Collins: Navy has not decided to scrap destroyer

Published 5:00 pm Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Despite media reports to the contrary, the Navy has not decided to scrap its newest destroyer after the first two are built, Sen. Susan Collins said Tuesday.

A top-level meeting of Navy officials to discuss the fate of the Zumwalt destroyer that was supposed to happen last Thursday has been rescheduled for next week, said Collins, R-Maine.

The Navy is engaging in an internal debate over whether to stick with the Zumwalt program as envisioned, or to build more of its current — and less expensive — Arleigh Burke destroyers. Critics say the Zumwalt is too expensive for the Navy to achieve its goal of a 313-ship fleet.

“It is fair to say that the Navy is discussing all options to develop the surface ship force for the future that’ll meet all identified requirements,” Lt. Clayton Doss, a Navy spokesman, said from the Pentagon in response to swirling speculation surrounding the Zumwalt program.

Collins, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Navy has been forced to reconsider the Zumwalt program because the House has declined to fund a third ship.

Two of the massive destroyers are under contract. The first is being built at General Dynamics’ Bath Iron Works shipyard in Maine and the second at Northrop Grumman’s Ingalls shipyard on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast.

The Senate has authorized funding for the third of what is supposed to be seven ships. But the House has balked at funding a third ship. Democratic Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi, meanwhile, supports building more of the current Arleigh Burke destroyers.

The Zumwalt was originally conceived as a stealth warship with massive firepower to pave the way for Marines to make their way ashore.

Featuring advanced technology, composite materials, an unconventional wave-piercing hull and a smaller crew, the warship displaces 14,500 tons, making it 50 percent larger than Arleigh Burke destroyers. Each of the warships will cost twice what the Arleigh Burkes cost.

In Maine, it has become a political issue.

Collins, a supporter of the Zumwalt, has said repeatedly that the third Zumwalt is necessary to avoid a drastic workload gap at Bath Iron Works.

Her challenger, Democratic Rep. Tom Allen, is open to building more Arleigh Burke destroyers. A trade publication report that the Navy wants to build up to 11 more of the destroyers would provide “more work and a more stable, uninterrupted workload for Bath Iron Works,” he said.

A key difference for shipbuilders is the complexity of the ships.

John Young, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, has said the Zumwalt ships will require 2 1/2 times more production hours to build than existing destroyers. Collins questions whether there would be enough work to keep shipbuilders busy if they reverted to the existing model.

Taxpayers already have spent $11 billion in research, design and construction of the Zumwalt, and reducing the number would increase the cost of the first two ships, the Navy has said. Restarting Arleigh Burke construction also would have costs, Young said.

The Navy is not commenting on any internal discussions regarding the Zumwalt, but contends the ship is not a mistake, even if only two are built.

“Even if we do not receive funding for the DDG-1000 class beyond the first two ships, the technology embedded will advance the Navy’s future surface combatants. And we are strongly committed to funding programs that provide advance technologies and critical capabilities to our force,” Doss said.

Bath Iron Works has long said it will build whatever ship the Navy wants. It just wants contracts to keep its shipbuilders busy, spokesman Jim DeMartini said.

“It’s really our job to build the ships the Navy needs. It’s up to the Navy and Congress to define what those needs are and for us to fulfill it,” DeMartini said.