Arsenal Ship Survives . . . for Now

By Norman Polmar

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.

The arsenal ship evolved from two situations, neither of which involved the battleship:

  • During Desert Storm-as in all U.S. ground conflicts-massive amounts of ordnance, weapons to fire it, and vehicles and fuel to move it all were transported to the Gulf almost entirely by ship. For example, a single Coalition armored division had to stockpile more than 25,000 tons of munitions in Saudi Arabia. Not only did the ordnance have to be landed, moved to a supply dump, then taken up to the front lines, but all that time it was vulnerable to Scud missiles and air attacks, as well as to Iraqi commando strikes.

The arsenal ship could provide much of that ordnance on target from the sea. Thus, the ship that brings the ordnance (missiles) into a forward area also could launch it, saving shipping space, vehicles, and people.

  • U.S. cruisers and destroyers of the Ticonderoga (CG-47), Arleigh Burke (DDG-51), and Spruance (DD-963) classes fitted with vertical-launch systems cannot reload their missile cells during underway replenishment. Rather, when their missiles are expended, they must withdraw to a secure harbor area to replenish, depriving the local force commander of ships with highly capable radar, weapons control, antisubmarine, and helicopter capabilities.

The arsenal ship could provide missiles on the scene in an economical and effective manner.

If the arsenal ship must be compared with an existing ship type, it should be an ammunition ship (AE) or fast combat support ship (AOE)-although there still are differences. The AE and AOE deliver their missiles to the combat area stowed in a horizontal position; they must be broken out, brought topside, and transferred to a warship, where they are loaded into the launch cells, checked out, and made ready for launch. The arsenal ship, upon entering the area, could immediately begin firing missiles-antiair or land attack or even antiship-with the missiles controlled by another warship, by an aircraft, or by a controller ashore.

Is the arsenal ship vulnerable? Yes, but much less so than the AE/AOE. Stealth features can help the arsenal ship reach the combat area; once there, the cruisers and destroyers will provide defense, using some of the arsenal ship's own missiles. Indeed, many forward-operating naval ships cannot effectively defend themselves against modern threats, especially amphibious ships, replenishment ships, and even battleships.

Another critic has declared,

There's no way a ship as large as the arsenal ship is envisioned-it could be up to 800 feet long-can be successfully crewed by 25, 50, or 100 sailors. Who will maintain and repair the topside replenishment fittings? Who will run diagnostics on each of the missiles? Who will cook the food?

Large ships do not mean large crews, if there are few or no mission related personnel. For example, a 300,000-ton supertanker has a crew of 25 or fewer because the crew does not operate weapons, handle cargo, conduct underway replenishment, etc. The arsenal ship also would be highly automated, making use of advanced materials now available that require little or no upkeep at sea and employing state-of-the-art electronic systems. The minimal manning proposed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) panel is shown in Figure 1. A crew as small as 25 is possible because the arsenal ship will be highly automated and will have no combat information center or fire direction requirements. Her missiles-several hundred of them will be "wooden rounds"; once loaded into their vertical-launch cells, they will be electronically monitored. No technician will have to "touch" them. We do not now handle vertical-launch Tomahawk missiles carried by attack submarines of the improved Los Angeles (SSN-688) class. The later Tomahawks, the planned Fast hawk missile, and the Standard missiles (both antiair and antiballistic variants) and the naval version of the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) are being configured for long-duration, hands-off deployments.

Also under development for possible use in the arsenal ship is the vertical gun for advanced ships (VGAS). This is a high-rate-of-fire, vertical 155-mm/52-caliber gun system. VGAS, a twin-barrel weapon, shoots rocket-assisted rounds straight up; at a certain point they are "captured" by laser guidance and guided to the target. Proposals call for a rate of fire of up to 15 rounds per minute per barrel. The two-barrel system, with some 1,400 all-up rounds, fits in the space of a 64-cell vertical launcher. A demonstration of the VGAS is scheduled for June 1998 and it could be installed in the arsenal ship demonstrator the following year.

The arsenal ship is being developed, albeit with reduced funding, under the Navy-DARPA effort with three contractors selected in January 1997. One firm will be selected in January 1998 to develop the demonstration ship. The Navy's planning for the program still calls for an eventual force of six (including the demonstrator). Comparisons of the arsenal ship with the battleship-or with any existing warship are as fallacious as comparing an attack submarine to a ballistic missile submarine. They both float and submerge, and some systems are similar, but they look, are armed, and operate very differently.

Continued calls by "battleship whiners" have garnered no support within the Navy, the Department of Defense, or even the Marine Corps. Battleships are too expensive to operate-they each need more than 1,600 crewmen, they cost large amounts to reactivate, and in the wake of the 1989 turret explosion on board the Iowa (BB-61), new powder must be produced. Even finding the 1,600 men and women to man a ship would be difficult in view of the specialized skills required for a battleship. They would require new classes to be established and even new training devices to be developed.

Indeed, a more effective alternative to battleship guns-that could be obtained for far less cost-would be to rearm the seven ships of the Spruance (DD-963) class that do not have vertical-launch systems with the VGAS. Each VGAS-armed DD-963 would retain a full antisubmarine capability, including facilities for two large, SH-60 Seahawk helicopters, in addition to the rapid-fire gun system. An alternative plan is to provide VGAS in the DD-21 land-attack variant of the SC-21 surface combatant. This ship currently is known as the Maritime Fire Support Demonstrator, a concept that eventually could be merged with the arsenal ship. If the U.S. Navy is to survive as an effective force in the early 21st century, senior Navy and defense leaders and members of Congress must be open-minded and imaginative. The arsenal ship is a concept that must be examined objectively, not dismissed out of hand as a poor replacement for the near-impotent battleship.


Norman Polmar is an internationally known analyst, consultant, and award-winning author specializing in the naval, aviation, and intelligence areas. He has participated in or directed major studies in these areas for the U.S. Department of Defense and Navy, and served as a consultant to U.S. and foreign commercial firms and government agencies. He has been an advisor or consultant on naval issues to three U.S. Secretaries of the Navy and two Chiefs of Naval Operations, as well as to three U.S. Senators and a Speaker of the House of Representatives. He is the author or coauthor of more than 50 published books, including nine editions of Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet and four editions of Guide to the Soviet Navy as well as U.S. Nuclear Arsenal, Ship Killer, and Project Azorian. Mr. Polmar writes regularly for Proceedings and was a columnist for the magazine for over thirty-eight years. He also writes for Naval History magazine. Polmar is a resident of Alexandria, VA.

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