November 23, 2005

New US Destroyer Sails Ahead

By Jim Wolf

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon has opted to press ahead with a new multibillion-dollar destroyer being developed by Northrop Grumman Corp. and General Dynamics as the centerpiece of the U.S. Navy's future fleet, Navy officials said on Wednesday.

Ending speculation the project might be killed, the Defense Department cleared a Navy plan to let each company go ahead with detailed design work on the ship, the officials said.

The Pentagon's chief weapons buyer, Kenneth Krieg, gave the go-ahead for the next phase of work at a meeting on Tuesday evening, said Lt. John Gay, a Navy spokesman.

Under the newly approved "dual lead ship" strategy, each company will build a ship of its own to meet requirements set by the Pentagon and the Navy, said Gay. On completion, the Navy will recommend to the Pentagon how to acquire the rest of a projected $18 billion DD(X) fleet.

The ship will have substantially lower radar and acoustic "signatures" -- making it harder for an enemy to detect and hit -- and be highly automated to cut crew size by more than half compared with current destroyer levels.

It will incorporate new technologies that also would be used in a new aircraft carrier and a new cruiser. The Navy hopes the first DD(X) destroyer will be delivered in 2012.

Cheryl Irwin, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said Kreig chaired a DD(X)-related meeting of the Defense Acquisition Board, the high-level panel that weighs production decisions for major weapons systems.


At issue was the "Milestone B" review -- the decision on whether to let DD(X) advance to detailed design work -- despite expected delays or cuts in other big-ticket weapons programs as the United States copes with war costs, a growing deficit and hurricane relief, among other issues.

This is a "significant event for an acquisition program," said Ronald O'Rourke, a naval analyst at the non-partisan Congressional Research Service. The Pentagon had considered the matter three times and deferred it three times, most recently on November 10.

The Navy had been seeking Pentagon approval to use fiscal 2007 funding to let the two companies -- Los Angeles-based Northrop and General Dynamics of Falls Church, Virginia -- move to the next phase of the project.

Congress had blocked the Navy's earlier "winner-take-all" proposed approach to building DD(X) on the ground that it likely would knock the loser out of the business of building surface warships.

In originally arguing for such a head-to-head competition, Navy officials had said picking one yard to build the ship would save about $3 billion in an $18 billion program.

The first DD(X) is projected to cost about $3.3 billion, with the cost of subsequent ships declining as more are built.

At Tuesday's meeting, the Defense Department agreed on funding issues that would let both Northrop and General Dynamics go ahead with system development and demonstration, a big-money phase of the program, Navy officials said.

The Pentagon's DD(X) decision "takes us through a critical threshold," said Randy Belote, a spokesman for Northrop, which would build its version of the ship at its Pascagoula, Mississippi, shipyard.

General Dynamics, which would build at its Bath Iron Works yard in Bath, Maine, had no immediate comment.