Building a New Destroyer

Battle-hardened, But Insufficient Crew May Spell Doom

By David Abel  |  Defense Week  |  6/7/1999

The sleek new destroyer, DD-21, is in the first phase of being designed, and remains far away from the assembly line. But the next-generation land-attack warship, which will form the Navy's backbone in the early part of next century, may already have a critical defect.

The problem, critics say, is an insufficient crew to respond to battle damage.

Next to its stealthy design, increased land-attack capability and bow to stern state-of-the-art technology, what makes the DD-21 such a revolutionary warship is that its Operational Requirements Document states the ship will have a 95-sailor crew, about one-third smaller than a crew aboard the Navy's latest destroyers.

The budgetary benefit of such a diminished crew size is potentially tremendous: Sailors cost more than anything else on a ship, and the fewer of them, the less the ship will cost the Navy to operate. In fact, the Navy's goal is to reduce its manpower, operating and support costs by 70 percent from what it pays now for Arleigh Burke-class destroyers.

But critics fear the ambitious goal of significantly decreasing the number of sailors aboard destroyers might leave the planned 32 DD-21s, which are to begin entering the fleet in 2008, vulnerable and overly reliant on technology.

"No warship is immune from damage, and once damaged, a ship can continue to fight only when manned with large, well-trained repair parties," writes Cmdr. Michael Fitzgerald, former executive officer of the USS John A. Moore (FFG-19) and instructor at the Surface Warfare Officers School, in the February issue of the U.S. Naval Institute's periodical, Proceedings. "Even minor damage, left unchecked, eventually can kill a ship ....

"It follows that whatever technology DD-21 employs for self-defense eventually will be overcome," Fitzgerald adds. "Some future enemy is going to bust DD-21 in the chops."

Technology's role
Navy officials overseeing the DD-21's production argue that it's difficult to compare the new destroyer with previous warships. DD-21 is being designed specifically to operate with fewer sailors. The Navy has never tried that, they say.

Furthermore, the two industry teams, which include General Dynamics' Bath Iron Works and Litton's Ingalls Shipbuilding Co., have been directed to incorporate advanced damage-control technologies, such as fire-detection devices, automatic flooding and special communications systems.

"We are very comfortable we will make this ship more survivable than any ship we've built," says Capt. Ray Pilcher, head of the Land Attack Warfare Branch, Surface Warfare Division on the Chief of Naval Operations' staff. "There are a lot of redundant needs that are involved in today's damage control because it's based on technology of the 1950s .... This ship will be designed around the most modern damage-control equipment and techniques. We have no doubt it will allow us to operate the ship very safely, with a very reduced crew."

Pilcher, however, said though the 95 sailors were part of DD-21's Operational Requirements Document (ORD), the destroyer's crew size could ultimately reach 150 sailors. Moreover, the ship's berthing is being designed to accommodate additional personnel, such as a special-operations unit and an embarked commander and staff.

In a written response to questions, the DD-21 Program Executive Office said there are at least four possible reasons why the Navy might decide to increase the number of sailors aboard DD-21 beyond 95: The cost of automation exceeds the cost of using a crew; lack of available "workload-reduction technology;" changes in Navy manpower and training; and holdover technology such as Link 16 communication systems that would require additional service.

"Battle damage or fire prevention with a 95-member crew involves all of the critical potential factors," DD-21 officials stated in their response, " well as the performance trades involved with vulnerability and survivability design."

Still, Pilcher and officials at the program office said they believe 95 sailors remains a realistic goal and scoff at any suggestion the Navy might be investing too much in cure-all technology. They argue that limited crews are a trend in navies around the world and diminishing budgets require future ships be designed for small, well-trained crews.

Withstanding battle damage
But naval analysts say it's likely the number of sailors aboard DD-21 will be increased. And critics argue that given the nation's shriveling fleet, it will be even more important to ensure the new land-attack destroyer, whose prime mission is to operate close to enemy shores, can withstand battle damage. That means the more sailors to salvage a damaged ship, the better, they say.

"Unless there are sufficient advances in both systems automation and damage control, there is a lot of concern about the ultimate size of the crew," said Scott Truver, executive director of the Center for Security Strategies and Operations at Techmatics. "Reality may again rear its ugly head .... There has to be a balance between a forward use of technology and the grunt work that any ship requires."

Critics further charge that while technology may work well for replacing repetitive tasks, it's dangerous to rely too much on machines to combat battle damage. Even redundant systems, they say, are prone to failing after a torpedo or cruise missile strikes the hull of a ship.

"Automated systems are notoriously sensitive to shock damage," Fitzgerald wrote, "and it is not unreasonable to expect that a computer-run damage-control system might fail at the worst possible time-right after a hit."

And if that system fails, the logic goes, DD-21 might not have enough personnel to respond to a raging fire or flood and simultaneously engage the enemy. A congressional official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said 95 sailors, while a laudable cost-cutting goal, is likely too few to support DD-21.

"There is a sense among people you talk to about this that the 95 goal should be relaxed," the official said. "While some in the Navy say it might be better to have fewer people [to seal rooms] for automatic fire suppression, this might be an example of taking technology too far."

The sleek computer illustrations of the DD-21, which make the new destroyer look like a modern version of the Civil War-era ironclad Merrimac gunboat, prompt one overriding impression about the stealthy warship: It will be like no other ship in today's Navy.

Norman Polmar, a noted New York author of books on the Navy, promised that DD-21 would revolutionize the nation's fleet of surface ships, employing technology and sailors in ways long seen only on designers' drawing boards.

He acknowledged technology is no panacea, but said if designed properly and with sufficient human oversight, the DD-21 would be able to accomplish its mission with a crew of about 100 sailors."Can it be done?" he asked. "If we do it right, and we're smart about it, the answer is, absolutely."