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Arsenal Ships for Ballistic Missile Defense

September 30, 2009

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It is welcome news the US Military won’t be placing vulnerable and intimidating anti-ballistic missile sites right up against the Russian border in Eastern Europe, but I fear the plan to place them on US Navy ships will do this service more harm than good. Already completely obsessed with land threats, the USN will now have less concern for the essential role of defending the sealanes. With a shrinking fleet and declining funds, they can hardly protect the fleet they have, let alone fight new space wars.

The Navy seems to consider the oceans as their own personal domain and it can afford to dispose of essential anti-submarine escorts and coastal warships, while building large Aegis battleships which are currently doing the work once performed by cheaper, less capable, but vital small warships. Already the cruisers and destroyers are duplicating the aircraft carrier’s land attack role, with 400 mile range cruise missiles and now are shouldered with yet another burden of defending our allies from rogue Iranian or North Korean rockets. Already we see the infighting of whether even more $2 billion new Burke destroyers will be needed, on top of the 60+ already in service or ordered. Colin Clark at DoD Buzz wonders about this conundrum:

One of the most difficult issues is, do we have enough Aegis cruisers to execute the mission. Gates wants two to three cruisers in the Mediterranean and North Sea on a regular basis. That comes on top of the Pacific mission. And I hear that the Aegis fleet is already operating at 160 percent of its readiness rate, mostly to cope with the North Korean threat. One source with detailed knowledge of European missile defense efforts said the new mission will require at least one and perhaps more Aegis class ships to do the job.

As an alternative to our over-worked missile battleships in the role of ABM defense, we would suggest reviving the 1990s proposal for an Arsenal Ship. You may recall this revolutionary hull design as an attempt to replace the Iowa class dreadnoughts with a low cost “missile barge”, until canceled in favor of a more traditional and more costly Zumwalt class destroyer. The arsenal ship was a great idea which never saw the light of day, but also refused to die out completely.

The modern concept would be to use a low-cost ship hull, preferably of mercantile specifications (T-AKE?) equipped with vertical launchers (VLS) for missiles. Keeping the hull cost low would mean the SM-3 missiles would be worth more than the ship, as it should be. Other benefits would be extremely low manning, which could allow for crew swapping, keeping the ship on station for as long as possible.

The arsenal ship would carry nothing but a basic navigation radar, but would depend on other Aegis vessels in service for targeting. This would not be  stretch for the service, since common practice already is to use 2 vessels for this role, one for tracking the other as the shooter. In this case, instead of less than 100 Standard missiles on average with the 2 Burkes, there would be up to 1000 (just potentially though not very practical) on the arsenal ship alone! It may also be possible to use aircraft or satellites for targeting purposes, or even a low cost Aegis mothership proposed earlier on this site.

The cost of the hull would be run between $300-$500 million. The Standard SM-3 is priced at $10 million each with the older Block IV Standard at $1/2 million each, so depending on how many you can afford would be the ultimate cost of the vessel. When you think about the real cost, the relief to our sailors and stretched thin fleet for not adding yet another burden on them, the arsenal ship would be Priceless!

33 Comments leave one →
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  9. Mike Burleson permalink*
    October 23, 2009 10:31 am

    Fooman said “A good destroyer (or shooter) has to be a decent overall platform with the ability to do almost everything”

    Recently the USS Bainbridge has been used to chase pirates in the Gulf, while the USS Anzio’s target of choice are smugglers in skiffs. At what point was a 10,000 ton vessel with space age Aegis technology needed to perform this function? The Navy is heavily skewed toward conventional warfare, yet most needed for low tech asymmetric threats at sea. It is fighting the wrong war, and we the taxpayers must bear the burden for this faulty strategy.

  10. fooman2008 permalink
    October 23, 2009 8:57 am

    Aegis is designed to be a linked system, irrespective of who the shooter is, you add you weapons to the ‘Aegis basket’ via NTDS data link and it does its thing. The real problem is that while Aegis can track thousands of targets at the same time most Aegis ships still only have four illuminators (SM series missiles are beam riders). In addition, if you get one ‘leaker’ through the missile umbrella I don’t want to be anywhere in the vicinity if an arsenal ship takes one, especially one built to civilian damage control and crewing standards!
    The arsenal ship dates back to when Ronnie was King (oops I mean President, he just thought he was king) and his ‘600 ship navy.’ Beyond massive strike capabilities it never had much actual support within the Navy. The battleships enjoyed much support due to the selling point of being able to support the Marines in amphibious warfare, the arsenal ships did not have that capability and the current version as envisioned by you would not want to be anywhere in the Littoral environment (too much draft, not enough speed/flexibility of targeting, too little defenses. I would hate to see someone get aboard (PIRATES!) and just shotgun a missile load like that on ballistic trajectories, something that could happen).
    The last nail in this resurrection of the arsenal ship concept is the Navy has already proved that ships without great sensor packages (Spruance class), have a pretty limited lifespan in the modern world. Granted that VLS extended the lives of a limited class but their inability to use those weapons to their best advantage doomed them. A good destroyer (or shooter) has to be a decent overall platform with the ability to do almost everything (the lord of all work concept).
    Foo

  11. Chuck Hill permalink
    October 1, 2009 3:19 pm

    In terms of protecting surface ships. what I’m referring to is in circumstance where hostility is not immediately apparent.

    Sail boats, fishing boats, green peace, yachts, etc., boarding them to determine their intent, shouldering them to keep them away. Can’t open fire on everyone who is tries to get closer than you would like.

  12. Anonymous permalink
    October 1, 2009 10:25 am

    “BTW surface warships can easily protect themselves from small boat attacks, its just that USN ships are not properly equipped.”

    Torpedo nets to stop rogue boats. Proper mounts for small weapons (gun shields etc. so sailors aren’t exposed) and lots of ’em. A dozen mini-guns might persuade you not to get too close.

  13. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 30, 2009 9:24 pm

    These were orignally meant to replace Iowa battleships. they were replaced by the DDG-1000s. Also the SM-3 has a less than 300 mile range. that says to me “close to shore”.

  14. leesea permalink
    September 30, 2009 8:43 pm

    Chuck that is what I meant by distributing as many VLS to as many platforms as could take them.
    Mike I didn’t think it was a given that Arsenal ships would be close to shore? Do you have a reference of that?

    I go back the to the next iteration of Absalon called a Flexible Patrol Ship or something similar with many VLS cells on them.

    BTW surface warships can easily protect themselves from small boat attacks, its just that USN ships are not properly equipped.

  15. Joe K. permalink
    September 30, 2009 7:52 pm

    Mike: Aren’t you then by default selling the Arsenal short? If it’s built to be able to have 1000 VLS but you’re trying to make it cheaper than the Arleigh Burke, you’d have to give it no more than a fifth of it’s capacity in order to make it cheaper which means that $706 mil is being wasted on ship capacity that cannot be used. And since you wouldn’t want to spend more money on it there’s no chance of it diversifying its weapons load.

    And since it has few or no conventional weapons, it is even more a waste of taxpayer dollars by spending that much on something that has a limited role and capability if you’re pushing for it to push off the Arleigh Burke in cost.

    And why the need to have it be closer to shore? Do you want the people they’re attacking to be able to throw stones at it because that is not what I call “SMART”.

  16. Anonymous permalink
    September 30, 2009 5:39 pm

    “When it’s sea state 6 and your shallow draft corvette went back to harbor with structural damage due to slamming and >50% of her crew seasick, how is your BMD arsenal ship going to defend itself ?”

    So true. But its worse. Ships of 4000 tons or more are not fun places to be in lumpy seas. I have spoken with several sailors who served in the Batch 1 Type 22 during the Falklands War. They spent most of the war playing goalkeeper for Invincible and Hermes. The carriers coped with the “swells” but those frigates had the stuffing slammed out of ’em. Nothing like the combined smells of vomit, fuel oil, and galley. Yum.

  17. Scott B. permalink
    September 30, 2009 5:02 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “The real threat would be from small craft anyway since an arsenal ship,”

    Sure.

    It’s not like a 7,000+ tons merchant vessel can be hijacked and disappear from the radar screen for a couple of weeks, is it ?

    When it’s sea state 6 and your shallow draft corvette went back to harbor with structural damage due to slamming and >50% of her crew seasick, how is your BMD arsenal ship going to defend itself ?

    Mmmhhhh….

  18. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 30, 2009 3:58 pm

    Leesea said “Part of the premise was that a oiler or tanker could ballast down to provide some additional protection.”

    The battleships HMS Nelson and Rodney also shipped several thousands tons of water as added protection. Not sure how that worked out, aside from the fact neither were sunk during the war.

    Some of you also mentioned alternative platforms for the arsenal ship and I eagerly agree, not necessary the original hull from the vessel which Scott mentioned. No advanced super-stealth hull form which mercifully killed the DDG-1000 needed at all! the real cost and purpose would be the missiles, as it should be.

    Scott, considering the BMD ships would of necessity be positioned close to shore to take advantage of the SM-3’s 200 mile range, I don’t think a corvette escort would be out of the question and even more desirable. The real threat would be from small craft anyway since an arsenal ship, with an Aegis vessel (mothership?) nearby should be able to defend itself from anything larger.

  19. Chuck Hill permalink
    September 30, 2009 3:42 pm

    Or we could take the shell game approach. If the missiles are going to be controlled by a different ship, then why not put VLS on everything–amphibs, unrep ships, maybe even LCS (no that would not work, no margins)–maybe they are carrying SM3s maybe not–not only would you not have a a single target with a big bulls eye on it, you could have redundancy, and geographic dispersion.

  20. Scott B. permalink
    September 30, 2009 3:04 pm

    Mike Burleson said : “Here is where your shallow water corvettes come in, also much cheaper than a Burke.”

    As leesea pointed out, using the T-AO as baseline was one option considered for the Arsenal Ship. This has a couple of interesting consequences :

    1) The resulting Arsenal Ship was going to have a draft of something like 35 feet.

    2) The resulting Arsenal Ship would have been capable of continuous efficient operation (other than replenishment) up to sea state 7.

    Here is where your shallow water corvette for your proposed BMD Arsenal Ship runs into much trouble, because :

    1) You don’t need a shallow water corvette to escort a vessel with a draft of 35 feet.

    2) Your shallow water escort is going to have to return to harbor in any sea state higher than 5.

    And, of course, there are many more problems involved with this shallow water escort proposal (e.g. endurance)…

  21. leesea permalink
    September 30, 2009 1:08 pm

    I like the idea of adding VLS to existing ship designs – a lot! One of the advanges of larger ship hulls should be more concentrated weapons (although that may not be apparent to NAVSEA?).

    It is what makes ships like the Absalon and its follow-on full warship version very desirable even if the NIH sydrome will keep them from evey showing up in the USN.

    BTW the proposed Arsenal ship test platform was a T-AO Fleet Oiler (not that USN has ANY extra of those hulls now). Part of the presmise was that a oiler or tanker could ballast down to provide some additional protection.
    Hey that may be questionable but I did not dream it up! One has to understand the major differences in freigther and tanker construction to see why a container ship might not work. But ya’know dropping VLS cells into container racks might work in something akin to the Flex ships concept?

  22. Hudson permalink
    September 30, 2009 12:28 pm

    My idea of such a ship would be part monitor, with a dual 16″ turret on the foredeck. The cost of casting the guns and turrets would be offset by the ready reserve of 16″ shells, some 50,000 the last time I knew.

    Shell weight goes up exponentially, and the 16″ shell is much more powerful than the 155mm projectile of the Advanced Gun System. The AGS can deliver patterned fire, which I’m sure has its uses. But for sheer demolition power plus the wow factor, it’s hard to beat 16″ guns giving tongue.

    I’d have a bit more superstructure with a small secondary armament, way fewer VLS tubes but a nice mix of missile types. Some armor, but not a complete battleship and less expensive, I’m sure, than the Zumwalts. It would be a useful fighting ship.

  23. William permalink
    September 30, 2009 12:24 pm

    This is also what I was suggesting previously, using the ABSALON as a supplement for the Type 45, but carrying about a hundred ASTER 30 missiles.

  24. Defiant permalink
    September 30, 2009 12:18 pm

    NOt that i support this idea but Container Ships are extremely cheap, even the biggest ones cost less than $200M. probably less in the crisis.
    But I remember one blogger who wanted to spread the missile arsenal to smaller ships now he wants a missile carrier solution.
    The DDGs and CCGs in service already have 100 mk41 Cells , Thats enough for 30 SM3, 50 SM2 and 80 ESSM, or any other combination, if you need those as an escort either way, why not use them as launchers as well? And who has enough MRBMs to require such a huge amount of BMD Missiles in one point, the interception range of the sm3 is quite short, so presence is required.

  25. William permalink
    September 30, 2009 12:13 pm

    OR you could use the cheap (< $250 mill) ABSALON hull and stick 200 VLS tubes in it. That way you don't put all your eggs in one basket, and you can be in more than one place as opposed to a larger vessel with a larger missile load.

    This would take some of the pressure of your burkes by using cheaper vessels to carry the BMD load. You would still need a burke for cueing, but you'd use fewer of them, probably also rotating crews.

  26. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 30, 2009 12:08 pm

    Joe said “If the ship were to have the 1000 VLS that cost would then run up to $10.7 bil.”

    Note also I said 1000 SM-3s wouldn’t be very practical. It could carry 100-200, for a price of no more than $2 billion, which is the most 4 Burkes would carry (they normally load 50 Standards each plus Tomahawks & ASROC). Thats 4 Aegis warships loosed from BMD for other situations. Not bad.

    As for the vulnerability issue, it seems the same was said of the carriers in the 1930s, that they would be vulnerable to fast cruisers, destroyers, ect. Today no one ever worries over this issue much. Here is where your shallow water corvettes come in, also much cheaper than a Burke.

  27. Heretic permalink
    September 30, 2009 12:07 pm

    Mike, there’s a parameter that you need to rethink.

    Any arsenal ship for BMD only needs to simultaneously fire as many anti-ballistic missiles as its tracking system (and data network) can account for. If AEGIS can only track 100 missiles simultaneously (for example) … then your arsenal ship has no *need* to be able to launch more than 100 missiles simultaneously. Any missile stocks beyond that “simul-tracking limit” are really only useful for second (or third, etc.) salvos in second strike scenarios … ie. Deep Magazine capacity.

  28. Tarl permalink
    September 30, 2009 11:50 am

    vulnerable and intimidating anti-ballistic missile sites

    So they’re really scared of something that sucks and that they can easily defeat?

    Already completely obsessed with land threats

    Since the maritime threats to US security are negligible, what should they be obsessed with?

    The Navy seems to consider the oceans as their own personal domain

    It should. That’s what we pay them for.

    building large Aegis battleships which are currently doing the work once performed by cheaper, less capable, but vital small warships.

    The old, cheaper and less capable warships could not do the work that an Aegis ship does.

    Already the cruisers and destroyers are duplicating the aircraft carrier’s land attack role,

    They’re not, and they can’t, and they shouldn’t.

    Million dollar missiles are a stupid way to deliver firepower compared to precision bombs.

    You may recall this revolutionary hull design as an attempt to replace the Iowa class dreadnoughts with a low cost “missile barge”,

    I don’t remember anyone saying the arsenal ship was going to be cheap.

    The arsenal ship was a great idea which never saw the light of day,

    The arsenal ship is a stupid way to deliver cruise missiles. B-52s are cheaper, faster, and more responsive globally.

    The modern concept would be to use a low-cost ship hull, preferably of mercantile specifications (T-AKE?) equipped with vertical launchers (VLS) for missiles.

    Not a bad idea, though the assumption that the enemy couldn’t disrupt whatever external cueing it needs could be questioned.

  29. Chuck Hill permalink
    September 30, 2009 11:06 am

    Got to count the escorts too. Particularly in view of the limited self defense capability.

    I don’t want to hear that one of these things was captured by Somali pirates.

  30. Joe K. permalink
    September 30, 2009 10:49 am

    I’m always suspicious of when someone promoting a new piece of equipment prices it at a significantly lower price than comparable equipment or tries to make a point with words like “cost-effective”. Seeing as how the Arsenal Ship plan was drawn up a decade ago, have you compensated for inflation as well as the existence of newer advanced technologies in deriving the supposed cost of such a vessel?

    And how many missiles do we need anyway? I could see a ship like this being a main deterrent against a large, well-armed nation like the former Soviet Union, but using this in today’s world against smaller nations seems rather…overboard.

    And, with your apparent love of replacing the world’s military with missiles aside, if the missiles overall cost more than the ship, why have the ship at all if you’re pushing for cutting costs? Even if the $500 mil price tag for the ship stayed at being a quarter of the Arleigh Burke even in today’s world, you’d be spending up to twenty times the missile load on a vessel that has little or no conventional weapons package which means it’s roles are very limited. It would have to be offered the same protection as a Carrier Battle Group.

    Let’s run some numbers. If the vessel was priced on the high end at $500 mil in 1996 dollars, then with annual inflation rates until 2008 the cost today (without taking into account new technologies to be added in) would actually be around $706 mil. The cost of a Standard SM-3 missile would be $10 mil (according to you) and on the low end the ship would have 400 VLS tubes so the the cost of solely building a ship and arming it to that extent would cost $4.7 bil. If the ship were to have the 1000 VLS that cost would then run up to $10.7 bil. Meanwhile with a single Arleigh Burke costing $2 bil + 50 SM-3 missiles the cost would be $2.5 bil.

    That seems particularly uneconomical seeing as how Arsenal doesn’t seem to want to be a standalone warship, just a missile boat. And with a $4.7-10.7 bil price tag on just those figures alone I’d rather have a Ford-class carrier.

    And there’s no telling how much the team in charge of an Arsenal Ship’s construction would run up in additional costs to bring the ship’s technology up to speed or whatever defects or problems that have to be resolved or just whatever research costs have to go into putting it from concept board to drawing board to shipyard.

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