SINGAPORE — A superstealthy warship that could underpin the U.S. Navy’s China strategy will be able to sneak up on coastlines virtually undetected and pound targets with electromagnetic “rail guns” right out of a sci-fi movie.
But at more than $3 billion each, critics say the new DDG-1000 destroyer sucks away funds that could be better used to bolster a thinly stretched conventional fleet.
One outspoken admiral in China has scoffed that all it would take to sink the high-tech American ship is an armada of explosive-laden fishing boats.
With the first of the new ships set to be delivered in 2014, the warship is being heavily promoted by the Pentagon as the most advanced destroyer in history - a silver bullet of stealth.
It has been called a perfect fit for what Washington now considers the most strategically important region in the world - Asia and the Pacific.
Though it could come in handy elsewhere - the Persian Gulf region, for instance - its ability to carry out missions on the high seas and in shallows closer to shore is especially important in Asia because of the region’s many island nations and China’s long Pacific coast.
“With its stealth, incredibly capable sonar system, strike capability and lower manning requirements - this is our future,” Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, chief of naval operations, said in April after visiting the shipyard in Maine where the destroyers are being built.
On a visit to a major regional security conference in Singapore that ended Sunday, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said the Navy will be deploying 60 percent of its fleet worldwide to the Pacific by 2020, and though he didn’t cite the stealth destroyers, he said new, high-tech ships will be a big part of its shift.
The DDG-1000 and other stealth destroyers of the Zumwalt class feature a wave-piercing hull that leaves almost no wake, electric drive propulsion, and advanced sonar and missiles.
They are longer and heavier than existing destroyers - but will have half the crew because of automated systems and appear to be little more than a small fishing boat on enemy radar.
Down the road, the ship is to be equipped with an electromagnetic rail gun, which uses a magnetic field and electric current to fire a projectile at several times the speed of sound.
But cost overruns and technical delays have left many defense experts wondering if the whole endeavor was too focused on futuristic technologies for its own good.
They point to the problem-ridden F-22 Raptor stealth jet fighter, which was hailed as the most advanced fighter ever built but was cut short because of prohibitive costs. Its successor, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, has swelled up into the most expensive procurement program in Defense Department history.
“Whether the Navy can afford to buy many DDG-1000s must be balanced against the need for over 300 surface ships to fulfill the various missions that confront it,” said Dean Cheng, a China specialist with the Heritage Foundation.
“Buying hyperexpensive ships hurts that ability, but buying ships that can’t do the job, or worse can’t survive in the face of the enemy, is even more irresponsible.”