The Wrong Debate

By Captain Michael J. Miller, U.S. Navy (Retired), and Robert E. Gray

Not the Same Missions. Not Even Close

In truth, the two ship classes are not and have never been competitors. The fear here is that resuming the arguments casting them as such will be counterproductive in what will be a cutthroat budgeting atmosphere. The long-term health of our surface combatant shipbuilding programs will depend less on presenting specific ship classes as competitive solutions to postulated threats or operating scenarios than on promoting within Congress and the general public a broad understanding of where each ship fits in fulfilling the Fleet’s role in underwriting national security policy.

A case can be made that it was the conceptual and the programmatic isolation of DDG-1000 from the Fleet as a whole that ultimately forced the truncation decision—leaving proponents without a basis for defending the program other than comparing the perceived shortcomings of existing ships to the promise of transcendent new capabilities resident in the Zumwalt . An open letter to the Secretary of Defense in The Wall Street Journal in 2009, for example, asserted that “the battle lines between legacy platforms and new technology have been drawn” and that “the question is whether to continue investing in the tried and proven DDG-51 with the Aegis combat system or shift to a futuristic platform now under construction and defined as the DDG-1000.” 3

DDG-51 was conceived and built to execute the traditional roles of a multi-mission destroyer. Those missions were historically defensive. Thus, it was designed to operate with and protect carrier battle groups (CVBGs), surface action groups (SAGs) and amphibious readiness groups (ARGs) as well to take on certain less-intensive missions alone. The number of DDG-51s was calculated to replace older destroyer classes and to help defend the number of CVBGs, SAGs, and ARGs that the Navy had planned at the time of their design. More than 60 of the destroyers have since been commissioned and have become the workhorses of the Fleet today. Despite DDG-51’s primarily defensive purpose, its Mk 41 vertical launching system enabled it to fire the Tomahawk missile, giving it a strike capability that could supplement and disperse the offensive power resident in carrier air wings and Marine expeditionary units. That enabled them to fulfill certain roles previously reserved for cruisers and larger ships.

Although DDG-51 was designed during the Cold War, not a single ship was commissioned until after the Soviet Union collapsed. Had it not been well-suited for post-Cold War operations, the time to cancel its construction would have been in the early 1990s. Instead, the Navy elected to press on with DDG-51 construction precisely because the defensive and offensive characteristics of the ship were ideal for conducting post-Cold War naval operations. This has been proved time and again during crises in Southwest Asia and Eastern Europe. The Navy also continued to upgrade the ships with modern systems as the ships were being built. Adding improved antisubmarine warfare (ASW) capability (including helos) to later ships resulted in a flexible, multipurpose warship that could be employed offensively and defensively in any theater against a multitude of potential threats.

DDG-1000 was designed to play two very different roles in the post-Cold War strategic environment. The first was operational and was reflected in its early designation as a “land attack destroyer” in a littoral scenario. This role evolved from the arsenal ship concept, which had a similar thrust, and assumed that a significant fleet of aircraft carriers, cruisers, and destroyers already existed. DDG-1000 was to add a new capability in the early stages of littoral combat by being able to station itself close to land undetected and unload its magazines against targets many miles inland in support of invasion forces. Thus, it had to be stealthy, a requirement that resulted in its reduced-signature design.

It also was to be armed with a very long range gun, new to the fleet, and strike missiles. In its land attack destroyer role it did not need to defend other ships or forces, nor was it designed to—the Fleet already had ships for that. Therefore, it was to be armed with a “self-defense” anti-air warfare capability (short-range missiles and a horizon-search, multifunction radar) and an ASW system designed primarily for littoral operations. 4 The ship also had an L-band radar to provide early warning against certain missile attacks.

DDG-1000’s second purpose was to introduce to the Fleet a number of new 21st-century technologies that had been proposed by various studies, including the Ship Operational Characteristic Study in the late 1980s. Many of those new technologies were aimed at Fleet-wide upgrading of hull, mechanical, and electrical capabilities, and included elements such as electric drive, automated damage control, composite deckhouses, and tumble-home hulls. These capabilities, introduced in DDG-1000, were to be incorporated in future carriers, surface ships, and submarines as appropriate.

Constrained by the Littoral Role

Ironically, DDG-1000’s optimization for the postulated littoral environment may have left it vulnerable to attack from a different sort of land-based threat—the budget ax. While the Zumwalt slowly took form and the millennium turned, its land-attack contribution became a lower national priority. At the same time, the ballistic-missile threat, which had been around for years, became more ominous. Not only could ballistic missiles target cities and troops ashore, but certain versions in development by potential adversaries could threaten carriers and large-deck amphibious ships. Arming the Fleet to deal with that threat became both a national and a Navy investment priority.

Such BMD missions fell naturally to ships most nearly designed to accomplish them—the Aegis cruisers and destroyers that had been conceived and built to execute traditional Fleet roles, area air defense chief among them. But after several years of saying it had an adequate fleet of DDG-51s, the Navy suddenly found that it did not have enough to take on the new mission in addition to those the ships originally were built to execute.

In view of the shift in priorities, it became more challenging to justify construction of the new ship class—at least in the numbers once envisioned—on the basis of more urgent operational imperatives. As a result, arguments for the DDG-1000 first shifted to emphasize the ship’s new technology, weaponry, and projected cost efficiencies. Soon thereafter, the Zumwalt also began to be actively promoted as a “multimission” ship; barbed comparisons with the DDG-51 began to appear. A volume search radar, or VSR, was added to the design in place of the L-Band radar, and a Standard Missile was included in its potential magazine load-out. The VSR, key to defending any ships or forces other than DDG-1000 itself against air or missile attacks, had to be developed. Ultimately, this proved too difficult in terms of time and budget constraints. VSR was removed from the ship. Its Fleet introduction was retargeted for the Ford -class aircraft carrier.

Consequently, the DDG-1000s now under construction still largely reflect the land-attack role in the littorals that drove their original design. They are destroyers in name only. Their current warfighting role is more accurately that of modern battleships than traditional destroyers, whose primary role is to defend others. They certainly are not traditional DDGs.

Despite clear differences in the two ship classes, arguments pitting them against each other are reappearing. as mentioned, much of the debate now is concerned with the route to characterizing future combatants, with particular emphasis on the emerging BMD mission. DDG-1000 proponents assert that the ship’s developmental combat system can easily be modified to meet BMD requirements, pointing to the adaptability and projected cost savings resulting from its open architecture design and reduced crew requirements. Even if such claims turn out to be true, an adequate number of BMD-capable DDG-1000s cannot be built as soon as an adequate number of DDG-51s can be armed to counter the growing BMD threat.

Moreover, adding BMD capability to DDG-1000 would require remaking some of the same type investments it took to upgrade DDG-51s, but from a different starting point. Remember: Re-engineering the Aegis design for BMD began more than 20 years ago. It would require additional funding beyond what the Navy has currently programmed in R&D and procurement. Even if the Navy committed to upgrading DDG-1000 with BMD capabilities, the DDG-51s would still have to be upgraded as well if the nation is to have a strong fleet capability while it waits for enough DDG-1000s to be built. That is not to say DDG-1000 or a version of it cannot someday play an important missile-defense role. It is, however, an acknowledgement that the ship isn’t currently designed for it and will need serious planning, attention, and resources to make it so. It will be no chip shot.

A Proper Framework for Decision-Making

That said, how should the Navy and the public think about the two ship classes, especially in light of the looming tight fiscal environment? We suggest the strategy and story should cast the ships not as competitors, but as complementary building blocks of the future Fleet. The story is best understood in two parts. The first part should not focus on any particular operating environment or threat—even ballistic missiles—but rather reaffirm the Fleet’s essential role in underwriting national security policy by fulfilling its strategic responsibilities of deterrence, presence, crisis response, sea control, and credible power projection internationally. Key to effectively telling this part of the story will be to address the Fleet in its entirety—a global force whose elements operate in mutual support and that is task-organized as necessary to meet challenges across the range of conflict.

In the second part of the strategy and story, the Navy should sharpen its plan for how future surface combatants will evolve from both the practical learning on how to do BMD that is going on in DDG-51s, and from the experience being gained in the DDG-1000 technology efforts. The argument should be to get the best of “both-and,” not “either-or.” While today we don’t need an absolutely perfect path to the replacement ships of the future, we do need to create options for future leaders who will have to make those decisions. Those options should be built on both efforts.

In one of his Aviation Week articles, Fabey reported in August that a briefing was being prepared for the CNO presenting an option for buying more DDG-1000s. 5 Assuming that briefing has taken place, the following three suggestions for inclusion in subsequent presentations are respectfully submitted. These suggestions are intended to clarify the reality that the media apples-versus-oranges debate has obscured:

1. As operational ships, DDG-51 and DDG-1000 are not competitors. They will exist at the same time, were designed to execute different missions, and were meant to complement each other. DDG-1000 was never conceived or designed as a replacement for DDG-51. Frankly, it is not needed as a replacement .

2. DDG-51 and DDG-1000 are also not competitors as building blocks to future ship designs. Instead, engineering advances, technologies, and designs should be captured from each to create options for our future Fleet and ships. In some cases, there may be competing designs or technologies from which only one solution can or will be pursued; however, such pursuits will rarely be at the ship-class level. In fact, only the size and type of the hull even remotely approaches that level, and making a choice on that topic today is premature by a factor of years. We have time to let the DDG-1000 hull form prove itself at sea.

3. Several years ago, the surface Navy embarked on a campaign to improve its functionality and capabilities “up” (area anti-air warfare), “out” (strike and precision fires), and “down” (antisubmarine and mine warfare). Fostering both ships allows the Fleet to hone the edge of the tactical automated missile defense/theater ballistic-missile defense sword in DDG-51, sharpen the spear of strike and precision fires in DDG-1000, and temper ASW and mine warfare shields with both. The lessons, tactics, and technologies forged from all three should be incorporated into our Fleet modernization and construction planning.

From Debate to Reality

Spinning an inappropriate comparison between the two ship classes into a continuing public debate about “legacy systems versus the future” or “the Navy fighting the last war” provides for some entertaining media. But it is clearly the wrong way to hold an effective discussion on the future of Navy shipbuilding. Assessments of the DDG-51 and DDG-1000 classes must begin with the reality that these are two different ships designed to carry out very different missions. As currently designed, DDG-1000 simply cannot perform the BMD mission for which the new DDG-51s are designed. Whether or not DDG-1000 should be reconfigured to perform that mission cannot be appropriately decided until the first DDG-1000 puts to sea and demonstrates that it can effectively carry out the missions for which it was designed.

DDG-51 was not designed from the keel up to be a land-attack destroyer. From that perspective, it cannot be compared to DDG-1000 in such a role, despite the fact that it is a proven Tomahawk shooter. Both DDG-51 and DDG-1000 can be considered multipurpose ships because they can be used in more than one role—particularly in the traditional destroyer warfare areas of antisurface warfare and ASW. But being multipurpose does not make them competitors in either the Fleet air defense/BMD or long-range strike roles. The reality is that—in those areas—their capabilities were never intended to correspond. There is simply nothing to debate.

Perhaps if we can put some closure to this “debate” over naval apples and oranges we can put our analytical efforts and enthusiasm to examining whether the future of the surface Navy should be one of multipurpose or more specialized ships. Now, there’s a debate!



1. Michael Fabey, “U.S. Navy’s AMDR Program Sets Big Goals,” AviationWeek.com, 1 June 2011; Fabey, “Potential DDG-51 Flight III Growth Alarms,” AviationWeek.com, 10 June 2011; Fabey, “Navy Radar Efforts Solidify BMD Commitment,” AviationWeek.com, 13 June 2011; Fabey, “Zumwalt Destroyer Supporters Hope for Revival,” AviationWeek.com, 28 June 2011; Fabey, “DDG-51 Restart Raises Questions,” AviationWeek.com, 11 July 2011; Fabey, “Zumwalt Destroyer Remains on Course,” AviationWeek.com, 2 August 2011; Fabey, “Now May Be Time To Weigh Destroyer Options,” AviationWeek.com, 31 August 2011.

2. Michael Fabey, “GAO Probing U.S. Navy Decision to Restart DDG-51 Line,” Aerospace Daily and Defense Report , 12 September 2011.

3. The Wall Street Journal (Washington edition), 17 March 2009, letter to the editor signed by ADM Henry Mauz, USN (Ret.), Dr. Phil Depoy, and RADM Philip A. Dur, USN (Ret.).

4. One of the few systems directed by the Navy into all DDG-1000 competitive designs was the Multi-Function X-band Radar or MFR which had been in development since the NAAWS program.

5. Michael Fabey, “Zumwalt Destroyer Remains On Course,” AviationWeek.com 2 August 2011.

Captain Miller served on active duty from 1972 to 2003 as a surface warfare officer, commanding the USS Stein (FF-1065), Destroyer Squadron Twenty-Two, and Afloat Training Group Atlantic. He is now an independent consultant, and with coauthor Gray helped lead the Surface Warfare Capabilities Study 21 for CNOs Admiral Mike Mullen and Admiral Gary Roughead.

Mr. Gray is chief operating officer of the management consulting firm Strategic Insight, based in Arlington, Virginia. He has been a consultant on numerous Navy and national programs, such as the National Maglev Initiative and the Super Conducting Super Collider. He coauthored “Acquisition Reform the Meyer Way” in the December 2010 Proceedings .

 

 
 

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