|Could a nuclear-powered version of the venerable Arleigh Burke DDG 51-class destroyer become the next missile cruiser for the U.S. Navy? That's the vision of at least one influential congressman.
Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., chairman of the seapower subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, said March 6 he is seeking to add money to the 2009 request to fund an effort to build a nuclear-powered warship that would supplant construction of the DDG 1000 destroyers.
The new ship would be a slightly larger version of the 9,200-ton DDG 51s, powered by one nuclear reactor of the type developed for the new Gerald R. Ford CVN 78-class aircraft carriers.
Taylor said he would end the DDG 1000 Zumwalt class at the two ships already ordered and cancel plans to build a total of seven of the ships.
"I'm more frustrated than most with the slow pace of rebuilding the fleet," Taylor said. "The answer [from the Navy] always is, 'We're studying it.' So we're going to turn the equation around a little bit."
The Navy is working to design a new CG(X) cruiser based on the 16,000-ton DDG 1000 tumblehome hull, but Taylor said he doesn't see the need for that effort.
"Rather than all this fooling around with a new hull design, the 51 hull has been a great hull. Everyone likes it. So if it works at that size, we want to make the calculations to grow it big enough to carry that power plant," he said.
Taylor said he doesn't see the need for the stealthy, tumblehome hull form of the DDG 1000s. Although Navy leaders speak confidently of the hull's properties, lingering doubts about the ship's stability persist among a number of engineers and naval architects. The conventional, flared hull of the DDG 51 is more seaworthy and, Taylor said, stealth isn't that important for the cruiser.
"We know that stealth is not an issue," he declared. "The radars are going to be so powerful that there's no way on earth you can make that ship stealthy."
Taylor also is one of a number of lawmakers displaying less than full confidence in the DDG 1000 program.
"A lot of us have concerns about building the seven ships for the 1000," he said.
The same day, Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, expressed doubts in the DDG 1000 program. At the committee's Navy posture hearing, Hunter rhetorically asked whether it was "prudent to buy destroyers that cost over $3 billion and more likely $5 billion apiece while we shut down stable, more affordable production lines."
The Navy is asking for $3 billion in the 2009 budget request to fund construction of the third ship of the class. Contracts for the first two were issued in February, and although the Navy continues to express confidence in its stated $3.3 billion price tag for each of the first two ships, outside analysts are unanimous in forecasting higher costs that range to $5 billion and beyond.
Taylor has joined previous subcommittee chairman Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., as a vocal champion of nuclear power for surface ships. Since assuming chairmanship of the seapower subcommittee in early 2007, Taylor has vigorously urged the CG(X) cruisers to be nuclear-powered.
Navy Leaders Balk
The Navy is not enthusiastic about going to nuclear power for its surface warships. A variety of factors are at work, including the increased costs of procurement, the cost of training and retaining nuclear personnel and the involvement of the Naval Reactors community in the surface warship realm.
Not surprisingly, the Navy's top leaders balked at Taylor's suggestion of a nuclear Burke.
"There's a significant challenge in and of itself of going nuclear on any surface combatant," Navy Secretary Donald Winter told reporters following the hearing. "To be able to do that within fiscal constraints on an existing platform that was never designed to accommodate a nuclear reactor further complicates the matter. Never say never - I'm sure there's somebody someplace who will figure out how to do it. The question is, does that wind up being a cost-effective solution?"
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead, who, as a commander, commissioned the second Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, doubted a reactor could be placed in the DDG 51 hull.
"I built one, crawled all through it," Roughead told reporters. "I'm not a marine engineer, but to put a nuclear power plant in that hull, even if you scale it up - I question whether you can do it."
The Navy plans to buy the first CG(X) cruiser in 2011 and build 19. An analysis of alternatives (AoA) is being conducted by the Center for Naval Analyses to determine the hull form and other characteristics for the ships, which are to replace current CG 47 Ticonderoga-class Aegis missile cruisers. Service leaders want the cruiser to adopt the tumblehome hull form of the DDG 1000, but the AoA, expected to be ready last fall, is not yet complete.