BATH, Maine (AP) — The U.S. Navy’s workhorse destroyer went into production more than 30 years ago when Tom Stevens was a young welder.
Now the Navy is poised to turn the page as it eyes a future ship brimming with lasers that can shoot down missiles and attack enemies with hypersonic missiles that exceed 3,800 mph.
Stevens, 52, said the warship offered an opportunity to build something new after a landmark production of the Arleigh Burke class.
“It will be an impressive destroyer that will absolutely launch us into the next generation of ships,” said Stevens, director of ground assembly at shipbuilder Bath Iron Works.
Much is at stake when it comes to replacing the backbone of the fleet as the Navy faces a growing threat from China, whose numerical advantage grows every year.
The first design contracts were awarded this summer to General Dynamics’ Bath Iron Works in Maine and Huntington Ingalls Industries in Mississippi for a large surface warship that would eventually follow production of the ubiquitous Burke destroyers.
All that combat gear won’t come cheap. The average cost of each new ship, dubbed DDG(X), is expected to be a third more expensive than Burkes, the last of which cost around $2.2 billion each, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
The Navy has vowed it won’t repeat recent shipbuilding debacles when it rushed production and crammed too much new technology into ships, causing delays and extra expense with littoral combat ships, destroyers Zumwalt-class stealth aircraft and the USS Gerald Ford aircraft carrier. .
“Rather than tying the success of DDG(X) to development technology, we use known, mature technologies on a flexible platform that can be upgraded for decades to come as tomorrow’s technology is matured and demonstrated,” said Jamie Koehler. , a Navy spokesman.
A Wisconsin shipyard last week began building the first of a new class of frigates, which are smaller than destroyers. These ships used an existing design and there are no new weapons systems.
Still, the cost of the destroyer continues to be a concern. A high price would reduce the number of ships the Navy can afford to build, said Bryan Clark, a defense analyst at the Hudson Institute.
“You’ll end up with the surface fleet which, instead of growing, would shrink,” Clark said.
The production of the new ship is still years away.
For now, shipyards continue to produce Burke-class destroyers, which have earned a place in the record books for production that has outlasted all other battleships, cruisers, destroyers and frigates in the history of the US Navy. By the time the last Burke was built, it might even surpass the Nimitz aircraft carrier, which had a production run of four decades.
At Bath Iron Works, the shipbuilders worked almost exclusively on Burkes, with the exception of the three Zumwalt-class destroyers, and they have an order book that will continue through the end of the decade.
Shipwright Tim Garland, 57, began work in 1988 on the first destroyer Arleigh Burke, fabricating ballistic doors and hatches. Over the years he has worked on just about every component of the ship, through freezing winter days and scorching hot summer days.
The shipowner would never have imagined that the same ship, modernized over the years, would enjoy such longevity.
“We thought there would be a replacement ship long before now. But if it ain’t broke. Don’t fix it,” he said.
The Navy originally wanted to replace the Burkes with Zumwalt-class stealth destroyers with electric propulsion, an unusual tumbling hull, and an angular shape to minimize radar signature. The program was eventually truncated from 32 ships to three due to high cost, but proponents said the technological leaps could be useful for future ships.
Indeed, the new destroyers will rely on that ship’s power plant to power the lasers while using a conventional hull and a radar and weapon system similar to what is currently in use, the Navy said.
Avascent analyst Matt Caris said the Navy is going to great lengths to keep spending from spiraling out of control, its view of mature technology and the overall procurement process on schedule. The first ship of the class will not be commissioned until the mid-2030s.
“The Navy is trying to thread the needle with potentially game-changing capabilities in as low-risk and scalable a process as possible,” he said.
Others fear the cost will become a drain on the rest of the fleet.
The navy may only be able to afford one of the ships per year, compared to current rates of destroyer construction of two to three per year, which reduces the size of the fleet over time, said Clark.
“They want to pile all the missions onto the DDG(X) to make it kind of a Death Star. They financially put all their eggs in one basket,” he said.
The new destroyer represents the top of the line of Navy aspirations.
At the other end, the Navy is also accelerating research into cheaper drones that would expand the Navy’s sensors and offensive capability, working in concert with manned ships that would be further out of harm’s way. Such a networked fleet would be dispersed and more difficult to destroy.
In Bath there is a new generation of shipbuilders – thousands of them including Tom Stevens’ son Shane Stevens – who are eager to see the new program and a long period of steady work.
Big contracts ensure workers are busy for years to come, but there’s also enthusiasm to try something new, Shane Stevens said.
“I’m always excited when I learn something new that’s high tech. That’s what excites me,” the 29-year-old said.
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