A Billion Dollar Blunder?

By Ensign D.S. Dees, U.S. Navy

For all the advanced technology, stealthy characteristics, and substantial tonnage of weapons, questions have arisen as to whether the arsenal ship will be able to deliver what it advertises—a modern equivalent of the battleship. To accomplish this, the arsenal ship should be able to fight its way to a target, possibly take damage, and still fulfill its mission. The ship must accomplish all of this with a crew of 50, few if any defensive weapons of its own, and an enemy who knows where it is.

The defensive capability of the arsenal ship is to be based on its stealth characteristics. It is not designed to stand proudly offshore and display U.S. firepower, but it will reach its destination and lower its waterline until it is nearly submerged. It steam into position, take on thousand of tons of ballast, and sink its deck until it has as little as five feet of freeboard. This will be done to reduce the radar cross-section of the ship. 3 In addition to the reduced cross-section, the ship will boast such passive defenses as radar-absorbing materials and a design that attempts to minimize radar cross-section. 4

On board, the arsenal ship will have few weapons to protect itself from enemy ships, submarines, or missiles. It will lack any ability to detect enemy submarines because it will not have a sonar system. Close-in defenses also may be cut in an effort to reduce cost, even though most Navy leaders feel they are necessary. The Navy's drive to keep the cost of the arsenal ship down may preclude it even from mounting the Phalanx Close-In Weapon Systems. 5 Combat Information Center, a standard feature on all warships, will not be found on the arsenal ship. Instead, target, planning, and command decisions will be made at distant locations.

Because of the lack of any active defensive capability it will be necessary to escort the arsenal ships, wherever they steam. And the presence of one or two escort ships negates the value of the stealth built into the arsenal ship. All the enemy has to do is look for the escorts and it will find the arsenal ship, just as U.S. dive bombers followed the Japanese destroyer Arash back to the main armada at Midway. 6 The cost of these escorts also have not been considered in the $500-million budget for an arsenal ship. With an ever-shrinking Navy, it is important not to discount the cost of these additional ships. An even more poignant example of the vulnerability of the arsenal ship can be found in the Falkland Islands campaign. In 1982, a technologically superior British force still suffered substantial losses, caused by old planes fitted with either advanced missiles or dumb iron bombs. Today, the types of advanced missiles that sank the Sheffield are even more prevalent. 7 With no defensive weapons of its own, the arsenal ship will be forced to rely on the escorts to protect it from all enemy attacks. 8 If only one missile or bomb gets through, it is likely that the arsenal ship will be destroyed, with its deadly cargo.

Attack submarines pose an even deadlier threat to the arsenal ship. The arsenal ship will be a high-value target with no active antisubmarine defenses of its own. Supporters of the arsenal ship still argue that the passive defenses and stealthy characteristics are enough to defend it, but like an aircraft carrier, the arsenal ship will be a high-value unit and as such will be the subject of massive searches and heavy attacks. In 1982, then-retiring Admiral Hyman Rickover was asked how long U.S. carriers could survive in an all-out war. He said, "About two days." 9 Most other submarine officers agree that the high-value unit only provides a better target and despite the best efforts of ships, antisubmarine efforts fall far short of their goal. 10

In the everyday operations as well as during combat, the ship will rely upon highly automated systems. These systems will allow reduced manning and, even more important, reduced operating cost. 11 This ship will require a high degree of automation to do everything from missile firing to damage control, if the ship is damaged in combat. The level of automation found here will be a major step forward from today's ships and many argue a dangerous one. The editor of Jane's Fighting Ships , Captain Richard Sharpe, Royal Navy (retired), contends that it is impossible for a crew of 50-100 to man successfully a ship as large and complex as the arsenal ship. He contends that the idea behind the arsenal ship is a product of land-locked U.S. admirals who have forgotten the true nature of the sea. "The more time admirals spend ashore bombarded by industry's high technology and their own scientists, the more they believe that high technology solves everything." 12

The automation on the arsenal ship relies upon everything working as it is designed, something that those at sea never take for granted. "The man ashore begins to forget how hard things are to do at sea. The man at sea knows that nothing can be relied upon in equipment, and that goes for command data systems." 13 This was proved in September 1995 when, during missile strikes against Bosnian Serbs, the guided-missile cruiser Monterey (CG-61) was unable to fire any missiles. In this case, the Normandy (CG-60) was then able to step in and conduct the strike. 14 The arsenal ship will not have the luxury of a nearby replacement. A single glitch in the elaborate automation could keep the majority of the Navy's strike weapons stowed beneath deck.

Analyses of the survivability of the ship have stressed the need for the ship to be able to fight its way to the target, sustain and defeat surprise attacks, and be able to conduct sustained operations in littoral areas. This mission goal can be accomplished in two ways: by improving the defensive capabilities of the ship and making escorts; and by improving the ship's ability to absorb punishment. 15 These two objectives can be attained by increasing the number of escorts, adding self-defense weapons, and improving the construction of the vessel by adding things such as a double-hull. The Navy, with its drive to keep the ship's cost below $550 million is not planning to include many ship modifications. Even if it did, how able is a floating arsenal with a crew of 50 to fight off an attack or repair the damage from it? The damage a single Exocet missile did to the Sheffield was far greater than anyone imagined it would be. 16 The lesson of the Sheffield incident is that it is hard to predict what will happen in a chaotic situation, such as that caused by a missile strike. Redundant systems, adequate personal and rugged ships—not automation—are the keys to survival. The Enterprise (CVN-65), with systems such as these, was able to successfully control an explosion and deck fire in 1969, resuming flight operations in 24 hours. 17 Would the crew of 50 on the arsenal ship be able to do the same?

In addition, the target cost for the arsenal ship of $450-$550 million, does not include the cost of the missiles. 18 With the addition of 500-750 missiles the cost of a fully-loaded arsenal ship skyrockets to $2 billion dollars. 19 This kind of budget for a single ship means only one thing; cuts in the number of other ships that can be built. As General Jacques Mitterrand, president of the firm that built the Exocet stated: "The significance of the Sheffield attack is that it will make navies realize once more the importance of smaller naval vessels." 20 This is a sentiment that has been expressed before in the Navy about carriers, and it remains true with the arsenal ship. With the arsenal ship, the Navy is once again betting on the ability of a single ship to deliver the knockout blow, without considering whether that ship itself may be knocked out of action.

Despite the criticism that the ship is undermanned, under-gunned, and vulnerable to multiple forms of enemy attack, the Navy is pressing ahead with the idea. The arsenal ship is a revolutionary idea that needs to be reconsidered. It represents a scientist's dream and a sailor's nightmare. By developing the arsenal ship, the Navy is sacrificing proven firepower, in the hope of achieving the elusive wonder weapon of the future.

1 Smith. Lieutenant Neil A., "Can the Arsenal Ship Survive?" Proceedings, January 1997, pp. 80-81.

2 Blazar, Ernest, "Future Shock: Arsenal Ship will have small crew & big punch," Navy Times, 29 July 1996, pp. 12-14.

3 Sweetman, Bill "Floating Arsenal." Popular Science, V 248, February 1996, p. 24.

4 Blazer,pp.12-14

5 Ibid. pp. 12-14

6 Polmar, Morman, "More Bang for the Buck," January 1996, pp. 8788.

7 "An Odd Little War Turns Ugly." Newesweek May 17, 1982, p.35.

8 Blazar, pp. 12-14

9 "Are Big Warships Dommed?." Newsweek, May 17, 1982, p.35

10 Ibid., pp.35.

11 Smith, pp.80-81

12 Blazar,p12-14.

13 Ibid.,pp.12-14

14 Ibid.,pp.12-14.

15 Smith,,pp.80-81

16 Turner, ADm. Stansfield,"The Sheffield Shock."Newsweek, May 17, 1982, p. 45.

17 "Are Big Warships Dommed?"p.35

18 Smith, pp.80-81

19 Blazar,pp.12-14

20 "Are Big Warships Dommed?"p.35.

A native of Westlake, Ohio, Ensign Dees is stationed at Naval Air Station Pensacola where he is in training to become a naval flight officer. 


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