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The Virginia Destroyer Solution

August 19, 2010


An artist's rendering of a Virginia-class submarine underway.


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, 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.


24 Comments leave one →
  1. Dutchie permalink
    November 19, 2010 11:50 am

    Just some info about BMD of the SMART-L

    HENGELO – 15-12-2006

    Thales Holland has succeeded in hugely improving the range of their long distance radar Smart-L.
    The modified version can detect intercontinental ballistic missiles outside the atmosphere withing a vicinity of 1000 kilometers.
    The Dutch Navy responded with enthusiasm and other Navies are very interested in the upgraded system.
    Last week tests were taken with the Smart-L ELR (Extended Long Range) from the dutch Air-defence frigat Hr.Ms. Tromp in the surroundings of Hawai.
    From the island of Kaua’i 400 kilometers away the Americans fired a ballistic missile which was immidiately detected when launched.
    The Dutch Navy are very enthusiastic about the upgrade they were able to make for the system for the very respectable pricetag of some tens of million euro’s.
    “We now are equipped with a fantastic defence-system against intercontinental ballistic missiles, for costs which are peanuts in comparison to other expenses in this area” Kapitein-Luitenant-ter-zee Paul Rouffaer said in a statement.
    Thales Holland is also very satisfied about the succes of the renewed system.
    Germany, which also uses the Smart-L system on their frigats, are very curious about the system upgrade and it’s possibilities.
    Also Denmark, Britain, France, Italy and South Korea seem to have shown interest in the system.
    The most attractive thing about the system is that no new Smart-L system has to be bought to track intercontinental ballistic missiles because it only involves a software upgrade for the already exisitng Smart-L system.
    With the upgrade a missile fired can tracked right from the start. This is important because the speed of the projectile is much slower right after take off then when it has already started descending from the atmosphere in which the missile can range up to speeds of to eight times the speed of sound, the missile is a lot harder to intercept when already in descent.
    According to the Dutch Defense Paper the Americans are also impressed.
    The American Tactical Group Supervisor Lex Hughes reacted astonished, in an announcement he said: “In this area of expertise you are about 6 years ahead of us”.
    The Dutch Marine Officer Rouffear predicted that in the very near future the system will be able to detect ballistic missiles within 2000 kilometers.
    the Smart-L is already highly popular because of earlier tests in which a tennisbal that was attached behind a plane that circled around The Veluwe (Natural Reserve Park) some 150 kilometers away was spotted by the system.
    The size of the Tennisbal has about the same visual charasteristics as a stealth plane, so the system is not only suitable for missile defence.

  2. August 21, 2010 1:59 pm

    Could the case be made here that the SEAWOLF analog IS the DDG 1000? Which would make the new DDG51’s the VIRGINIA analog, right? A fair analysis of the SEAWOLF to NSSN transition would indicate we went from the very bestest most powerfulest, most coolest submarine in the world, to the best, most powerful, coolest submarine in the world. We did not create a submarine corvette. Pushing for the surface force to do so seems unwise to me.

  3. Anonymous permalink
    August 20, 2010 9:59 pm

    It’s more likely I will win the lottery than the USN buying Brahmos. Milas is a standoff ASW weapon.

    Well, cunts win the lottery all the time, so you never know.

  4. Fencer permalink
    August 20, 2010 7:49 pm

    This just occurred to me; since SM-6 has an active radar seeker could be used as a OTH ASHM? If so the USN is getting a super-sonic missile with possibly three times the range of the Harpoon.

  5. B.Smitty permalink
    August 20, 2010 9:59 am


    It’s more likely I will win the lottery than the USN buying Brahmos. Milas is a standoff ASW weapon.

    I agree with Juramentado that we are in a fairly sad state with regards to surface combatant SSMs. While I don’t think they should be the primary ASuW weapon, there will be times when they are necessary (Op Praying Mantis). Within visual range we are fine. Surface-mode SM-2 an ESSM are a potent combination. We just need a BVR VSL AShM (e.g. Harpoon Block III, TLAM Block IV+).

  6. Distiller permalink
    August 20, 2010 4:41 am

    Neither anti-ship nor anti-sub is a strong side of the USN surface fleet these days. Why not buy Brahmos and Milas for a start?? Till the U.S. finally fields something own.

    And what is also missing is a decent self defence capability of the carriers, fast fleet replenishers, amphibs, and large transports. If the big units could take care of themselves in a better fashion, the need for close escort by Burkes &c would be lower and they could be tasked with more offensive jobs or positioned further out.

    For the big escorts I can’t see a reduction in displacement. I would even say scale up to a 12.000 tons CGNs, whereby one could debate if ASW aviation should be exclusively placed on the carrier, or also on the escorts. In any case a CVN with a DDG escort doesn’t use its full potential.

    The mentioned 4.500 tons would be the perfect size for a patrol & presence frigate with a large flight deck.

  7. B.Smitty permalink
    August 19, 2010 11:31 pm

    LHA/Ds carrying Harriers or F-35Bs can also play a role in their SCS guise.


    I said APAR/SMART-L “does not necessarily equal” SPY-1D(V)/AEGIS. It may or may not, depending on the task. I’m not a radar expert. Does x-band AESA make up for the rotating L-band SMART-L? Or are the massive, 1MW-class, 10 square meter, PESA faces of SPY-1D still the king?

    My point was, you just can’t look at the weapons each ship carries and declare them equivalent. The sensors and combat systems matter more, and are far harder to judge with open source information.

    SMART-L is being given some BMD capability, but is it as good as what you get from the latest SPY-1D(V) BMD variant? I personally doubt it. But that’s just MHO.

  8. Juramentado permalink
    August 19, 2010 11:27 pm

    x – Harpoon isn’t a helo-capable missile :-)

    And Harpoon is only carried by Ticos and Flight I Burkes. That leaves 2/3rds of the total Burke fleet without an SSM…

    Not to mention the math – the Luyang shoots the pesky helo out of the sky before he’s in engagement range of Penguin…

    Sorry guys, but that’s the reality today.

  9. August 19, 2010 5:06 pm

    Juramentado I wasn’t talking about fire-cracker Penguins; I was talking Harpoon!!!!!!!

    Also I think you will find a helicopter is a slightly smaller (and quicker) target than 8000+ destroyer……

  10. Juramentado permalink
    August 19, 2010 4:52 pm

    @B.Smitty and x:

    We’re always assuming a big-deck is available somewhere. That may be true now, but with the projected reductions, that’s *not* going to be the case. Heck, that’s not even true today. So what happens when you have a task force with whose only organic air is helos? :) There are such things as TFs that are NOT CSGs, heaven forbid…

    Let’s ask ourselves how survivable those helos are as well. Let’s see – HQ-9 system mounted on a Luyang 054 DDG is effective out to a slant range of 200KM/124MI. Let’s even give it the good old 2/3rds effective range rule-of-thumb. That’s still 74 miles. The longest reach any R or S has is the Penguin missile which can only go about 34 miles maximum (MK3). Taking the same rule of thumb, that puts the effective range at about 20 miles. Anybody see a problem with this? Penguins are also very rare – most of the R and S helos are equipped with the ESSS wings and packing Hellfires – which are LOS only. I’m no psychic, but I foresee a very exciting but short life for the helo driver.

  11. D. E. Reddick permalink
    August 19, 2010 4:50 pm

    Don’t forget the three classes of AEGIS AAW frigates (DDGs) already in service with Spain and Norway or being built for Australia.

    Álvaro de Bazán class frigate

    Fridtjof Nansen class frigate

    Hobart class destroyer

  12. Heretic permalink
    August 19, 2010 3:54 pm

    re: hajo-hi and B.Smitty

    Good question. If we’re going to object on the merits, perhaps a review of those respective merits is in order?

  13. Jacob permalink
    August 19, 2010 3:41 pm

    Why not just go for an updated Perry-class frigate or something?

  14. hajo-hi permalink
    August 19, 2010 3:39 pm

    @B.Smitty: just curious – what are the main deficiencies of APAR plus SMART-L relative to AN/SPY-1 when it comes to air-defense?

  15. August 19, 2010 3:22 pm

    True. But I thought we were talking about escorts………. :)

  16. B.Smitty permalink
    August 19, 2010 2:51 pm

    x said, “The last place you want your SSMs is bolted to the deck of something that can only do 30kts. Better they are bolted on to ships’ helicopters, become ASMs, and move at 120kts.

    Or “bolted” to a strike package of Super Hornets moving at 600kts.

  17. August 19, 2010 2:10 pm

    Juramentado said that the US does not have enough ASuW capability.

    The last place you want your SSMs is bolted to the deck of something that can only do 30kts. Better they are bolted on to ships’ helicopters, become ASMs, and move at 120kts.

  18. B.Smitty permalink
    August 19, 2010 1:34 pm


    We have naval and land-based airpower for SUW right? Plus SSNs.

  19. Juramentado permalink
    August 19, 2010 1:26 pm

    The problem is that we have TOO MUCH STRIKE and BMD, but NOT ENOUGH SUW capability. With the Chinese being able to push out combatants at almost a 3:1 ratio and most of them are very much quality (054 DDGs and Jiang II FFGs come to mind), coupled with an ever-increasing proliferation of extremely fast and long-ranged ASMs in other nations’ inventories, we’re asking for trouble. It’s disconcerting that all those AAW Burkes won’t be able to take on another ship at greater than 30nm using organic fires, and that’s assuming the CO is actually allowed to use SMs in anti-surface mode.

    Cheap would be nice, but the day we build another cheap, relatively competent combatant in volume, I’ll know a wormhole opened up and we’re back fighting WW II. It will never happen again. The best we can hope for is to build a reasonably balanced combatant that’s actually good at a few things, rather than being a master at one and NG at anything else. Whatever happens, we can be certain that it will cost big bucks.

  20. August 19, 2010 1:26 pm


    the question should be,how do those Dutch frigates compare to the same value of American ships.
    Littoral Combat Ship or De Zeven Provincien class frigate?
    One new Burke or four new De Zeven Provincien class frigates?


  21. Heretic permalink
    August 19, 2010 1:10 pm

    I never claimed they were equal or equivalent … just that they were not that far removed from one another.

  22. B.Smitty permalink
    August 19, 2010 9:28 am

    APAR plus SMART-L does not necessarily equal SPY-1D(V) /AEGIS when it comes to BMD or even air defense.

  23. Heretic permalink
    August 19, 2010 9:18 am

    De Zeven Provinciën class Frigate (Netherlands) @ $532 million

    The specs for these ships are not that far removed from those of the Arleigh Burke class. They’re 6000 ton AAW frigates, which show every promise of being capable of sea based ABM tasking … including having done live fire tests of ESSM, SM-2 IIIA and SM-3.


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