Many of the military’s severest critics don’t actually know much about the military. Like Islamic fundamentalists complaining about America, they prefer to assimilate only those “facts” that fit their biases. Not surprisingly, the facts they do know add up to a caricature of military reality — a caricature that makes those involved in the military enterprise look incompetent and corrupt.
The reality is rather different. America’s military is one of the paramount products of civilization, a community that enforces global security by somehow combining deadly force and fighting spirit with cultural sensitivity and unswerving subordination to civilian authority. The sources of its success in sustaining such seemingly contradictory values can be summed up in two words: training and technology.
Critics don’t usually have much to say about training (unless enemy prisoners are being mistreated), but they have a whole lot to say about military technology. Basically, they think it costs too much and doesn’t work. Rather than taking the time to understand the choices military leaders have made, they tend to focus on one big-ticket weapon system from each service as a case study in how wasteful the military is. In the case of the U.S. Navy, the preferred example is the DDX destroyer.
In naval nomenclature, DD means destroyer and X means experimental — in other words, under development. But if you listen to the critics, DDX doesn’t need to be developed. It can’t defeat insurgents in Iraq and it isn’t required to police the world’s seas. So let’s kill it and spend the money on something useful, like more soldiers. Unfortunately, the critics always omit some key facts.
First of all, DDX is a land-attack destroyer — it was conceived to support the fight ashore by providing troops there with high volumes of precise gunfire over great distances, plus defense against a range of airborne threats. You could argue that these tasks are better accomplished by aircraft operating out of land bases, but it is precisely the fact that land bases may not be available in the future that makes development of a highly survivable, sea-based source of firepower desirable.
Second, the high cost of early DDX’s results from the fact that the program is developing a range of technologies applicable to all of the Navy’s future warships (in much the same way that the F-22 fighter developed technologies for all three versions of the Joint Strike Fighter). Among those technologies are a new radar, a new propulsion system, a new missile-launching system, a new warfighting network, and new defensive features. It will even provide a hull design for future missile-defense ships.
Third, the DDX isn’t going to replace all of the Navy’s destroyers. Twenty years from today, dozens of the existing Arleigh Burke class of destroyers will remain in the fleet, no doubt sporting refinements designed to enhance their versatility and reduce their costs. But there are some things you can’t do with existing warships, which is why building a handful of DDX’s makes sense. Costs will come down as technologies are better understood — they always do — but without the new technologies being developed for DDX, it isn’t so clear how the Navy prepares its warships for the future challenges they will surely face.
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