The world’s most expensive piece of flotsam

Reblogged from my other blog

If there’s one thing that frustrates me more than anything as an engineer, its bad design. Not least because, I’ve been in situations where I’ve seen how such bad design comes about. Typically, it comes down to a lack of good co-ordination between the different stakeholders and various professionals involved.

For example, an architect with grand designs and his eye on winning design awards woo’s a client into letting him go crazy and he ends up with a building that goes way over budget, takes much longer to build than planned and ultimately ends up as impractical and expensive to maintain. Good design is about striking a balance between the various factors (form, function, cost, ease of maintenance, sustainability, etc.). And often where that process fails its because of an unwillingness of some party to compromise in some way. Which can also often be an issue when money and politics intervenes.

And nowhere do you see this process play out most often than in military projects, which often serve as textbook examples of everything that can go wrong with engineering design. I’ve previously covered the F-35, but another recent example of a military money pit would be the Zumwalt Class stealth ship, which is little more than a very expensive piece of flotsam.

The Zumwalt class stealth cruisers have been beset with numerous problems from hull leaks, propulsion failures, but most notably its signature weapon, the AGS rapid fire precision guided gun system, intended to provide both anti-ship capability and fire support to ground troops during amphibious assault. Trouble is, the guns don’t actually work and have no ammo available.

Yes, the US has paid out about $23 billion in R&D costs with a further $4 billion per hull, for a class of ships with no guns. What are the sailors supposed to use instead, bad language? They are basically the equivalent of going up to the enemy with one of those toy guns that has a flag which pops out saying bang.

And this failure is entirely predictable. The Navy’s problem is that the weapon’s proved expensive to develop. Rather than firing normal artillery rounds the navy wanted something capable of firing longer range rocket propelled precision guided munitions. The trouble with those is they were always going to be expensive. And now that they have the guns finally working, it turns out they can’t afford to buy the ammo.

This is exactly the sort of problem that should have been identified earlier in the project. The contractor (BAE systems) should have pointed this out, which the Navy should have known anyway (they buy similar munitions for other things, what made them thing they’d suddenly become magically cheaper?) and they should have made damn sure Congress were aware of this before approving the project.

This is where the engineering compromise comes in. Rather than a pair of high cost precision guns with super expensive ammo, why not just mount lots of larger calibre guns? These can fire a larger round over a longer distance, negating the need for rocket assistance. To give some sort of comparison, while the Zumwalt’s mount two 155mm (6”) guns, the WW2 era New-Orleans Class heavy cruisers (of a similar weight to the Zumwalt’s) mounted nine 204mm (8”) guns, the German Deutschland class mounted six 280mm (11”) guns and the aptly named HMS Terror (a WW1 British shore bombardment monitor with about half the displacement of any of these cruisers) sported two insanely large 380mm (15”) guns (which is a bit like seeing a toddler running around with a rocket launcher!).

Hell even the light cruiser HMS Belfast (a museum ship on the Thames, which is much smaller than the Zumwalt) mounts nine 155mm guns. Yes, you heard that right, the royal navy have a 75 year old museum ship capable of outrunning the US navy’s latest and greatest warship (plus the Belfast’s gun’s actually work!).

Now granted, these older ships would be using older manually loaded guns with a rate of fire of 2-4 rounds per minute, against the 10 rpm the AGS is capable of (that said, if you’ve got 9 guns you can throw a lot shells towards the target). And larger shells take up more room below deck, so you can’t carry as many of them. But it is possible to build quick firing guns of a large calibre. The US navy in fact experimented with such a weapon back in the 70′s, building a 204 (8”) gun capable of firing 12 rpm. Interestingly, a side goal of that project was to have similar precision guided long range shells, which was ultimately abandoned as it was seen as too expensive.

So it would have to have been understood from day one that this was a high risk project. You’d want to make damn sure the guns actually worked (and figure out the price tag of the shells) before you even started building the ships. If that wasn’t acceptable, then they should have looked at the alternatives. As noted, they could have had the same stealth ship but mounting several larger calibre conventional guns, effectively a stealthy, ocean going version of existing monitor type vessels.

Another alternative would be to bring back (or keep) in service one or two of the Iowa class battleships. Although I would point out that these ships are 70 year’s old and require a massive crew to operate (that said, anything would be cheaper and more capable than the Zumwalt’s at this point!). And, as you can imagine, a 50,000 ton warship has all the stealth features of a brass band, making them a sitting duck for enemy air or missile attack.

A further alternative is the arsenal ship. You basically take a disused cargo ship, cram its hold’s full of hundreds of artillery rockets, drive it up to the enemy shoreline (this could be done remotely, with no crew on board) and start shooting. A bit crude, but it achieves the same result.

And the solution? Oh, we’re going to develop rail guns or directed energy weapons and mount them on the warships instead! So the solution to an overly ambitious, expensive and technically challenging project, is to come up with something even more expensive and difficult to develop. Ya, I wonder how that’s going to work out!

Furthermore, railguns aren’t really the solution here. They are great for firing high speed armour piercing shells, but not the kind of shells used in shore bombardment (typically HX or fragmentation shells). As for turning the Zumwalt’s into an anti ship platform, most modern ships these days fight each other using missiles or their aircraft. While most do have a deck gun, that’s really a last resort weapon. Two warships going at each other with their deck guns is the modern day naval equivalent of a back alley knife fight, one that will most likely be won by the ship that gets lucky (by either shooting first or hitting something important like a magazine). E.g. a Zumwalt is off an enemy shoreline and a enemy coastal patrol boat a fraction of its size comes around a headland and opens up on the Zumwalt from behind before it can get its forward guns into action.

Either way, my point is that the US Navy had alternative options. Each would have come with drawbacks, but would have been deliverable according to a predictable budget and time-scale. Instead, they chose the most technically difficult, expensive and risky option, with predictable results. Who is too blame? Congress? The Navy? The contractor? I’d say all of them. The navy should have known better, the contractor should have pointed out the technical difficulties they were being asked to overcome and Congress should have done a better job regulating the other two.

Ultimately it shows the enormous waste of money that is US government defence spending. How the mantra of “support the troops” can see vast sums of taxes going to waste in various money burning parties, with significant levels of cronyism and corruption. Where ships are built in the home state of a senator on the take from defence contractors…..even if that state is Wisconsin….which is quite some distance from any ocean last time I checked. Indeed defence contractors, knowing they won’t be punished for doing a crap job, have a perverse incentive to jack up the price, as the higher the cost the more of margin they can cream off the top.

But it also highlights how that, contrary to what you will hear from republicans, there is more than adequate money to fund many left wing proposals. A tiny improvement in defence spending efficiency (i.e. buy the same stuff, just spending it more carefully) would produce saving more than sufficient to fund a green new deal, better healthcare or a cancellation of university tuition fees.

Unfortunately, many democrats are as unwilling to take on defence contractors as the GOP, its practically against their religion. Biden (aka Mr Vanilla, as it was a choice between a soggy plain lolly or a sh*t sandwich which Trump claimed was chocolate chip flavour) could do many things on his first day in office, even without a majority in congress, but I don’t hold out much hope of him doing so. Better than Trump yes, but he’s going to need prodding to nudge things in the right direction.

About daryan12

Engineer, expertise: Energy, Sustainablity, Computer Aided Engineering, Renewables technology
This entry was posted in aviation, defence, economics, politics, technology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The world’s most expensive piece of flotsam

  1. neilrieck says:

    Sometimes flotsum is floatsum 🙂

  2. mike w. says:

    You’d think the Navy would’ve learnt its lesson after their torpedo debacle in WWII.

    • daryan12 says:

      U mean the torpedoes designed by a committee, who ignored any advise to contrary, didn’t see the point doing proper tests and then discovered they didn’t actually work? They’d repeatedly fire them at ships only for them to go ding off the hull.

      Funny thing is, the UK went and did the same thing a few decades later, their tigerfish torpedo. The Sub captains trusted them so little that they used a 1930’s era torpedo to sink the Belgrano during the falklands war. Somethings never change I suppose!

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