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Warship 2 . 0

To the US Navy, the DDG-1000 destroyer is a way to launch a leaner fighting force and 21st century technology to sea. To Waltham-based Raytheon, it's a chance to move into the top echelon of American weapons builders.

PORTSMOUTH, R.I. -- "Fire in the hole!" shouts Raytheon Co. senior engineer Mike Tollefson, switching on a recording of a ship's bow gun that startles several software programmers from their work. "I only wish I was looking up to see how high you jumped," he says with a laugh.

At a nearby workstation, software engineer Dave Amaral hunches over a bank of computer monitors with flashing colored icons hovering over a coastline image. "Red indicates hostile, yellow's the friendlies, and green's neutral, like a Spanish fishing fleet," he said.

The team's in a room called the "ship's mission center" at a secure site overlooking Narragansett Bay. It looks more like the set of a sci-fi movie than the nerve center of what may be the most important program for the Waltham company. But don't be misled by all the blue jeans and sneakers; these young engineers aren't playing video games.

They are designing combat systems for a new class of naval destroyers that will shape the future of Raytheon -- and the US Navy.

Much is riding on the capabilities of the new DDG-1000 guided missile destroyers, called the Zumwalt class in honor of the late Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr. Raytheon is a primary contractor for systems and electronics on the ships, which, at more than $3 billion apiece, are meant to drive technological and cultural change throughout the Navy and its far-flung supplier network over the coming decades.

For the Navy, this is the ship that will launch a leaner fighting force and will pioneer 21st century technologies, from a more powerful radar developed by Raytheon in Tewksbury and Andover to a stealthier hull coproduced by General Dynamics Corp.'s Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine.

Executives at Raytheon, the fifth-largest Pentagon contractor, see their work on the 14,000-ton destroyer as key to catapulting the company into the top echelon of American weapons builders.

And the ship will mark a transition to a new generation. Navy commanders and officers reared on computers, science fiction, and video games will wage war on the high seas from a control room designed by Raytheon developers with the same sensibilities.

"One of the drivers for the design was Star Trek," noted Tollefson. "That's shaped the mindset of these young engineers."

The Navy is expected to award Raytheon a billion-dollar contract that will move the Zumwalt program from development into production by this fall, and the first ship is scheduled to be delivered in 2013. But how many of these vessels are ever put to sea will depend on whether the company can control the increasing costs of the ship's advanced technologies.

The destroyer, redefined
The lean-and-mean management wave, which rolled through businesses in the 1990s, has finally broken across the Navy's bow.

Like their counterparts in the private sector, Navy officers today are under pressure to improve operations while cutting costs. They're expected to take risks, adapt to new technology, and do more with less -- "optimized manning" is their term for smaller crews -- as they vie for funding with other services that have been more taxed in Iraq and Afghanistan and with civilian programs. For the Navy brass, the new Zumwalt destroyer class is viewed as an agent of change.

It was conceived in the early 1990s as a land attack ship that, like Cold War-era predecessors, would fend off Soviet-style threats. But in late 2001, in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a Pentagon campaign to upgrade its technology, it was recast as an all-purpose vessel. It would be capable of operating independently in "blue water," accompanying a carrier group against conventional enemies, or launching special operations to thwart terrorists close to shore.

"There's threats this ship is designed for that haven't been invented," said Captain James D. Syring, the Navy program manager.

The new destroyer will be 58 percent larger than the current DDG-51 class, carry as many as 80 Tomahawk cruise missiles, and cruise at 30 knots. It will deploy new technologies, ranging from the dual-band radar developed by Raytheon to perform superior search and target tracking to an advanced gun system being fashioned by BAE Systems to shoot precision-guided shells up to 100 miles.

Zumwalt innovations extend to the program's two shipbuilders, Bath Iron Works and Northrop Grumman in Pascagoula, Miss., which are planning a "tumblehome" hull form with a low radar profile and a low acoustic signature that will help the ship avoid detection. With all of these new systems and designs, the risks of running over budget, falling behind schedule, and encountering technical problems will be high. "You're talking about some of the riskiest development efforts we've ever undertaken," Syring conceded.

When the ship joins the Navy fleet, it will carry 142 sailors, less than half the size of the crew on today's Arleigh Burke class destroyers. The leaner crew is part of Navy streamlining that mirrors the downsizing in corporate America. The current plan for a 313-ship Navy -- today's fleet is composed of about 280 ships -- itself is a rollback from a goal of 600 ships in the 1980s and 1,200 after the Vietnam War.

The ship's Raytheon-designed deckhouse mission center is a point of pride for Navy planners, and not just for its futuristic aesthetic. The control center brings together key functions that had been dispersed throughout the ship in the Burke destroyers.

"It's like Star Trek, where you have Scotty and the weapons officers up there with the captain, and they're flying the ship from the bridge," Syring said. "The intelligence information is at the captain's fingertips. He'll have complete tactical situational awareness."

Moving up the food chain
Even as it helps to design the Navy warship of the future, Raytheon's own future is being defined by its work on the program.

The company's chief executive, William H. Swanson, has been pushing to transform Raytheon from a supplier of autonomous defense products into a "mission systems integrator" with responsibility for assuring that multiple weapons and communications systems built by itself and others work together smoothly. If it succeeds, it could join its larger rivals Lockeed Martin and Northrop Grumman as a one-stop shopping bazaar for defense systems on future weapons platforms.

"Raytheon's management recognized that if it wanted to control its fate, it had to move up the food chain," said Loren B. Thompson, chief operating officer at the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va., think tank. "Their role on the DDG-1000 could be an identity-changing breakthrough. That ship is sort of a floating testbed for technologies that will be used across the Navy's future fleet."

In the spring of 2005, the Navy awarded Raytheon its first big milestone contract for the program: a $3 billion prime contract to develop radar, combat systems, electronics, and command-and-control gear -- in essence, to build the "brains" of the behemoth destroyer.

Raytheon has assigned about 2,000 workers to develop these intertwined systems. They work here at its maritime mission center, at its integrated defense systems plants in Tewksbury and Andover, and at other company sites across the nation.

The multi-mission DDG-1000 is already the largest of the Raytheon's thousands of military programs, and company executives hope it will get much bigger. But the service now officially plans to buy just seven, down from its original plan for 32, and so far Congress has approved funding for only the first two. Program's supporters think the Navy eventually will order more. Not everyone on Capitol Hill agrees.

Representative Roscoe Bartlett, a Maryland Republican who has been critical of the program, believes the ship is too expensive and, after the first two are built, their technologies should be dispersed to cheaper vessels. "My preference is to limit this to a technology demonstrator program," said Barlett, ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Seapower and Expeditionary Forces Subcommittee.

But as the systems integrator, Raytheon could be in a position to port its leading-edge technologies to other new warships, such as cruisers or aircraft carriers, or backfit them onto upgraded ships in today's fleet, if the Navy buys fewer destroyers than anticipated.

Many in the defense industry were surprised when the Navy selected Raytheon as prime contractor for the DDG-1000 electronic combat systems, bypassing Lockheed Martin, which has built those systems for the current DDG-51 class of guided missile destroyers.

Working in Raytheon's favor was its commitment to drive down costs through an "open business" model that broadens the supplier base by tapping commercial firms and through a "plug-and-play" construct borrowed from the world of consumer electronics for the system's infrastructure.

Its challenge will be to orchestrate the medley of technologies produced by more than 700 suppliers in 40 states while avoiding the cost overruns that have plagued past Navy shipbuilding programs. "Cost realism is important," said Edward Geisler, the Raytheon vice president and program manager for the Zumwalt class destroyers.

"We're talking about building a class of ships for the next half century," said Daniel L. Smith, president of Raytheon's integrated defense unit. "You want to get the basis of your future right."

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.

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