Navy's costly — and controversial — Zumwalt ship may get second look by Trump

Future of Navy's USS Zumwalt ship in limbo

With breakdowns and growing costs, the U.S. Navy's most expensive destroyer ever is likely to face added scrutiny by the incoming Trump administration and could see its future role minimized.

The USS Zumwalt, a stealth ship commissioned in October and costing upward of $4.4 billion, has already had engineering and propulsion problems and experienced a breakdown last week when it passed through a portion of the Panama Canal. It was delivered about two years late and despite its stealthy qualities is seen by some as vulnerable and no longer suitable for the missions it was designed to handle.

"Since they originally started to build the ship, the threat environment has changed so that cruise missiles can easily reach out and hit anybody that's out there close enough to use a gun to hit the shore," said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent policy research institute based in Washington, D.C.

Clark, a former aide to the chief of naval operations, explained that the Zumwalt-class destroyer was originally designed for operating close to shore such as acting as support for Marines when they land on shore. "That mission sort of fell away [and now the ship is] too vulnerable and too valuable to have them get so close to shore."

The Navy plans to get two more of the Zumwalt-class guided missile destroyers, which are equipped with labor-saving technology and manufactured by General Dynamics' Bath Iron Works in Maine. But its fate will ultimately rest with President-elect Donald Trump, who has made expansion of the Navy part of his plan to strengthen the military.

A General Dynamics Bath Iron Works spokesman deferred questions on the destroyer to the Navy, which did not respond at deadline.

Costly ammunition adds to concerns

The Pentagon originally had hoped to get 32 of the Zumwalt-class warships but backed off the plan more than a decade ago after congressional criticism about costs.

Adding to the concerns is the huge cost of ammunition for the Zumwalt's on-board advanced guns made by BAE Systems, which can run upward of $1 million apiece, according to some reports. That means the each round of the guided precision ammo is equivalent to the cost of a Tomahawk or a Boeing Harpoon missile.

"The ammunition is definitely an issue," said Benjamin Freeman, deputy director of the National Security Program at Third Way, a Washington-based think tank. "Frankly it's unsustainable for the Navy. At almost $1 million a shot, that's not actually something that they can do."

Officer stands watch on bridge of USS Zumwalt. The new warship requires roughly half the crew size of older destroyers.
Sonja Wickard | U.S. Navy

The Zumwalt ship and its class of destroyers, also known as DDG 1000, was named for the late Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Elmo Zumwalt. The destroyer's 155-millimeter guns were designed to use so-called Long Range Land-Attack Projectiles, or LRLAPs, made by Lockheed Martin. Around 90 LRLAPs were bought for the Zumwalt, including some for testing.

"As the DDG 1000's mission continues to evolve, and taking into consideration funding profiles available to support the weaponization of the ship in light of the severe reduction in the planned production quantities, the U.S. Navy decided to evaluate alternate solutions to LRLAP," a Lockheed Martin spokesperson said in an email statement. "Lockheed Martin is working aggressively to provide the Navy with options in relation to the DDG-1000's long-range land attack mission."

Purchases of around 2,000 projectiles to supply all three Zumwalt-class destroyers would likely exceed $1.8 billion. That is in addition to the Zumwalt-class development costs, which have already reached roughly $10 billion.

Meantime, the USS Zumwalt warship is expected to arrive in San Diego by the end of the year and a decision on new ammunition for the ship's big guns is likely to be made by the Trump administration.

Trump's defense plan outlined in September called for up to 350 surface ships and submarines, up from 276 today and above the Pentagon's current target of 308 ships over the next 10 years. That said, Trump hasn't specified plans for destroyer warships and could revisit the Navy's decision to buy three of the Zumwalt-class destroyers.

Zumwalt's role is volving

Today, the Navy has around 80 destroyers and cruiser ships and Clark suggests there's a greater need to build smaller surface combatants like patrol ships, missile craft and frigates. He said a fleet architecture study the center completed for the Navy concluded the fleet size doesn't necessarily need to be bigger across the board.

"It's sort of a rebalancing of the Navy towards a larger and more distributed fleet of smaller platforms as opposed to what we have today, which is a smaller fleet of really large, expensive, multimission platforms," said Clark. "And the Zumwalt is a perfect example of that expense."

According to Clark, the Zumwalt ships appear destined to get used mostly as a technology demonstration platform for the Navy. That would allow the Navy to experiment with the destroyer's next-generation technology, which features all-electric systems that can distribute power for everything from the propulsion system to on-board laser guns that can destroy targets for a fraction of the cost of conventional weaponry.

Indeed, some suggest the older Arleigh Burke-class destroyers made by Huntington Ingalls Industries still provide a formidable platform for firepower and can be enhanced with next-generation upgrades. The Navy is currently building two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers per year and Clark believes the Trump administration could ramp that up to three to four "relatively easily."

"HII stands ready to support our customers' shipbuilding requirements, and will leverage our hot production lines and our suppliers in 48 states to build the ships that our nation requires," Huntington Ingalls said in a statement provided to CNBC.

While the Zumwalt-class destroyer costs more than $4 billion, the Arleigh Burke-class warships run about $1.3 billion apiece. Huntington Ingalls has built and delivered 28 DDG 51 (or Arleigh Burke-class destroyers) and has contracts for seven more.

Still, some believe the Zumwalt should have a bigger role as Trump looks to build a 350-ship Navy. They contend that the older destroyers lack the power bandwidth for some of the energy-intensive futuristic weapons such as the electromagnetic rail gun and lasers.

"My concern is that the Trump administration ... would continue to buy the antiquated technology just to get ships in slots to that 350 number," said Freeman, a long-term proponent of the Zumwalt class.

While the upfront costs of the Zumwalt-class destroyers are higher, Freeman contends there's a longer-term savings for the Navy going with the next-generation warships over the older Arleigh Burke-class. He insists the lifetime costs of going with newer-class destroyer technology is "at least equal" if not ultimately lower than the older class.

"If you can pay a little money now to get a better ship, then that will be cheaper to operate in the long run and we should do that," said Freeman. Moreover, he said he expects the Navy will eventually lower the cost of the 155-millimeter projectiles and can increase the use of Zumwalt's laser electric weaponry.