Lessons About Bad Bureaucracy from the U.S. Navy

Floating a total of 236 ships, 10 of which are aircraft carriers, the USN has global reach and is perfectly capable of projecting American military power anywhere


Joe Lehmann | USA
The United States Navy is the undeniable king of the sea. Floating a total of 236 ships, 10 of which are aircraft carriers, the USN has global reach and is perfectly capable of projecting American military power anywhere. Given our Navy’s current makeup of destroyers for anti-submarine warfare, cruisers for land attack, and aircraft carriers with air wings that can do anything, of course, we don’t have a need for a stealth destroyer whose main purpose is land attack. But what does the Pentagon decide we need? Exactly that. Enter the Zumwalt class guided missile destroyer. Conceived to be the Navy’s jack-of-all-trades, the Zumwalt is designed to dominate both ocean and littoral waters, and replace the Iowa class battleship for shore bombardment. Equipped with revolutionary stealth technology and manned with a reduced number of crewmen, the concept is good, but like all other modern government projects, lack of accountability allows for problems.


Conceived in 1994, the end goal for the Zumwalt-class project was the production of 32 ships at about $1.3 billion each, for a total of $46 billion. In 2001, growing costs caused the total to be dropped to only 16 ships. By 2005, with each ship estimated to cost over $3 billion each, the Navy dropped the number to 7. As if it couldn’t get worse, in 2016, with each ship weighing in at $7 billion, the total was dropped to 3. Of those three ships, only one has been commissioned, and that ship was delivered before it was ready. Faced with political pressure, the Navy took delivery of a ship on which only 3 of the 11 critical systems were considered mature. As if to reward this debacle, all of the original project managers had been promoted after their time in charge and all of the lead company contractors were given billions of additional dollars in defense contracts. Regrettably, the more this project costs, there is no equivalent increase in quality.

Problems with Stealth

One of the biggest cost drivers of the Zumwalt program is the stealth technology. Impressively, the massive 15,000-ton warship has the radar cross section of a 50-foot fishing ship. In spite of this admittedly amazing technological feat, there is zero practicality in designing a warship around stealth. From an economic perspective, not only does it cause the overall creation costs to skyrocket, but it also causes maintenance costs to go up as well. From a tactical perspective, it’s useless because of the radar, guns, and antennae that need to be mounted on the outside of the ship can hinder or cripple the stealth ability. Another problem with stealth is that it doesn’t prevent the ship from being seen by humans. Designed to dominate littoral waters, the stealth may help hide from radar but a 600 ft warship is almost impossible to hide from all the eyes that will inevitably populate a littoral area. In addition to its role of sea-domination, the Zumwalt is also expected to replace the Iowa class battleship as a shore bombardment battery. Obviously, even if it was able to stay out of sight, sustained naval fire missions will totally negate stealth benefits. The Navy also considers the Zumwalt to be extremely susceptible to submarine attack. This vulnerability would require a Zumwalt to be accompanied by a ship escort, again negating the usefulness of stealth.

Failed Weapons System

One of the selling points of the Zumwalt-class was the use of the Advanced Gun System. Designed to provide fire missions like the battery of the Iowa-class battleship, but unable to fire conventional Howitzer rounds, a new form of the projectile was produced called the Long Range Land Attack Projectile. However, because the cost-per-round has reached about $800,000, the Navy has canceled its order of LRLAPs, thus neutering the ship’s large guns. These guns were undoubtedly a failure from conception. Not only is this gun system expensive, but by being designed for indirect fire only, it cannot be used for engaging an enemy vessel.

The Epitome of Bureaucratic Wastefulness

From the beginning, the Zumwalt project exemplified everything that is wrong with the military leadership at the Pentagon and the political leadership in Congress. The Zumwalt project was approved without a reasonable end goal, allowed to go way over budget, consistently missed deadlines, and never had a solid purpose. Then Congress decided to not hold anyone accountable for this travesty. This project is a prime example of what happens when you don’t hold people accountable in an inefficient system. Even our honorable military gets corrupted when put into the hands of politically motivated, armchair admirals. Under this type of “leadership”, projects get bloated and the taxpayers are stuck floating the bill.


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