stick with what is already known and don’t give the shipyards an opportunity to delay work and jack up the cost. Concentrate on quality control and don’t let the refurbished Burkes return to service less reliable than before.
Above all the navy does not want yet another ship design and construction disaster. There have been too many of those in the last few decades including the Seawolf SSN, the LCS “frigate” and the new Ford class CVN. There were several other near-disasters and some successes. But too many U.S. Navy ship design and constructions projects were like the DDG-1000 Zumwalt Class. Also known as DD-21 or DD-X this design was too large and too ambitious to be a successful destroyer, The Zumwalts had a stealthy superstructure and were as big as a battleship, at least a state-of-the art battleship from a century earlier. The DDG 1000 is a 14,000 ton ship, 194 meters (600 feet) long, and 25.5 meters (79 feet) wide. The crew of 150 sailors operates a variety of weapons, including two 155mm guns, two 40mm automatic cannon for close in defense, 80 Vertical Launch Tubes (containing either anti-ship, cruise or anti-aircraft missiles), six torpedo tubes, a helicopter, and three helicopter UAVs. The cruiser version (CGN, as Congress has mandated that these be nuclear powered) would drop one of the 155mm guns, as well as the torpedo tubes, but carry more vertical cells for missiles (especially anti-ballistic missile missiles). These would be a 20-25,000 ton ships.
A century before the DDG 1000 showed up there was the Mississippi class battleship that displaced 14,400 tons, was 382 feet long, and 77 feet wide. A crew of 800 operated a variety of weapons, including four 12 inch, eight 8 inch, eight 7 inch, twelve 3 inch, twelve 47mm, and four 37mm guns, plus four 7.62mm machine-guns. There were also four torpedo tubes. The Mississippi had a top speed of 31 kilometers an hour, versus 54 for DDG-1000. But the Mississippi had one thing DD-21 lacked, armor. Along the side there was a belt of 23 cm (9 inch) armor and the main turrets had 30 cm (12 inch) thick armor. The Mississippi had radio, but the DDG-1000 has radio, GPS, sonar, Aegis radar, electronic warfare equipment, and the ability to shoot down ballistic missiles. The century old Mississippi class ships cost about half a billion dollars (adjusted for inflation). The DDG-1000 class destroyers cost more than eight times as much, thus possessing the price, size, and firepower, if not the name, of a battleship. By the end of World War II the U.S. Navy could no longer afford battleships and given the continued inability to control costs meant the navy could not afford enough of its new DDG-1000 destroyers either.
Many senior navy officers are aware that the way warships are procured has changed in the last century, and apparently not for the better. Many other nations do not have the procurement problems the U.S. Navy is suffering from. But attempts to fix the procurement mess constantly run into political opposition. Now the United States is faced with the embarrassing example of China building similar ships more quickly, at much less cost and apparently up to world class quality standards. There are lessons to be learned here.