In October, former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper proposed a radically transformed fleet requiring development of a new class of light aircraft carriers, new surface combatants, new amphibious vessels and over a hundred unmanned warships.
The nicest thing that can be said about this plan is that it acknowledged the need to accelerate production of attack submarines to cope with the rise of Chinese military power in the Western Pacific.
The rest of the plan was a fiscal fantasy.
The Navy is already struggling to fit less ambitious goals into a budget that is unlikely to grow significantly in the years ahead. So restraint is dictated in generating bold ideas for remaking the fleet.
A good place to start exhibiting restraint would be with the Navy’s murky plan to develop a Large Surface Combatant that would follow the DDG-51 Arleigh Burke class of destroyers. The DDG-51 is generally considered to be the most versatile surface combatant in the world.
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To quote Robert Farley from the October 29 edition of The Diplomat, “The Arleigh Burke project has been fabulously successful, generating scores of robust hulls with plenty of room for improvement and modification.”
The DDG-51 can simultaneously perform anti-submarine, anti-surface and anti-aircraft missions while precisely targeting enemy forces ashore with long-range cruise missiles. It also is the principal provider of defenses against ballistic missile threats in the joint force.
Because it is so lethal against so many different threats, the DDG-51 has become indispensable in protecting other elements of the joint force, including the Navy’s large-deck, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. On any given day, dozens of Burke-class destroyers are scattered around the globe protecting U.S. interests.
But the Navy has begun to make noises about needing something bigger that can host directed-energy weapons (like lasers) and hypersonic missiles that wouldn’t fit in the vertical launch tubes installed on current versions of the Burke.
This is a curious finding since the Navy talks frequently about needing a larger fleet of smaller warships, and has recently abandoned plans for a larger Zumwalt class of destroyers after building only three.
Zumwalt is one of three new classes of surface combatants the Navy announced at the dawn of the new millennium. None of them panned out, which is one reason the service continues to buy improved DDG-51s three decades after they first commenced construction (the latest variant, sporting a super-sensitive air and missile defense radar, is called Flight III).
The fate of those three new classes of surface combatants, which were announced amidst much fanfare in 2001, should be a cautionary tale for people who propose a wholesale remake of the surface fleet today. Threats change, new technologies appear, and sometimes ideas that seemed to make sense at their inception start to look ill-conceived when the time comes to bend metal.
Nonetheless, senior Navy leaders say they need a Large Surface Combatant with more power generation, internal volume and growth potential than the Burke.
The concept is not well defined, as Senate appropriators observed in slashing money for the proposed new warship during their review of the 2021 defense budget. They complained that the Navy has begun trimming the number of DDG-51 destroyers it plans to order in the future even though detailed design of their successor won’t begin until 2026 at the earliest.
At the moment, shipyards in Maine and Mississippi are still ramping up production of Flight III destroyers purchased under a multiyear contract that commenced in 2018, but that is due to end in 2022. If there is not a follow-on multiyear in 2023, then they will begin ramping back down at mid-decade.
The appropriators pointed out that if construction of Burke-class destroyers wanes before a successor is ready for production, it could be a major negative for the defense industrial base. That is especially true for Bath Iron Works in Maine, which only builds destroyers (Bath’s parent company, General Dynamics GD -0.8%, contributes to my think tank).
Bath has built more surface combatants than any other U.S. shipyard, and it undoubtedly could build a Large Surface Combatant along the lines the Navy envisions someday. After all, it built all three of the Zumwalts, the most advanced surface combatant ever conceived.
The question is whether it makes any sense to slow construction of DDG-51s at Bath or at the Ingalls Shipyard in Mississippi before the status of the Large Surface Combatant is clear. The national defense strategy might change in a way that makes bigger warships no longer desirable.
Or planners could decide they don’t need more on-board power for directed-energy weapons because the lethality of lasers in some operating conditions is doubtful. Or they might decide so much progress has been made on unmanned surface combatants that the money needs to be spent there rather than on a big manned warship.
All sorts of things can change, including the potential feasibility of making further upgrades to the DDG-51 hull rather than starting from scratch on an all-new vessel.
Judging from the recent action of congressional appropriators, the Large Surface Combatant isn’t going to progress much beyond the PowerPoint stage for some time to come.
So the prudent course would be to continue building a warship that we already know works across the full breadth of surface warship missions, and to build it at a pace that assures economies of scale (meaning a low price). In other words, there should be another multiyear contract for DDG-51 after 2022.
Maybe the Large Surface Combatant will turn out to be a compelling idea at some point in the distant future. But the Navy needs to hedge its bets, because the challenge China poses at sea is growing fast.