The DD-21 as Deus ex Machina

By T. J. McKearney

Looking at traditional concepts is a sure-fire way to get branded as irrelevant in today's military planning environment, where the new and the controversial are the keys to success. But consider what we're doing. The tin can's primary weapon in the last major war was the gun. As a main battery it was hard to beat: it could be aimed at land, air, and surface targets, could be repaired and replenished easily from on-board resources and forward-based logistics, and was locally controlled.

Faced with more sophisticated tactical threats, we stuffed our destroyers with the first of the designer weapons: hedgehogs, ASROCS, surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missiles. These fortunately filled the bill without disturbing the tin can's essential nature—a snappy little sea-going watchdog, intended to buy a small slice of sea control in either blue water or the littoral.

Times have changed. We are the world's premier naval power (with an asterisk for downsizing and some gaping holes in shallow-water capability), but our overall strategic consciousness regarding the post-Cold War world has led to a belief that the next battle will be in some far-off corner just beyond the reach of U.S. land-based forces. It is this that has driven the Navy to dedicate its first major combatant buy of the new century to the "battle ashore." But does the DD-21 represent an astute understanding of what our joint warfighting needs are, or does it represent a fear that if we cannot play in the latest game that there is no role at all for us?

Two things should bother us about the concept of the land attack destroyer. First, it offers the temptation to exert dramatic but ill-conceived influence, perhaps rapidly and relatively safely, but with all the shortcomings of extemporaneous strategy, making claims of muscle flexing, imperialism, and interference. Second, the concept should lead to some soul-searching questions regarding the increasingly quaint issue of sea control. Naval forces are supposed to fight at sea but the current frenzy over joint operations has resulted in a decidedly landward gaze from the Navy.

So what's a modern destroyer to do? For starters, it could do what destroyers have done for most of this century: provide a versatile package of sea control that occasionally and, out of necessity, brushes up against the shoreline. Lest we forget, the dangerous land masses we are so worried about these days are surrounded by dangerous waters that are becoming more challenging, thanks to antiship missiles, faster patrol craft, newer submarines, and a global trade in sophisticated naval weapons. Building a next generation destroyer to control these waters makes sense, particularly since the limitations on installed weaponry will make this modestly priced ship somewhat limited in mission capability.

The end of the Cold War was supposed to bring about the demise of our continental strategy. It should have heralded a new age in American naval strategy. A brief consideration of the contemporary world would lead us to think so; we are on friendly terms with the major land powers, and the armies on the march today generally are small and ill-equipped. It would seem that the most important thing the Navy can do for our overall strategy is to ensure access to those littoral regions in which we are interested. Instead, Navy strategists and ship builders are preoccupied with crushing battalions.

In the meantime, who's watching the water?

Commander McKearney, U.S. Navy (Retired) , is an analyst at Kapos Associates in San Diego working on joint and naval command-and-control issues.

 

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