By Dave Ahearn

Just as China has deployed hundreds of missiles aimed at the Taiwan Strait, the U.S. Navy is moving to abandon production of cutting-edge DDG 1000 destroyers with radar-evading capabilities in favor of buying a few more old-style DDG 51 ships that have all the stealth of the wide side of a barn.

While the DDG 1000, all 14,564 long tons of it, will show up on an enemy radar as nothing more than a fishing boat, the DDG 51 shows up on a foe’s radar as … a destroyer, bigger than life.

After a decade of development costing billions of dollars, the Navy suddenly wants to build only the two DDG 1000 superships now on the verge of production, and forget plans to build a fleet of seven of the futuristic destroyers.

Rather, as a make-work for shipbuilding companies, the Navy would buy fewer than 10 of the old, outmoded DDG 51 Arleigh Burke Class destroyers, which were designed in the 1980s. (Then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney spoke at the commissioning ceremony for the Arleigh Burke, DDG 51.)

The Navy excuse for suddenly abandoning the DDG 1000 shipbuilding program is that the ships cost a lot, perhaps more than $3 billion each for the first two, and lesser amounts after that. (The Congressional Budget Office, or CBO, says it might be more like $5 billion for the first two, and lesser amounts for later copies of the ship.) For perspective, $5 billion is less than one percent of a single year in defense spending. And a destroyer takes more than a year to build.

Reality check: if a ship costs sizeable money, but it performs against a newly emerging threat, does it make sense to save money by deciding instead to acquire a cheaper ship that doesn’t meet that threat?

Another question that hasn’t been answered is this: why is the Navy doing the work of political officials? The job of military officers, let us be clear, is to give their professional assessment of the risks facing the United States, and then give their professional assessment as to what equipment — ships, aircraft carriers, submarines, fighter planes, bombers, tanks, cargo aircraft and much more — is required to meet that threat.

It is the job of elected officials in the White House and Congress to say whether they will appropriate the money for those needed military assets. And the DDG 1000s are needed.

While it is true that the old DDG 51s have some limited stealth capacity, that is nothing compared to the radar-evading powers of DDG 1000s, with their inward-sloping hulls, faceted superstructures and backward-sloping bows.

Does the Navy, which year after year cited the clear need for a stealthy destroyer, now suddenly say the threat environment has eased, that threats have disappeared, and stealth is no longer required?

No, the Navy is cutting DDG 1000 not because enemy threats disappeared, not because the DDG 1000 design is flawed (in fact, it bodes well to perform just as expected), but rather because of a desire to avoid spending money.

Well, here is some advice for the Navy: do your job. Lay out what is required to defend the nation against the threat. And you have been very clear, year after year, that you required a stealthy destroyer to meet the threat.

If it turns out that it will cost a lot of money, let Congress wrestle with that. Let members of Congress stand up and say they won’t provide for the common defense, despite the fact that the Constitution of the United States charges them with that responsibility. Let Congress say it wants to wage wars on the cheap, that it won’t provide the men and women in uniform, those who wear the cloth, with the platform that they need when Congress sends them into harm’s way.

Meanwhile, let the Navy stay in the military area, and state what militarily is required to project force at sea in the current threat environment. In fact, the Navy already has done this, repeatedly, and each time the sea service said a fleet of DDG 1000 destroyers is needed to prevail against likely enemies.

For example, just three years ago, the Navy was adamant that the futuristic destroyer, then called DD(X), was vitally needed to counter threats that even then were clear and growing.

There was no Navy talk of giving up on the future and settling for more old-tech ships unable to meet the emergent challenge.

Consider, for example, what Vice Adm. Joseph Sestak, deputy chief of naval operations for warfare requirements and programs, said at the time about the indispensability of the next-generation destroyer that he termed a reasonably priced ship that can operate in littoral, or near-shore, waters:

  • Without DD(X), "You won’t have the vessel you need…to fight the fight in the littoral," in gun power, undersea warfare and air warfare, Sestak said in an interview. The DD(X) would be superior to existing destroyers in detecting and eliminating quiet enemy diesel submarines in near-shore areas, and the DD(X) would be able by itself to detect incoming enemy missiles, without aid from other ships.
  • The majority of the investment in new technologies for the DD(X) already has been made. Should that time, money and technology go down the drain? And even more funding has been sunk into the advanced, high-technology ship design since then.
  • Loss of those technologies would harm other programs expecting to utilize those innovations, such as the next-generation CVN 21 aircraft carrier, the LHA(R) amphibious ship, and the modernization of the old DDG 51 Arleigh Burke Class destroyers and CG 47 Ticonderoga Class cruiser ships now in the fleet.
  • The DDG 1000 hull form and much of its systems are to form the basis for the next generation Navy cruiser, CG(X), which is needed to provide protection against ballistic missile threats.
  • Without the new destroyer, the Navy would lose undersea, anti-aircraft and other capabilities improvements over the DDGs.

As for the argument that the DD(X) is prohibitively expensive, Sestak compared the DD(X) development costs to expenses incurred in developing other ships. The DD(X) development outlay then came to just $7.7 billion, versus $11.4 billion to develop the Aegis combat system. And that $11.4 billion doesn’t include another $32.5 billion of government cost in the Aegis development program.

Want something more recent, and higher-ranking?

Let’s hear, and heed, the words of Adm. Michael G. Mullen in March last year. At the time, he was the highest-ranking uniformed leader in the Navy, the chief of naval operations. (He since has been promoted, and currently is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.)

This is what he had to say about the DDG 1000:

"This multi-mission surface combatant, tailored for land attack and littoral dominance, will provide independent forward presence and deterrence and operate as an integral part of joint and combined expeditionary forces," Mullen said. "DDG 1000 will capitalize on reduced signatures and enhanced survivability to maintain persistent presence in the littoral. The program provides the baseline for spiral development to support future surface ships. …

"With the Advanced Gun System (AGS) and associated Long Range Land Attack Projectile (LRLAP), DDG 1000 will provide volume and precision fires in support of Joint forces ashore. A Global Positioning System (GPS) guided, 155 millimeter round, LRLAP will provide all weather fires capability out to 83 nautical miles. Its Dual Band Radar represents a significant increase in air defense capability in the cluttered littoral environment. Investment in Open Architecture and reduced manning will provide the Navy life cycle cost savings and technology that can be retrofit to legacy ships."

Does that sound like the DDG 1000 is an unneeded, unworkable frill that should be thrown away and forgotten?

Not a bit.

So the question is this: how did such strongly worded, and strongly thought out, Navy rationales for building the next-generation class of destroyers become the Navy capitulation and abandonment of a new class of ships?

How can two ships be the eventual replacement for a fleet of more than 60 Arleigh Burke Class destroyers?

Can the Navy send the old DDG 51 destroyers into the Taiwan Strait if China makes good on its threat to invade Taiwan? Not unless the Navy wants to watch some of the 1,400 Chinese missiles sink American destroyers.

(U.S. forces also would require some super-stealth supersonic aircraft, the F-22 Raptor, to take out those missile emplacements, and Congress has slashed the original buy of 750 Raptors to 381, to 277, and now to 183. But that’s another story of pinch-penny warfighting.)

If Congress wishes to meet its responsibility to support the armed forces and provide for the common defense, lawmakers will have to recognize that defense spending must rise, even if the war in Iraq ends 16 months after an inauguration ceremony in January.

One way for Congress to do that would be to do nothing, and permit the automatic expiration of the tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003 to occur, as now provided, in 2010 or 2011. That would add about $2.6 trillion to revenues in the next decade, an amount equivalent to roughly 16 times the entire annual Pentagon spending on hardware procurement, including research and development programs.

Clearly, acquisition costs are going to rise, and the DDG 1000 would be but a small part of that. The $300 billion program for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter called Lightning II, and the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, are set for full-rate production now or in the next few years. The Navy wants to shift from buying one new $2 billion-plus attack submarine yearly to two (even as China is acquiring eight different classes of subs). The Air Force needs aerial refueling tanker planes costing perhaps $100 billion in coming years, with an initial batch of 179 aircraft costing maybe $35 billion. Aircraft carriers are to be bought, one every four years, for about $7 billion to $8 billion apiece. The Army is moving ahead with a $160 billion Future Combat System of vehicles, aircraft and more. And many types of new or refurbished helicopters are needed by the armed services.

And all this doesn’t count billions of dollars in repairing and replacing military hardware damaged in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It doesn’t include billions more to hire more troops, because there are too few people in uniform, and repeated tours of duty in Iraq have left them stressed and worn.

So out of all this, the Navy can’t afford to buy some decent destroyers able to meet the enemy threat? Say that the huge CBO estimate of $5 billion for the first two DDG 1000s is right. And say there is not even a slight reduction in that price tag for ensuing ships. We’re still talking five more ships for $5 billion each, or $25 billion over many years, in a Department of Defense that goes through $600 billion each and every year without breaking a sweat.

And let’s remember the only germane point here: the DDG 1000 is the right ship to meet the threat, and the DDG 51 Arleigh Burke Class — while it’s a grand old design that has served well in combat including a vicious attack in Yemen — isn’t the ship of the future designed to conquer what enemies will throw at us as the 21st century unfolds.

Finally, let us examine a secondary but very real issue: if the DDG 1000 program is killed, that also may kill the General Dynamics Corp. [GD] shipyard, Bath Iron Works in Maine. It also will disrupt planned work that Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC] unit Ship Systems counted on for future years.

If Bath goes out of business, it will take a huge number of high-paying jobs out of Maine, a state where unemployment traditionally has been unpleasantly high.

And if there is no Bath Iron Works, then the Navy can say there is no competition for shipbuilding work, because only Northrop is left in the business in the United States.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has asked what will happen then? Will Pentagon leaders say that competition must be revived by having ships for the United States Navy built in foreign yards, instead of by American labor? Will American ships be built by French or German workers, she asks?

Or, she continues, could it be that U.S. warships will be built by a rival power that soon may be at war with the United States, China?

This is not the first time that DDG 1000 foes have attempted to kill the cutting-edge ship in its crib. Some wanted to block construction of any of the advanced destroyers. Now they are making another run at it to kill the remaining five in the planned fleet. But Collins, joined by an array of other lawmakers and, perhaps, some stalwarts in the Navy, may once again pull victory out of the jaws of defeat, and keep the ship from sinking.