The Navy and the Missile Threat Pt 2
I often contend, if you are wondering what the next war will be like you need only look toward the last few years of the last war for a glimpse. In the late 1980s, just as the US Navy was on the verge of the most dramatic reformation of its operating forces since the dawn of the nuclear age, came the Fall of the Iron Curtain. This seminal event so important to world peace, was also detriment to change coming to the sea service anytime soon. In no way was this a bad thing, save it has mired the fleet into a technological rut, and perhaps a false sense of security, that they didn’t feel when the giant missile armed Soviet Navy was still roaming the sealanes.
In the final decade of the Cold War, advances in missile technology, vertical launch systems (VLS), plus targeting and tracking radar posed a great and urgent threat to the large deck aircraft carrier, but also promised relief by allowing revolutionary hull designs. Under the leadership of the late Admiral Joseph Metcalf, plans were underway for the USN to deploy a revolutionary new fleet of surface combatants unlike anything seen before in naval warfare. An article in the July 1988 edition of Popular Mechanics provided details in the coming change:
The project that took shape in late 1986 under Metcalf’s guiding hand was aptly christened the “Revolution at Sea” initiative, and a supervisory work/study group was established to oversee the various phases of the broad-based research effort. Fiercely loyal to their progressive leader, this body of officers adopted the phonetic-M title of “Group Mike” in recognition of Metcalf’s personal commitment to the project.
Group Mike sought to take advantage of several advances in warfighting at sea to create a new type of fighting vessel, something that would be more survivable than the large deck aircraft carrier, more relevant to the missile and information age as well. Utilizing the Aegis combat system, long range Standard and Tomahawk missiles, all loaded in VLS batteries, such a craft in appearance and capabilities would be unlike any surface warship ever devised, a modern battleship. But unlike today’s legacy Burke and Ticonderoga’s, or even the newer Zumwalt destroyer (cancelled for lack of adequate air defense), Metcalf’s Future Strike Cruiser was geared more toward the offense, rather than centered around the impressive defensive qualities of the Aegis Standard missile. As he often explained, his primary motivation was to put “maximum ordnance on target“. The main protection from missiles would be the hull form itself:
The best way to accomplish this is reduce the ship’s radar profile and heat signature–in other words, to create a stealth ship. Addressing the physical profile issue, Metcalf says all the structures that protrude above the deck has got to go–including the bridge and conning tower.
The 1989 pre-Internet Navy Fact File also provided details of the enhanced and stealthy design:
Smooth Topsides: Provide reduce radar cross section (RCS), better topside safety, facilitate cold and heavy weather operations, reduce electromagnetic interference and decrease maintenance, This will require general redesign of ships including the use of conformal array radars instead of mast mounted antennae. Reduction of exhaust stacks, removal of side mounted life boats in favor of stern launched boats (similar to modern amphibious ships) and removal of bulky alongside replenishment fittings to the delivery ship.
Many of these improvements, notably the smooth topsides were placed in the design of the defunct arsenal ship, often referred to here. Perhaps an advantage of the latter vessel, something Admiral Metcalf and his Team didn’t take into account, was the need for reduced costs in warship design, brought on specifically by the end of the Cold War, but also the extreme cost of the advanced weapons like Aegis, and the high cost of fuel. Noteworthy also is the caliber of foes who possess second rate platforms, like China with ex-Soviet destroyers, frigates, and submarines, but which carry first rate weapons. In other words, a first rate ship carrying first rate weapons equals fewer such vessels. As Captain John Byron writes in a 2004 Proceedings article “Smart weapons do not need smart platforms“.
Needless to say, mainly because of the lack of a peer threat, the Navy saw no need to expend precious shipbuilding funds on revolutionary but untried vessels. Even the low cost arsenal ship design fell by the wayside, while legacy ships such as the Nimitz carriers, Burke destroyers, Perry frigates, and Los Angeles submarines continue to dominate the bulk of the force structure and likely will for some time. Absence of a major war, we can only hope the high costs of such vessels and their evolutionary descendent’s such as the Ford class, the Zumwalts, and Virginias which surpass the price of older vessels in billions many times over, will force the change which a peer enemy, or lack of one, has failed to bring about.