BIW’s future to be defined by national warship defense strategy

Posted Sept. 23, 2011, at 6:14 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 23, 2011, at 7:50 p.m.

BATH, Maine — With fresh Navy contracts in hand, Bath Iron Works has entered the next generation of military muscle and technological sophistication with the construction of the venerable DDG 1000 Zumwalt-class series of warships.

While BIW steps into the fore with gusto — the shipyard is under contract to build three copies of the new warship — support for the program has dried up in Congress and at the Pentagon, virtually ensuring that the ships will be the only three of their kind. Because of the staggering cost of the Zumwalt-class destroyers — by many estimates more than $2 billion apiece including construction and the installation of electronics and weapons — the current thinking in the Navy is that restarting construction of the DDG 51 Arleigh Burke-class ships, which BIW has been building for two decades at less than half the cost of a Zumwalt, is a more viable and affordable alternative.

So as it turns out, the formerly celebrated next-generation destroyer will cede to its time-tested predecessor. According to Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, an announcement about the future of the Burkes is expected from the Navy’s acquisition office in the next week or so.

“There will be a decision very soon regarding the future of the DDG 51s,” Snowe told the Bangor Daily News recently. “[An extension of the program] is a real possibility.”

According to military industry analysts, the Navy simply bit off more than it could afford with the design of the Zumwalt, which incorporates at least 10 newly invented systems ranging from propulsion to radar to a stealthy hull.

“They tried to do too much when they tried to invest in so many new technologies at once,” said Jay Korman, a defense industry analyst for the Washington D.C.-based Avascent Group. “The Navy just can’t afford any more Zumwalts than what they have already bought.”

Loren Thompson, a military analyst with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., said several factors played into the death of the Zumwalt class, not the least of which was politics.

“The challenges that the defense industry and shipbuilding industry face today are largely the result of a stalemate between the parties in Washington,” said Thompson. “If one party or the other took over completely, we’d probably see a lot more progress.”

According to Thompson, political gridlock coupled with a sour economy forced the Pentagon to backpedal on several next-generation projects ranging from aircraft to ground vehicles. To accommodate its changing goals, the military will be forced to upgrade already-existing technologies. In the case of shipbuilding, that means enhancing the capabilities of the Arleigh Burkes. which according to Thompson have proven more versatile than most people anticipated.

“Nobody expected when the Burkes debuted in the 1980s that they would have so many missions and be so central to our national missile defense,” he said.

The Pentagon’s plan, according to Korman and Thompson, is to incorporate some of the technology developed for the Zumwalts into Burkes, eventually developing “Flight III” Burkes with capabilities that far surpass their predecessors.

“If the Navy’s going to continue operating the Arleigh Burkes for decades to come, there needs to be a gradual improvement in the missiles, the radar, the on-board propulsion and electrical systems so the ship stays state-of-the-art,” said Thompson. “Because the Navy has prematurely terminated the Zumwalt class, it will not have the hull it wanted for its future missile defense cruiser.”

And according to Philip Dur, a retired Navy rear admiral who as the former president of Northrup Grumman Ship Systems was intimately involved in the design of the Zumwalts, canning the program will lead to more problems as warfare technology advances.

“I feel very strongly that the Navy has made a very significant error in judgment,” said Dur, who is also the former director of the Navy’s strategy division. “They got very nervous about the price and the cost ultimately of the Zumwalts. Lost in all of this is the comparative capability of the two ships and the sunk cost we have in the Zumwalt. The Flight III redesign of the Arleigh Burke is going to be very expensive and it won’t produce a ship that is anywhere near as capable as the Zumwalt.”

According to Dur, the key deficiency in the Arleigh Burke program is the amount of energy the ship can produce compared with what will be required by weapons of the future, such as lasers and particle rays.

“If we move into the world of high-energy weapons within the life cycle of these ships, the Burke won’t be able to accommodate that unless you redesign the entire propulsion system,” he said. “These are the kinds of questions people concerned with national security should be asking.”

As for the cost argument against the Zumwalts, Dur said they look expensive because there will be only three of them built. That amplifies billions of dollars in design and engineering costs by spreading the expense over only three ships, as opposed to the more than 30 ships that originally were envisioned in the Zumwalt class. The short production run also eliminates construction efficiencies that develop over time.

“The country will eventually ask, ‘tell me again why we invested $8 billion to design the Zumwalt?’” said Dur. “With the Army and the Air Force coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan with a badly battered kit of equipment, how in the world is the country and a deficit-minded Congress going to maintain Navy shipbuilding? As long as we’ve got a dollar to invest, we should focus on capabilities so we at least are working with designs that are fit for the future, not the past.”

So what does all of this mean for Bath Iron Works? According to Korman, the fact that Bath was chosen to build the three Zumwalts is a signal that the Navy wants to keep BIW healthy for the restart of the Arleigh Burke program.

“The Arleigh Burke is one of the few programs that is insulated from the cuts and talk around Washington about dire defense budgets,” said Korman. “It’s one of the safest programs in the entire Navy portfolio, and that bodes well for BIW.”

How future construction of the Burke class is divided between BIW and the other shipyard that builds them, Ingalls Shipbuilding in Mississippi, remains the major question that so far has not been answered.

“BIW is in fairly good shape for the next three years while it builds the Zumwalts,” said Thompson. “The shipyard is clearly respected by its Navy customer, but the questions start multiplying when you get three or four years out. Bath must get some of the future Burkes if it’s going to maintain its work force.”

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