BATH, Maine– The US Navy’s workhorse destroyer entered production more than 30 years ago when Tom Stevens was a young welder.
Now, the Navy is preparing to turn the page, as it looks forward to a future ship packed with lasers that can shoot down missiles and attack enemies with hypersonic missiles that exceed 3,800 mph.
Stevens, 52, said the warship provides an opportunity to build something new after a historic production run of the Arleigh Burke-class.
“It will be an impressive destroyer that will absolutely launch us into the next generation of ships,” said Stevens, director of shore assembly at the Bath Iron Works Navy shipyard.
The stakes are high when it comes to a replacement for the backbone of the fleet, as the Navy faces a growing threat from China, whose numerical advantage grows every year.
The first design contracts were awarded this summer to General Dynamics’ Bath Iron Works in Maine and Huntington Ingalls Industries in Mississippi for a large surface warship that would eventually follow production of the ubiquitous Burke destroyers.
All that war gear won’t be cheap. The average cost of each new ship, dubbed the DDG(X), is projected to be a third more expensive than the Burkes, the last of which cost about $2.2 billion each, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
The Navy has vowed it won’t repeat recent shipbuilding debacles when it sped up production and introduced too much new technology to ships, causing additional delays and expense with the Littoral Combat Ships, Zumwalt-class stealth destroyers and the aircraft carrier. USS Gerald Ford. .
“Instead of tying the success of DDG(X) to development technology, we are using well-known, mature technologies on a flexible platform that can be upgraded for decades to come, as tomorrow’s technology matures and proves itself,” Jamie Kohler said. , a spokesman for the Navy.
A shipyard in Wisconsin last week began construction of the first of a new class of frigates, which are smaller than destroyers. Those ships used an existing design and there are no new weapons systems.
Still, there remains concern about the cost of the destroyer. A high price would reduce the number of ships the Navy can afford to build, said Bryan Clark, a defense analyst at the Hudson Institute.
“You will end up with a surface fleet that will shrink instead of growing,” Clark said.
Production of the new ship is still years away.
For now, the shipyards continue to produce Burke-class destroyers, which earned a place in the record book for a production run that has surpassed all other battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and frigates in US Navy history. By the time the last Burke is built, it could surpass even the Nimitz aircraft carrier, which had a production run of four decades.
At Bath Iron Works, shipbuilders have worked almost exclusively on Burkes, with the exception of the three Zumwalt-class destroyers, and have a buildup that will continue through the end of the decade.
Shipfitter Tim Garland, 57, began work in 1988 on the first Arleigh Burke destroyer, making ballistic doors and hatches. Over the years, he has worked on almost every component of the ship, through the frigid days of winter and the hot days of summer.
The owner never thought that the same boat, improved over the years, would enjoy such longevity.
“We thought there would be a replacement ship long before now. But if it’s not broken. Don’t fix it,” she said.
The Navy originally wanted to replace Burkes with stealth Zumwalt-class destroyers with electric propulsion, an unusual hull, and an angular shape to minimize radar signature. The program was eventually truncated from 32 ships to three due to high cost, but supporters said the technological advances could be useful for future ships.
In fact, the new destroyers will take advantage of that ship’s electrical power plant to power lasers while using a conventional hull and radar and weapons system similar to the one currently used, the Navy said.
Matt Caris, an analyst at Avascent, said the Navy is doing everything it can to keep spending from spiraling out of control, from his point of view on maturing technology and the overall procurement process to the timeline. The first of the ship class would not be commissioned until the mid-2030s.
“The Navy is trying to thread the needle with some potentially game-changing capabilities in the lowest-risk evolutionary process possible,” he said.
Others worry that the cost will become a burden on the rest of the fleet.
The Navy may be able to afford just one of the ships per year, compared to current destroyer-building rates of two or three per year, reducing the size of the fleet over time, Clark said.
“They want to stack every mission on the DDG(X) to make it a kind of death star. They are putting all their eggs in one basket financially,” he said.
The new destroyer represents the higher end of the Navy’s aspirations.
At the other extreme, the Navy is also accelerating research into less expensive unmanned ships that would expand the Navy’s sensors and offensive capability, working in concert with manned ships that would stay further out of harm’s way. Such an interconnected fleet would be scattered and more difficult to destroy.
In Bath, there is a new generation of shipbuilders, thousands of them, including Tom Stevens’s son, Shane Stevens, who are looking forward to the new program and a long period of steady work.
Big contracts ensure workers are busy for years to come, but there’s also an enthusiasm to try something new, Shane Stevens said.
“I am always excited when I learn something new high-tech. That’s what excites me,” said the 29-year-old.
Follow David Sharp on Twitter at