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The Navy and the Missile Threat Pt 2

October 13, 2009
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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.

20 Comments leave one →
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  5. Mike Burleson permalink*
    October 16, 2009 4:42 pm

    Pete, these figures you quote from the Navy sounds fuzzy though that is not your fault. The USN always seem to low ball the price tag on new ships, and then we only get the real figures when production is too far ahead to turn back. We see this occurring with the littoral combat ship.

    Even if you are right, I can’t see where a 14,000 ton “destroyer” fits into the sea strategy, and is any better than a 9000 ton destroyer with all-around capabilities. I am not exactly crazy about this “all-battleship” mentality we have of continuing to deploy high end missile ships while mostly ignoring the low end escort forces. There are no invulnerable warships and the fewer such vessels we have the more at risk we become.

    We have to start thinking of ships costing in the hundreds of millions, even in the tens of millions or we see the end of Western seapower. I see with the increased missile threat, and high tech weapons in the hands of low tech powers, a great need for many small ships which can act as speed bumps, and a screen for the Big Ships. But this continued use of our most expensive warships to chase pirates in speed boats is beyond absurd.

    Until then we make do with the DDG-51, better than nothing and not bad for what it is geared to do. The Zumwalt, in contrast, is just another unaffordable evolution of the missile battleship, which we already have plenty of.

  6. October 16, 2009 9:55 am


    Enjoyed reading your recent post entitled “The Navy and the Missile Threat Pt 2”, though I can’t say we agree.

    A couple of points worth noting in response:
    The DDG-1000 you characterize as “…surpass[ing] the price of older vessels in billions many times over….” is actually on time time, and on budget according a recent Defense News article. Moreover, recent estimates suggest trying to re-start the DDG-51 line would could just about as much while leaving the Navy with a 1980’s design. And the hype about DDG-1000 cost is just that: hype. The true cost of the ship is far below the wild estimates when would considers the original DDG 1000 production plan of seven ships before the decision to truncate. Any product’s unit cost will skyrocket when the production is dramatically limited to one or two copies, whether ist a Navy’s new destroyer or a Toyota Prius! You allude to the Navy’s need to “deploy a revolutionary new fleet of surface combatants unlike anything seen before in naval warfare” yet ignore the fact that this is exactly what the DDG-1000 represents. The Zumwalt platform represents 10 new technological innovations from a state-of-art power system to a revolutionary hull design to the most stealthy signature yet seen on blue waters.
    Last but not least, the notion that the DDG-1000 is not quipped with BMD is a red herring penned by its Aegis blinded critics; the fact is the DDG-1000 is design to be BMD fitted, much more so that the 80’s Burke alternative.

    Suggest you check out the recent study comparing DDG-51 vs. a Modified DDG-100:

    All the best,

  7. Anonymous permalink
    October 14, 2009 7:17 am

    “Not as great an option as it might seem at first …”

    What you are saying is that co-operative engagement / net centric warfare is about maximising the utility all available sensors in theatre not reducing the number of sensors.

  8. Heretic permalink
    October 13, 2009 4:27 pm

    The problem with satellite tracking is that orbits tend to be “fixed” since maneuvering your satellite around to adjust its orbit is a great way to shorten its lifetime in orbit (by running out of fuel). Because the orbits tend to be “fixed” that means that there’s plenty of opportunity to discover that the satellites are THERE. This then means that once you’ve computed the orbits, you know when (and where) they’re going to be at any particular time … which then informs you as to when there are going to be windows of no surveillance.

    Low Earth Orbiting satellites have extremely limited “time on station” above any particular point on the ground. Put simply, any single satellite has an extremely short persistence over a particular point of interest dirtside. That means that if you want to “see everything” you need to have LOTS of satellites circling so as to provide constant surveillance … and that gets expensive in a hurry! Higher orbits move slower around the planet, but by being farther away their sensors need to be more sensitive in order to yield the same “quality” of surveillance as a lower orbiting satellite. Once you get all the way out to Geosynchronous Orbit, you also start having to calculate in lag time of sending signals up and down … which can be non-trivial when dealing with real-time problems concerning ballistics of the “shoot a bullet with a bullet” variety.

    And then there’s the problem of having your satellite signals jammed … not to mention anti-satellite weaponry become a “necessity” in order for an opponent to neutralize the advantages of satellite surveillance and communications (see: China demonstration).

    Not as great an option as it might seem at first …

  9. UndergradProgressive permalink
    October 13, 2009 4:01 pm

    Wouldn’t satellites sophisticated enough to track the weapons be sufficient?

  10. Tarl permalink
    October 13, 2009 3:12 pm

    BMD shooter ship can be designed to be quite passive for signature.
    BMD tracker ship however is going to radiate EM like there’s no tomorrow using its radars.

    Well yeah, but the point is somebody has to radiate.

  11. Anonymous permalink
    October 13, 2009 3:05 pm

    “I have read that certain types of long wave radar can pick so-called stealth ships with ease. Does anyone know about this?”

    I have seen similar. The problem with complete/near complete stealth is that the ship becomes shall we say, conspicuous by its absence? The environment produces RADAR clutter and then you have a mysterious hole in the middle of your picture (gross simplification.) Sea Wolf trackers could “see” F117s during GW1 if the signal was combined with the general air search picture.

  12. Hudson permalink
    October 13, 2009 1:07 pm

    I have read that certain types of long wave radar can pick so-called stealth ships with ease. Does anyone know about this?

  13. Mike Burleson permalink*
    October 13, 2009 12:55 pm

    Ordinance, ordnance. hey you’re right! I copied and pasted that and paid no attention!

    Heretic is correct. Only the tracker/target ship need worry, but in transit both are safe enough. I also understand the BMD ships are multi-purpose so the phased array isn’t always required.

    Solomon, smooth decks might not necessarily mean flat decks, though this latter is more advantageous. The Scandinavian corvettes are pretty smooth without being flat, as is the Sea Shadow. The larger the vessel the greater requirement for flat decks I would think.

  14. Heretic permalink
    October 13, 2009 11:13 am

    BMD shooter ship can be designed to be quite passive for signature.
    BMD tracker ship however is going to radiate EM like there’s no tomorrow using its radars.

  15. Tarl permalink
    October 13, 2009 10:42 am

    “maximum ordinance on target” — ordnance, not ordinance, unless the ship is designed to drop copies of the Patriot Act on the bad guys. =)

    Someone remind me how a BMD ship, which by definition must radiate massively, can be “stealthy”.

  16. October 13, 2009 10:02 am

    You might have a point there Mike. I was focused only on the offensive mission that Group M was pushing. BMD however would be a perfect although singular role for this type ship today. I don’t know how it would do as an OPV or Frigate replacement though. The idea that a deck that low to the water wouldn’t have issues is….amazing. It almost reminds me of some type of hybrid civil war monitor type vessel. Whatever happened to this groups work? Is it all in the dustbin of history or will these ideas make a comeback?

  17. Joe K. permalink
    October 13, 2009 9:28 am

    And need I point out the problem of relying on a weapon than can be jammed or shot down more easily than a bullet or shell or bomb.

  18. Joe K. permalink
    October 13, 2009 9:10 am

    Need I point out the problems with the arsenal ship which I already mentioned in the post about it.

  19. Mike Burleson permalink*
    October 13, 2009 8:39 am

    What about a Burke/Zumwalt, or even a carrier replacement? Will the SSGN replace our BMD and the surface warfare role? Perhaps someday but not yet.

    I wouldn’t say bring on the Strike Cruiser, but the idea of smooth topsides is intriguing and eminently possible on the smallest of warships, down to corvettes and FACs.

  20. October 13, 2009 8:03 am

    Now that would be a throw back to a modern day battleship in function if not form. Where would it be useful? Against pirates? No. To act to cause rogue states to behave? No, if the enemy is aware that its in the area then its as vulnerable as carriers and other surface ships…..Is an SSGN a better fit for this mission? Probably, plus it has the added benefit of being able to conduct other missions like Special Ops and Intelligence gathering. Interesting concept but thankfully its consigned to the dust bin of history.

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