Flight III:Building a Better Burke
Since 1991, oddly enough just as the enemy the giant warship was meant to contend with faded into the dustbin of history, the US Navy has purchased on average three DDG-51 Arleigh Burke class destroyers per year or about 60 in three Flights. Other than Ballistic Missile Defense, these $1.8 billion greyhounds, averaging from 8300 to 9500 tons, armed with 90 missiles are used for many low tech functions from chasing pirates and smugglers to disaster relief. On our entire planet there are less than 20 warships which even come close to the capability of any one DDG-51, and the majority of these belong to allied navies.
With this in mind, the following is a response to the challenge by Phil Ewing at Scoop Deck who asked:
If you were running Naval Sea Systems Command, what would you change about the old reliable DDG 51 design?
The Navy Proposals
Before the first Arleigh Burke joined the fleet way back in 1991, there were calls for a “Flight III” of the design. Ronald O’Rourke on behalf of the Congressional Research Service, pointed out several from 1997. Within the document titled Navy DDG-51 and DDG-1000 Destroyer Programs: Background and Issues for Congress, 4 variants were examined with missile loads of up to 256, and a estimated price tag of $1.62 billion each in today’s dollars (since then Flight IIA Burkes have risen to $1.8 billion).
O’Rourke detailed the elimination of the main 5 inch gun to save weight on a future DDG. There are already 106 such weapons in service with the 22 Ticonderoga cruisers and 62 destroyers, so the loss seems minimal. Dispensing with the gun would save weight, allowing for an improved radar over the current Aegis Spy-1. In its place, would go the powerful dual band radar meant for the truncated DDG-1000 Zumwalt destroyer program, and perhaps for the CGX cruiser canceled this year by the QDR. Extra power could be taken aboard for directed energy weapons as they are developed.
If history is any guide, the Navy will likely add more size such as a lengthened hull, as has been the practice with each consistent Burke Flight. Up to 56 feet more in length was proposed in the 1997 estimates. This would also entail an increase in weight from the 9500 tons full for a Flight IIA, perhaps as much as an 11,000 tons. We can expect the price to rise as well, with $2.25 billion each likely just the start.
An Alternative Design
Absent a major war, cost should be the final yardstick for measuring the Navy’s future needs. Instead of building a smaller fleet of warships, I would balanced the design and capabilities with new technology. Advances in war at sea over the past few decades should make it possible to return some sanity to warship construction, without losing capability or seeing future decline in ship numbers.
So instead of increasing the size of the Flight III, which has been the custom so far, I would reduce its size, starting with the missile load. Thanks to increased accuracy, brilliantly displayed by our ballistic missile warships on numerous occasions, it should be possible to carry only 45 such phenomenal weapons on a single end hull, about 4500 tons light. The same Aegis radar that makes the Burke so superior to any existing surface combatant, will keep it at the forefront of destroyer development for many more years.
Another alternative is something New Wars has called for earlier. By taking Aegis out of the hull completely, you could build many more vessels without reducing the missile loads. The bulky radar would then be carried on large off the shelf vessels such as the low priced T-AKE vessels, as an Aegis mothership. With all the room you need the power of your radar could be virtually unlimited, and networked with the smaller ships, you could provide support for a whole squadron of Flight IIIs. Considering the large size and power requirements for the dual band, this seems an ideal solution.
As I mentioned, on the smaller 4500 ton hull, you can load the 90 missiles currently deployed on the 9500 ton, nearly-$2 billion FlightIIA vessel. The cost of the hull would fall dramatically. I estimate $1.2 billion for the first, “evolutionary” proposal, and as low as $500 million each for the radar-less version! Built in foreign yards, the cost would be halved, respectively. This would allow a continued line of new destroyers at far less cost than future Navy plans. Ideally, though, you could divert savings into deploying more small, non-Aegis ships and submarines, to restore the Navy’s falling fortunes since the Cold War.