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Surface Forces: When The Future Becomes Unaffordable
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June 10, 2011: The U.S. Navy, frustrated in its efforts to come up with a new, affordable, destroyer design, has decided to keep building upgraded versions of the DDG 51 Arleigh Burke class ships for the next twenty years. This means that this destroyer design will stay in production for over half a century. The navy hopes that, in the next two decades, it can come up with a destroyer design that it can afford to have replace the DDG 51. This means that the last DDG 51 probably won’t retire until the 2070s, nearly a century after the first of its class entered service.

In addition to building new Burkes, the navy is upgrading eleven of its 62 Burkes, at a cost of $34 million each. This is one of many upgrades that will be undertaken for many of the fleet's older destroyers and cruisers. Most of the work will upgrade or replace electrical or electronic components. But there will also be work on mechanical and structural components.

All this is a result of new ships being too expensive, and older ships being too effective. This is nothing new. Sometimes a weapon comes along that is too damn useful to replace. One outstanding example is the Sidewinder air-to-air missile. Another is the M-16 (5.56mm) rifle. Both have been around for over half a century, and no one can come up with a clearly superior replacement. Same thing is happening in the U.S. Navy, where attempts to replace the Arleigh Burke class destroyers have met with failure.

The navy put much effort into developing a successor for the Burke. But, in the end, the navy could only justify building, at most, three of the new DDG-1000 class ships. Instead, they resumed building Arleigh Burke class destroyers. It's a matter of cost, and effectiveness. The new DDG-1000 destroyers (and slightly larger versions designated as cruisers) would cost more than $4 billion each if built in large quantities. The Burkes cost a billion dollars each. The last of Burkes was ordered in 2002 and are under construction. But new orders are now planned, to be built over the next two decades.

Meanwhile, the navy will buy some time (about a decade) by upgrading dozens of existing destroyers and cruisers. This is a bitter pill to swallow, as only a decade ago, the navy was so sure about the new DDG-1000, that it accelerated the retirement of a dozen of the 31 Spruance class destroyers, in order to save the $28 million a year it cost to keep each of them in service. These ships were not just retired, they were all either broken up, or sunk in training exercises. The dozen that entered service between 1979-83 could have been refurbished and been available until 2019. That was a lost opportunity. But what can now be done is refurb the Burke class destroyers (which began entering service in the 1990s). Most of the Ticonderoga class cruisers (which entered service in the 1980s and 90s) can use the refurb as well, which could boost their service into the 2030s. This, plus building a dozen or more Burke class destroyers.

The refurb policy will ultimately cost about $200 million per destroyer (and 20-25 percent more for the cruisers). Normally, these ships get one refurb during their 30 year lives. This not only fixes lots of things that have broken down or worn out (and been patched up), but installs lots of new technology. A second refurb is expected to add another 5-10 years of serviceability. But this special refurb will do more than that. The navy wants to add some of the DDG-1000 technology to these older ships. In particular, the navy wants to install the "smart ship" type automation (found in civilian ships for decades) that will enable crew size to be reduced. The "smart ship" gear also includes better networking and power distribution. In effect, the ship would be rewired. This could reduce the crew size by 20-30 percent (current destroyers have a crew of 275). In addition to considerable cost savings (over $100,000 a year per sailor), a smaller crew takes up less space, enabling the smaller crew to have more comfortable living quarters. This is a big deal as far as morale and retention (getting people to stay in the navy) goes. Most other new items are not space dependent, except for some of the power based ones (like the rail gun). But these technologies are receding farther into the future. Right now the navy has to find a way to live within its budget, and refurbishing existing warships shows more promise than trying build affordable new ones.

The navy can afford more Burkes because this is a design that is the culmination of over half a century of World War II and Cold War destroyer experience. Even after the Burke was designed, in the 1980s, the design evolved. The first Burkes were 8,300 ton ships, while the latest ones, laden with more gear, and smaller crews, are 10,000 tons (what heavy cruisers weighed in World War II). With a top speed of nearly 50 kilometers an hour, their main armament is 90 vertical launch tubes flush with the deck, that can contain anti-aircraft, anti-ship, anti-missile or cruise missiles. There is also a 127mm (5 inch) gun, two 20mm anti-missile autocannon, six torpedo tubes and two helicopters. The Burkes were well thought out, sturdy and they got the job done. They became irreplaceable, and thus this class of warships will last a century.

 

 

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Sty0pa       6/10/2011 12:14:05 PM
I know it's a deep disappointment to all the congressmen, lobbyists, and general Washington parasites, but newer != better.
 
For example, the simple fact is that while it's always necessary to know where the cutting edge is technologically (and our Pearl Harbor history almost requires that we at least keep a toe there), the world is so striated now that block 60 F16's are more than adequate to deal with 9/10ths of the threat environments out there.
 
Similarly, a circa 1970-Nimitz, with today's electronics, is more than capable to deal with 99% of the navies on the globe.
 
We've pretty clearly reached a point in terms of our superpower status at or past the 80/20 return point.   In fact, with the ample field experience our ground forces have over the last 10 years, that ALONE (which I think is more important for land force efficacy than 'shiny new toys' to a large degree) puts us decades ahead of any other military on the planet.
 
Sadly, military tech and operational familiarity has a fairly certain expiry date; if you don't keep ahead, you fall behind.  
 
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eldnah       6/10/2011 4:00:03 PM
With our dependency on overseas oil and other resources what we need are open-ocean 5,000ish ton escorts capable of defeating submarines ans sub lauched missiles as well as specialized mine warfare ships rather than LCSs. 
 
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eldnah       6/10/2011 4:03:15 PM
Given our dependency on overseas oil what is needed is an open ocean escort 5-6,000 ton optimized for the anti-submarine role and able to knock down sub launched missles and specialized mine warfare ships rather than LCSs.
 
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RedParadize       6/15/2011 12:09:00 PM
Sty0pa:
I know it's a deep disappointment to all the congressmen, lobbyists, and general Washington parasites, but newer != better.
 
For example, the simple fact is that while it's always necessary to know where the cutting edge is technologically (and our Pearl Harbor history almost requires that we at least keep a toe there), the world is so striated now that block 60 F16's are more than adequate to deal with 9/10ths of the threat environments out there.
 
Similarly, a circa 1970-Nimitz, with today's electronics, is more than capable to deal with 99% of the navies on the globe.
 
We've pretty clearly reached a point in terms of our superpower status at or past the 80/20 return point.   In fact, with the ample field experience our ground forces have over the last 10 years, that ALONE (which I think is more important for land force efficacy than 'shiny new toys' to a large degree) puts us decades ahead of any other military on the planet.
 
Sadly, military tech and operational familiarity has a fairly certain expiry date; if you don't keep ahead, you fall behind.  
 
You know, B-52 is still used today too, Its good enougth to deliver todays top notch weapon system if it have been properly updated. Same goes with the Arleigh Burke class. You realy think its worth spending 4 times more for a DDG 1000 with the current economy and complete naval supremacy?
 
Think about it, if you can maintain and update DDG-51 for a tiny fraction of the cost, you can spend your money elsewhere. Like on the weapons systems thats gonna be delivered by the destroyer.
 
 
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WarNerd       6/15/2011 6:52:29 PM
Given our dependency on overseas oil what is needed is an open ocean escort 5-6,000 ton optimized for the anti-submarine role and able to knock down sub launched missles and specialized mine warfare ships rather than LCSs.
Commerce raiding is a long war strategy, and submarines are unlikely to be available in quantity except to nation-states. Even then, the quantity of submarines available will be too low to engage in general attacks on commerce, through selective attacks and blockading of ports is practical in some cases. In WWI and WWII the Germany in the Atlantic and America in the Pacific had submarine forces over 100 strong, not even the US has that many operational submarines now.

The number of submarines is critical because of the size of the merchant fleet. With several 100 vessels per day docking in US ports damaging or sinking a few will have little effect. To protect even just the tankers will require well over 100 of your ships (you will need 2 per tanker to supply complete anti-missile coverage against sea-skimmers, those things are up to 5x+ the size of an aircraft carrier and will create a big hole in your sensor coverage), which is unaffordable.

Besides, 6000 tons is the size of a Spruance class destroyer. With saving from not having to create and test a new hull and increased serial production, it might be cheaper just to build an updated version (more automation, smaller crew) of the Flight IIA Arleigh Burke class destroyer. You will need nearly the same electronics suite for the area defense anti-missile role and several helicopters with a hanger for anti-submarine work. You can easily leave half the VLS empty if you like.
 
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