The Virginia Destroyer Solution
In the DDG-51 Arleigh Burke destroyer, first launched in 1989, the American Navy finally had an ASW escort to match the large, fast, and deep-diving Soviet submarines of the late-Cold War. Unlike the preceding Spruance class in its initial configuration, the Burke possessed powerful armament, radar, and even armor to match its immense price of $1 billion in 1980s dollars. Aegis, Standard and Harpoon missiles, Seahawk helicopters, anti-submarine rockets (ASROC), torpedoes, and numerous guns, all added up to create the most powerful surface combatant built since World War 2.
Ironically, just as the DDG-51 entered service, its particular foe vanished from the waves almost overnight. The vaunted Red Navy which kept much of the West in dread for decades was now tied to port, left rusting by a bankrupt communist empire.
Without a peer enemy to contend with, a lesson might have been taken to transform the Burke and her successors, from the Seawolf submarine program. The massive and expensive SSN-21 boat was designed in the post Rickover era to compete with Russian supersubs like the Akula. Afterwards it seemed so much overkill, and far too expensive for keeping up numbers within the silent service. Naval-Technology notes:
The Seawolf was a product of the Cold War, conceived to maintain the USA‘s acoustic advantage over Soviet submarines. With the end of the Cold War and the change of emphasis to littoral operations, the cost of the Seawolf submarines was judged prohibitive and the programme was curtailed in favour of the smaller and cheaper Virginia Class New Attack submarines.
In its place came the Virginia class submarine. Compared to the Seawolf, these boats were not small but smaller, they were not cheap but cheaper. Previously known as the NSSN in its development stage, FAS.org explains:
The Secretary of Defense in his October 1993 bottom-up review determined that production of the Seawolf class submarine would cease with the third submarine, and that the Navy should develop and build a new attack submarine as a more cost-effective follow-on to the Seawolf class, with construction beginning in fiscal year 1998 or 1999 at Electric Boat…
Compared with the Seawolf, the NSSN is slower, carries fewer weapons, and is less capable in diving depth and arctic operations. On the other hand, the NSSN is expected to be as quiet as the Seawolf, will incorporate a vertical launch system and have improved surveillance as well as special operations characteristics to enhance littoral warfare capability.
Just as the Seawolf submarine was considered unnecessary and too expensive for a new environment, the question remains, why wasn’t the same logic applied to the DDG-51 Burke destroyers? Instead, production continued for the world’s most expensive surface combatant, with its advanced Aegis and ASW weaponry geared for a foe that no longer existed. In this time period starting in the early 1990s, we see the Navy shrinking drastically from nearly 600 ships to its current below 300 number, with no realistic sign of halting the decline.
With no adequate replacement for the Burke planned, except more Burkes, the 60+ in service or on order have been used in roles never envisioned by the 1980s naval planners. They can be seen everywhere, escorting amphibious ships and aircraft carriers, performing disaster relief, counter-narcotics, even taking down pirates in lifeboats! All these duties which are the domain of small frigates or patrol vessels are being performed by the new battleships, whose abilities include shooting down enemy ICBMs or projecting power up to 1000 miles ashore with cruise missiles.
Yet when the time came to start thinking of a Burke replacement, all the Navy could come up with was something bigger and more expensive. So enamored were they by amazing abilities of the DDG-51, they wanted more only better, which gave us the DDG-1000 Zumwalt dinosaur, as I noted yesterday which we will now procure a grand total of 3. Logically though, something smaller is needed to deal with many smaller threats, as I wrote earlier:
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.
America, while seeking to possess a global fleet, has a small-navy mindset. In other words, it builds individually impressive vessels which are too costly to build in adequate numbers. So instead the new destroyer should be the frigate, replacing the frigate with the corvette, and corvettes should be supplemented with fast attack craft. The Navy should also think about getting Aegis out of the hull, since the world’s most advanced radar also makes the ship the world’s biggest target for cruise missiles. Some alternatives would be placing it on specialized Aegis motherships, or depending more or airborne radar and satellites.