The deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems said on Thursday that the Navy is now planning to extend the life of all of its Arleigh Burke-class (DDG-51) guided-missile destroyers, allowing it to reach 355 ships by the 2030s.

Vice Adm. William Merz said this extension includes the older, Flight 1 model ships. Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) recently completed an analysis of the destroyers that found they can extend the entire class to reach 45 operational years each.

The USS Howard (DDG-83) Arleigh Burke-class destroyer returns to Naval Base San Diego after a seven-month deployment to the Western Pacific Ocean in 2014. (Photo: U.S. Navy)
The USS Howard (DDG-83) Arleigh Burke-class destroyer returns to Naval Base San Diego after a seven-month deployment to the Western Pacific Ocean in 2014. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

The Navy revealed this decision during a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing on the capabilities of a 355-ship Navy.

“Through the terrific work of the NAVSEA engineers, we’ve come through that, I’d say pretty quickly. Unfortunately, it was not completed in time for the shipbuilding plan,” Merz told the committee. However, it will be included in subsequent plans.

By extending the life expectancy of the whole class “then we can roll in the right maintenance and modernizations much more efficiently, much more affordably for the entire duration of the class.”

Merz clarified each destroyer was already set to be modernized and none are left out of this new analysis.

The most recent 30-year shipbuilding plan resulted in reaching a 355-ship fleet by the 2050s but extending all of the destroyers pushes that down to the 2030s. Merz said service life extension work usually helps smooth the ramp of total ship number declines, rather than raising the number overall. However, a class-wide extension like this would grow the total ship count faster.

“This is an HM&E extension. Every destroyer is already in the modernization pipeline. So every destroyer will be modernized,” Merz told reporters following the hearing.

HM&E stands for hull, mechanical, and electric work. This includes not just hull and electrical work ,but also weapons systems, Merz told the committee.

With this analysis in place, the Navy can now plan for all of the modernizations more efficiently. “We can pace it, plan it, fund it efficiently as opposed to one and done, one and done, one and done,” Merz told reporters.

“We’re big fans of this class of ship. Although it gets us to 355 in the 30s, it’s not the correct mix of ships, but it’s not a bad mix. If you got to have extra ships, destroyers are the ones to have,” he added.

Merz said the Navy will just need to correctly manage the destroyers because this faster 355-ship makeup does not include the additional attack submarines (SSNs) “and some of the other super lethal platforms.”

The Navy is still “very focused on getting the right mix in the end,” he said.

Merz underscored while all the Arleigh Burke-class ships will be extended, each will be upgraded to Baseline 5.4, 8, or 9. “Those are all BMD capable ships and that is a fundamental capability we have to have out there on our destroyers.”

If the Navy decides to upgrade ships beyond Baseline 9 that will be an opportunity cost decision going forward. “But the ships will be there to be able to do that. So now we have the option to have that discussion.”

Merz said with this kind of class-wide extension there is no specific modernization or maintenance period included in it to impact cost estimates.

“I won’t say they’re free because you still have to man them and operate them” but unlike extending individual ships, the Navy is “doing this based on the performance of the class so all of them are just, for an engineering analysis, extended based on their past performance.”

If they are modernized beyond Baseline 9, “then we’ll have to learn how to pay for that.”