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A Return to “Choice” in Shipbuilding

August 5, 2008

Starting in the early 1990s, with the launch of the DDG-51 Arleigh Burke the US Navy began a long-term construction program of this single class of large surface combatant. This audacious strategy is ongoing to this day and with the shrinking of the DDG-1000 class destroyers to only 2 “testbed” versions, now seems headed for an indefinite run into the future.

The basic DDG-51 is an admirable design, the best that could be made of this type of warship (the US version of the Queen Elizabeth class battleships?). But as the USS Cole incident in 2000 and later insurgent attacks on 9/11 and afterwords prove, the planned-for conflict the USS Burke was built to fight has little relevance today.

Problems faced by many modern warships as far as huge sizes and runaway costs are comparable to the Knights of the Middle Ages. When confronted with the new menace from missile weapons such as the Longbow and later gunpowder firearms, the natural tendency for the armored horsemen to survive was to add heavier, thicker armor plate. This process worked for a while, until the mounted warrior became so heavy he was often lifted onto his mount by use of a crane!

The answer of course was for the knight to become lighter and more mobile. Soon he was shorn of his armor altogether, becoming simply a “cavalryman”, though essential in warfare for several more centuries, most often in a supporting role. We see in this lesson one which could be learned by the surface navy.

During the 1950s and early 60s and the dawn of the Nuclear Navy, the USN was able to construct several single class trial warships as testbeds for the advanced technology. Thus we had platforms of various sizes and functions such as the carrier Enterprise, the cruiser Long Beach, and frigates Truxton and Bainbridge. Now due to high costs we are forced to make due with huge classes of highly complicated warcaft forced immediately into service “warts and all”. In recent history these would include the Ticonderoga Aegis cruisers, Virginia littoral subs, and of course the Arleigh Burkes. The only change which can come are in various “Flights” later on in the program, which do not necessarily solve any bugs within the basic hull design.

The only dynamic experiments ongoing with surface vessels that do not involved decades long procurement cycles are coming from the small ship navy, Currently being tested as future warships are the Sea Fighter, various high speed ferries, the Stiletto stealth boat, plus Scandinavian craft such as the Skjold and Visby. From these and earlier programs we have observed surface effect ships, catamarans, trimarans, hydrofoils, wave skimmers, and so on. We can only hope that the surface navy will some day see the potential of such affordable and versatile warcraft.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. charbookguy permalink
    August 5, 2008 6:39 pm

    Yeah, the original Zumwalt got it right, (without the Admiral, no 600 ship Navy)but I believe this new warfare is even beyond his ground breaking ideas. Frigates can no longer cut it when there ASW role is made untentable by long range cruise missiles and high performance subs. See here:

  2. DesScorp permalink
    August 5, 2008 5:18 pm

    We can only hope that the surface navy will some day see the potential of such affordable and versatile warcraft.

    Is it perhaps time to embrace Elmo Zumwalts “high-low” shipbuilding ideas? Or at least part of them? The need for carriers isn’t going away until the Air Force can build a bomber that can loiter for months at a time. But we need subs and a conventional surface fleet as well. But how do you square that in an age where our current threats are Islamists and pirates in armed speedboats, but with possible blue water threats coming from Asia? Dollars are always going to be limited. I don’t see us going to diesel subs anytime in the future, but perhaps we should be looking at a small force of first-class cruisers, with cheap destroyers and frigates rounding out the surface fleet. I think both the LCS designs could fill that role nicely with few modifications. I’m of the opinion that the Lockheed entry is nothing but a frigate that can get close to the beach anyway, and that the General Dynamics design with her large flight deck would make a nice, inexpensive destroyer, especially if we armed her Seahawks for the anti-ship mission, as well as the sub-hunter role.

    One thing is certain… we cannot, even with our great wealth, afford surface combatants like destroyers at 5 billion a pop.


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