Navy's next-generation Zumwalt destroyers years from completion as worldwide tensions heat up

It’s the U.S. Navy’s most expensive shipbuilding project ever – and it seemingly still has no end in sight.

As tensions are flaring across the world, ranging from Chinese involvement in the South China Sea to Russia’s heightened naval presence in parts of Europe – none of the three sleek-looking ships in the Navy’s Zumwalt class are ready for battle.

“The program never really had a good business case from the beginning, so where we are at now isn’t a surprise,” Shelby Oakley, an acting director at the Government Accountability Office, told Fox News.

The next-generation Zumwalt destroyers – which Congress started funding in 2006 – are projected to cost a combined $23.5 billion after research, development and construction. Two of the ships, which are each more than 600 feet long, have already been “delivered” to the Navy and are in San Diego, while the third is still being built in Maine.

April 20, 2016: The destroyer USS Zumwalt departs Bath, Maine.

April 20, 2016: The destroyer USS Zumwalt departs Bath, Maine. (Reuters)

But, as the GAO reported in its Weapons Systems Annual Assessment in April, “ongoing development and shipboard testing of technologies have resulted in design changes that have led to significant schedule delays and cost increases.”

Named after former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo R. "Bud" Zumwalt Jr., the ships' combat capabilities were originally focused around hitting targets on land with 155mm guns firing out newly made “Long-Range Land-Attack Projectiles.”

“If Batman had a ship, it would be the USS Zumwalt,” Adm. Harry B. Harris, Jr., the commander of the US Pacific Command, said about the first one in its class after it was commissioned in 2016.

Yet, skyrocketing costs to acquire the ammunition for the “Advanced Gun Systems,” which were originally intended for the ships, have forced the Navy to switch gears.

“In November 2016, it was reported that the Navy had decided to stop procuring LRLAP projectiles because the projected unit cost of each projectile had risen to at least $800,000,” Ronald O’Rourke, a specialist in naval affairs at the Congressional Research Service, wrote in an April report to Congress. “The Navy began exploring options for procuring a less expensive (and less capable) replacement munition.”

Oct. 15, 2016: The USS Zumwalt before its commissioning.

Oct. 15, 2016: The USS Zumwalt before its commissioning. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class George M. Bell/Released)

O’Rourke said that “the two AGSs on each DDG-1000 will, for the time being at least, remain for the most part dormant.

He said in December 2017, the mission shifted “to an emphasis on surface strike, meaning the use of missiles to attack surface ships and perhaps also land targets.”

Only five of the 12 “critical technologies” needed for the ships to meet their intended design purposes are “fully matured,” the GAO said in its April report, “with plans to demonstrate most of the remaining technologies during post-delivery availability and combat systems activation.

“They conceived it as not just having new systems on board, but alternating the shape of the hull and how it was going to move through the water,” Oakley told Fox News. “That was truly revolutionary.”

But she added that while the Navy’s “ambition is not necessarily a bad thing,” the saga of the Zumwalt – which has hit setbacks such as the development of the weapons systems – is like “an old adage: best two out of three.”

“You can’t do it all. You can’t have the technology move quickly and come at a low cost,” she said, noting that they are going to need additional funding.

Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, told CQ News that each of the ships in the Zumwalt class cost double the amount to build as an Arleigh Burke – the Navy's other brand of destroyer. It also reported, citing budget documents, that Zumwalt ships are costing twice as much to operate, even though the Navy had insisted that they would be cheaper because of a smaller crew required onboard.

And on top of that -- the cruise missiles to carry out the reimagined combat functions are still not developed, according to CQ News.

Despite the setbacks, the Navy tells Fox News that it "sees a tremendous opportunity with this ship class in terms of having the most advanced capabilities of any surface ship fielded to date.

"The focus for DDG 1000-class destroyers going forward is to make them as capable, as ready, and as lethal as possible with the resources provided," Navy spokeswoman Lauren Chatmas said. "With a return to a great power competition, today's maritime environment is very different than the operating environment the DDG 1000 class was conceived and designed for."

The Navy, in an April statement, also hailed the arrival of the USS Michael Monsoor (DDG 1001).

"Delivery of DDG 1001 marks the culmination of years of dedication and hard work from our Navy and industry team," said Capt. Kevin Smith, a program manager who worked on the first ship in the class. "We have incorporated many lessons learned from DDG 1000 and are proud of the end result. DDG 1001 will be a tremendous asset to the Navy."

The first completed ship in the class, the USS Zumwalt, is not expected to be ready for deployment until 2021, according to the GAO.

Smith, in a recent presentation on the ship class, said combat system testing and activation on the USS Zumwalt “will continue through 2018.” The completion of the hull, mechanical and electrical components of the last ship in the class, the USS Lyndon B. Johnson, is not expected to be finished until March 2020.