I guess $362 million doesn’t go as far as it used to. Last week the Navy’s newest ship, the USS Milwaukee, designated an advanced littoral combat ship, had to be towed into port for repairs.
It was not unheard of in the 1960s or 1970s for Navy reservists, manning their units’ World War II vintage destroyers, to pull out of port in high spirits on a Saturday morning, bands playing and flags flying, only to be towed back into port later the same day, their old sled having broken down before reaching deep water. But the Milwaukee had been at sea less than three weeks. Nothing on the ship is out of warranty.
The problem turned out to be metal filings in the ship’s lubrication system which caused “a complete loss of propulsion,” which is a polite and abstract way of saying we’ve just gone from being a ship to being an unsecured buoy (and if things don’t start getting better, perhaps a reef).
The new ship, which is designed to maneuver quickly in shallow coastal waters, had to be towed to port at the naval base at Little Creek, Virginia (just outside of Norfolk). Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman, and former Navy Captain John McCain, called the incident “deeply alarming” as the ship was “commissioned just 20 days ago.” Navy ships are built with redundant systems that are supposed to keep them underway even when there’s an “engineering casualty.” Always somebody who doesn’t get the word.
The Milwaukee (LCS-5 if you’re keeping score) will surely be sorted. It will at some point be available for its intended use should the need arise. And Senator McCain will get over his mad. But this is not the only recent Navy ship news to make a body wonder. For those who haven’t seen it yet, I direct your attention to the USS Zumwalt, the Navy’s latest destroyer, which, at $3 billion plus per copy, makes buying and deploying a fleet of Milwaukees seem like chump change by comparison. And the Zumwalt has to be the oddest-looking warship since the Monitor and Merrimack. I’ll wait here while you go online and take a look.
See. What’d I tell you? As a former destroyer sailor, the only reason I can imagine that the Zumwalt is designated a destroyer is that the Navy had to call it something. While helping the Sixth Fleet keep the Viet Cong out of the Mediterranean in the sixties (not to mention keeping an eye on the commie hordes to the east), I served on a Charles F. Adams class DDG, then the largest destroyer in the fleet at 437 feet long. The Zumwalt is 600 feet long and looks like the box a destroyer comes in.
The Zumwalt’s odd shape is connected to its main combat advantage, which is its very small radar image. Those who know a lot about such things say the Zumwalt on radar looks about the size of a small fishing boat, making it about 50 times as difficult to spot on radar as a traditional destroyer. Certainly being the stealth destroyer would be an advantage in combat, but one that comes at a great cost. And considering how quickly technology changes these days, how long will this advantage last?
Some of the cost of the Zumwalt is offset by the fact that it requires a smaller crew than previous classes of destroyers, 148 as compared to a little more or a little fewer than 300. (The Charles F. Adams class carried about 320.) But the daunting purchase price has lead the Navy to back down from its first projection of a fleet of 32 Zumwalt class destroyers. The current order stands at three.
The Zumwalt, named after the late Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Chief of Naval Operations from 1970 until 1974, did better at its sea trials than the Milwaukee. Earlier this month it sailed back into the Bath Iron Works in Maine, where it was built, after seven days at sea. This doesn’t mean the Zumwalt is cleared for action. Some naval officers are skeptical that the Zumwalt, with its revolutionary design, will be able to sustain in really rough seas. So we still have to see what happens when it encounters what the North Atlantic, in one of its famously scratchy moods, can throw at it.
The Zumwalt even picked up a little positive publicity during its sea trial when it helped rescue a fisherman in the waters off Maine who was having chest pains. The call came from the fishing boat Danny Boy about 3 a.m. The Coast Guard couldn’t use its Jayhawk rescue helicopter because of the configuration of the fishing boat’s deck. So sailors in one of the Zumwalt’s boats picked up the fisherman and transferred him to the destroyer’s deck. The Jayhawk then flew him to a hospital.
I’m sure the rescue was pleasing not only to the fisherman and his family, but to our current commander-in-chief, who far prefers American armed forces be used for social engineering and social work deployments over that tacky military stuff. (Another Navy social work program might be, as a friend suggested to me, Meals on Keels.)
Adding to the odd-looking Zumwalt’s futuristic feel is the name of the ship’s first skipper. And I’m not making this up. It is Captain James Kirk. Kirk and his new ship will boldly go where hundreds of thousands of sailors have gone before. And the trouble with final frontiers, is there is always another frontier after that one.
As a fellow who never made it past third class petty officer on active duty, I’m hardly an expert on naval strategy and tactics. But it seems obvious that if keeping the sea lanes open is one of the Navy’s most critical missions — and it is, though few think of this as the U.S. Navy has always done it — then a larger fleet of less dear ships would be preferable to a smaller fleet of $3.5 billion combatants, no matter how high-tech and capable they are (and especially if they look like the box a destroyer comes in). The Zumwalt may turn out to be a ship Edsel B. Ford would have loved.
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