Ever since Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet embarked on a globe-girding display of power at the dawn of the American Century, the Navy’s surface combatants — battleships, cruisers, destroyers and frigates — have secured the world’s seas for peaceful commerce. Today the seas are secure, but surface combatants are not.
The collapse of communism removed the main threat to U.S. seapower, so the Navy reoriented its mission to influencing events ashore. Three of the service’s four warfighting communities have clear roles to play in what the Navy calls “littoral combat.” Aircraft carriers provide autonomous bases for striking targets deep in enemy territory (a carrier airwing can precisely hit 700 aimpoints per day in any weather); amphibious vessels project Marine landpower ashore; submarines are stealthy platforms for collecting intelligence, inserting commandos and launching missile strikes.
But what contribution can surface warships make to littoral combat? Not much, judging from recent campaigns in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq. Basically, they launch cruise missiles and protect the fleet from air attack. But converted Trident subs will soon offer a far more potent and survivable cruise-missile launcher, and air threats have largely disappeared. Does that mean surface warships will disappear too?
The Navy has two technology initiatives under way to answer that question — the Littoral Combat Ship and a next-generation destroyer dubbed DDX (“DD” for destroyer, “X” for experimental). Most of the buzz is about the Littoral Combat Ship, but DDX looks likely to be more important over the long run. It is the main bearer of innovation in U.S. naval design, and delivers far more capability than the trendy Littoral Combat Ship.
DDX was conceived to be a stealthy, multimission destroyer optimized for influencing warfighting ashore. It will be built around two 155 mm guns that can hurl satellite-guided projectiles a hundred miles inland (up to 200 miles later) for pinpoint accuracy in support of Marines and special forces. It also will have 128 vertical-launch cells for firing a mix of missiles, including Tactical Tomahawk (range:1000 nm). And perhaps most importantly, it will have an integrated power system that efficiently channels electricity throughout the ship for propulsion, sensors and weapons applications — including high-power lasers.
If all these new technologies work out — from the “wave-piercing” hull to the digital sensors embedded in a composite superstructure — DDX will be the most capable surface combatant ever devised. Not only will it be thoroughly integrated into the networks supporting joint warfighters, but it will be the testbed for a next-generation missile defense cruiser dubbed CGX that replaces Aegis combatants. If DDX does not work out, though, that may signal the end of the road for surface warships, because the Littoral Combat Ship is too modest to sustain the aspiration of surface warriors for equality with aviators and submariners.
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