New destroyer a game changer?
The Navy has given more publicity to its new Zumwalt-class destroyer, the DDG-1000, in the hope that, as the world’s most advanced floating piece of technology, it will provide a deterrent and an answer to the rising Chinese influence in the Pacific.
The ship boasts sci-fi-like capacities that anybody could be in awe over: “cloaking” technology and a super-powerful “railgun” weapon.
Designed to engage its adversaries in coastal waters, this ship’s primary role is to maintain access to the shores of a competitor. However, the high $3 billion per-unit cost and the technological challenges that are yet unsolved or deemed ineffective in light of more conventional solutions are the main stumbling blocks for the realization of the vessel. At this point being little more than a conceptual technology demonstrator, the redeeming quality of this project is that it offers the best alternative to the need for providing new ships to the Navy after 2030, when the resources of most current vessels will expire.
Its large price tag and limited numbers in an age of austerity make it a dubious investment now — but not in the long term.
The context of this development comes from the birth of China’s aircraft carrier fleet with the ex-Soviet Varyag, along with its rapidly swelling military budget on the one hand, and Washington’s Asia pivot, along with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s recent announcement that 60% of American naval capacities will be concentrated in the Pacific, on the other hand.
For Washington, China is something like a simultaneous friend and enemy. The hope is that Beijing will keep crediting America so that the two can continue to play strategic competition. In light of its fiscal difficulties, it seems ill-advised for the U.S. to enter into direct military competition with China. From the first link, the orders of this new vessel went from 32 to 3, or a reduction by 90%. It is not altogether unexpected, as the hefty price tag of $3 billion a pop makes the vessel a forbidding investment. With an expected strength of 300 U.S. vessels, a 1% production scope will make the evaluation of the Zumwalt destroyers in practical conditions a challenge. Their application and effects are constrained by virtue of their small numbers.
On the positive side, as a test bed for new technologies, the DDG-1000 allows for effective planning on what the Navy will look like in the span of the next 50-70 years. American maritime doctrine is based on the principle of universal accessibility, achieved through 11 aircraft carriers and their battle groups. An aircraft carrier is operable between 40-60 years before needing replacement, and the current generation of Nimitz-class carriers are nearing the halfway point of their useful life. The plans are calling for the introduction of the Gerald Ford-class of carriers, which will begin to roll out mid-decade and be fully implemented by the mid-2030s. In this respect, these ships will be the center of U.S. naval doctrine until the beginning of the 22nd century and will probably include many of the technological developments in the Zumwalt class.
The geopolitical shifts in the Pacific show that the priority has shifted to preserving America’s influential naval capacity, rather than its leading strategic role in the world during the course of this century, which will be ceded to China in due time. The introduction of advanced platforms that do more with less, albeit costing more, is indicative of this trend.
While the Zumwalt class will most likely be matched and outperformed by Chinese money and technology in the short to medium term, it is the long-game perspective we must recognize in seeing the value of this ship. It can be said that it is not very applicable to today’s maritime strategic environment, but more so to its future.