March 15, 2008 Cover Story
The cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is limiting the Air Force and Navy from replacing planes and ships that are becoming outdated.
By Sydney J. Freedberg Jr.
Since 1991, the United States has been the world's sole superpower. Now, 17 years later, the armed forces that underwrite that status have begun to fray. Nowhere are the limits of the U.S. military more evident than on the ground in Iraq, and so Congress and the media have focused their attention on the stretched ground forces of the Army and Marine Corps. U.S. control of the seas and skies is something that the public and policy makers tend to assume, as they have since the fall of the Soviet Union. But on the sea and in the air, America has coasted for two decades on investments made in the 1980s. Now, after a generation of heavy use around the globe, from Somalia and the Balkans in the 1990s to Afghanistan and Iraq today, hardware bought during the Reagan buildup is simply wearing out.
The chief of the Air Force has said publicly that he needs an extra $20 billion -- per year -- beyond the administration's requested budget to restock his arsenal. Outside analysts suggest that the less-outspoken Navy needs about the same amount. But the services are laying that $40 billion charge for future weapons on a country that is increasingly chafing under the costs of the current war.
"Domestic spending is going to come up and defense spending is going to come down, whoever's elected the next president," said Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., the House's top defense appropriator. "The money is going to dry up. We've got to do as much as we can this year with the supplemental budgets and with the base budget."
The irony of this cash crunch is that the Air Force and the Navy remain the strongest in the world, increasing their firepower since 1991 even as they have shrunk in size. For all of the media infatuation with smart bombs in the first Persian Gulf War, they amounted to less than 7 percent of the ordnance dropped on Iraq. Today almost all bombs carried by U.S. aircraft are precision-guided. For all of the impressive footage of Tomahawk cruise missiles hitting Iraqi buildings in 1991, the Navy had only 35 ships with 2,806 launchers capable of firing them. Today it has 74 ships with 7,508 launchers.
In 1991, Air Force and Navy data networks were so crude, and so incompatible, that couriers had to hand-carry strike plans from the headquarters on land to the aircraft carriers at sea. Today, fighter planes are equipped with high-speed data links. The same explosion in computing power that took the Internet from academic obscurity to economic ubiquity in less than a generation sparked a revolution in military targeting as well. The problem, however, is that all of these brave new electronics still need some kind of ship or plane -- a platform, in Pentagonspeak -- to carry them into battle, and those platforms are running up against some basic physical limits.
With the end of the Cold War, defense spending dropped by $42 billion between 1990 and 1994. Some $39 billion of that came out of the research, development, and procurement budget. So, while the military's expenditures for operations, maintenance, and personnel stayed about level, even as the size of the armed forces shrank, the Pentagon had only about half as much to spend on new equipment.
The services weathered this "procurement holiday" in different ways. The Air Force all but stopped buying combat aircraft while it invested in research and development of a supersonic stealth fighter, the F-22 Raptor, which finally entered full production in 2005. In the meantime, the average age of the Air Force's fighter fleet doubled, from less than 10 years old in 1991 to more than 20 today. (The Navy's aircraft fleet has also aged, though not as dramatically as the Air Force's.) Some major aerospace contractors went under, and some scraped by doing other work for the space, civilian, and foreign-military sectors.
Because the Navy is the sole customer for the "Big Six" shipyards that make all U.S. warships, both politics and preservation of the industrial base called for continuing ship construction, albeit at a markedly lower rate. The Navy made ends meet by retiring older, expensive-to-maintain vessels ahead of schedule, keeping the fleet relatively young at the price of halving its size.
The bottom line for both services, however, was the same: Major new purchases were delayed, stretched out, or cut. This was a stopgap, not a solution. Throughout the 1990s, a growing chorus of defense analysts warned of a coming train wreck, when all of the deferred modernization bills would arrive at once. What they did not expect was that those bills would come due during America's biggest and most expensive war since Vietnam.
It is hard for Defense officials to make a case for supersonic stealth fighters and warships bristling with missiles when policy makers are grilling them about body armor and mine-resistant trucks for troops in battle every day. Defense Secretary Robert Gates flatly told Congress: "The reality is, we are fighting two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the F-22 has not performed a single mission in either theater." In response, Air Force generals have been so vociferous in campaigning for the fighter program that they have verged on "open warfare" with the administration's budget planners, one veteran congressional staffer said. "In all my years on Capitol Hill," he said, "I have never seen the services as outspoken about their needs."
The air and sea services certainly make the case for their own relevance. Besides an increasing number of air strikes since the beginning of the 2007 "surge" of troops into Iraq, "what you see is Air Force airplanes providing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance in direct support of ground forces," said Maj. Gen. Paul Selva, the service's director of strategic planning. With land vehicles vulnerable to roadside bombs, Selva added, Air Force transports shuttle an average of 2,000 troops a day around Iraq and Afghanistan. But even Selva puts the case for high-tech, high-cost systems in terms of future conflicts, not the current low-tech war.
"The question with the F-22 is the long-term strategic horizon," Selva said, "because whatever number we end up [buying] with the F-22, that's the number we're going to have for the next 20 years." The Navy, likewise, emphasizes that the ships it builds today must last for decades in a world where lethal technologies are proliferating rapidly. Whether these long-term arguments will shake an extra $40 billion out of Congress is an open question. And whether the services' planned purchases are the right investments for the future is another question altogether.
"My main concern is readiness for the unexpected, for what's around the corner," said Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "You do your best to have high-technology systems to deter and prevail in the unexpected [future] -- but the need to bolster the ground forces is highly important today. We have to do our very best to balance them out." In the Air: Aging Aircraft
The gleaming icon of American military supremacy is the jet fighter, streamlined and lethal as it shrieks through the sky. On November 2, 2007, one of those fighters broke into pieces in the air. The pilot ejected safely, but the Air Force grounded an entire class of aircraft -- 441 A/B and C/D models of the F-15 Eagle air superiority fighter -- for most of two months. Training flights were canceled, homeland-security patrols were transferred to other aircraft, and pilots were stuck on the ground in simulators while maintenance crews conducted a series of frenzied inspections.
"There were daily conference calls with the accident investigation board," said Maj. Joe Harris, commander of the Air National Guard's 142nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron in Portland, Ore. "We were released to fly, and then they grounded us again." Getting their base's 20 F-15s back in the air took Harris's mechanics "over 5,000 hours" of work, he said -- 250 hours per plane.
The problem: A key structural element in many early F-15s -- including six of the 20 at Harris's base -- had been manufactured too thin and thus did not conform to specifications. The defect was so slight that no one noticed for two decades. But the F-15 that cracked up in flight had been in continuous service for 27 years. That translated into 5,600 flight hours, thousands of jarring takeoffs and landings, and countless high g-force turns. The wear and tear had simply added up. The average age of the 441 grounded F-15s? Twenty-five and a half.
Those F-15s are not alone. The average age of the Air Force's core fighter, the F-16, is 16.7 years. The average age of the Navy's F-18 is a relatively youthful 13.6 because the Navy bought more fighters in the 1990s than the Air Force did. Both services, nevertheless, are relying primarily on fighters built during President Reagan's defense buildup. Even the military's own notoriously optimistic budget projections call for buying new planes at such high prices -- and therefore at such low annual rates of production -- that some 1980s-vintage aircraft will have to stay in service through the 2020s, when they will be more than 40 years old.
Large-bodied aircraft tend to last longer than hard-maneuvering fighters, but many of the military's big planes date back to President Kennedy's buildup. The average age of the B-52 bomber is 46.6 years, older than most of its pilots. The KC-135 tanker that both the Air Force and Navy rely on to refuel other planes of every type in-flight? Depending on the model, it averages 46 to 48 years old.
On February 29, the Air Force awarded a long-delayed contract for a replacement tanker to a consortium of Northrop Grumman and EADS, the defense arm of Europe's Airbus. The losing bidder, Boeing, has filed a formal protest. Even if the program proceeds on schedule, the last KC-135s may not be replaced until they are 80 years old. "These airplanes could fly as late as 2045," said Ben Robinson, a retired brigadier general who now heads the plane's maintenance program at Boeing. "The last crews, their parents haven't met each other yet."
To be sure, over the past two decades, the armed services have invested billions of dollars in modernizing, upgrading, and extending the working lives of their 1980s-vintage aircraft. But they cannot just pop out old, tired parts and snap in new ones: The process is more like pulling one strand on a sweater and hoping that the whole thing doesn't unravel. To repair the F-15s, for example, mechanics had to peel back the aircraft's steel skin and pull off its ribs just to get at the faulty part (a longeron), and then put everything back together. By one estimate, replacing the $12,000 part cost $250,000 in labor.
Swapping out a more complex component can cost millions. The 1960s-vintage KC-135 tankers, for example, later acquired more-powerful, fuel-efficient engines. "You've got a more powerful engine, therefore you've got to have a stronger engine strut that connects the motor to the wing," Boeing's Robinson explained. "You need different hydraulic pumps because the hydraulic pumps are driven off the engines. You've got a more powerful airplane, and the rudder needs to be more efficient. In the cockpit itself, all of those engine instruments had to be updated." The aircraft even got new aluminum skin on their underbellies, Robinson said, because "there's a lot of corrosion right below where the restroom was."
Once in place, the new parts break down less often -- not just because they undergo less wear and tear but because maintenance crews are replacing mechanical or hydraulic moving parts with solid-state electronics. But the high-tech components require a higher degree of skill from the mechanics. "What they're doing is more complex, and the demands placed on them continue to increase," Harris said. "It's tougher and tougher to recruit into those career fields."
Between new complexities and old parts, it takes more work to keep fewer planes less ready. "In my 10 years with the F-15, the cost per flying hour has doubled," Harris said. In fact, the cost per flight hour has climbed for every one of the 14 major aircraft types in continuous service since the 1980s (a trend aggravated by rising oil prices). All 14 have lower readiness rates than they did in 1991.
Many aircraft have to be flown at less than their design limits. "We've placed restrictions on them to preserve the structural life of the airplane," said Maj. Gen. Paul Selva, director of strategic planning for the Air Force. But engineers and maintainers can guard against future problems only to a certain extent. Last November's F-15 crackup was only the latest ugly surprise. The younger and more numerous F-16s suffered a series of crashes, traced to engine faults, in the late 1990s; and 63 F-16s are currently grounded with structural cracks. A KC-135 crashed in 1999 because of a failure in its flight controls. "We're essentially conducting a grand experiment," Selva said. "We've operated most of the airplanes we're flying beyond their originally designed life span."
At some point, the military needs to start buying new aircraft to replace those built when Reagan was in office. But after the Cold War ended, Presidents George H.W. Bush and Clinton cut the military procurement budgets sharply even as the price of new higher-tech aircraft continued to escalate. Crunched between shrinking budgets and rising costs, the Navy and the Air Force made very different decisions -- not only on how many planes they bought but also on what kind of wars they bought planes for.
In the heady days of the 1980s, the Air Force and Navy moved on parallel tracks. Both bought hundreds of short-range, high-performance fighters and struggled to develop longer-range, larger-payload bombers designed to evade enemy radar, specifically the Air Force B-2 and the Navy A-12. When procurement budgets shrank, the same roof fell on both services. Fighter procurement dropped from a peak of 399 in 1986 to just 60 in 1993, the B-2 was cut back from a planned 132 planes to just 21, and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney canceled the A-12 altogether.
The Navy decided it could no longer wait for the development of stealth airplanes, with their ungainly radar-diffusing shapes, which made them difficult to land on aircraft carriers, and their radar-absorbent coatings, which made them difficult to maintain in salty sea air. Instead, Navy planners focused their modernization program on a heavily upgraded F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, a plane 30 percent larger -- and correspondingly more expensive -- than the basic F-18, and able to carry more bombs and fuel but still lacking the range, payload, or stealth envisaged for the canceled A-12.
The Air Force, by contrast, bet all of its chips on stealth. Disappointed by the handling and maintenance problems of its F-117 stealth fighter and B-2 stealth bomber, the service invested heavily in a "third generation" of stealth that would combine radar-evasion with high-agility aerodynamics, supersonic speed, and manageable maintenance. While it poured ever more billions of dollars into this Holy Grail fighter, the F-22 Raptor, the Air Force all but stopped buying more F-15 Eagles and F-16 Falcons.
The two services' purchasing profiles diverged dramatically. Navy fighter procurement plunged from 171 planes in 1986 to just 36 planes in 1993, and then grew to a steady current rate of 40 to 50 F/A-18s of various types per year. The average age of its fighter fleet rose, but only from 11 years in 1986 to 13.6 today.
By contrast, Air Force fighter procurement crashed to the ground: 228 planes in 1986, 24 in 1993, zero in 1995. Purchases did not climb back up to 21 planes a year until 2003 -- but all 21 were F-22s, in service at last. In the meantime, however, the average age of Air Force fighters has climbed from less than 11 years in 1986 to more than 20 today. What's more, the F-22s cost so much to build -- $122 million to $180 million apiece, not counting the two decades of R&D expenses -- that the Air Force budget cannot buy enough to replace its 1980s-vintage aircraft plane for plane.
Sticker-shocked administration budgeteers have slashed the F-22 planned buy to 183 aircraft. Air Force generals have insisted they need 381 -- enough to have two full squadrons of 24 F-22s ready to deploy abroad at any given moment and eight more squadrons either recovering from deployment or gearing up to go, plus trainers, test planes, and spares in case of crashes. One Hill staffer told National Journal
that the Air Force's clamor for more F-22s had escalated into "open warfare" between the generals and their civilian superiors in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
"We have had a couple of people get way off the reservation and say, 'It doesn't matter what the Congress and the secretary of Defense say, we're going to buy the  airplanes,' " admitted one senior Air Force official who declined to be named. The Air Force has to at least get one point across, the official said: "If you can't support us on 381, don't make a premature decision to close the production line, because if you close the line, you've forestalled any other options."
Current spending plans punt this decision by funding neither continued production nor the shutdown of production facilities. Congress is likely to insert more F-22s into the defense budget. But even the Air Force's dreamed-of 381 planes, bought at the current rate of 20 planes a year, will not replace its 441 F-15s for decades. "They still plan to keep 177 of the F-15C/D version through 2025, some of them by then 40, 45 years old," said Mark Bass, the Boeing executive in charge of sustaining and modernizing the F-15s. "That is based on the Air Force eventually procuring 381 F-22s." And what if they don't get 381? "They don't have that in their plan," he said.
Some relief arrives for the Air Force in 2013, in the form of its first squadron of the F-35 Lightning. Conceived in the 1990s as the Joint Strike Fighter and imposed by the Defense Department on reluctant Air Force generals and Navy admirals, the F-35 is intended to be cheap enough that the two services, combined, can buy 2,443 in three variants. Meeting that cost target has meant sacrificing some of the high-performance attributes of the F-22, especially its supersonic dogfighting capabilities, and focusing the F-35 on more-prosaic ground-attack missions.
"You had to sacrifice some of the total dominance in some of these mission areas," said Maj. Gen. Charles Davis, the Air Force officer in charge of the joint service program. As for the price targets, "since the contract was signed back in 2001, the cost of the airplane has risen about 38 percent," mostly because of the rising price of specialty metals on the global market. "Within factors we can control, we're doing a pretty good job," Davis said. "Is it ever going to be the $39 million aircraft [proposed in the '90s]? No. That was probably unrealistic."
If the F-35 materializes more or less on cost and on schedule, it will be the plane the Air Force relies on to replace its 1,200 F-16s and the Navy relies on to replace about 1,000 early-model F-18s. By 2030, the Air Force will at last have the all-stealthy fighter force it dreamed of in the 1990s. Both the F-22 and F-35 are designed to avoid detection: Their shapes minimize radar reflections, their engines hide the heat of the exhaust, and their weapons stay concealed until launch. But the Navy intends to fly its F-35 variant alongside its F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, which, despite some "low-observable" features, have to carry their bombs and missiles dangling from the wings, a dead giveaway on radar.
Instead of stealth, the Navy plans to use high-powered jammers to baffle enemy radar. It is investing in an "electronic attack" version of the Super Hornet, the EA-18G Growler, to replace the 1970s-vintage EA-6B Prowlers used today. The Air Force, by contrast, retired its electronic attack aircraft years ago and is relying on Navy jammers while it waits for its all-stealth fleet.
"The Air Force does not believe that aircraft lacking stealth will be able to survive in the future," said Loren Thompson, a defense-industry consultant and analyst at the Lexington Institute who has close ties to Air Force officials. The Soviet Union collapsed before Moscow could build the interlocking system of advanced Sukhoi fighters and long-range surface-to-air missiles that the F-22 was designed to defeat. But Russia's cash-strapped defense industry has sold some of its technologies abroad, allowing China, in particular, to raise the risks for any nonstealth aircraft operating within a few hundred miles of its territory. As Sukhois and SAMs proliferate, Thompson said, "the Air Force doesn't understand why the Navy doesn't feel a greater sense of urgency about moving beyond the existing Super Hornet."
Navy Capt. Mark Darrah, chief of fighter modernization for the Naval Air Systems Command, acknowledges that the Super Hornet is not stealthy. "We know that," he said, but "when we look at survivability, it's a multifaced issue, and the observability of an airplane is just one aspect."
The Navy's problem with stealth is Moore's Law, referring to the rapid improvement in computer chips. Because stealth has to be built into the basic structure of an aircraft, the degree to which a plane reflects radar beams back to enemy receivers remains essentially the same throughout its 20-plus years in service. The computing power available to those radar receivers to distinguish faint signals from background noise, however, doubles every 18 months. "Signal processors are getting faster all the time," said Norman Friedman, a military analyst and historian who is a leading critic of stealth. "There may be some reason to believe Moore's Law is going to top out, but how much money do you want to bet on that?"
The Air Force's problem with jammers is that by definition they emit energy. If the jamming does not blind the enemy, it gives away your location instead. The F-22 and F-35 will actually have significant electronic warfare capacity built in, but as long as their jammers are on, their stealth is effectively off. Still, F-22 and F-35 pilots will at least have a choice between passive stealth and active jamming; their Super Hornet colleagues have jamming, or nothing.
At best, the Air Force and the Navy will end up with two very different but complementary fighter fleets, each optimal for a different kind of enemy, each a hedge against the failures of the other. At worst, neither will be able to afford enough planes for its chosen approach to work at all. On the Sea: Running Aground
The U.S. Navy keeps shrinking. At its height in 1987, the Navy's battle fleet was 568 ships. Today, it is less than half that size, 279.
Because a ship lasts about 30 years before its hull and mechanical systems wear out, sustaining a 300-ship Navy requires building about 10 ships a year. At the peak of the Reagan buildup, in 1986, the Navy built 20. Since 1993, it has never exceeded eight per year. In 2007, cost overruns and cancellations brought the number down to five. The 2009 budget requests seven.
"The Navy has said they need 313 ships," Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., the top defense appropriator in the House, said in an interview. "We weren't even going to get close to that at what the Bush administration was sending over to us. This year we're going to put 10 ships in again," Murtha vowed. "But I'm saying to the military that our subcommittee is no longer going willing to pay for these mistakes."
All of the armed services have chronic problems with bringing on complex weapons at cost and on schedule. The Navy, however, has the worst reputation. The secretary of the Navy, Donald Winter, wrote last year, "The Navy's shipbuilding program is deeply troubled [and] requires a brutally honest assessment of what we are doing wrong." From 1977 to 2005, the Navy introduced eight major building programs for different classes of surface ships. On seven of the eight, according to the Pentagon's independent Cost Analysis Improvement Group, the ultimate cost of the first ship built -- the "lead ship," whose construction usually reveals the most unexpected problems -- exceeded the Navy's estimate by at least 40 percent. On four of them, the overrun was more than 100 percent.
"We've lost the ability to estimate military ship costs," said Norman Polmar, a noted naval historian. The service's shipbuilding headquarters, the Naval Sea Systems Command, lost more than half of its workforce in the past 10 years, dropping from 5,000 people in 1998 to 2,350 in 2007. As a result, Polmar said, "we gave over to industry the design of surface ships, and once you've done that, you've lost your ability to check on them."
Overruns now threaten two new classes of Navy ships, the DDG-1000 destroyer and the smaller LCS-class, or "Littoral Combat Ship." Already on the DDG-1000, said Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., the chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower, "we saw incredible cost escalation that resulted in fewer numbers," with the Navy now planning on just seven ships, down from the original 32. Construction is scheduled to start this year. Meanwhile, out of the first four prototype Littoral Combat Ships, the two now being built are behind schedule and the other two were canceled outright, throwing a planned 55-ship program into uncertainty. "It was designed to be a low-cost warship," Taylor said. "They are rapidly approaching twice the price of what we thought. That puts them in jeopardy, and I think the contractors need to know that."
These overruns are particularly serious because neither the DDG-1000 nor the LCS was intended as a costly flagship. Instead, they were to be workhorse "surface combatants" designed to protect aircraft carriers, patrol sea-lanes, and project U.S. influence into areas around the globe where a carrier is not available. These missions require a large number of vessels. The 55 planned Littoral Combat Ships alone would make up more than a sixth of the Navy's hoped-for fleet of 313.
The new surface combatants are meant to solve more than just the Navy's numbers problem. They are also designed to shore up the fleet's performance in coastal areas, where shallow waters, small islands, and land masses can conceal an enemy's approach. All of the Navy's combat losses at sea since 1980 have occurred in these so-called "littoral" zones, mostly in the confined waters of the Persian Gulf: the frigate USS Stark was hit by an Iraqi Exocet missile in 1987; the frigate Roberts struck an Iranian mine in 1988; the amphibious landing ship Tripoli and the cruiser Princeton hit mines in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. In October 2000, Qaeda suicide bombers, in a small boat filled with explosives, rammed the destroyer Cole in Yemen's Aden harbor. The blast killed 17 sailors and put the ship out of service for 19 months.
The Cole belongs to the Navy's current mainstay class of surface combatants, with 52 ships in service and 10 more under contract: the Arleigh Burke class, named for a storied Navy admiral and former chief of naval operations, and also known as DDG-51s. The Burkes are built around their specialized, high-powered radar and long-range guided-missile launchers that can detect, track, and destroy targets 200 or more miles away. Where they struggle is at knife-fight ranges in coastal waters.
The DDG-1000 and the Littoral Combat Ship were supposed to be good in those localized fights. The Navy, however, took diametrically opposite but equally controversial approaches in designing the two ships to fight this kind of close-in coastal warfare. They also come out of radically different procurement processes -- both now widely denounced as failures.
"It's on cost and on schedule," said Allison Stiller, the deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for ships, in defense of the DDG-1000. But "DDG-1000" is only the latest designation for a program renamed, restructured, and rescheduled at least three times since its conception in the 1990s. The original, designated "SC-21," was envisaged as a 32-ship class, Stiller said. Later, as DDG-1000, it became a 10-ship class. "Right now the program of record is seven," Stiller acknowledged.
The original SC-21 was a specialized "land attack destroyer" designed to hit targets ashore and to replace aging frigates, such as the ill-fated Stark and Roberts, which displaced about 4,000 tons. But the design bloated into an all-purpose ship displacing 14,000 tons to accommodate 10 cutting-edge technologies -- not all of which, as it turns out, work well together.
Much of the DDG-1000's cost is its "stealth" hull, designed to baffle enemy radar-guided missiles and sound-activated mines. No matter how you design a ship, it's tough to hide a 14,000-ton vessel. But the DDG-1000's designers complicated the problem by giving the ship a high-powered radar system comparable to that on the Arleigh Burkes, but optimized to detect targets over land rather than over open water. Turning the radar on, however, announces the ship's location to the same radar receivers that are supposed to be baffled by its stealth. The ship can sneak close to shore or see far inland, but it can't do both at once.
The DDG-1000 needs to come close to shorelines to use another of its new technologies, an Advanced Gun System able to fire 10 shells a minute up to 80 miles inland. The Marine Corps has said for years that current Navy vessels lack the firepower to support an amphibious landing. But one of the leading critics of the DDG-1000, analyst Robert Work of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, argues that it gives marines ashore very little bang for the buck.
"As a former artilleryman, I love the lethality and the range" of the new gun, said Work, a retired Marine Corps colonel, "but we're only going to get 14 of them" -- two each on the seven DDG-1000s -- "for about $17.5 billion" assuming zero cost overruns. Given the military's profusion of armed drones, smart bombs, cruise missiles, and a new GPS-guided shell for the Navy's existing 5-inch cannon that can fire almost 80 percent as far the DDG-1000's guns, Work considers the new destroyer too much cost for too little gain.
While the mainstream Navy slowly added one costly capability after another to the DDG-1000, insurgents at the Naval War College, led by the late Adm. Arthur Cebrowski, brainstormed a stripped-down Streetfighter ship, which could solve the problem of close-in coastal battles with its high speed, low cost, and large numbers. Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Chief of Naval Operations Vernon Clark not only embraced the concept -- albeit as the larger, more elaborate Littoral Combat Ship -- but also matched the revolutionary design to an innovative acquisition strategy. Two competing versions from General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin were rushed into production at midtier shipyards outside the "Big Six" that had long monopolized Navy shipbuilding. The yards used civilian construction standards -- standards that the Navy realized later were inadequate and that were then changed to toughen the ship, after work was under way.
"They were designing the ship at the same time they were trying to build it," said Congressional Research Service analyst Ron O'Rourke. "In retrospect, it can be pointed to as a case study in the old adage, 'Haste makes waste'. " The design changes to a ship already half-built resulted in expensive do-overs of everything from pipe fittings to the thickness of the hull. The cost of the first two prototypes doubled, and Navy Secretary Winter canceled the third and fourth prototype ships outright.
What is the Navy getting for its money? It depends on whom you ask. "These LCS things are preposterous," said Dave Baker, a former Navy intelligence analyst. "The LCS will have the firepower of a small Third World patrol boat costing less than a tenth as much."
One European expert, however, considers the LCS a dramatic step beyond comparably sized NATO ships. Existing frigates are broadly similar to the LCS, said Jason Alderwick of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. "But what they do not have is the LCS's speed, that's for sure," he said. "What's really exciting with LCS is the move to integrated unmanned surface vessels and unmanned aerial vehicles."
Instead of giving the whole class a standard fit of equipment, each LCS is designed to accept any of three "mission modules" -- for mine-hunting, submarine-hunting, or fighting small boats -- each consisting of a specialized helicopter and an array of flying and submersible drones. "You get something almost like a small aircraft carrier, except with unmanned vehicles," allowing the LCS to scout out dangerous areas without physically entering them, said military analyst and historian Norman Friedman.
Friedman is less impressed by the Littoral Combat Ship's other innovation, its intended speed of more than 40 knots, compared with 30-plus knots for the Arleigh Burkes. In an era of shipboard helicopters and supersonic anti-ship missiles, most modern ships are actually slower than their World War II predecessors that fought with torpedoes and guns. "Speed is very sexy, but it turns out to be very expensive and not very helpful," Friedman said. "It's ruining a very good idea."
The two Littoral Combat Ship prototypes now in production will have to convince the critics, especially in Congress, that their speed and unmanned systems make up for their small size. If the prototypes succeed, Congress will closely examine whether to build the planned 55 ships. Even at the Congressional Budget Office's estimate of $600 million apiece, an LCS would cost half as much as an Arleigh Burke -- and less than a third of the Navy's most optimistic estimate for the DDG-1000.
Murtha and Taylor have talked publicly about cutting the two DDG-1000s currently under contract and restarting production of the Burkes instead. Building more Burkes would be a popular option with Congress, but parts of the necessary supplier base have already begun to shut down, complicating any restart; and even upgraded Burkes would never be optimal for close-in coastal combat. The Littoral Combat Ship, for good or ill, is the only game in town. Nuclear Cruisers?
With the Navy's DDG-1000 destroyer program under fire, key members of Congress are casting about for alternatives. Their search, and the rising price of oil, have led them to reopen a discussion the Navy had long thought was closed: nuclear-powered ships.
"Do we really want to spend $3.5 billion on the last generation of turbine-powered surface ships when I'm absolutely convinced the future is nuclear?" asks Rep. Gene Taylor, the Mississippi Democrat who chairs the seapower panel of the House Armed Services Committee -- and whose home-state shipyard, interestingly, is not currently certified to build nuclear-powered vessels of any kind. "We got fat, dumb, and lazy when fuel was cheap," Taylor said. "Now it's expensive, it's hard to come by, and it's a vulnerability to our nation."
Every Navy aircraft carrier and submarine built since the 1960s has run on nuclear power. But the Navy bought its last nuclear-powered cruiser in 1975 and decommissioned it in 1998. The service had concluded then that nuclear power was not cost-effective for the smaller surface ships. A reactor costs more to build than gas turbines, requires more-expensive training for operators, and needs high-priced environmental cleanup when it is scrapped. Navy studies suggest that compared with conventional turbines, nuclear power saves money over the 30-year lifetime of a ship only if the price of oil stays above about $70 a barrel. Oil has been above that price since September.
Taylor and company see not only an economic advantage but a tactical one as well. "You have a carrier that can go for 30 years without having to worry about its fuel supply, but the ships that have to protect the carrier have to refuel every three to five days," Taylor said. "If I was a foe of the United States, first thing I'd do would be to find the oilers and sink them. Then the escort ships can't keep up with the carriers, and the carriers aren't going to sail without the escorts."
The Navy does not see the logistical advantage so clearly. "A nuclear-powered ship may not have as many requirements for an oiler, but it does not eliminate the need for an oiler," said Rear Adm. Victory Guillory, director of surface warfare on the Navy staff. A nuclear-powered Nimitz-class aircraft carrier exists to carry aircraft, after all, most of which guzzle jet fuel, which has to be resupplied every few days. Even destroyers carry helicopters. The crews need food. And in a shooting war, the fleet must replenish its missiles, shells, and bombs. Fulfilling those requirements depends on regular visits from oilers and supply ships.
The only crisis situation in which a task force expends neither aviation fuel nor ammunition is a headlong dash across the ocean. Although the Navy has experimented more with such "sea surge" tactics in recent years, its traditional approach is to keep many ships on station in foreign waters, ready to respond to local problems. "A couple of years ago, I was involved in tsunami relief," Guillory said. "The majority of the ships that responded were already deployed in the region."
So the most compelling case for nuclear power remains the increasingly ugly economics of oil. But to get a new nuclear cruiser into production, Taylor has to convince not only skeptical admirals but also his fellow legislators that spending more to buy ships now will save money in the long run -- decades after the next election. He'll face heavy seas on this one.