If you think that having three surface warfare officers in a row at the helm of the U.S. Navy has created a bias in favor of surface combatants, then you must not be paying attention to news about naval shipbuilding. While a reasonably coherent roadmap has emerged for replacing cold-war aircraft carriers and submarines, plans for a family of future surface combatants are in disarray. That’s a problem, because surface combatants — frigates, destroyers, cruisers — are the most common types of warship in the modern Navy. A growing chorus of critics is complaining that the failure of service leaders to provide a convincing rationale for next-generation surface combatants is putting the entire fleet modernization plan in jeopardy.
The latest salvo in this on-going battle was fired Monday by Christopher P. Cavas of Defense News, arguably the most capable journalist currently covering the Navy. Reporting on the service’s limp efforts to explain to Congress why a bloated next-generation destroyer designated DDG-1000 needs to be built, Cavas noted that after ten years of development the Navy still hasn’t come up with a convincing rationale for the warship, and “many officers remain confused about the destroyer’s abilities and intended use.” He went on to cite a veteran officer opining that the failure of Navy leaders to strongly support the destroyer is gradually killing the program.
That certainly seems to be the case. DDG-1000 grew out of an earlier program called DD-21 that was superseded in 2001 by a proposed family of future surface combatants. In addition to the new destroyer, there would be a missile-defense cruiser designated CG(X) and a frigate replacement designed for shallow-water operations called the Littoral Combat Ship. The Littoral Combat Ship has made good progress, although Navy Secretary Donald Winter recently picked a fight with both of the industry teams developing the vessel, objecting to cost growth that arose mainly out of the service’s unrealistic cost estimates when the effort first began. Winter will depart government service soon and the littoral ship program can then get back on track.
But DDG-1000 and the companion missile-defense cruiser are another matter. At first the Navy said it wanted 32 next-generation destroyers. Then it said 24. Then it said 12. Now it says it wants seven, and congressional critics such as Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi are saying two should be enough. The problem with DDG-1000 isn’t the technology, which is cutting-edge and can eventually be applied across the whole fleet. The problem is that the basic concept of the warship was misconceived. It displaces 14,500 tons of water, making it about 50% bigger than current DDG-51 destroyers, because it is built around two rapid-firing 155 mm. guns that are supposed to lob highly accurate shells a hundred miles inland in support of forces ashore.
Imagine floating off the coast of China or Iran and firing shells ashore. How long would such a ship survive? The whole idea is improbable. Which is why Congress needs to listen to Rep. Taylor and others who say the best course of action is to end the DDG-1000 effort and continue buying the existing DDG-51 destroyer. DDG-51 only costs half as much to build as DDG-1000, and internal naval studies show it still has plenty of margin for growth in missions such as missile defense, anti-submarine warfare and land attack. It is already the most capable surface combatant operating anywhere in the world, and transitioning its Aegis combat system to a continuously improving open architecture would enable it to stay that way for decades to come, with sizable reductions in crew size. So why would we stop building a winner like DDG-51 when its planned replacement is clearly such a loser?
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