At the beginning of the decade, the U.S. Navy radically restructured its plans for modernizing surface combatants. The surface-combatant force structure traditionally had consisted of large cruisers, medium-sized destroyers, and frigates small enough to operate in shallow water. In 2001 the service abandoned this hierarchy of ship types in favor of three new combatants: a much bigger destroyer designed around long-range guns that could provide fire support to expeditionary forces ashore; a missile-defense cruiser using the same hull as the destroyer; and a fast shallow-water combatant dubbed the Littoral Combat Ship that could safely operate in close proximity to enemy shores. To people outside the Navy the new approach might have sounded more evolutionary than revolutionary, but for the Navy it was a big, big change.
Today, the future of two of those new ship classes is looking dicey. The Littoral Combat Ship program has produced two impressive warships in record time, one of which will be selected later this year for serial production of about 50 vessels. But the new destroyer, now designated DDG-1000, was canceled in 2008 because it cost too much and looked like a poor match for the emerging threat environment. The Navy now plans to build only three DDG-1000s while reverting to construction of the legacy DDG-51 Aegis destroyer in a greatly improved configuration. That leaves the fate of the planned missile-defense cruiser also quite uncertain. Aside from the fact that the canceled destroyer program was supposed to provide a hull for the future cruiser, the Navy’s decision to improve defensive capabilities on Aegis destroyers and cruisers raises doubts about whether the service will ever build a dedicated missile-defense cruiser.
The Aegis combat system carried on CG-47 Ticonderoga-class cruisers and DDG-51 Arleigh-Burke-class destroyers is generally considered to be the best multi-role combat suite ever built for naval warfare. In addition to being able to cope with any air-breathing threat, about 20 of the Aegis warships in the fleet are now certified as effective against short and medium-range ballistic missiles carrying unitary (single) warheads. In September, the White House announced a four-phase plan for gradually upgrading Aegis radars and weapons so that the system can eventually counter even the most sophisticated ballistic threats. Beginning in 2012 with an initiative called “Advanced Capability Build 12,” every Aegis warship that is modernized will get ballistic-missile-defense capability, and in addition the service plans to build a handful of new Aegis destroyers configured for coping with the most advanced threats.
All of this inevitably raises doubts about whether the Navy needs to build a new class of dedicated missile-defense cruisers. The original rationale for that new class. designated CG(X), had been that Aegis simply wasn’t capable of tracking and discriminating advanced ballistic threats like missiles that released multiple maneuvering warheads and penetration aids (decoys, chaff, etc.). Therefore, the reasoning went, a bigger vessel was needed that could host a more powerful, precise radar. But that logic under-estimated how much Aegis could be improved, and wrongly assumed that the entire detection-tracking-discrimination mission would have to be accomplished by organic naval assets. With some help from off-board sensors such as the new Space Tracking and Surveillance Satellite (STSS, formerly known as SBIRS Low), the demands placed on shipboard tracking radars can be considerably diminished. So maybe CG(X) isn’t needed anytime soon. Or maybe it won’t be needed at all. That’s good news, because the Navy can’t afford all the ships it wants to buy anyway.
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