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Opinion: Navy Should Avoid a Flight III Arleigh Burke

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Lockheed Martin Photo

Lockheed Martin Photo

In a classified memo, the details of which were revealed last week in Defense News, Vice Adm. Tom Copeman, commander U.S. Naval Surface Forces told Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert not to build a new version of the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer (DDG-51).

The Flight III DDG-51 is the planned successor to the current Flight IIA design and the planned landing platform for the Navy’s air and missile defense radar (AMDR). 

Instead of Flight III, the memo recommended continuing to build Flight IIA DDGs, while moving to a large, ballistic-missile-defense-centric ship that would presumably house a larger, more powerful instantiation of the AMDR than is possible in the DDG-51 class.

If the Defense News report is accurate, I support the initiative wholeheartedly. Here’s why.

The first thing to recognize is that AMDR is an incredibly important program for the future of surface warfare. The current and venerable SPY family of radars resident in the Aegis weapon system has grown long in the tooth, and finds itself increasingly challenged by a sophisticated and proliferating series of missiles, of both the antiship cruise and ballistic variants (antiship and land attack). To pace the threat, AMDR must be fielded.

The question arises as to what platform would be most appropriate, and this is something the Navy has studied quite a bit in the past few years.

(I highly recommend those interested in a deeper understanding of these issues read Congressional Research Service Report RL32109, Navy DDG-51 and DDG-1000 Destroyer Programs: Background and Issues for Congress, 14 March 2013, authored by the irreplaceable Ron O’Rourke.)

The choice of many in the Navy is to create a Flight III DDG-51 variant to house the radar. Essentially, Flight III DDGs would have an entirely new combat system, built around AMDR and allowing each platform to perform simultaneous self-defense and theater ballistic-missile missions, something the current Aegis fleet is challenged to do. The problem is that AMDR will require notable increases in available power, as the sensitivity goals it seeks to meet are a function of both power out and the size of the array. As currently configured, the DDG-51 could not provide either the power required or the cooling capacity necessary to dissipate the heat created by a radar of this size and power. Second, the available real estate on a DDG-51 limits the size of the array available in a manner that sub optimizes the leap-ahead capability that the radar represents. Put another way, the current DDG-51 hull does not have enough power or cooling for AMDR, and even if it did, the room available on the superstructure is insufficient to the task of achieving tactically relevant radar performance.

The Navy’s answer has been to consider altering the DDG-51 in a way that would give it the power and cooling it needs for AMDR (and the power distribution system) while accepting that the array size is sub optimized. This is the Flight III. Some have suggested that a significant lengthening of the hull would be a Flight III feature, though specifics about the concept are not publicly available.

That plan is flawed on several fronts.

First, it is a blatant violation of CNO Greenert’s much touted “Payloads, not Platforms” approach. Once this ship is built—mostly by performing superhuman feats of engineering on an already crowded ship—there will be a limited margin (power, weight, cooling, displacement) for future upgrade. What the Navy buys is essentially what it will have for the life of the ship, with modest upgrades available through computer program refreshes and the like, but not the kind of upgrades available (theoretically) in a more modular design in which power, cooling, radars, and weapons, etc. are treated as commodities that can be swapped out when increased capability (payloads) is available.

Second, the Navy’s estimate (from O’Rourke’s report) of $2.3 billion in acquisition cost for the first Flight III is difficult to swallow, given the degree of risk associated with moving away from Aegis to a combat system incorporating AMDR. The Navy would have Congress believe that going from Flight IIA to Flight III is similar to that of going from Flight I to Flight IIA. I simply disagree. While there will be many components in common, the brain of Flight III would be completely different, as would its power distribution system (nervous system). All of that must take into consideration that at even this dramatically underestimated price, the Flight III still might not keep up with the most demanding threats it is likely to face because of the array size that can be accommodated. This brings up the question of whether “the juice is worth the squeeze.” I do not believe it is.

Third, our Fleet size is likely to shrink in the coming years, and Flight IIA is a ship we know how to build efficiently. Switching to a Flight III—with concomitant schedule, cost and technical risk—offers the potential to exacerbate the decline of our Fleet size at a time when the national strategy appears to be turning more and more toward a globally postured Navy.

Instead, the Navy should continue to build Flight IIAs—like the Air Force builds F-16s. It should build a limited number (6-10) of sizable BMD ships that would carry a large array variant of the AMDR and advanced interceptors. Candidate hulls include the LPD-17 and the DDG-1000. Those ships would be networked in with the cruiser-destroyer force, which would be equipped with advanced interceptors to create network-enabled distributed firepower. Add to that mix the Navy Integrated Fire Control (Counter Air) capability, and the fleet of Flight IIAs remains relevant to the overwhelming majority of threats it is likely to face, while being backed up by the powerful capacity of large array AMDR’s housed elsewhere.

AMDR is the key to the whole architecture, and shoehorning it into a technically risky, sub optimally sited platform (the DDG-51) makes far less sense than continuing to build the most successful ship type the United States has ever built (the DDG-51) as is, while concentrating on siting AMDR on a platform with growth margins to ensure it can continue to meet the threat in decades to come.

For a contrary view on the Flight III, see the following commentary from the January issue of Proceedings.

  • http://www.facebook.com/fred.zimmerman1 Fred Zimmerman

    Very sensible.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ethan-Perks/100000866010072 Ethan Perks

    Considering the fiasco with the Zumwalts, and the shrinking naval budget, isn’t Flight III the most affordable solution that is likely to be built in numbers? We can’t afford another white elephant.

  • beyonddefence

    Here’s a different thought. Why not create a new design to accomodate the new radar and electronic systems using as many Burke components as possible and without trying to make it a stealth supership packed with new and risky technologies? The Navy will eventually need a cruiser replacement. The closest thing to a new cruiser (or arsenal ship, for that matter) in the world right now is the South Korean KDX-III, a Burke-derivative. It’s armament includes 80 SM-2s, 32 land attack cruise missiles, 16 SSMs and 16 VL-ASROC. Start with the radar and electronics, build a ship around it with those capabilities using as much off the shelf as possible, and you have a world-beater. If the Navy’s serious about payloads not platforms, it should have no problem avoiding feature creep.

  • RobM1981

    If we build a new platform for an ABM ship, it must include surplus power and cooling. We’re already actively testing beam and rail weapons, both of which require enormous reserves of power. There’s no reason to think that a vessel supporting AMDR wouldn’t also want beam weapons when they become available. That only increases the already high power/cooling requirements.

  • SteveCT9

    I respectfully have some somewhat pointed disagreements with the author. Greetings: Please keep in mind I am a former ground-pounder… However I shall state the following… overall my impression is that again the Navy establishment wants the absolute very best piece of hardware – a new class of warship to supersede the Ticonderoga and the Burke classes, having everything on one hull – this without even having a follow-on frigate to the Perry class! This “super-ship” will take twenty years and four billion dollars a ship by the time the first of the class first sails with the fleet. We need combat hulls with good capabilities, that can “sail in harm’s way,” commanded by audacious Captains with great crews who possess the ability to work 12 hours a day for six to nine months at a time and face dangers that no nineteen year old should ever have to experience, all led by Admirals who are combat (abet in a very technical service) officers, not bureaucrats. Bureaucrats are for the civilian side of the Navy – they do not belong in uniform. While I know the Chiefs and sailors are already there and that there are some great Captains I worry that there are not enough great Captains and most flag rank officers (no only the Admirals, way too many generals too) are primarily career minded, and there are too many of them – one flag per warship? – REALLY? Concentrate on a credible, larger fleet with the best “captains of war.” These are my thoughts and I would love to be corrected on the later comments. But just remember how the Navy destroyed the Spruance class only to make room for the LCS before you counter-fire! God bless the United States Navy, fair winds and following seas! Comments may be directed to me at my personal email – sadombrowski@yahoo.com.

  • CommanderBill3

    The problem with this discussion is without classified data on performance characteristics of the radars and systems involved the decision cannot be made. What is crucial to know is how the SPY-1D (V) fused with the SPQ-9B on the latest Burkes compares with the Dual Band radar (DBR); or how they would compare to the SPY-3 as the Zumwalts will have installed; and what the AMDR is expected to have in performance that the DBR doesn’t? What is the projected threat that makes these older radars inadequate to the task?

    The DBR (SPY-3 & SPY-4) was supposed to be an enormous leap in technology and cost billions to develop. Now it seems Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) will be the only ship that will have this radar in its entirety. The Zumwalts will have just the SPY-3 AESA radar that can be used for search and fire control.

    Does putting the SPY-3 on the technology-insertion Burkes instead of the SPY-1D (V) make any sense? Apparently not since no one is proposing it.

    None of these questions can be answered without some detailed classified understanding of the radars involved. But speculation is fun.

  • Sean

    Honestly, none of you even know the cooling or power capacity of a Flight II/A. Unfortunately, the biggest issue is space. Refering to the comment about build around weapons and sensors is what we already did. The entire mission of the DDG 51 class was built around the SPY 1/D RADAR, everything else secondary. There just isn’t enough space, no matter how long you made the superstructure to get the arrays into the correct angles for 360 degree coverage. Power and cooling are the last thing on the list or worries for a new sensor on any DDG. It always comes down to space and manpower.

  • John Hacker

    Does the writer know that the Air Force is not continuing to build F-16s? The ones being built now are being built for export. The U.S. hasn’t bought a new F-16 in several years.

  • Secundius

    Why go through the trouble of modifying an older Burke class destroyer, or building a Flight III version of the same destroyer as an ABM ship. And take the 1988, Metcalf class Arsenal Ship, out of “mothballs”. And build an Arsenal Ships instead, considering its only going to have one function anyway.