At its Cold War peak, the U.S. Navy deployed just shy of 600 ships including four battleships, 14 aircraft carriers, more than 40 cruisers, nearly 60 destroyers, about 100 each of attack submarines and frigates and some 60 amphibious warfare ships. Within this fleet were more than 27 ship classes including six classes of aircraft carriers (four conventional and two nuclear powered), six of cruisers, five of destroyers (with the keel of the first Arleigh Burke having been laid down in 1988), three of frigates, three of submarines and four of amphibious warfare.
Today, the U.S. Navy has been whittled down to less than 300 ships of all types. The number of classes has decreased even more. Today there only two classes of aircraft carriers, one of cruisers, two of destroyers (if one includes the three planned Zumwalts), one class of frigates (to be retired as the new Littoral Combat Ships come into service), three of attack submarines (including the three Seawolfs) and four of amphibious warfare.
The reduction in ship classes reflects three trends. The first is improvements to the ships, their systems and weapons, which allows each platform to perform multiple missions over a larger area more effectively. This has allowed the Navy and Marine Corps, for example, to get extra use out of its MEU/ARGs by splitting up the standard three ship formation and deploying individual units with task-organized Marine contingents for separate missions.
The second trend is rising costs to build, operate and maintain ships. The past two decades have been marked by an ongoing disconnect between the Navy’s shipbuilding plan and available resources. There has been a push to retire older classes in order to free up maintenance and manpower dollars for modernization.
The final trend, is a series of setbacks in the Navy’s shipbuilding program that saw the truncation of the Seawolf, Zumwalt and Littoral Combat Ship programs and the virtual abandonment of plans for a replacement for the aging Ticonderoga-class cruisers. This trend is related in some ways to the second; the cost of several new classes was simply unsustainable. But it also reflected uncertainty, dare I say confusion, in Navy circles regarding future missions and threats.
In its struggle to define, build and sustain a post-Cold War Fleet, the Navy has seemingly hit on a very effective strategy of squeezing extra mileage out of existing platforms. Although a “clean sheet” design might offer the advantages of precisely meeting all requirements and allowing for inclusion of the most modern technologies, experience has shown it can bring with it higher costs, schedule problems and unanticipated construction, integration and operating difficulties.
The obvious example of an extra mileage strategy is the successful restart of the Arleigh Burke destroyer lines. The Flight IIA and III versions of the Burke-class will have substantially improved capabilities including two MH-60R helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles, the new Air and Missile Defense Radar, more capable Standard Missile 3s and 6s, and possibly even laser weapons.
Another example of doing better with what you have is the Virginia-class attack submarine. The Navy and the two contractors, General Dynamics Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls Industries, have been remarkably successful at reducing the cost of each boat and bringing them in on schedule while simultaneously improving their capabilities. One of the keys to their success is acquiring the Virginia-class in a series of block buys and freezing the insertion of technology on any given block.
A third, as yet potential, example of this strategy may be the acquisition of a new amphibious warfare ship, the LX(R) to replace the aging Whidbey Island and Harpers Ferry classes of amphibious ships. The Secretary of the Navy declared this week that the most sensible choice would be a variant of the highly successful San Antonio-class LPD-17, 11 of which have already been procured. A simplified vessel based on the LPD-17 would take advantage of well-established production methods, a skilled workforce and a proven supply chain. Given the emphasis in the Pentagon on affordability, this seems like a sensible solution.
The Navy also is in the final throes of deciding what to acquire in the way of a Small Surface Combatant (SSC). The SSC will take the place of the last 30 of the planned 55 LCSs. Although the SSC Task Force report has yet to be made public there are really only three choices: an “upgunned” variant of a current design, a larger version of a Littoral Combat Ship or an alternative hull currently in production, and last a clean sheet design. If cost and schedule are the dominant considerations, then the Navy is likely to choose to modify an existing design.
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