The U.S. Navy’s Most Expensive Warships for 2014

The Zumwalt-class guided-missile destroyer DDG 1000 is floated out of dry dock at the General Dynamics Bath Iron Works shipyard. The ship, the first of three Zumwalt-class destroyers, will provide independent forward presence and deterrence, support special operations forces and operate as part of joint and combined expeditionary forces. Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo via General Dynamics. 

The United States has an impressive array of weapons systems, but it could be argued that none are as imposing as the U.S. Navy's warships. In fact, the U.S. often uses the deployment of these weapons as a "show of force" to intimidate would-be-aggressors into backing down -- and who wouldn't be intimidated by a veritable floating fortress in your backyard?

Unfortunately, these ships don't last forever, nor are they cheap. The good news is these ships typically take years to build, and provide their respective defense contractors with a healthy boost to their bottom line. So, let's take a look at the three most expensive Navy ships for 2014 and see why the Navy considers them essential to military operations.

3. LHA 6 America-Class Amphibious Assault Ship

The amphibious assault ship America (LHA 6) returned to Ingalls Shipbuilding on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, following successful builder's sea trials in the Gulf of Mexico. Photo credit: Steve Blount via Huntington Ingalls Industries.

At nearly three football fields in length (844 feet), and 20 stories high from keel to the top of its deckhouse, Huntington Ingalls Industries' (NYSE: HII  ) LHA 6 is indeed a floating fortress. More importantly, the America comes with an impressive array of weapons, including (but not limited to), RAM launchers, .50 caliber machine guns, and a Phalanx Close-In Weapon System -- a rapid-fire, radar-guided gun, that can shoot down missiles, planes, and other ships.  The America can accommodate nine F-35Bs, four AH-1Z Viper Attack helicopters, 12 Mv-22 Ospreys, and a variety of other aircraft.

More importantly, this ship is an essential when it comes to transporting Marine Expeditionary Units and their equipment. In fact, it can carry up to 1,871 troops, in addition to its 1,204-person crew.  The Government Accountability Office's, or GAO, estimated program unit cost for this titan? $3.4 billion -- and while that might seem like a staggering number, it's still not as expensive as the next two vessels on this list.  

2. DDG 1000 Zumwalt-Class Destroyer

An artist rendering of the Zumwalt class destroyer DDG 1000, a new class of multi-mission U.S. Navy surface combatant ship designed to operate as part of a joint maritime fleet, assisting Marine strike forces ashore as well as performing littoral, air and sub-surface warfare. Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo illustration.

With a length of 610 feet, and a beam of just over 80 feet, General Dynamics' (NYSE: GD  ) Bath Iron Works' DDG 1000 Zumwalt is the largest U.S. Navy destroyer ever built. However, because of its low radar profile -- courtesy of advanced technologies that, in part, allow it to ride low in the water -- the Zumwalt is actually stealthier than other warships.  This directly benefits its multi-mission role, which according to the GAO, is "to provide advanced capability for littoral operations and land-attack in support of forces ashore."  To put it simply, the Zumwalt provides near-shore support for land troops, and also helps dominate the water.

Speaking of dominating, the Zumwalt has a truly impressive array of weapons, including Advanced Gun Systems, Peripheral Vertical launch Systems, a number of missile systems, and a power plant that can produce 78 megawatts of electricity. This means the Zumwalt could be used for futuristic weapons like the Electromagnetic Railgun -- an extended range launcher that uses electricity to fire projectiles at 4,500-5,600 mph. More importantly, thanks to automation technologies, the Zumwalt can be crewed with 142 sailors. That's less than half of what's needed on traditional destroyers.  The GAO's estimated program unit cost for this stealth destroyer? $7.3 billion. Expensive, but not nearly as expensive as the last ship on this list.

1. Gerald R. Ford-Class Nuclear Aircraft Carrier (CVN 78)

The aircraft carrier Pre-Commissioning Unit (PCU) Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) is moved to Pier 3 at Newport News Shipbuilding. Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo via Huntington Ingalls Industries by Chris Oxley.

According to the Navy, aircraft carriers are the "centerpiece" of the U.S.' Naval forces, and are "the premier forward asset for crisis response and early decisive striking power in major combat operations."  In other words, aircraft carriers are the big guns -- both figuratively, and literally -- and Huntington Ingalls Industries' Gerald R. Ford is no exception.

It's 1,092 feet long, its beam is 134 feet high, its Flight Deck is 256 feet wide, and it has a crew of 4,539. More importantly, the Gerald R. Ford is the first new design for an aircraft carrier since the Nimitz, and it comes power-packed with new technology. This includes: an electromagnetic aircraft launch system, new reactor plants that increase electrical power generation, and there's more space for Flight Deck operations thanks to a decreased island.  Further, the Gerald R. Ford's weaponry includes the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile, Rolling Airframe Missile, Phalanx Close-In Weapon System, and it can carry 75+ aircraft.  Clearly, this is one ship you don't want to mess with, and it comes with an equally daunting price: an estimated $12 billion per program unit cost, according to the GAO. 

Why this matters
The above three ships are definitely expensive, and they get even more expensive when you factor in the fact that the Navy intends to purchase more than just one. For example, the Navy ordered three America-class assault ships for an estimated total program cost of $10.1 billion;  three Zumwalt-class destroyers for an estimated total program cost of almost $22 billion;  and three Gerald R. Ford-class carriers for an estimated total program cost of $36 billion. 

However, each ship was designed to augment, or replace their ageing counterparts -- the America was designed to replace the USS Peleliu (LHA-5) of the Tarawa-class amphibious assault ships,  the Zumwalt was originally seen as a replacement for the Iowa-class battleships that were retired in the 1990's,  and the Gerald R. Ford is a replacement for the USS Enterprise (CVN 65). Consequently, each ship fills a vital role for the Navy.  

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Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 2:02 PM, Viperone wrote:

    Lessons to learn from HMS Sheffield : Aluminum superstructures burn through fire doors and bulkheads. Fires cannot be isolated and starved of oxygen. A minor fire can be catastrophic. Aluminum burns through at 780 degrees and fuel fire burn at 2200 degrees. A hit in CIC took out the entire bridge with no way to contain it. A .50 caliber round would go thru the whole ship. Aluminum fatigues easily cracks form at stress points. Just peeling paint make s the hull susceptibility to corrosion. Electrolysis eats aluminum to destroy this ship in 24 hours drop a power cord over the side for 24 hours anything below waterline will be eaten away. paint just peels off aluminum and impacts the hulls integrity. Sailors will die due ships construction materials. I would be afraid of an aluminum ship that cant protect its crew.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 2:02 PM, chukalukabus wrote:

    Good article Katie.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 2:27 PM, Rotomoley wrote:

    Zumwalt, useless, too vulnerable. Ford, near useless, will certainly be sunk by missile barrages (skimming and ballistic). LHA6, potent and worth it. Defendable and expensive but not too.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 2:52 PM, ErikEriksen wrote:

    "...its beam is 134 feet high..."

    really ? such insight...such investigative reporting...

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 3:01 PM, ao1jmm wrote:

    @Rotomoley

    You obviously do not know what you are talking about.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 3:51 PM, cri33 wrote:

    Everyone here seems to be an expert....hmmmmm..maybe the Defense Dept and Navy can use you.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 4:42 PM, RayBahn wrote:

    What will these gargantuan leviathans be used for expect for propping up Israel and taking the the US on Zionist inspired wars in the middle east to steal oil and make Israel safer and more in control of stolen Palestinian lands. The US taxpayers are being milked and the US economy being brought to its knees and American lives butchered for the sake of Zionist inspired goals.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 5:18 PM, j1rose wrote:

    what a waste as drones will do more for much less and a few abm's even more destruction .

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 5:47 PM, stardust28 wrote:

    I see the people who no nothing are here today, ao1jmm, you are correct, these ships are made of CARBON FIBER which 1 quarter inch is equal to 3 inches of armor, so 6 inches would equal 24 inches of armor, do the math , and it not Electrolysis, its electrochemical or anaerobic corrosion. Which can be fought off by different ways in the shipping industries. These weapons are only part of they arsenal they didn't mention the lasers or that the hulls are double hulls, so even if you got through, this thing will just aim and your gone.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 5:52 PM, TheAncient wrote:

    @cri33 - one does not need to be an expert is see the waste and abuse here. You need to learn that ALL Admirals and Generals are POLITICAL appointees, thanking their promotions to Congress, not the military they are supposed to lead.

    Aluminum is fine as a beverage container but not for a warship. The Littoral ships would be death traps for the entire crew because even the lightest machine gun will penetrate the hull. If the lightest machine gun can to that then what would be the results from something heavy?

    The trend in warfare has long ago moved away from set piece combat to one of small unit hit and run. None of these ships cannot provide more efficient and effectiveness in such combat. Serves to only line the pockets of the military industrial complex while benefiting the military none.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 5:54 PM, VladimirPutinski wrote:

    @RayBahn

    Perhaps we can use it for promoting Extreme Islamist goals like Sharia law, I'm sure that would make you happy.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 6:00 PM, TheAncient wrote:

    So stardust28, just how thick are the hulls on these ships? Carbon fiber is not the same thing as steel armor and would need verified testing from someone outside the field of interest to prove carbon fiber is better or can withstand repeated hits on or near the same areas that would happen in combat. Would also need to know the life expectancy of carbon fiber when exposed to sea water for expanded periods of time.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 6:43 PM, bobdurino wrote:

    I have read three or four articles on defense and on our Navy published under "The Fool" masthead and I have to ask, who are you kidding. The United States Navy is no fool, not guilty of mission creep and sent the big all gun platform, aka battleship packing in 1942. It is carriers that brought the fight to Japan, carriers that destroyed the Japanese elite carrier squadron at Midway.

    And it is carriers still (though there is healthy debate about subs and smaller drone carriers)the effective forward projection of the United States.

    This multi-polar world of ours, where menace and peril target the United States as an aggressor nation, build systems to kill our citizens, kill members of the armed services, sink our ships there is only one answer: Power.

    We are, the United States is the fulcrum point for Western Civilization, protector of the rights of man and the enduring hope of freedom. Our Navy, Marines, Army, Air Force and US Coast Guard protect us and will forever be on the leading edge of defense and force projection.

    Next time Sir, I recommend some homework on what it is and why we have Armed Forces. More to the point, The Fool may continue to write foolish articles, because our service men and women have skin in this game. You do not.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 6:48 PM, weworkforamerica wrote:

    I served on the first capital US warship to port at DA Hang during the Vietnam war. It was a show of force requested by the thugs in Saigon to prove we were winning. It was all a lie! LBJ got us into that war with an alleged attack on the USS Turner Joy and the USS Maddox in Aug., 1964. Both Robert McNamara and the Navy itself had admitted that attack never happened. JFK ordered our men OUT of Vietnam. LBJ canceled those orders. One of Johnson's main supporters was an oil field service company called Brown and Root which today is called Halliburton.

    The Vietnamese won the war with total commitment to victory. Their casualties were staggering. The would commit troops to assaults knowing that they would die and they were supported by the vast Buddhist population who were severely oppressed by the Roman Catholic dictators in Saigon. There is no way we could win without nukes. Nixon was elected in '68 with the promise to end the car but it only ended in '75 with the fall of Saigon after Nixon resigned in disgrace.

    Dwight Eisenhower warned America of the great danger of the military I industrialist complex. Gen. Smedley Butler said war is a racket and he was a gangster for capitalists.

    These ships are toys. The Russians and Chinese can commit massive resources against us without high tech like was done in Vietnam and in Korea. They would send unarmed troops to charge against us until our weapons failed or we ran out of ammo and then overrun us with armed soldiers.

    We must heed the experts, Ike and Butler and choose our wars wisely and ask tough questions before we commit such as what PROOF that we were attacked, what PROOF that Saddam has nukes and exactly where are this WMDs?

    Otherwise America will waste all it's treasure on war and leave nothing for it's citizens.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 7:55 PM, NONE1st wrote:

    Thanks you Mr Obama for saving the WORLD.

    Your the best. Tell Carranger his old BF I will be

    ready when dark skies project(the new)ya know.

    I knew somehow it was his chest bump. We need that USA aura again someday. We have a similar face, are we related?

    Bless your family 4ever brave time man.

    It should be no good person left behind.

    When Robotech starts I want a helm.

    Scott Bernard out.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 8:00 PM, NONE1st wrote:

    ROBOTECH is coming people and keystone satellites

    of old say if you are in or out. The RDF has begun as of the Pentagon missile attack and is protecting us.

    We are all being watched now by dust particles, micro-wafflebots. Good luck starving wrongdoers.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 8:06 PM, Michael9695 wrote:

    Somehow I don't see a Zumwalt-Class Destroyer taking the battle damage that an Iowa class can. Nor do I think it can match the firepower of 9 x 16" guns.

    When I was in Lebanon, I saw the results of an Iowa class broadside. To say it was impressive is an understatement in the extreme. Armor of a Zumwalt-Class Destroyer would be laughable compared to an Iowa.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 9:23 PM, sadiedog wrote:

    hey people, those ships are NOT built from aluminum, they are not beer cans for crying out loud. do you honestly think they are going to tell you what they're constructed of? I doubt it, but I'll guarantee you one thing it isn't aluminum. And michael9695, why do think they started building the zumwalt class destroyer? it;s because they are fazing the old ships out, jesus christ man think about it, they are building better and better ships then we used to have, what, you think they're going to build something that is not better? holy smoke man think!!!!

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 9:33 PM, pwm02176 wrote:

    Articles such as this really ought not be published..this article is peppered with errors. That is bad enought...but much of the rantings of the commenters is truly astounding....you folks, with one or two exceptions, really have not a clue about these ships. The price quoted for the Zumwalt is way off base. But the most amazing rubbish is that all three ships are made of carbon fiber! Utterly totally WRONG. These are steel ships....however the Zumwalt does have a carbon fiber deck house, as will the next ship in the series, the Michael Monsoor....BUT the third ship, the LBJ, will have a steel deckhouse. Ingles, who made the first two deckhouses, has gotten out of that part of the ships construction. Oh there was also a comment about aluminum being heavily used in the ship...also WRONG...perhaps that commentor was thinking of the LCS....Anyway you slice this it is a poorly done piece. That's it...I'm done here.

  • Report this Comment On August 09, 2014, at 10:15 PM, kutasyk wrote:

    Aside from the military our government spends this kind of money in one day! Only 15% goes for the military. The rest of it goes for useless 1.2 millions federal workers. Our military is seriously underfunded. Spending on them has to increase while spending on useless federal government has to be decreased by 80%.

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 12:23 AM, rw93003 wrote:

    Just to put this in the proper perspective--That horrendously most expensive ship, the $12 billion aircraft carrier, costs the same as 4 days of Obama's $1.03 trillion welfare program

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 12:29 AM, Svansong wrote:

    How vulnerable are surface ships even with their counter-measures?

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 3:16 AM, rav55 wrote:

    The Zumwalt may be a capable ship but...nothing beats a broadside from an Iowa Class Battleship.

    If you need to get someone's attention, 16 inch guns will do it.

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 6:06 AM, btc909 wrote:

    How many vacy's can Obama go on with 12 billion dollars?

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 8:38 AM, lcr1946 wrote:

    I didn't realize we had so many cutting edge, leaders in their field, scientific types that post to these comment columns. The detailed technical information provided is amazing, even if generally inaccurate. It is wonderful that we have so many specialists to remind the Navy and Defense Department in general of the potential failure of various metals and the vagaries of fire control systems.

    I have heard also the Navy is studying ways of developing and deploying electronic big guns that will hurl huge 4,000lb and up shells at ground targets at long distances.

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 10:45 AM, airtaz wrote:

    to rw9003

    VERY true

    and lets not forget

    12 billion for a carrier is NOTHING as compared to the f35s P.O.C planes

    a carrier is a huge deterrance in a region and a fraction of the cost to the planes

    airtaz

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 1:19 PM, fpl1954 wrote:

    Whatever is spent that ends up as salaries for Americans I support. However, most of the money is going overseas, and a huge % is handed back to politicians as bribes.

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 1:42 PM, nwcyberpro wrote:

    No one takes into account that the super carriers last 30 years or more. Between the carrier battle groups and the submarine fleet the Navy has the ability to project power and protect our oceans better than any other navy in the world and will continue to do so for decades to come. The Navy and Marine Corps are the first responders to any major conflict we may face. Don't worry fellow fools, we get our investment back in spades when it comes to the Navy with it's ships and aircraft. The Navy is preparing to use rail guns and lasers. This is leading edge stuff folks. It isn't cheap, but is highly effective technology. In order to sink a modern carrier you have get to it first. As a retired submariner I can tell you that sounds much easier than it is. The Navy has always given you your monies worth. It has always operated with less money and fewer men than other services and they do more with what they have. The article is poorly written and technically out to lunch. JMHO

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 3:49 PM, OldSalt wrote:

    The head of ISIS (maybe you saw the video) said he's coming for us.

    These ships are part of the defense that may kill him

    before he can kill some of us.

    I hope we can always find a way to budget the kind of Navy that can take on the evil in the world 'over there' before it comes 'over here'.

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 6:20 PM, pwm02176 wrote:

    Rav 55. There are no active Iowa type battleships in ANY navy in the world these days....so what is your point?

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 7:17 PM, fingerlakes54 wrote:

    Surface Warships are toast

  • Report this Comment On August 11, 2014, at 2:30 AM, tekwyzrd wrote:

    The Gerald R Ford will cost $1 million/day to operate, a total of $18.25 billion over the planned 50 year service life (excluding refitting, reactor replacement, repairs, battle damage, etc.). Obviously this will increase due to inflation.

    Price: $12.8 billion + $4.7 billion R&D

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