BATH, Maine – Cruising through the darkness in rough seas, the USS Ross encountered a rogue wave that smashed into the destroyer's bow, sending a shudder along the entire ship that knocked sleeping crew out of their bunks and damaged the sonar housing.
As alarms sounded, sleepy sailors scrambled to shore up the leak.
"We cracked the hull and kept on going like it was nothing," retired sailor Jonathan Staeblein, of Hagerstown, Md., recalled. In fact, the 510-foot destroyer was never out of service for repairs during any deployment in the three years he served aboard as an electronic warfare technician.
Over the 22 years since construction of the first one began at Bath Iron Works, the ship has steamed into the record book: The destroyer's production run has outlasted every other battleship, cruiser, destroyer and frigate in U.S. Navy history. The only warship in production for longer was the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, said Norman Polmar, a naval historian, author and analyst.
Thanks to a decision by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Arleigh Burke destroyers will continue being made for at least a few more years. The defense budget signed by President Barack Obama in December includes money for the first of at least three more ships. There's talk of many more being built.
At Bath Iron Works, along the banks of the Kennebec River, there are three of the ships in various stages of production
"They're fast and they move. And they're a lot of fun to drive," said Lt. Cmdr. Robert J. Brooks, executive officer of USS Wayne E. Meyer, a Bath-built destroyer commissioned in October.
Retired Rear Adm. Michael K. Mahon, the Navy's former deputy director of surface warfare, said the ships run no risk of being outdated any time soon.
"It's the envy of the world," said Mahon. "Every surface warship officer in every navy in the world would love to command an Arleigh Burke."
The original warship was under development at the height of the Cold War, when Bath Iron Works was abuzz with shipbuilders pounding, grinding, welding, plumbing and wiring ships at a furious pace to meet President Ronald Reagan's audacious goal of a 600-ship Navy. Shipbuilders toiled long hours working elbow-to-elbow in a haze created by welders inside steel hull segments that were sweltering in the summer and cold in the winter.
The number of Bath shipbuilders peaked at 12,000 by the time the USS Arleigh Burke was commissioned on July 4, 1991.
Some Bath shipbuilders have spent virtually their entire careers doing nothing by making Arleigh Burke destroyers.
Gil Rines, a welder, joined Bath Iron Works as construction was beginning on the first ship. Since then, he has raised two children and become a grandfather. The shipyard changed hands and is now owned by General Dynamics. The number of shipbuilders has dropped to 5,500.
But one thing remained a constant: The shipyard kept churning out Arleigh Burke destroyers, more than 30 of them. The same ships are also built at Northrop Grumman's shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss., which has churned out more than 20.
"It's a great ship. That's why the Navy stuck with it," said Rines, a third-generation shipbuilder.
The 9,500-ton ships can easily top 30 knots while simultaneously waging war with enemy ships, submarines, missiles and aircraft. Their combat system, called Aegis, uses powerful computers and a phased-array radar to track more than 100 targets — the exact number is classified.
They're also the only surface warships in the Navy's arsenal that can be sealed off to withstand a biological, chemical and nuclear attack.
The latest improvements are software upgrades and SM-3 missiles that allow the Aegis system to be used for ballistic missile defense. An Aegis-equipped cruiser built by Bath Iron Works shot down a failed satellite in 2008. Several Aegis destroyers and cruisers are now equipped with the upgraded system.
The Navy originally envisioned building 29 of the ships, but has since extended the line to 62 ships through 2011. With the continued production, there will be at least three more, keeping shipbuilders in Maine and Mississippi busy while the Navy decides whether to build more Burkes, or to build something else.
The Navy's decision is partly budget-driven. Burkes are less costly to build than the next-generation stealth destroyer, which the Navy and defense contractors spent 10 years designing.
Burkes currently cost about $1.2 billion apiece; the stealthy, and much larger, DDG-1000 Zumwalt will cost more than double that. In the end, the Navy decided to truncate production to just three Zumwalts.
Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, gives credit to the Navy for scaling back the costly Zumwalts and focusing on the tried-and-true Burkes.
The DDG-51 Arleigh Burke, he said, is now in a rare class of military systems that's so durable and versatile that it continues for generations and generations, like the C-130 Hercules cargo transport, an airplane that first went into production in 1957.
"The fact that the Navy can't come up with something better than the DDG-51 isn't necessarily bad news," he said. "It may be commentary on how good the DDG-51 is."