Surface Forces: March 3, 2004

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The US Congress is pushing plans for a new bomber to be delivered by 2037. But instead of relying on a single platform for its long-range missile capability, the Air Force is looking towards alternatives. Of these options, which include hypersonic vehicles, conventional ICBMs, and unmanned aircraft (UAVs), the most surprising  proposal is the Arsenal Ship. 

Plans for an all-missile firing surface ship came in 1994, as a class of 6 vessels, each armed with 500 long-range missiles. Weaponry would have included a version of the Tomahawk cruise missile designed to destroy armor, called the Brilliant Anti-Tank submunition. The Armys Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) and Standard surface to air missiles would also be loaded in the ships vertical launch system. Arsenal Ships would forgo a massive superstructure embedded with sensors and fire control systems, relying on Aegis cruisers and destroyers for command and control, and missile guidance. In this she would be similar to the aircraft carrier, which also relies on other warships for support.

Many ideas which the Navy is incorporating in its future warships were first proposed in the Arsenal Ship program. Crew rotation, now called sea swapping, was planned to keep the vessel forward deployed as much as possible, save for routine maintenance. Also, reduced manning techniques would have allowed the ship to sail with less than 50 crew members. Arsenal Ships were the original littoral combat ship (LCS) and many ingenious countermeasures would be incorporated to defend it in shallow waters. Counter flooding would be used off an enemy shore, causing it to settle low in the water, reducing its radar signature. A double hull to prevent sinking would absorb mine or torpedo strikes.

Supporters promoted the arsenal ship as a complement to America's expensive and over-worked aircraft carriers. Not surprisingly it was cancelled in 1997 for budgetary reasons, and opposition from the carrier lobby in the Navy. The idea was revived again during the 2000 presidential elections as part of the new administration's plan to beef up the offensive power of the Navy. As often happens after elections, this plan seems to have been forgotten, though the concept is refusing to die out completely.

Older Ohio class Trident submarines, which were scheduled for retirement, are being converted into arsenal ships of a sort. Their spacious missile tubes, which formerly carried nuclear weapons, will be loaded with 154 long range and conventional Tomahawk cruise missiles. Four of these undersea battleships are due for conversion, and will also carry Special Forces along with unmanned vehicles. 

Precision guided munitions (PGMs) have increased the effectiveness of bombers ten-fold since 1992. The accuracy of the new weapons is giving airpower strategist new ideas as how they can be applied to cheaper delivery vehicles. Tomahawk cruise missiles, which can be fired from arsenal ships, have proved their accuracy since deployment in the 1980s. Newer versions now being tested will be cheaper, even more accurate, and carry more than one guided warhead to improve its cost-effectiveness. The time may be right for the Arsenal Ship in some form to be built.

A new bomber is still in the works, considering the vital role these veteran workhorses are playing in the post Cold War military. Congress recently allocated $45 million in the 2004 budget for a new plane and is pushing for the reactivation of 21 B-1Bs that are in reserve, to boost the current bomber fleet. The arsenal ship, along with UAVs and missiles, is the Air Force's way of not placing all its strike options into one vulnerable and expensive asset.

 


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