A Modular Warship for 2025

By Lieutenant Commander Matthew Smidt, U.S. Navy, and Captain Michael Junge, U.S. Navy

In January 2013 retired Admiral B. J. Mcullough wrote in Proceedings that the Arleigh Burke class, now at the Flight III, was “The Right Destroyer at the Right Time,” advocating for the continuing construction of a design first put forward in the 1970s. It is long past time for the Navy to stop looking backward in ship design. Long past time for the Navy to break the two traditions of shipbuilding. Long past time for the Navy to design and build an affordable, moderately capable baseline surface combatant that can be upgraded and downgraded as needed to meet mission requirements.

One Hull to Serve Them All

But wait! Isn’t that what the littoral combat ship (LCS) is? Possibly. Except a future naval combatant needs to be more than the LCS. The modern lessons of both the LCS and the Zumwalt destroyer need to be incorporated with modern shipbuilding, modern computing, and modern thought.

The CNO’s payloads-over-platforms concept is not a new discussion to the naval services. 1 In 1989 the Society of Naval Architects published “Designing the Future US Navy Surface Fleet of Effectiveness and Producibility.” 2 Cowritten by Commander Michael Bosworth and Captain Clark Graham, this study introduced and supported the idea of a common hull that would replace aircraft carriers, amphibious ships, and fleet auxiliaries. These “carriers of large objects” would be complemented by “scout fighters”—surface combatants with common hulls. Likewise, Graham and Bosworth advanced the idea of “technology clusters,” which would seek synergistic linkages within programmatic structures.

The 1989 study clarifies the value inherent in using a single hull form. At that time the Navy employed 26 distinct classes of ships—each with varied hull forms, propulsion systems, and weapon systems. In today’s more streamlined Navy we have five classes of surface combatants. Most use LM2500 gas-turbine engines for propulsion and some form of the Aegis weapon system. There remain, however, efficiencies that can be gained by moving toward more common systems and construction. There are also efficiencies that can be gained by streamlining combat systems, as well as all man/machine interfaces into a single common-core system. How we do this is the challenge.

A single common anything increases efficiency by reducing training requirements, maintenance complexity, and material-support costs. If all ships were powered by the same propulsion system there would be only one engineering school, one set of engineering standards, and one set of parts, manuals, and technicians. Yet this only addresses one part of the equation. At the end of World War I the Navy commissioned more than 150 Clemson -class destroyers, most of which served less than two years in the active Fleet. In fact, over the history of the destroyer the average service life hovers around two decades. Whether or not efficiencies are realized by single-system designs, the reality is that technologies, and missions, change. Any ship class that does not also have the ability for rapid, and inexpensive, modernization runs the risk of the Clemson s.

Two Baselines: One Large, One Small

What to do? Simple: The Navy must leverage modular plug-and-play operation systems in two different-sized, moderately armed and manned baseline hulls. The larger hull would fill the Graham/Bosworth role of “carrier of large objects” with reconfigurable holds and flight decks, while the smaller hulls would fill the “scout fighter” role. Neither term, however, fits today’s parlance well. In fact, because of the concepts presented here, naming the variants so that they meet both traditional and future naming convention and concepts proved exceptionally difficult.

For the sake of simplicity, we chose a more mythic naming concept of Leviathan and Cerberus Leviathan for the large and capacious ship, Cerberus for the smaller but equally multimission craft. But, to press the concept farther, the modular systems and interfaces would be designed so that the Leviathan class could carry any or all of the Cerberus -class modules, while the Cerberus class would only be limited by the volume and size of modules. True reconfiguration, true modularity. Not only following the CNO’s dictum that “we must decouple the platform and the payload” but moving toward the 20-foot equivalent unit that transformed break-bulk cargo ships to modern container ships, a concept of truly universal and interchangeable platforms and payloads.

Begin with the Cerberus variant. As the smaller of the two, the most tradeoffs must be made here, and Cerberus should be thought of as the threshold requirement. In modern taxonomy, think of Cerberus as a “moderately capable large destroyer hull” with several payload spaces throughout. The use of such spaces allows one hull to meet the requirements across most surface-combatant classes. If the combatant commanders need a specific capability, the existing Cerberus can be tailored to meet mission requirements with a minimally invasive yard period instead of a lengthy modernization. The same ship can meet simple presence, theater antisubmarine warfare, or integrated air- and missile-defense requirements throughout her life. Over the past decades combat systems have become the primary drivers of warship costs; further, over the 30 years of a ship’s life it is the combat systems that are the fastest to reach obsolescence. A modular Cerberus provides three advantages, allowing the Navy to tailor the ship to mission needs, allowing for a single Fleet-wide hull form, and allowing a scalable model of manning, maintenance, and training to increase efficiency.

The proposed baseline Cerberus is a large hull that by itself—without the incorporation of a single mission package—could replace the LCS in low-intensity conflict scenarios or presence missions but is accepted as not tailored to any one specific high-end complex mission.

The Leviathan variant would be based on the modern amphibious-assault ship hull. The current gas-turbine technology would transition to electric drive, and the mission modules would fit within the hangar, hull, and superstructure. The ship would share common control systems, hull, mechanical, and electrical interfaces and designs, as well as basic armament and combat systems. In essence, the Leviathan version would be “ Cerberus + large flight deck”—with the added capacity and volume to berth and feed more crew and passengers.

Plug-and-Play Payload

The mission payload kits bring the capabilities that turn these bare-bones ships into high-capability single- or multimission platforms, tailored for the needs at the time. Unlike the European MEKO or the “Carrier of Large Objects” from the 1989 study, the payload kit is not assembled into the platform at the point of construction; that would limit the long-term adaptability of a given hull. Our proposed kits would be large and would need an intermediate-level maintenance facility to install—somewhat similar to the LCS mission modules.

The type commander, Naval Surface Forces (SURFOR), would review the required Fleet capabilities and then decide what payload kit to assign to a given hull prior the sustainment phase of a given Fleet Response Training Plan (FRTP) cycle. During the ship’s maintenance phase she would receive the kit and additional personnel to man the systems. A Cerberus may maintain the same kit for the next FRTP or switch to another depending on the combatant commander’s requirements. The payload kit is designed to plug into the existing service connections in the hull, which would supply chill water, data connections, and electrical power buses in set locations ready to be uncapped and fitted to the kit’s component modules. Sound familiar? This was how Mk-15 Phalanx close-in weapon systems (CIWS) were first installed. The difference here is that where CIWS was a stand-alone installation, the universal plug-and-play (UPP) modules are integral parts of the ship’s sensor and weapon suites:

• DDG kit: An air- and missile-defense radar (AMDR) in a composite housing that fits atop the existing superstructure, an additional Mk-41 (64 cell), rail-gun assembly, or laser weapon is fitted into the topside weapon bay. Platforms equipped with the DDG kit would replace the need for the Arleigh Burke Flight III and, over time, the current inventory of destroyers and cruisers. This kit meets the proposed requirements for a new-design area-defense surface combatant described in the Congressional Research Service report Navy DDG-51 and DDG-1000 Destroyer Programs: Backgrounds and Issues for Congress . 3

• DDE kit: This is an antisubmarine warfare (ASW) kit with a multifunction towed-array (MFTA) sonar and SLQ-25 Nixie towed torpedo decoy (already in their own self-contained modules) fitted in the payload bay aft under the flight deck and around the stern ramp. As part of this payload kit, Mk-32 surface-vessel torpedo tubes (SVTT) are fitted to the weather decks. This kit could be further augmented by the undersea unmanned vehicles designed for use with the LCS ASW mission package.

• DDL kit: This would turn the baseline Cerberus into a fully functional multimission combatant armed with an AMDR in composite housing, MFTA sonar, SVTT, SLQ-25, and Mk-41 (64 cell). This kit turns the low-cost, affordable-presence, mission-oriented Cerberus into a high-cost frontline fighter. It would be used for ships assigned as carrier strike-group escort in an anti-access/area-denial environment. The kit contains the personnel for area air defense, ASW operations, and a fully manned Tomahawk strike team.

• DDA kit: This will provide artillery support in a permissive environment with one 155-mm advanced gun system mounted in the main-deck mission bay. This kit would also include a fully manned Tomahawk strike team.

And each of these, or a combination of them, could be installed in the Leviathan as well—building from the Soviet Moskva and Japanese Hyuga concepts and placing a modern plug-and-play, UXV slant on the blended combatant/carrier concept.

As technology changes and new systems mature, we can produce new kits that incorporate new technologies and modules without the necessity of a significant modernization to the platform itself. The payload kit allows the Navy to field updated equipment over time and fit the new kit into the platform and remove it if it does not prove successful in providing a capability. The kits do not have to stay the same over 30 years; they just have to be able to plug into the standardized payload bays—in much the same way that homes built in the 1940s have plasma TVs and PCs, technology that did not exist when the homes were built, but is absorbed into existing and common infrastructure.

SURFOR would periodically evaluate the requirements from the combatant commanders and would change kit assignments to ensure that the correct amount of capability is available in the Fleet at a given time. Since the DDG and DDE payload kits affect different parts of the platform, it is possible to equip more than one at a time if the operating environment and fiscal realities deem it necessary and available. Tailoring the Fleet to the exact capability the combatant commanders require will allow the surface force to rein in manpower, training, and maintenance costs by reducing excess.

Single Hull = Greater Efficiencies

One hull with such built-in versatility has a number of significant advantages. Our proposed modular Cerberus with modular UPP payloads makes it possible for a single hull design to meet the widest variety of missions. The un-augmented Cerberus meets low-intensity LCS missions, and the fully equipped DDL package meets the 12,000-ton alternate to the DDG-51 Flight III design in the Congressional Research Service study.

The proposed modular Leviathan - Cerberus concept could begin the Navy’s shift of focus from physically smaller ships to fiscally smaller ships. A surface combatant built to be affordable does not have to be a small hull. The driver of warship cost and replacement is combat systems. Steel, on the other hand, is relatively cheap, and air is free. A larger ship does require a larger propulsion plant, but much of that cost can be offset by the efficiencies of electric propulsion and lower overall ship-design density, combined with the efficiency of a single common prime mover across a future Leviathan - Cerberus fleet.

Nor must it have a fixed mission and small flight deck or be of destroyer lineage. A larger hull has other advantages than just being able to mount the payload kits. It provides capacity for fuels and supplies, greater stability and sea keeping, and more space around vital machinery, weapon, and command components.

The tailorable modular Cerberus concept allows the Navy to field only the resources required by the combatant commander at a given time. Not only can the surface fleet tailor the actual equipment installed on board a given ship, but the ship’s manning and training requirements can be tailored as well. If a combat system is not installed on a platform, there is no need to have personnel or supplies on board to do maintenance. Removing a system is preferable to simply placing a system in layup. The removed payload translates into less weight, which in turn provides additional fuel savings and steaming range.

Our proposed baseline Cerberus and larger Leviathan will meet or exceed many of the missions tasked to our legacy Oliver Hazard Perry frigates or the envisioned use of the LCS. Using the modular payload kits, those same platforms can be rapidly and cost-effectively upgraded to fulfill the roles of a Ticonderoga cruiser or Arleigh Burke destroyer. A true modular design gives the Fleet the ability to tailor the mix of baseline ships, single-mission ships, and multimission ships to be exactly what the combatant commanders require. The scalability of the Fleet lends itself to cost and time savings for manpower and training resources (afloat and ashore) since manning and training are delivered at the particular requisite level. Finally, the single hull across our entire surface-combatant fleet greatly increases numerous efficiencies and as an added bonus would complicate adversary targeting of our assets as noted in the 1989 shipbuilding study.

Instead of continuing to finance a larger batch of LCSs and attempting to shoehorn an advanced combat-system upgrade into a 30-year-old hull with no growth margins, we need to develop a family of affordable ships that meet our baseline missions and are also cost-effectively upgradable to meet current, and future, combatant requirements.



1. Admiral Jonathan Greenert, “Payloads over Platforms: Charting a New Course,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 138, no. 7 (July 2012), 16–23.

2. The National Shipbuilding Research Program, “1989 Ship Production Symposium Paper No. 24: Designing the Future US Naval Surface Fleet for Effectiveness and Producibility,” NSRP 0310, September 1989.

3. Ronald O’Rourke, Navy DDGG-51 and DDG-1000 Destroyer Programs: Background and Issues for Congress (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, March 2013), 41.


Lieutenant Commander Smidt is a surface warfare officer currently serving on the OPNAV staff. He has served in a variety of platforms including DDGs, FFGs, T-AH, CVNs and DESRON staffs.

Captain Junge is a career surface officer serving as a military professor at the U.S. Naval War College. He has served in DD-, DDG-, FFG-, LHD-, and LSD-class ships, commanding the USS Whidbey Island (LSD-41).


System specifics for the Cerberus variant

• Electric Drive Propulsion

• A medium-caliber main gun, Mk-45 mod 2, Mk-110, or Mk-38

• 32 vertical-launch-system cells, Mk-41, Mk-57, or Mk-56

• A fully capable electronic warfare suite

• A double helo hanger capable of housing multiple MH-60Ms or MQ-8 Fire Scouts

• A small 3D air- and surface-search radar and navigation radar

• Point defense, close-in weapon system or rolling-airframe missile

• A hull-mounted sonar

• Multiple “mission bays” on and under the weather deck

Topside bays that are large enough to drop in a modular 64-cell vertical-launch-system block

Belowdeck bays that can fit a multifrequency towed-array sonar

The foundation fittings for larger radar structure

• An aft-mounted stern ramp for small boats and unmanned vehicles

• Excess cooling-water capacity, excess power generation capability, excess combat-systems electronics space with large accesses and empty server racks, and berthing for about 100 more personnel

 

 
 

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