June 10, 2011: The U.S. Navy, frustrated in its efforts to come up with a new, affordable, destroyer design, has decided to keep building upgraded versions of the DDG 51 Arleigh Burke class ships for the next twenty years. This means that this destroyer design will stay in production for over half a century. The navy hopes that, in the next two decades, it can come up with a destroyer design that it can afford to have replace the DDG 51. This means that the last DDG 51 probably won’t retire until the 2070s, nearly a century after the first of its class entered service.
In addition to building new Burkes, the navy is upgrading eleven of its 62 Burkes, at a cost of $34 million each. This is one of many upgrades that will be undertaken for many of the fleet's older destroyers and cruisers. Most of the work will upgrade or replace electrical or electronic components. But there will also be work on mechanical and structural components.
All this is a result of new ships being too expensive, and older ships being too effective. This is nothing new. Sometimes a weapon comes along that is too damn useful to replace. One outstanding example is the Sidewinder air-to-air missile. Another is the M-16 (5.56mm) rifle. Both have been around for over half a century, and no one can come up with a clearly superior replacement. Same thing is happening in the U.S. Navy, where attempts to replace the Arleigh Burke class destroyers have met with failure.
The navy put much effort into developing a successor for the Burke. But, in the end, the navy could only justify building, at most, three of the new DDG-1000 class ships. Instead, they resumed building Arleigh Burke class destroyers. It's a matter of cost, and effectiveness. The new DDG-1000 destroyers (and slightly larger versions designated as cruisers) would cost more than $4 billion each if built in large quantities. The Burkes cost a billion dollars each. The last of Burkes was ordered in 2002 and are under construction. But new orders are now planned, to be built over the next two decades.
Meanwhile, the navy will buy some time (about a decade) by upgrading dozens of existing destroyers and cruisers. This is a bitter pill to swallow, as only a decade ago, the navy was so sure about the new DDG-1000, that it accelerated the retirement of a dozen of the 31 Spruance class destroyers, in order to save the $28 million a year it cost to keep each of them in service. These ships were not just retired, they were all either broken up, or sunk in training exercises. The dozen that entered service between 1979-83 could have been refurbished and been available until 2019. That was a lost opportunity. But what can now be done is refurb the Burke class destroyers (which began entering service in the 1990s). Most of the Ticonderoga class cruisers (which entered service in the 1980s and 90s) can use the refurb as well, which could boost their service into the 2030s. This, plus building a dozen or more Burke class destroyers.
The refurb policy will ultimately cost about $200 million per destroyer (and 20-25 percent more for the cruisers). Normally, these ships get one refurb during their 30 year lives. This not only fixes lots of things that have broken down or worn out (and been patched up), but installs lots of new technology. A second refurb is expected to add another 5-10 years of serviceability. But this special refurb will do more than that. The navy wants to add some of the DDG-1000 technology to these older ships. In particular, the navy wants to install the "smart ship" type automation (found in civilian ships for decades) that will enable crew size to be reduced. The "smart ship" gear also includes better networking and power distribution. In effect, the ship would be rewired. This could reduce the crew size by 20-30 percent (current destroyers have a crew of 275). In addition to considerable cost savings (over $100,000 a year per sailor), a smaller crew takes up less space, enabling the smaller crew to have more comfortable living quarters. This is a big deal as far as morale and retention (getting people to stay in the navy) goes. Most other new items are not space dependent, except for some of the power based ones (like the rail gun). But these technologies are receding farther into the future. Right now the navy has to find a way to live within its budget, and refurbishing existing warships shows more promise than trying build affordable new ones.
The navy can afford more Burkes because this is a design that is the culmination of over half a century of World War II and Cold War destroyer experience. Even after the Burke was designed, in the 1980s, the design evolved. The first Burkes were 8,300 ton ships, while the latest ones, laden with more gear, and smaller crews, are 10,000 tons (what heavy cruisers weighed in World War II). With a top speed of nearly 50 kilometers an hour, their main armament is 90 vertical launch tubes flush with the deck, that can contain anti-aircraft, anti-ship, anti-missile or cruise missiles. There is also a 127mm (5 inch) gun, two 20mm anti-missile autocannon, six torpedo tubes and two helicopters. The Burkes were well thought out, sturdy and they got the job done. They became irreplaceable, and thus this class of warships will last a century.