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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

The Navy’s DDG(X) Destroyer: We Have a Price Problem

DDG(X)
DDG(X). Image Credit: U.S. Navy.

DDG(X): Do we have a cost issue? Caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware. Denizens of the military-industrial complex have an exasperating habit: how many times have you heard a spokesman for an armed service or defense firm talk about some future platform, sensor, or weapon as though it already exists and is a known, proven, reliable quantity—and thus constitutes a sure bet for the taxpayers?

DDG(X)

DDG(X). Image Credit: U.S. Navy.

It’s a regular occurrence if you follow the daily news out of the defense world. But the habit of downplaying risk masks a plain truth, namely that even the most elegant idea or design is a hypothesis. It remains a hypothesis until reduced to engineering, subjected to rigorous field trials, and vindicated—or not—in the real world. It may suffice once amended to meet the test of reality. Or it may not. Failure is always an option.

Lawmakers must insist that the scientific method prevail, in the world of arms as throughout public affairs. Not every great idea is actionable.

Nevertheless, the habit of downplaying prospects for failure while playing up visions of success seems graven on the cultures of both the military and defense-industrial sectors. Here’s an example lifted at random from an early-bird newsletter flung over my metaphorical transom each morning. Inside Defense reported that the first copy of the U.S. Navy’s next-generation guided-missile destroyer, dubbed “DDG(X),” will cost around twice what each DDG-51 Flight III Arleigh Burke-class destroyer—today’s state of the art—runs taxpayers.

The Inside Defense story cited a report from the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan analytical arm of the national legislature. (CRS products are models of sobriety when evaluating military programs. No hype there.) Notes the report’s author, the redoubtable Ron O’Rourke, the leading-edge DDG(X) will cost some $3.5 to $4 billion according to navy estimates. By contrast each DDG-51 Flight III, the latest variant of a model in service for the past thirty years, sets the taxpayers back about $2.2 billion.

Whoa. Doubling the price of something while on a more or less fixed budget spells trouble.

Rather than let brute numbers shout an alarming message, however, Inside Defense solicited comment from the U.S. Navy. Navy spokesman Lieutenant Megan Morrison provided context, rightly pointing out that the first ship in any class is inherently more expensive than subsequent copies. In large part that’s because time and money spent working out the kinks in a new design are included in the lead vessel’s price tag.

In other words, getting things right up front costs you. But one-time costs fall once the more or less perfected design goes into mass production. How far the per-unit price falls depends on how ambitious the design is, how many copies the navy wants—the more the cheaper, since the program’s total cost is divided among them—and kindred variables.

So far, so good.

But Morrison went on to assert that “considering the significant increases in efficiency, mobility, capability, capacity and flexibility that DDG(X) brings to the fleet, the increase in cost for DDG(X) is reasonable.”

Read that again. She’s saying that a ship of war that remains unbuilt—and that apparently doesn’t even have settled specifications as of yet—brings all these wondrous things to the fleet, and that therefore the outlay for the new class is reasonable.

That’s a mighty confident claim for a vessel whose keel won’t be laid until 2028 assuming all goes as planned between now and then. A humbler claim, truer to reality, would go something like this: if the design delivers the new capability it promises, the increase in cost for DDG(X) will be reasonable. And a corollary would be: it may not deliver the promised capability, in which case the increase in cost would not be reasonable.

See how seductive the present tense is? It obscures the possibility of subpar performance or outright failure. Using it amounts to claiming that an if/then proposition has been proved. To wit, if Congress invests X dollars in this program, then the armed forces will receive Y amount of efficiency, mobility, capability, capacity, and flexibility, to repeat Morrison’s list of DDG(X) characteristics. But that proposition hasn’t been tested, let alone proved.

Let the buyer beware.

This is not to pick on Lieutenant Morrison; far from it. She’s a junior officer acculturated to the dominant way of thinking and speaking among military folk. The prevailing “can-do” culture pervading the armed forces biases members of that community against admitting that failure is a possibility in anything they do. Success is our public trust. We tend to accentuate the positive while softpedaling—or keeping mum about—the negative.

A similar can-do ethos animates defense firms, with the profit motive imparting an additional accelerant. Pick a “sponsored” post from any defense outlet, read it, and relate it to your daily life. We’re all constant targets for ads nowadays. Heck, my Kindle tries to sell me a new title every time I flip it open to resume whatever e-book I’m reading. How many companies are given to confessing doubt about their wares when hitting you up on TV, the internet, or social media?

Few.

The chief difference is that defense suppliers are advertising manufactures that don’t yet exist and that doubters can’t put to the test before deciding whether to fund them. Company leaders can stress the excellent idea while bypassing doubts that it can be brought to fruition. Yet skepticism is the soul of any scientific-technical enterprise, including martial affairs in this über-high-tech age. Waving it aside subverts the process of developing and fielding implements the United States and its allies need to stymie tyranny while accomplishing positive goals in the world.

So overseers of the military-industrial complex must challenge overconfident claims about DDG(X) or any other program. Do I hope the new destroyer fulfills its promise? You bet I do. But hope is not a way to run a defense program. Not a good way, at any rate.

Skepticism is a virtue much in disrepute of late, when contesting some established narrative triggers claims that a skeptic is pushing misinformation or disinformation. But it’s a virtue worth rediscovering nonetheless. It should set your doubt-o-meter a-jangling when someone from the arcane demesne of military technology, programs, or budgeting uses the present tense to tout some thingamabob that has yet to be constructed or put to field trials.

That’s doubly true of a program like DDG(X) that remains in the design phase yet carries a hefty price tag. Reality is an unsparing arbiter of whether engineers can transmogrify an ingenious idea into a working combat system. It must rule.

Recent history warrants caution—witness recent U.S. Navy procurements such as the littoral combat ship, DDG-1000, Ford-class aircraft carrier, or F-35 joint strike fighter. All of these once-celebrated programs came in late, went over budget, or fell short of design specs. Or sometimes all three: indeed, navy chieftains apparently regard the LCS as a failed venture, since they’ve been clamoring to rid the fleet of youthful hulls.

Bottom line, past hype is no guarantee of future results. As a rule defense folk are upstanding people with no intent to mislead. But incentives and disincentives intrinsic to the profession of arms encourage a bubbly, relentlessly upbeat, and thus deceptive culture when it comes to weapons procurement. That culture muffles doubt.

So Congress and the American people must pose hard questions when buffeted by hard sell. They should ask:

Says who?

Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare, Marine Corps University. The views voiced here are his alone. Dr. Holmes is a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor. 

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”

16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Jacksonian Libertarian

    October 16, 2022 at 12:44 pm

    Delivering smart weapons to the battlefield is more efficiently done by cheap, long range, attritable UAVs.

    Logistics is a strategic advantage.

    How many UAV’s can be bought for the $4 billion this vulnerable ship costs ($4 billion for 12 shots)? 1,000+?

    Dispersion is a strategic advantage.

    At 35 mph warships take weeks to reach battlefields, which take UAVs hours to reach.

    Mobility is a strategic advantage.

    The US Navy is doing the worst job at adapting to the evolving unmanned battlefield.

    Putting all your eggs in one basket is a strategic mistake.

  2. John

    October 16, 2022 at 1:02 pm

    Can surface ships even survive?

    Maybe Virginias with payload module a better investment.
    And how much would Zumwalts cost when built in numbers?

  3. pagar

    October 16, 2022 at 8:20 pm

    The spanking new DDG(X) destroyers will be required to perform their part playing a major major role in Washington’s or deep state’s ABM system and with Biden administration giving top steroid boost to inflation, costs are bound to rise.

    Biden needs to put his money where his mouth is and stop hurling oodles of money into his pet project which is investing in ukros offensive capability.

    Biden’s ukros are lighting up big possibility of all-out war on the Hi-Tech battlefield of Europe, which in recent days have occurred inside Russia proper.

    If that were to happen to uncle Sam, he would immediately use super Hi-Tech dial-a-yield tactical nukes.

    Biden needs to wake up from his daytime stupor and put his money where his mouth is.

  4. GhostTomahawk

    October 16, 2022 at 10:51 pm

    Why not just build more submarines that have the ability to launch a multitude of weapons drones and uav’s if we are looking to build up a fleet of vessels undetectable by satellite etc….

    If surface vessels are vulnerable to modern weapons then negate them by being beneath the surface… just saying. We need to start adapting the military to be smaller and more adept. Especially when recruitment is trash and retention is poor.

  5. 403Forbidden

    October 16, 2022 at 10:53 pm

    Biden, falsely thinking he’s standing on the brink of history, soon to be remembered forever by people or maybe whole of humanity itself as president who defeated Russia and its gang.

    But Biden is really dumb thinking he’s a Mike Tyson.

    Biden’s provocations, mindless dogbarking and funding proxy wars and confrontations abroad have resulted in Russia testing its rs-28 sarmat as a personal warning from Putin and now threats of use of battlefield nukes.

    As a result putin has Biden clutching his balls as rs-28 has enormous range and can fly in via ‘backdoor’ or south pole and use of battlefield nukes would provide enormous leverage since Biden would have to bang his balls to decide if it’s worth taking USA directly to ww3.

    On the domestic front, Biden has declared half the voters as a ‘threat’ and his self-authored or self-administered inflation wave has folks or citizens in a bind, facing high utilities bills and arm-and-a-leg costly grocery bills.

    A rational biden could avoid such crazed approach by not conducting mindless warmongering and thereby alarming rivals and stoking tension, put max effort in diplomacy to solve problems and fight inflation and climate change and initiate a forensic investigation on yearly DoD accounting black holes or accounting errors.

    Biden on the international front could help fight against climate change by supporting R&D efforts to develop solar power, induction cooking appliances, electrical cars and universal use of CMOS ultra lo-power chips.

    Instead, Biden has opted for massive and frequent war exercises, all-round sanctions and clamping down on supply chains vital to making truly lo-power efficient devices.

    Thus, Biden paves the way for everybody who’s aiding inflation and jacking up prices, from stock market speculators, currency manipulators, banksters and hedge fund moguls to military contractors and shipyard operators.

  6. Frank Martin

    October 17, 2022 at 7:27 am

    You are what your record says you are. The same organizations that gave us LCS, F35,DDG1000, & the Ford class are still in place. Why should we expect a different result?

  7. sferrin

    October 17, 2022 at 9:02 am

    This comments section is almost painful to read. The amount of dumbth suggests bots. What we should have done (and it’s not too late) is use the Zumwalt class as the basis of the Ticonderoga replacement- as has been intended for decades. But no. We’ll wring our panties until we have nothing at all. Typical. Meanwhile China has already turned out 8 Type 055s with eight more on the way. Awesome.

    • Tim

      November 3, 2022 at 6:19 am

      Wish there was a thumbs up option because you are spot on!

  8. mark stewart

    October 17, 2022 at 9:34 am

    Cheap Diesel Submarines should be an option.

  9. Doyle

    October 17, 2022 at 9:49 am

    Show me where you can give me twice the bang and I’ll consider buying your latest white elephant. They cannot is the answer.

  10. Brian Foley

    October 17, 2022 at 11:27 am

    There’s a lot to unpack when any discussion of the US Navy and what the fleet will look like twenty years from now. If Geopolitical Gurus like Zeihan, Friedman, et al are to be believed (and they make a good case) the US Navy will only need to be half the size it is (or even less) as the US moves away from being the “Keepers of the Sea Lanes”. Regardless of what role the US plays in the future look to see a smaller, leaner US Navy…unless there’s a major war, which actually seems unlikely at this point (no one can afford “Big Wars” anymore).Of course the smart money was on there never being another World War after World War One and yet twenty years later…the Europeans were at it again, so……

  11. TrustbutVerify

    October 17, 2022 at 4:51 pm

    First order of the day is more missiles of every type. If Ukraine shows you anything, you expend a lot of missiles – especially precision guided missiles (even Excalibur rounds). We’ll need lots of SM-2s, SM-6s, AMRAAM-ERs(260), LRASM-ER, JASM-ER, etc.

    Second, it is easier to carry missiles on trucks (land or sea) to be guided and launched by other platforms to get the deep magazines you need. This could be transport planes or B-2s/B-21s, B-1s, B-52s dropping missiles or it could be arsenal ships/barges – even blimps or aerostats.

    Three, stop lumping F-35 in as a “failure” or “too expensive”. They cost less than an F-15 now, though maintenance is still high…but that will come down with the new ceramic stealth coating that is much more resilient.

    Finally, more ships. The primary striking power of the Navy is still aircraft carriers – Ford, Nimitz, and Amphibs (Lightning carriers). They need fleet anti-missile defense, which can also serve as Surface Action Groups to strike enemy formations – so that means destroyers, frigates, and cruisers. Constellation class is getting started….we’ll see if the DDG(X) can avoid the “transformational technology” weanies and come in around budget with proven technologies.

  12. L'amateur d'aéroplanes

    October 19, 2022 at 2:48 am

    Hey, the war crimes supporter 403Forbidden isn’t at the front? Pathetic. Too afraid to be shot at by foreign ”volunteers” enlisted in the Russian army?

  13. Aboli

    October 19, 2022 at 12:22 pm

    Cute ship just like the other recent failures. Why not buy more submarines and win the next war.

  14. Iverson's Owner

    October 25, 2022 at 2:32 pm

    What Dr. Holmes does not discuss is that the fundamental DDG-51 hull, mechanical, and electric (HM&E) subsystems is a 40+ year old design that has no additional space/weight/power capacity, and it cannot be expanded w/o major re-design from scratch. What Dr. Holmes also does not discuss is that the 2006 canceled CG-(X) program was also in the $4.5B price range (sound familiar?). And what Dr. Holmes kinda discusses is that these new ships do not yet exist, as is the case for any new weapon or ship or aircraft; so yes, the first ship still has to be fully “specified”, designed, manufactured (creating all new tooling and manufacturing processes), tested, and then put into production for all the follow-on ships. This is not cheap. Shipbuilders do not perform major recurring or non-recurring engineering and development on their own money; they have to be funded by the US Government to so. This forty year plus re-captialization cycle is the result of DoD/DoN kicking the can down road regarding a new destroyer or cruiser for about the past 20 years, when the DDG-51 production was initially shut down. Sticker shock occurs when we wait 40 plus years to buy a new ship, or aircraft, but it should not be surprising to those that follow the costs of new generation aircraft and ships, after long service life timelines. DDG-51 has been a great surface warrior, but its design, capacity, and capabilities is way too long in the tooth for the future fight. And any new CRUDES ship type is going to be costly, given the technology changes, new warfighting needs, and shipbuilding industrial base changes, since DDG-51 was first conceived in 1980-83. Being skeptical is necessary to control new ship capability appetite AND industry pricing, but also understand the market forces and warfighting needs that drive a new ship design, manufacturing, delivery, and cost. These ships are custom made, for initially only one customer, and are not at all off-the-shelf, and then need to be operationally viable (against Russia, China, and who-know’s-who-else) for at least 30-35 years.

  15. Kevthepope

    October 28, 2022 at 9:05 pm

    All fair statements; That said though, is this really the replacement more for the cruisers that will be retired than the Burke class? Putting Zumwalt style high tech into a conventional larger form similar to the Burke seems lower risk than some other designs, and they could build less of these to replace older Burkes- and more importantly, the much higher VLS count Ticonderoga’s- and offset this with more, cheaper frigates. And if someone would get off their a**, they could convert large ships that are going to be scrapped, such as a Tarawa class, and look to putting that entire deck space and hangar space underneath with just VLS tubes. Staff the ship would be lower manned, since it’s main function is to launch offensive missiles, and hey, the ship was paid for, and despite the myth that the cheapest part is steel, well much smarter folk than I have already come out and pulled those reports and oh contraire, the ship frame was indeed the large part of the cost.

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