Navy not being straight about new destroyer

In rolling out the first ship of the DDG-1000 Zumwalt-Class destroyer, the U.S. Navy has claimed repeatedly that the program is on time and on budget.  Unfortunately, this claim—which has been picked up by the mainstream media, including the Washington Post—is both misleading and disingenuous. 

The program actually started 20 years ago in 1994 and originally envisioned building 32 ships at a total cost of $35.8 billion, or about $1.12 billion per ship.  The program had so many problems in research and development over the years that in order to keep overall program costs down the program quantity was reduced over the past two decades to 24 planned ships, then 7, and finally the 3 ships we have today (one completed, two still under construction).

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When the Navy unveiled the first-in-class USS Zumwalt this week, it claimed that the unit cost for reach ship was slightly more than $3.5 billion.  While that figure is about three times the price of the Navy’s current destroyers, it still underestimates the real cost of the new ships.  When the costs of research and design are factored in over the life of the program, each Zumwalt-class destroyer will cost about $7.16 billion.  Essentially, the Navy will have spent $21.5 billion to buy three ships, when the program was initially supposed to build 32 ships for $35.8 billion.  In effect the Navy will spend six times more per ship than it originally intended, and this after degrading the new ship’s radar capabilities to reduce cost overruns.

Given the problems that the Navy has had building the Littoral Combat Ship, there other new surface combatant, which the naval historian Norman Polmar has called a total disaster and which Senator John McCain has noted already costs nearly twice as much per ship as planned, it is understandable why they are claiming victory on the DDG-1000.  But if a program that costs six times more per ship and took twenty years to complete is a success then the Navy, the Pentagon, and the country are all in a lot of trouble.  In light of victories like these, it’s easy to see why the number of ships in the Navy keeps declining. 

The military’s process for determining operational requirements, assessing the competitive and affordable options to meet those requirements, and procuring those systems is fundamentally broken – but nobody inside the Beltway will admit it.

Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information.