Does America Need More Battleships?
The US Navy currently has on order over 60 Arleigh Burke class Aegis destroyers, by their own description “the most powerful surface combatant ever put to sea.” This would seem to place them in the battleship category, along with their pricetag of nearly $2 billion each and climbing. With the Navy at 280 ships and expected to decline further, despite being as busy at it ever was, yet even more of the world’s most powerful warships are planned. From Defense Industry Daily we learn more:
With the DDG-1000 Zumwalt Class ended at 3 ships, the DDG-51 Arleigh Burke Class ships will become more important to the future navy. The Navy’s FY2011 budget would also terminate the planned CG (X) cruiser program as unaffordable, replacing it with an updated DDG-51 Flight III version, starting in FY 2016.
The current DDG-51 Flight IIA version would remain in production from FY 2010-2015, buying 2 more Flight IIA ships in 2011 at a total cost of about $3.5 billion, and then another 6 from FY 2011-2015.
Navy plans appear to call for buying an undetermined number of DDG-51 Flight IIIs through at least FY 2022, and perhaps until FY 2031.
The DDG-51 Flight IIIs are expected to carry a smaller version of the new Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR) dual-band active array that was to be carried by the CG (X). Other enhancements will be fleshed out as detailed design work on the Flight III commences, reportedly in FY 2012-2013.
We see here, not only these modern day battlewagons increasing in number, but becoming more powerful than ever before. This is at a time when our primary antagonists have been pirates whose makeshift navy includes small but long range skiffs, wooden dhows hardly changed in many centuries, and captured freighters converted into logistics motherships. The next possible threat comes from Iran, who rather boastfully deploys a large fleet of speedboats.
The most likely enemy with ships similar to our own, would be Russia and China. While their number of ships are impressive, most are very old and poorly maintained, especially concerning Russia. The Chinese has the world’s second largest fleet, but these are mostly warships some 30-40 years behind the technically advanced US Fleet. The PLAN has yet to even deploy any type of aircraft carrier remotely similar to the American giants.
Some have criticized Secretary Gates’ recent speech before the Navy League as pushing us toward a smaller fleet, when in fact he only wants to decrease the purchase in overkill of these New Battleships. Consider the discrepancy in our capabilities with the rest of the world, pointed out here by Global Security:
With respect to major surface combatants, over 7,500 tons displacement, five countries besides the United States operate a total of 35 such ships, with an aggregate displacement of about 330,000 tons. The United States operates 79 major surface combatants, with an aggregate displacement of 730,000 tons – more than twice as many as the rest of the world combined, with more than twice the aggregate displacement. The tonnage ratio is 70 : 20 : 5 : 4 : 3 : 1 – for the US, Russia, Japan, Taiwan, China and South Korea. It is noteworthy that these are all Pacific powers.
While no one would like to see the Navy defunded, as it is extremely busy in this troubled century, and as needed as it ever was, the logic of continuing to build space age warships in an age where the low tech insurgents plagues the land and sea should be questioned.
The US Navy today utilizes the peerless DDG-51 destroyers, the world’s most powerful surface combatant class, in accordance to their official title rather than to their abilities. Destroyers up until at least the 1950s were fairly cheap and easy to build. They were considered general-purpose, jack of all trades, workhorses of the fleet, used everywhere from supporting amphibious landings near to shore, in anti-submarine warfare, even as troop transports and minelaying ships.
By the 1950s, the addition of surface to air missiles saw the rise and cost of the “small boys” into something drastically different and what we are more familiar with today. Helicopters soon came along, requiring additional space for aviation facilities, and a few even possessed nuclear power. The ultimate expression of the destroyer has be in the Arleigh Burke, which is a Cold War design built to tackle an enemy that no longer exists. Lack of anything better, larger or smaller, sees the Burke’s going on and on.
Previously, New Wars has traced the lineage of the battleship, from its birth around the time of the US Civil War, until its perfection about the dawn of the 20th century. The first such vessel was the French Gloire, which was called an armored frigate. Such fast and modestly equipped cruisers around the mid-century were used as the template for the replacement of the old ships pf the line, which by then had because vast floating fortresses with over 100 guns. But the new quick-firing cannon with explosive shells meant you could place more firepower on a smaller package. The workhorses of the Royal Navy and other fleets, what Nelson never seemed to have enough of, soon became the dominate ship on the high seas.
Today’s destroyer, like the old frigates of the age of sail, started as a small coastal escort, to become a crucial adjunct to the fleet in World War 2. Such vessels and smaller versions were indispensable in winning the Battle of the Atlantic and in the war with the Japanese. Along with the aircraft carrier and submarine, their economy and usefulness has ensured continued funding when traditional designs like the cruisers and dreadnought battleships have passed from the scene.
Destroyers today are too important to be used and too capable to be wasted as patrol ships, or considered as everyday general purpose workhorses. Neither should they be looked on as the coastal escorts in the piracy fight, when cheaper, off the shelf alternatives are available. They are needed elsewhere for ballistic missile defense, and with cruise missiles can substitute for the declining fleet of aircraft carriers, which we can’t afford in adequate numbers (because we spent all out money on destroyers?).
Later you will see the advent of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to sea, and this is occurring already. They will be so much more that a helicopter replacement as some foresee, but an amazing networking and attack tool that is revolutionizing airpower on land. With their long-ranged persistence, they will provide airborne early warning (AEW) and control to the fleet without the requirement for large decks. Also, the new planes launched from small decks will give over-the-horizon targeting to missiles, a domain also now relegated to large and expensive naval planes. Finally, the drones will be able to directly influence events ashore, as the land UAVs already are, with smart bombs and precision missiles giving persistent firepower to troops ashore as long as required.
All this capability and potential, for Aegis control, long-range strike, supporting troops ashore, will be provided in a single package one-tenth the size of an aircraft carrier and far cheaper. The new destroyer doesn’t need escorting, nor will there be a requirement for large numbers, just as there are only a handful of carriers today. Only a few will do, no less than 30 but certainly no more than the 60 already built or building. They are the new battleships, and should be recognized as such, in a natural evolution of war at sea.