THE PENTAGON – The Navy will buy the first of its Future Surface Combatants in 2023 – a large warship that will be built to support the Arleigh Burke Flight III combat system and will pull elements from the Arleigh Burke-class (DDG-51) and Zumwalt-class (DDG-1000) destroyer designs.
The combatant – not dubbed a cruiser, and potentially not dubbed a destroyer either – will be bigger and more expensive than the Arleigh Burke Flight III design and will have more room to grow into for decades to come, the director of surface warfare (OPNAV N96) told USNI News today.
Future Surface Combatant refers to a family of systems that includes a large combatant akin to a destroyer, a small combatant like the Littoral Combat Ship or the upcoming frigate program, a large unmanned surface vessel and a medium USV, along with an integrated combat system that will be the common thread linking all the platforms. Navy leadership just recently signed an initial capabilities document for the family of systems, after an effort that began in late 2017 to define what the surface force as a whole would be required to do in the future and therefore how each of the four future platforms could contribute to that overall mission requirement.
With the ICD now signed and providing the service with an idea of how many of each platform would be needed in a future fleet and how each would contribute as a sensor, a shooter or a command and control asset, Surface Warfare Director Adm. Ron Boxall and his staff are now able to begin diving into the finer details of what each platform would look like.
The first to be tackled is the large combatant, Boxall told USNI News today. He noted the effort would be more like the move from the Ticonderoga-class cruiser to the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer – where the same combat capability was kept, but housed in a more suitable hull – rather than the move from the Spruance-class destroyer to the cruiser, which maintained the same hull design but added in new combat capability.
After the addition of the AN/SPY-6(V) Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR) to the DDGs’ Aegis Combat System to create the Flight III design, Boxall said the resulting warfighting capability is one the Navy can use for years to come.
“We have a new capability on that hull now, so everything’s going good – except for, as we look towards going further, we know we’ve maxed out that hull footprint,” Boxall said of the Arleigh Burke-class hull design, power-generation capability and more.
“So the key elements that we’re looking at in this work we’re doing on the requirements side is, keep the requirements about the same as DDG Flight III, but now look at what do we need a new hull to do.”
USNI News first reported last month that the large combatant would pair a new hull with the Flight III combat system.
The Navy will spend about the next six months having that conversation about what the new hull will need, though he suggested to USNI News that it would need sufficient space to carry helicopters and unmanned systems; it would need to support long-range missiles and weapons; it would have to include command and control systems able to support a staff onboard for air defense or offensive surface capability, much like the cruiser does today with the air defense commander role for a carrier strike group; it may incorporate DDG-1000’s signature controls and integrated power system; and it will certainly have to be flexible and modular enough to quickly undergo upgrades and modernizations in the future as new systems are developed that the Navy will want to incorporate into the next block buy of large combatants or back fit fielded ones.
Though there has been much speculation about whether the large combatant would use an existing design or a new design, Boxall said there really are no designs out there that meet the Navy’s needs without significant modifications.
Whereas the ongoing frigate design effort was able to mandate that bidders use mature parent designs, Boxall said “a lot of people in the world make frigates. Not many people make large surface combatants of the size and capability that we need. So we’ve got to kind of look to our portfolio of blueprints that we have as a starting point, and we’ll edit and modify the hull and design things as we go forward.”
“I think what you’re going to see won’t be a huge deviation from things we have already, but at the same point, we are going to be making changes to anything we have” already in the fleet, he added.
In a nod towards the idea the next large combatant will share the same combat system as DDG Flight III and will perform much the same role in the fleet, Boxall said the Navy is starting with the DDG-51 Flight III capability development document (CDD); will go through a Large Surface Combatant Requirements Evaluation Team effort with requirements, acquisition and engineering personnel from the Navy and industry; and after six months call the finished product a “modified Flight III CDD.” Once that modified CDD is complete, it will be clearer how much the future large surface combatant will resemble its predecessor and how much it will be a new class of ship – which will likely determine its name.
“It is the big question: what do you call the future large surface combatant? I don’t know. I don’t think you call it a cruiser. I don’t think you call it a destroyer. Maybe – I don’t know what it is,” Boxall said, noting that he has commanded both a cruiser and destroyer and that they get used in much the same fashion, save for the cruiser’s role as the air defense commander ship, which the future large surface combatant will have the capability of doing with its command and control suite.
Once the first large combatant is designed and purchased in the 2023 “block” – following the current block-buy of Flight III DDGs from Ingalls Shipbuilding and General Dynamics Bath Iron Works, which spans from Fiscal Years 2018 to 2022 – new blocks will be planned for every five years. As USNI News has reported, this block structure, laid out in a Surface Combatant Capability Evolution Plan, would allow the insertion of new hardware and software in a predictable timeline. This would help researchers and developers in the government and in industry understand when a new capability would have to be matured by to be included in the next block design, and anything not quite ready yet could wait until the next block. This setup is much like the Virginia-class attack submarine’s block upgrade approach to adding in new capabilities, and its Acoustic Rapid Commercial-off-the-shelf Insertion (ARCI) process of adding new capabilities in via new construction and back fitting existing subs. However, Boxall noted the surface community had the added challenge of managing this block buy and upgrade effort across four or more types of surface combatants, compared to just one class of attack submarines.
Unlike before, when the surface community would undergo a massive planning effort – like the CG(X) cruiser replacement design that ultimately was too expensive and not accepted by the Navy – and then cease planning for many years before undertaking another massive effort, Boxall said he hoped the block upgrades would create a “heartbeat type of effort, where you always have something going on.”