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Does America Need More Battleships?

May 11, 2010

Battleships versus the pirates. The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Farragut (DDG 99) cruises through the Gulf of Aden.

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.

USS Bell (Destroyer DD-95) around 1918.

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.


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  10. Anonymous permalink
    September 12, 2013 4:12 pm

    @Jesus Christ

    Nope, the world needs to get rid of the terrorism state called USA, only then humanity may finally live in freedom and peace.

  11. November 19, 2011 1:29 am

    We MUST go on a building spree as we did in WW2…rid earth of communism and other filth…extremists, terrorists and muslims…ONLY then will we be safe again. With HUNDREDS of Iowa-class ships…

  12. timberjack permalink
    August 16, 2010 9:56 pm


  13. timberjack permalink
    August 16, 2010 9:35 pm


  14. hokie_1997 permalink
    June 5, 2010 11:33 am

    Guesswho – You’re correct on the Sea King AEW issue but…

    …the Argentinians had less than a dozen Exocets at the start of the war, so believe that my statement about iron bombs was substantially correct.

    …as far 6 vessels in the littorals vs. 100 aircraft — I’d say the Royal Navy took the worst of it. Especially considering one of those vessels (Atlantic Conveyor) carried the bulk of the landing forces heavy life helos and another (Sir Galahad) was packed full of troops. Considering that a) this was a limited war with limited objectives and b) the British were an awful long way from home, I think the Argentinians could afford to lose the aircraft. Whereas the British could ill afford to lose the ships, supplies, equipment, and troops if they wanted to retake the island.

    It’s my opinion that the Royal Navy was wholly ineffective in protecting the Task Force during the critical landing stage. If a 2nd rate air force is able to fly over and bomb your troop ships at will — maybe it’s time to question how good a job your fleet is doing at air defense.

  15. June 5, 2010 7:51 am

    we need more docks and piers.

  16. Guess who? permalink
    May 11, 2010 6:09 pm

    “The Brits tried to do AEW with helos off a small deck carrier in the Falklands and their fleet got their asses handed to them by a 2nd rate air force dropping iron bombs.”

    Couldn’t be further from the truth, for a start there was no AEW down south in ’82, AEW Sea Kings came about because of the problems without AEW in ’82 , Iron bombs?, HMS Ardent(T21), Antelope(T21) and RFA Sir Galahad were destroyed by iron bombs but HMS Coventry (T42) HMS Sheffield (T42) and MV Atlantic Conveyor were destroyed by Exocet missiles, in response the FAA lost 100 aircraft… 6 vessels in the littorals vs. 100 aircraft… you can decide who won that one

    Sea King ASaC.7 is a great bit of kit and infact in the littorals pisses rings round conventional AEW systems such as Hawkeye

  17. hokie_1997 permalink
    May 11, 2010 4:59 pm

    [UAVs] 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.


    How exactly are they going to do that? An AEW radome requires a large airframe, which requires a long runway, which requires a large flight deck. The fact that your AEW platform is unmanned does nothing to change those facts.

    The Brits tried to do AEW with helos off a small deck carrier in the Falklands and their fleet got their asses handed to them by a 2nd rate air force dropping iron bombs.

    As I’ve said before, UASs are revolutionary — but they aren’t a cure-all. It bugs me that surface types seem to think you can throw the words “UAV” at a mission and it will magically be done cheaper / better / faster. You can’t change the laws of physics and aerodynamics.

  18. Guess who? permalink
    May 11, 2010 1:51 pm

    It’s a rare occasion that I actually agree with you but today I’m bloody close, I’d like to see USN replace Burkes with several classes of single role ~7000T Destoryers/Frigates on a common hull (ABM/Theatre AD, a cheaper more generic AAW, ASW, add more as you think of them) and a considerable number of ~4,000T, 125m GP Frigates to fill out the numbers in the fleet

  19. Mike Burleson permalink*
    May 11, 2010 12:09 pm

    Matthew S-Though I appreciate the capabilities of the new Chinese destroyers, I’m not convinced that even one is comparable to Europeans missile frigates, let alone the Arleigh Burke class, even of the first generation.

    What I would actually do, as a follow on Burke, would be to build down to more equal terms, say a 6000-7000 ton DDG-51. It is more important with the sensors and weapons on new hulls, since smart weapons don’t need smart platforms.

    I think our current lead in new weapons and sensors would still give us the world’s most powerful destroyer, without breaking the budget or sinking the rest of the fleet, as occurred since the 1990s to today.

  20. Matthew S. permalink
    May 11, 2010 11:56 am

    “PS – where are the two Phalanx CIWS on the pictured Farragut? They have their uses against small boat swarms or other close-in (surface) threats which are so popular these days.”

    From wikidpedia, “A number of Flight IIA ships were constructed without a Phalanx CIWS because of the planned Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile, but later the Navy decided to retrofit all IIA ships to carry at least one Phalanx CIWS by 2013.”

  21. Mike Burleson permalink*
    May 11, 2010 11:54 am

    “Besides, what other option does the USN have than sticking with Burkes?”

    Apparently, that is the decision the Navy has come to!

  22. Marcase permalink
    May 11, 2010 11:39 am

    Byron is right, the Flight Ones will be decomissioned/put in reserve.

    Besides, what other option does the USN have than sticking with Burkes? DDG-1000 is not an option, the Perry’s are too old and LCS is still undecided. The USCGs cutters may be an option but that would be unacceptable to the grey navy.

    PS – where are the two Phalanx CIWS on the pictured Farragut? They have their uses against small boat swarms or other close-in (surface) threats which are so popular these days.

  23. Matthew S. permalink
    May 11, 2010 11:34 am

    “but the hulls are all direct copies of Soviet era Cold War designs.”

    Is that true? The Burkes, Ticos, Perrys are all based off cold war designs. Also, the Type 051, 052 destroyers and Type 53 and 54 frigates are all late 90s/2000s designs and are being improved upon.

  24. Byron permalink
    May 11, 2010 11:01 am

    What you are missing is that they will probably (almost guarantee it) decom the Flight 1 Burkes (the ones with no helo hangar).

  25. Mike Burleson permalink*
    May 11, 2010 10:59 am

    “It sounds like you’re saying that the Navy has on order 60 Flight III (or IV?) ships”

    That is incorrect, but I wouldn’t be surprised!

    Matthew S-You are right about one thing-their speedboat fleet is much more modern than ours, but the hulls are all direct copies of Soviet era Cold War designs.

  26. Matthew S. permalink
    May 11, 2010 10:55 am

    I dont think Mike meant that about the Flight III Burkes. There were oly going to be 18 CG(X) so I doubt there would be much more than 18 Flight III Burkes.

  27. Hudson permalink
    May 11, 2010 10:49 am


    It sounds like you’re saying that the Navy has on order 60 Flight III (or IV?) ships in addition to what has already been contracted and not yet delivered, app. 12 Type IIA ships, for a total of 62-70 Burkes. You’re new 60 ships would bring the eventual total to something like 122-130 ships. Am I reading you correctly?

  28. Matthew S. permalink
    May 11, 2010 10:39 am

    “The Chinese has the world’s second largest fleet, but these are mostly warships some 30-40 years behind the technically advanced US Fleet.”

    This is just a ridiculous comment with no evidence to back it up. Haven’t you seen the Type 052B and Type 052C destroyers? Also the Chinese have 4 Sovremenny class destroyers from Russia. There are also the Type 054 and Type 053H frigates. Type 054 frigates are some of the most advanced in the world.

    Saying Chinese weapons system is something many US based analysts said in the early 1990s. China has advanced so rapidly that this is no longer true at all. Check out this table for more info.

  29. Mike Burleson permalink*
    May 11, 2010 10:20 am

    I think this is interesting times, seeing the ships of the flotilla–the destroyers, frigates, and submarines “promoted” into something so much more. But we still need a flotilla. What will it consist of?

  30. Heretic permalink
    May 11, 2010 10:00 am

    Bare minimum … they can’t be called “Destroyers” anymore. Call them what they have become … either Cruisers or Battleships (for lack of anything else to take up the mantle).


  1. Maritime Monday 214
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