The U.S. Navy has a favorite mantra that concisely captures why maritime strategy matters: 70% of the world is covered by water, 80% of its people live close to the sea, and 90% of its trade travels by sea. Those facts by themselves explain why having a forward-deployed naval fleet is necessary. But being there isn’t enough. The Navy must have the right capabilities to influence events both at sea and ashore. The service has done a good job of thinking through how its aircraft carriers and submarines can contribute to near-shore, or “littoral” operations. And it doesn’t take much imagination to see why the Marine Corps requirement for 33 modern amphibious-assault vessels is relevant to the fight ashore. But when it comes to surface combatants, the Navy has made some missteps.
Surface combatants come in three basic flavors — frigates, destroyers and cruisers — with the smaller frigates optimized for shallow-water operations and other, larger combatants operating further out to sea. The Navy’s opening gambit for becoming more relevant ashore after the collapse of communism was a huge destroyer initially called DD-21, then DD(X), and now DDG-1000. In naval nomenclature, “DD” means destroyer and “G” means it carries guided missiles. DDG-1000 was supposed to meet the Marine Corps need for high rates of fire ashore by carrying guns that could shoot precision rounds a hundred kilometers or more. However, the high cost of the warship — well over $3 billion each — made it too pricey to buy in quantity, and too valuable to deploy near enemy shores. The concept of operations was thus inherently flawed, because the guns can’t hit much unless the warship is close to enemy territory.
Navy leaders began to have doubts about DDG-1000 two years ago. By that time they had made progress on a replacement for their cold-war frigates dubbed the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) that looked like a much better match for future military needs. The modular design of the LCS enabled it to perform a wide range of missions without becoming a multi-billion-dollar behemoth. Meanwhile, threats had changed faster than expected in the Western Pacific and elsewhere, with China deploying very quiet diesel-electric submarines, sea-skimming anti-ship missiles, and ballistic missiles that might soon have the ability to hit U.S. carriers. So the Navy decided to pull the plug on the DDG-1000.
Last summer, the Navy told Congress it wanted to halt DDG-1000 production at three ships and instead build an improved version of its Aegis destroyers along with LCS. The reason why, it said, was that the firepower provided by DDG-1000 could be replaced using other weapons, but it desperately needed to enhance its anti-missile and anti-submarine warfare capabilities. Aegis destroyers and cruisers are receiving upgrades to their combat systems, already considered the best in the world for intercepting hostile aircraft and missiles at sea. When combined with the anti-ship, anti-mine and anti-submarine capabilities of the LCS, these upgrades will assure fleet survivability for decades to come.
The Obama Administration should listen to what the Navy is saying. The sea services can harvest many of the technological advances developed for the DDG-1000 by redirecting contractors to work on other projects. Prime contractor Raytheon appears to have done a very good job on the ship’s electronic combat system. But the ship itself isn’t needed, and it doesn’t make sense to reconfigure the vessel for missile defense when only three are likely to be built. The Navy needs to focus scarce funding on the vessels that will provide the backbone of the surface fleet — Aegis destroyers, Aegis cruisers, and Littoral Combat Ships — while assuring a sufficient level of ship construction so that no adverse economic consequences are felt at the yards where surface combatants are built.
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