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Got Ships?

August 17, 2009

Christopher Cavas at Defense News sings the praises of the giant Zumwalt DDG-1000 destroyer. Meanwhile the Russian Bear awakens, China is expanding, and our Navy is shrinking. One need only read the following to understand why, and worry:

Nearly every discussion of the new DDG 1000 Zumwalt-class destroyer revolves around the U.S. Navy’s decision last summer to “truncate” the planned buy from seven ships to three, or on cost projections that foresee figures wildly in excess of the stated $3.3 billion goal, or on whether the land-attack capability of the ships is still needed in the new national strategy now taking shape under the Quadrennial Defense Review.

Often overlooked in all the chatter is that, methodically, steadily – and even quietly – major components of the first ship are taking shape all across the country. When ready, the parts will be shipped largely by barge and rail to the General Dynamics Bath Iron Works shipyard at Bath, Maine, where, since February, shipbuilders have been welding together the steel that makes up the ship’s 600-foot-long hull.

The ship will be packed with new technology, from its weaponry to the engines to the radars and more. Capt. James Syring, the DDG 1000 program manager, recently ticked off progress on 13 major engineering development models, all but three of which have virtually wrapped up development and entered into production.

A wonderful capability, and a marvelous achievement to our technical know-how. Yet such vessels are so heavenly capable they are of little earthly good. Can it fight pirates? Will it increase ship numbers? Can it do soft power, defend against small boats or submarines, add a capability to the fleet we don’t already have? Sadly no. Just another niche warship with no real purpose other than to maintain the industrial base and prepare the fleet to fight the wars they want, not the ones they have.

The problem is not just that it is too big, too expensive, or its missions can be duplicated by the current DDG-51 class. It is a mindset in the fleet that only battle-force capable blue water warships, which we might call battleships, are needed for most major navy functions. A top heavy force virtually ensuring us of a shrinking fleet for sometime to come.

No matter how capable your individual warships are, with a smaller fleet you get numerous deployments, vessels wearing out before their time, assets stretched dangerously thin. Like the British around the turn of the last century, in their own arms race with giant new high end warships, we will soon start giving up missions and responsibilities, hence the talk of a “1000 ship Navy”, without the USN supplying any low end ships.

Then there is the strain upon hulls and sailors, both which wear out prematurely. Marriages crumble, expertise is lost, as well as still useful ships forced into early retirement as with the Flight 1 Ticonderoga class and modernized Spruance class destroyers. The Navy is the least occupied service in this War on Terror, but likely the most overworked. It makes no sense. So building only giant warships, or even mostly battleships isn’t just bad strategy, but an immoral one.

The answer to packing all our capabilities into a few giant warships, is to spread the capabilities of the new technology, especially cruise missiles but hopefully soon the UAVs around the fleet in numerous smaller vessels, as we often argue.  With off the shelf warships, auxiliary warships, small corvettes you get numbers and capabilities, which take advantage of new technology without breaking your budget, and sinking your fleet. Otherwise, as with the Zumwalt’s, you get fewer single capable vessels which are physically imposing but of little worth in fighting war at sea. Much like this was:

WW 2 Japanese super-battleship Yamato ended its brief career as a titanic Kamikaze ship.

WW 2 Japanese super-battleship Yamato ended its brief career as a titanic Kamikaze ship.


Thanks to Katya Golubkova at the USNI blog for the title!

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Defiant permalink
    August 19, 2009 5:10 pm

    you’d only have to point out which of my points are opinions according to you.

    historic statements are in this context irrelevant as missile battery equipped semi stealth ships with radar range to cover countries were absent in historic fleets.

    i didn’t defend the zumwalt i only said your points are irrelevant. The only relevance is the price and concept
    In my opinion the Zumwalt is a conceptual a failure. The trademark of the ZUmwalt was to be the ags. Now there’s not much sense in putting shore artillery in a giant stealth ship. A simple 5000t frigate hull would probably have been able to carry 2 ags by scrapping the helipad. AAW is not necessary for such a ship as there will be other ship on the same coast and troops ashore will need land based AAW capabilities as well.
    However, if the navy wants to field the next generation radar, the current ships are insufficient in terms of electrical power. The solution for that problem is stil open.

    The old 2000t destroyers you were talkin about still had cannons as their main weapons.

    The main point of this post is the first line

  2. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 19, 2009 11:41 am

    Defiant-“i think everything i said is a fact.”

    Then we are in stalemate!

  3. Defiant permalink
    August 19, 2009 7:43 am

    Mike Burleson said ” I appreciate your thoughts but they seem more opinion than fact.”
    So are yours.
    But after rereading my post i think everything i said is a fact.

  4. UltimaRatioRegis permalink
    August 18, 2009 9:01 pm

    “Decades in peacetime mode the USN feels it can do without pawns, as they consider their large battleships invincible. It will take a rude awakening to change this dangerous mindset, I fear.”

    Extremely well expressed.

    And Mike, just pulling your leg on above title. (I checked with payroll, and no bonus in this week’s check for my cleverness on a blog.)

  5. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 18, 2009 8:16 pm

    URR- My apologies. I went with the name I saw at the top!

    Joe-Decades in peacetime mode the USN feels it can do without pawns, as they consider their large battleships invincible. It will take a rude awakening to change this dangerous mindset, I fear.

  6. Joe permalink
    August 18, 2009 6:28 pm

    “In chess, the pawns go first.”.

    No, that isn’t Lord Salisbury again, but rather Magneto in X-Men: The Last Stand. I won’t do the play by play of the movie plot, but the question of that scene was “Do you send in your strongest assets when battle beckons, or do you start with “lesser” ones first – pawns – as Magneto refers to them?

    Well, after seeing his 1st wave decimated because the humans’ tactics had evolved in ways he hadn’t anticipated, he remarks, “That’s why the pawns go first.”

    I think that applies here somewhat. Witness the situation when Capt. Phillips was taken hostage by the Somali pirates. The destroyer Bainbridge was the ship on the scene. A tremendous vessel that is an important asset. However, we had nothing “lesser” (i.e., more appropriate to the threat/risk level) to send in? No “pawns”? One had to admit: A rag-tag group of pirates hardly required the presence of a ship that could blast threats anywhere within a 1,000 radius.

    As our navy continues to shrink, and budgets remain fairly static, we might come to a point where we have no pawns to send in first…just our King and Queen, so to speak.

    Today’s ships are several times more capable than the ones of yester-year, that is true. But until technology is installed that allows them to be in several places at once, sooner or later we have a presence problem – what Mike writes about at length here.

  7. UltimaRatioRegis permalink
    August 18, 2009 4:59 pm

    It would also be a near certainty that someone named Katya is slightly better looking than I am….

  8. UltimaRatioRegis permalink
    August 18, 2009 4:54 pm

    Darn, Mike! That was MY title! I took an excerpt from Reuters, which was an article written by Katya!

    I have so few clever moments, I can’t afford to have any overlooked!

  9. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 18, 2009 4:19 pm

    Defiant, I appreciate your thoughts but they seem more opinion than fact. For instance, the idea that only giant battleforce ships can perform the sea control mission by themselves has no historical basis, as we often point out when quoting Corbett.

    Concerning the next generation of electric weapons, if a technology isn’t practical enough to place on reasonably priced hulls, then it should be discarded altogether. The Zumwalt is unreasonable because even before the Sec. Gates defense cuts, only 7 examples would have been ordered to replace the 30 ship Spruance class which was quickly discarded this decade in order to build this technical marvel.

    Another example of this practice, that I call being “so heavenly capable it is no earthly good” is the F-22 Raptor. The USAF couldn’t use its superfighter in the wars we are fighting now or risk selling the technology even to our friends whose needs echo our own.

    The idea that small ships are somehow less capable in modern war has no basis in fact, and the lessons of past wars prove the opposite, where small destroyers (when they were 2000 tons or less), frigates, corvettes, ect were built in huge numbers. Not having a full-scale war at sea since the light craft were so vital, I don’t see how you discount their abilities.

  10. Defiant permalink
    August 18, 2009 10:31 am

    The problem about that is defense. As you can read i the article posted by undergradprogressive, to counter g-ramm weapons, you need expensive counterweapons and energy hungry detectors. Moreover you need more personell for corvettes and more tender/motherships. TLAM and SM2 need ful size mk41 vls, which needs about 7m in height, so it’s not that easy to put on a corvette hull. Another Problem is the the Helicopter as those usable for ASW are the bigger ones and take considerable hangar space. Corvettes are also more vulnerable to asgm hits.

    Can it fight pirates? as well as every other ship / the most effective way is naval air patrol
    Can it do soft power – neither can small ships
    defend against small boats – thats a question of machin guns installed, zumwalt can probably do better than a corvette
    against submarines – better than a corvette (if not eqipped with lftas)
    add a capability to the fleet we don’t already have? – long range naval artillery

    Not that i like the zumwalt but your arguments are not so good.
    will it be cost efficient? – at 3billion it won’t and will decrease numbers.

    But in order to field the next generation radar/electric weapons, the navy will need a ship with more electric potential and the burke hull will need drastic remodelling to be usable, so you might as well built a new ship. If a zumwalt based design is the solution remains unanswered.

  11. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 18, 2009 4:57 am

    “start distributing the heavy weapons into smaller ships”

    Absolutely! The idea for dispersing the TLAM ships (in the other article) is something we can and should do NOW with little or no costs, and a simple change in deployments. Ultimately, I see the smaller corvette and conventional subs superseding these large battleships, while deploying the same weapons. No need for large salvo capable ships when you have persistence and precision with modern weapons. Now they just need a cheap but good platform to launch from.

    Joe-We did several reviews on the Wasting Assets article recently if you are interested:
    Here, here, and here.

  12. Joe permalink
    August 18, 2009 1:29 am


    Excellent article link. It hits the nail on the head…and keeps hammering.

    Great Britain’s Lord Salisbury in 1877 stated that “the commonest error in politics is sticking to the carcass of dead policies”. There are a lot of things we’re doing inside our defense establishment that could make use of a version of those words as a sub-title.

  13. UndergradProgressive permalink
    August 18, 2009 12:36 am

    It makes more and more sense to start distributing the heavy weapons into smaller ships. An article in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs provides some insight into this:
    Pages 20, 21, and 30 provide useful insight. The author cites the Iranians’ ability to deny the USN access to the Gulf, and suggests more SSGNs due to their decreased vulnerability to 4GW at sea.

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