The U.S. Navy’s shipbuilding plan is a disaster. So it should come as no surprise that the fleet’s plan for a new destroyer also is a mess. The two problems are related.
The Navy in mid-2019 indefinitely delayed production of the new Large Surface Combatant, a ship class that eventually could replace today’s Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and Ticonderoga-class cruisers.
A few months later, the sailing branch announced it no longer could afford to spend $20 billion or more annually buying the new ships it would need to grow from today’s 295 front-line vessels to 355, the service’s goal since 2016.
The Navy subsequently suspended long-term ship-construction planning and submitted a budget proposal for 2021 that buys just eight new warships, down from 12 or 13 in previous years.
Planning for the Large Surface Combatant essentially has disappeared in this bureaucratic chaos. And one key Navy leader isn’t sad to see it happen.
Vice Adm. Tom Moore, the Navy’s chief ship-buyer, told USNI News he’s been watching closely as the fleet designs the Large Surface Combatant. Moore praised the design process but admitted that deferring the ship was the right decision.
“I’ve watched the Large Surface Combatant with great interest over the last four years, and frankly I think we’ve pushed it to the right for good reasons,” Moore said.
Namely, cost. “Clearly as we work through that process, the first go-around was a platform that was going to be pretty expensive,” Moore said.
The last time the Navy designed a new surface combatant from the hull up, the result was the Zumwalt class of stealth destroyers. The Navy bought just three Zumwalts for more than $7 billion apiece before canceling production.
The fleet is eager not to repeat that experience. So in lieu of the Large Surface Combatant, the Navy is buying for around $2 billion per copy a new variant of the Arleigh Burke called the Flight III.
The Flight III is slightly bigger than earlier Burkes are and features a new radar and more power generation. A Burke-class destroyer is around 500 feet long and displaces around 9,000 tons of water. Armament includes nearly 100 missile cells plus guns.
“We think Flight III meets the needs, we think the threat’s evolving, we’re looking at unmanned, so we don’t want to rush into this,” Moore said. By “unmanned,” Moore is referring to a new class of small, crew-optional missile corvettes that the fleet wants to develop.
But there’s a twist in the Navy’s default to the Flight III as its main new surface combatant. Sure, the Flight III is cheaper than the Large Surface Combatant might have been, but it’s still too expensive for the Navy to afford in large numbers.
The sailing branch as recently as late 2019 planned to buy, through 2024, at least 13 Flight III Burkes to join 74 Burkes of earlier variants.
Then in a December 2019 memo, the Navy proposed to reduce the construction of Flight IIIs to just nine over the next five years. Over the same five-year span, the fleet would decommission early 13 of its 22 Ticonderoga-class cruisers.
The moves would save more than $10 billion from an overall $100-billion, five-year shipbuilding scheme, but would mean a smaller fleet than the Navy and lawmakers wanted. Instead of 355 front-line ships, the fleet might top out at just 310.
And it’s unclear whether that smaller fleet might ever include the Large Surface Combatant.
David Axe serves as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels War Fix, War Is Boring and Machete Squad. This first appeared in May 2019 and is being reposted due to reader interest.
PACIFIC OCEAN (May 3, 2017) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Michael Murphy (DDG 112) transits the western Pacific. The U.S. Navy has patrolled the Indo-Asia-Pacific routinely for more than 70 years promoting regional peace and security. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Nathan K. Serpico)