Fire effectively first!
This enduring principle, popularized by the late Navy Captain Wayne Hughes, leads to success in war at sea.1 But to follow it, ships rely not only on the weapon employed and accurate targeting information, but ultimately on commanders directing fires based on intelligence and a common operational picture. From the tactical to the operational level, fleet commanders rely on the ability to receive, process, and disseminate information and orders to mass forces in support of larger objectives.
The Navy’s amphibious command ships (LCCs) were designed “from the keel up for an amphibious/command ship role,” but the USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19) and Mount Whitney (LCC-20) were commissioned in 1970 and 1971, respectively.2 The threat environment has evolved in the past 50 years, and the LCC class is no longer sufficient to host fleet commands for the fight against high-end adversaries. LCCs face the same multispectrum intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting (ISR&T) threats and long-range antiship missiles as aircraft carriers and surface combatants, but with less self-defense capability.
To respond to the threats and address the capability gap, the Navy should deploy one Zumwalt-class guided-missile destroyer with each of the two LCCs and maintain the third DDG-1000 ship in San Diego as part of Surface Development Squadron One (SurfDevRonOne). With two ships forward deployed, the Sixth, Seventh, and even Third Fleet commanders and staffs will be better practiced and have more ready capability to maintain a common operational picture, direct effective fires, and stay untargeted in a peer fight. Though initially these destroyers will supplement the LCCs, eventually they should replace them.
The LCC: Designed for an Earlier Era
The amphibious command ships are the oldest design still serving in the Navy (excepting only the USS Constitution), yet they have been selected for a service life program to extend them out to 2039—making them nearly 70 years at retirement.3 Even if the sustainment, maintenance support, and ship upgrades could be ensured (despite continued maintenance woes across the Navy), it is unlikely either LCC will be ready for prompt and sustained combat operations into the mid-2030s.4
The ships historically have deployed for amphibious operations, supporting the commander of the amphibious task force (CATF) and the commander of the landing force (CLF) putting Marines ashore.5 The ships also have done noncombatant evacuations and served as task force flagships, as the Blue Ridge did at the end of the Vietnam War.6 However, such operations assume a permissive afloat environment, because of the complexity associated with synchronizing naval and marine forces close ashore.
China’s so-called carrier killer, the much-publicized DF-21D, is a medium-range antiship ballistic missile that reached initial operating capability in 2012, ensuring that U.S. aircraft carriers would operate within a hypothetical weapons engagement zone out to the first island chain of the western Pacific. Russia has similarly sought to extend its reach by deploying K-300P Bastion missile systems in the Kaliningrad exclave in Central Europe—and is selling similar systems internationally. Russia also deploys the highly capable SS-N-26 Strobile antiship cruise missile, with a range greater than 180 miles.7 Each missile system represents a complex threat in an ever-growing arsenal that ensures a Blue Ridge–class ship could not safely approach the shore for amphibious operations or even support operations from hundreds of miles away.
Yet the requirement to embark a fleet staff remains. Were China to spark a crisis that Japan elected to stay
out of, the Seventh Fleet commander might have no alternative but to put to sea. Forward basing in Italy should not be assumed, either; while military-to-military relationships among Sixth Fleet, NATO, and European nations remain strong, the geopolitical ties that undergird the alliance may continue to be strained across administrations.8
The alternative—to abandon the LCCs entirely and have a fleet commander operate from a secure “cave”—may not be viable in a world defined by electromagnetic maneuver warfare, low-probability-of-intercept communications, risks to space capabilities, and the many problems with command, control, communications, cyber, and computers (C5) that Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday identified in his December 2019 “FRAGO.” At sea, different communication paths may remain available, and the fog of war at the tactical level is sometimes less. While sailing on a carrier may be an option, there are limited numbers available at any given time, and carriers do not have excess C5ISR or command center capacity to support a fleet commander and staff.9 Far better, for a Navy evaluating distributed lethality and distributed maritime operations, to disaggregate their commanders and their firepower to maintain resilient wartime command and control.
The LCC mission endures, but the Navy’s shipbuilding program does not forecast any future replacement.10 Absent any change in this, the best alternative is to identify current ships that could assume the role. The Zumwalt class is the best candidate.
DDG-1000: An Evolving Mission
The checkered history of the Zumwalts’ development and integration into the fleet has been well covered. From its initial conception in the 1990s (with a surface fire support mission and a planned buy of 32 hulls), the class has since shrunk to three ships, whose Advanced Gun Systems are laid up because of the extraordinary cost of the projectiles.
In December 2017, the Navy (OpNav N96) announced a pivot in class requirements, turning the ships into focused surface-strike platforms—a mission they are highly capable of, with 80 vertical launching system (VLS) cells.11 Eighteen months later, Vice Admiral Richard Brown, Commander, Navy Surface Forces, established Surface Development Squadron One to integrate and experiment with the three Zumwalt-class ships, the Sea Hunter unmanned surface vehicle (USV) and other large USVs, and the first four littoral combat ships (LCSs) over the next half decade.12 The Navy has pivoted again, and will now retire those four ships, creating an opportunity for SurfDevRon to pivot toward the Zumwalts. At a combined $13.195 billion (based on the fiscal year 2020 budget submission) in procurement cost for the three-ship class, however, treating all three ships as little more than 240 experimental, stealthy VLS cells is not much of a return on investment.13 Pairing them with the LCCs today, and replacing the LCCs tomorrow, is a much better use.
That is not to slight SurfDevRon One, which surely will validate further capabilities and tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) in conjunction with the Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC) and other supporting commands. But maintaining all three ships in San Diego will limit opportunities. Forward deploying one Zumwalt-class ship to Asia and one to Europe would serve as a strategic deterrent against competitors in the western Pacific and the North Atlantic. Each could become an alternative command ship on which fleet commanders could embark for complex exercises and, if necessary, combat operations. This would maximize the inherent (and identified) capabilities in the Zumwalt class, while still giving SurfDevRon One and SMWDC one ship for experimentation.
The Upgunned LCC: Zumwalt
The new DDGs were designed for stealth, with a radar cross-section 1/50th that of an Arleigh Burke–class destroyer.14 Each also possesses the highly capable SQQ-90 sonar suite, comprising a bow-mounted medium-frequency array (SQQ-60), a high-frequency array (SQQ-61), a multifunction towed array (SQR-20), and the SLQ-25 Nixie towed-decoy system. With the capabilities to embark an MH-60R Seahawk detachment and carry multiple Vertical Launch Anti-Submarine Rockets (VL-ASRocs), the ships are highly capable antisubmarine warfare platforms. The SPY-3 multifunction radar is still being tested but will be capable of engaging advanced sea-skimming antiship cruise missiles.15
Because the ship was designed with space, modularity, and modernization in mind, its “optimally manned” crew of fewer than 200 sailors permits space for additional sailors and equipment to support fleet planning and operations as a surface-strike and fleet-command platform.16 Note the “and”—the question is not whether the Zumwalts can do surface strike or fleet command. They can do both.
In any conflict with a peer adversary, submarines would likely be the primary land and surface strike assets, thanks to their stealth capabilities, VLSs, and the powerful Mk 48 advanced capability (AdCap) torpedoes.17 But submarines, surface action groups, and air power require integration to fire effectively first.18 No other ship has the same command, control, communications, and ASW infrastructure or the persistence (thanks to its stealth), and organic strike firepower. Putting fleet commanders on the Zumwalts will shorten the permission chain. In short, there is no better ship in the fleet to operationally manage the afloat integration of the submarine force and various surface strike assets, while remaining itself untargeted. The Zumwalts are the Navy’s best platform to be an upgunned LCC for high-end combat.
Even in more ordinary operations, employing these DDGs as fleet command ships in Yokosuka, Gaeta, and San Diego has additional benefits. First, an Areligh Burke–class destroyer has 10 to 16 more VLS cells than a DDG-1000 and costs half as much, with significantly more program stability. Even allowing for the latter’s stealth, the Arleigh Burke class’s multimission role provides a better return on investment than the Zumwalt class’s strike-only platform, as DDG-1000 currently is envisioned.19 Presenting a plan to Congress wherein the newer ships serve as command nodes is operationally simple and necessary. The fleet and budget would be best served tying the Zumwalts’ surface-strike capability to a larger operational context to justify continued investment in planned service life, modernization, and life-cycle support.
Second, experimentation will maximize return on investment and increased lethality for these platforms and the larger surface force. SMWDC’s headquarters and Sea Combat Division are both in San Diego, but better experimentation opportunities will result if forces are geographically distributed among exercises such as Rim of the Pacific (RimPac), Northern Edge, Talisman Saber, Trident Juncture, Valiant Shield, and the newly returned Fleet Battle Problems.20 SMWDC and the various fleets and supporting commands could work to tailor each DDG-1000’s yearly schedule to maximize learning in small and major fleet exercises (which are planned years in advance), then tailor maintenance and training for the ship and its crew around these opportunities. This way, the Zumwalt class is not limited to what is done on the U.S. West Coast, but is constantly iterating, improving, and ready while forward deployed.
Third, while leaving one Zumwalt in San Diego would naturally make it the primary test bed for technology and TTPs, San Diego is also home to Third Fleet, which employed the USS Portland (LPD-27) during RimPac 2018 to execute command and control of afloat forces.21 With one of the DDGs in San Diego, Third Fleet could practice embarking its maritime operations center team during a carrier strike group’s composite unit training exercise, which simulates high-end combat operations. Any lessons learned could be passed to Sixth and Seventh Fleets. Should Third Fleet be tasked in contingency operations to operate forward in the western Pacific (something the command began practicing on a small scale in 2016), the Third Fleet command staff would be ready to embark and deploy with the West Coast Zumwalt.22 Forward deploying these ships to Italy and Japan would present a clear strategic deterrent to Russia and China, which have no ships with the same collective capability as those found in a Zumwalt.
Operational commanders would surely appreciate an additional ship forward. In lower intensity operations such as the 2017 Tomahawk strike on the Syrian chemical weapons factory at Shayrat, the Zumwalt would have been highly useful, even if stealth were not required.23 While there is a cost to deploying any ship forward, especially one so exquisite and capable, the Navy should recognize that the risks of entering an all-out fight with the current LCCs far outweighs the cost of steady investment in the Zumwalts, tied to a broader operational context. Further planning now could reallocate funds from the LCC service-life extension into a Zumwalt modification program to gracefully transition LCC platform lifecycle logistics, sustainment, and maintenance as the fleet command platform over the next 15 years.
Tumblehome to Victory
As the Navy has pivoted toward distributed lethality and distributed maritime operations, the Zumwalts are ideally suited to serve as key nodes for command, control, and direction of integrated multidomain fires. While the LCCs will remain capable for permissive operations against a North Korean or Middle Eastern opponent, the Navy’s leaders must acknowledge the capabilities the fleet has, not the capabilities it wishes to have, at the end of a 30-year shipbuilding program. By making investments now, the Navy can test and evaluate what it will take to develop the upgunned LCC.
1. CAPT Wayne P. Hughes and RADM Robert P. Girrier, USN (Ret.), Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations, 3rd ed. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018).
2. U.S. Navy, “Amphibious Command Ships — LCC,” 27 November 2018, Navy.mil.
3. U.S. Navy, “Amphibious Command Ships.”
4. Sam LaGrone, “NAVSEA: New Pentagon Strategy Putting Pressure on Private, Public Maintenance Yards to Deliver Ships on Time,” USNI News, 19 September 2018; ADM Mike Gilday, USN, “FRAGO,” December 2019.
5. Tyler Rogoway, “Take a Rare Glimpse inside the Navy’s Massive Blue Ridge Class Command Ships,” The Drive, 22 January 2018.
6. “USS Blue Ridge LCC 19,” uscarriers.net/lcchistory.htm.
7. “SS-N-26 ‘Strobile,’” missilethreat.csis.org.
8. David Larter, “U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet Boss Describes Her Front-row Seat to the Great Power Competition,” Defense News, 14 January 2019; Jim Townsend and Andrea Kendall-Taylor, “NATO Is Struggling Under Trans-Atlantic Tensions,” Foreign Policy, 5 December 2019.
9. Gina Harkins, “Navy’s Top Admiral Has No Apologies over Carrier Lincoln’s Extra-Long Deployment,” Military.com, 15 January 2020.
10. Report to Congress on Navy Force Structure, USNI News, 1 October 2019.
11. Megan Eckstein, “New Requirements for DDG-1000 Focus on Surface Strike,” USNI News, 4 December 2017.
12. Megan Eckstein, “Navy Stands Up Surface Development Squadron for DDG-1000, Unmanned Experimentation,” USNI News, 22 May 2019.
13. Report to Congress on U.S. Navy Destroyer Programs, USNI News, 19 September 2019.
14. CAPT James Kirk, USN, “Ahoy from the Zumwalt!” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 142, no. 3 (March 2016).
15. Report to Congress on U.S. Navy Destroyer Programs.
16. Kirk, “Ahoy from the Zumwalt!”
17. “Mk 48 — Heavyweight Torpedo,” Navy.mil, 6 December 2013.
18. CAPT Kevin Eyer, USN (Ret.), and CDR Steve McJessy, USN, “Operationalizing Distributed Maritime Operations,” CIMSEC.org, 5 March 2019.
19. Report to Congress on U.S. Navy Destroyer Programs.
20. ADM Scott Swift, USN, “Fleet Problems Offer Opportunities,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 144, no. 3 (March 2018).
21. “USS Portland Arrives in Pearl Harbor Ahead of RIMPAC,” U.S. Navy press release, 6 June 2018.
22. LT Benjamin B. Foster, USN, “What’s Next for Third Fleet Forward?” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 144, no. 5 (May 2018).
23. Megan Eckstein, “How the U.S. Planned and Executed the Tomahawk Strike against Syria,” USNI News, 7 April 2017.