TCS Daily

Naval Overkill

By Melana Zyla Vickers - May 6, 2002 12:00 AM

In a fitting coincidence, the Navy has announced plans for its next generation of surface combatants just as it returns to duty the USS Cole, a destroyer attacked by Al Qaeda terrorists 19 months ago. The trouble, though, is that the Cole's class of formidable Arleigh Burke destroyers is more than up to the job of protecting U.S. interests, while the newly announced "next-generation" DD(X) destroyer, at some $1 billion a pop, is overkill.

Far better would be for the Navy to skip the DD(X) destroyer, which in many respects duplicates the missions of the Arleigh Burke destroyer, and to make plans to build a truly futuristic vessel such as a small, unmanned "Streetfighter" ship or the less-futuristic but useful Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) instead.

To be sure, the DD(X), for which Northrop Grumman last Monday won a $2.9 billion contract, is an impressive ship. Eschewing a destroyer's traditional shape and decks in favor of a low-to-the-water, boxy profile, the DD(X) promises to be stealthier, or better able to evade enemy radar, sonar, and magnetic detection than current ships. The DD(X) - which is the name of the destroyer but also the name of the family of vessels that would eventually include a cruiser as well as a smaller ship - would have a crew of 95-125, compared to the current destroyer and cruiser crews of 300-plus.

But much as those improvements are valuable, the final-product DD(X) destroyer won't be different enough from the Arleigh Burke destroyer to make it worth the money. Both are large surface combatants that may not be able to operate safely in shallow littoral waters. Both can house "vertical launch system" cells for missiles, as can other vessels in the U.S. fleet. Both ships have a land attack capability - as do Trident subs being converted to fire Tomahawk missiles. And the Arleigh Burkes themselves are still brand spanking new - only 34 of the expected 64 have left the shipyard. Adding the DD(X) to the Arleigh Burkes will simply make the U.S. fleet of 300-plus ships top-heavy with some 120 destroyers capable of firing in excess of 10,000 missiles, according to retired Marine Col. Bob Work of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, who has written a new paper on restructuring the Navy.

Many who follow Navy planning thought that the service had understood that it was duplicating itself and that it had wisely decided to skip a generation of vessels when it cancelled a destroyer called the DD-21 last fall. Alas, the vessel has resurfaced as the DD(X), squashing hope that the Navy was steaming full speed towards military transformation. The events give a new twist to the adage that a questionable defense program never dies, it just gets renamed.

By contrast, adding an unmanned "Streetfighter" and a new, small frigate called the Littoral Combat Ship to the U.S. fleet would signal a change in direction and the Navy's recognition of the environment in which it's likely to fight future wars. Among their virtues:

  • Perform shallow-water missions: a small unmanned vessel or an LCS, with a draft of 15 feet or less, could enter shallow littoral waters that current U.S. ships can't reach. The LCS would be particularly useful for maritime interdiction, drug enforcement, protection of coastal waters and other combat missions close to shore, for which larger ships are excessive.

  • Minimize casualties: an unmanned ship - nicknamed "Streetfighter" for its brazenness -- could enter enemy waters close to shore without putting sailors at risk of missile attack or other dangers, and take out maritime defenses. It could act as a decoy for enemy attacks while manned vessels stayed out of harm's way.

What's more, constructing the unmanned ships or the LCS would still occupy U.S. shipyards, as will continued construction of the Arleigh Burke. In other words, any argument that building the DD(X) is vital to preserving the U.S. industrial base - or to currying favor with politicians whose constituencies include the nation's two shipyards - doesn't hold water.

The Department of Defense still has the option of correcting its course. It could cut short the DD(X) funding, and plan instead to build a state-of-the-art, large surface combatant in a decade or two when it will truly be needed. DoD could use the saved money to accelerate immediately the LCS, which the Navy has described in only the vaguest of terms. Or it could begin an unmanned surface combatant program.

The DD(X) is a sign that the Navy is thinking one nautical mile into the future instead of many. That shortsightedness is costly and serves the U.S. military poorly in the long run.

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