During his campaign, President-elect George W. Bush promised to modernize America's armed forces while keeping his defense budget within reasonable bounds. That twofold promise may face its first big test with the DD-21 destroyer, an electric-powered stealth ship designed to attack enemies hundreds of miles inland from any of the world's oceans as well as to fight at sea. If he is serious about keeping both pledges, Mr. Bush must cancel this program.
While these ships do represent an advance in technology, they are not worth their cost; more cost-effective ships can be built. It is particularly important that Mr. Bush move quickly against the DD-21 because once weapons systems move from development to production, they are much more difficult to cancel, even when the taxpayers get very little return on their investment. For example, the Pentagon has spent more than $40 billion on the Air Force's F-22 fighter and the Marine Corps V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, and neither aircraft has moved into full production.
Canceling the DD-21 will not be easy. It is strongly supported by John Warner, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Trent Lott, the Senate majority leader. In addition, the Navy is arguing that the stealth ship will fulfill Mr. Bush's promise to "propel America generations ahead in military technology."
But let's look at the cost. If it does not run into financial and technical problems, we will pay about about $25 billion for 32 stealth ships about $750 million each. They will be more than twice as expensive as the existing DD-963 destroyers and FFG-7 guided missile frigates, which, like the stealth ship, primarily operate on the high seas against another large navy.
What's the alternative? During his campaign, Mr. Bush supported the building of the earlier version of the DD-21, called the arsenal ship, which the Navy scuttled shortly after the death of its primary backer, Michael Borda, the former chief of naval operations.
The arsenal ship would not be able to wage war in the open ocean, as the DD-21 could. But it would be half as expensive. It would carry 500 cruise missiles; the DD-21 would carry only 120. The DD-21 would need a crew of 95; the arsenal ship would need less than half that number. The Navy could also get the arsenal ship more quickly. The DD-21, even if there were no delays, would not be operational until 2010. The first arsenal ship can be made operational in half that time.
Mr. Bush should not underestimate the difficulties of canceling the DD-21. A decade ago, when Dick Cheney served as the defense secretary, he tried to cancel the V-22. But he was overwhelmed by opposition from the Marine Corps, defense contractors and the Congress. Similarly, in 1999, when the House canceled the F-22, the decision was reversed after unanimous opposition from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the defense secretary.
But Mr. Bush should also remember that if the DD-21 is built, he will have little chance of fulfilling both his promises to modernize the military and to keep costs in check.