Future Large Surface Combatant Pushed to Late 2020s, Navy Takes ‘Measured’ Development Approach

January 14, 2020 5:57 PM
The guided-missile destroyer USS Bainbridge (DDG-96) sails in the Arabian Sea. Bainbridge is deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations in support of naval operations to ensure maritime stability and security in the Central Region. US Navy photo

ARLINGTON, Va. – The Navy is now taking a “measured” approach to developing its next large combatant, with the director of surface warfare saying he expects to buy the first ones in the late 2020s after certain technologies mature, following previous plans to begin the ship program as early as 2023.

The Navy has acknowledged for several years that it is outgrowing its Arleigh Burke destroyer design, with the Flight III design essentially consuming all remaining space and power in the design.

The future surface force will rely more heavily on small combatants like the frigate and unmanned surface vessels – an idea that Rear Adm. Gene Black (OPNAV N96) said was re-validated by a recent Future Surface Combatant Force analysis of alternatives – but a large combatant force will still be needed to haul large radars and large missiles.

The Navy’s timeline for this next large combatant has continued to slip, with the service just a year and a half ago planning for a Fiscal Year 2023 start – right after the current multiyear contract for Flight III Arleigh Burke DDGs ends – and then leaders pushing that start date to 2025 and then 2026 or later.

This slower approach runs counter to what former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson had called for in his December 2018 Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority 2.0 document that called for buying the Large Surface Combatant in 2023 and delivering it “ASAP.” Richardson told USNI News when he rolled out the document that he thought the large combatant and others could be designed and fielded rapidly through an approach that focused on a good hull design and significant power margins now, and worried less about systems that would be upgraded throughout the life of the ship.

Black said today at the annual Surface Navy Association conference that the program is now slated for the late 2020s as part of a new lower-risk approach.

“For the Future Large Surface Combatant, we need a new hull to house big sensors and large missiles, directed energy; and the space, weight, power and cooling for future upgrades over a 30-plus year service life,” he said.
“I think we will probably buy our first large surface combatant in the late 2020s, after Flight III reaches [initial operational capability], after more Flight III procurements, and after we’ve matured some new technologies to the right level.”

Asked what technologies he was eyeing for further maturation before committing to a new large surface combatant design, he told USNI News, “how are we going to power this ship? Integrated power? It looks like that’s the way to go, but we want to do some land-based testing. We’ve got some funding to start that. … We talked a little bit about directed energy – it’s growing fast; what technology is going to give us the most capability? How am I going to have, for example, an energy magazine so that when I turn on directed energy it doesn’t take the entire electrical system down? How is that going to work? We’re looking at a hull form – what’s the sweet spot, endurance, signature, cost to build, cost to operate, can operate a big sensor, how much do I need for a bigger missile?

“We’re working all those pieces and parts, and we’ve got some time to do it. We’re trying to do it in a very measured manner so that we minimize the risk as we go forward,” Black continued.

The Navy has said for years that the future surface combatant would be a new hull built to support the Flight III capability set – chiefly the AN/SPY-6 radar and the Aegis Combat System Baseline 10. Black noted that, if the Future Large Surface Combatant waited until Flight III reaches initial operational capability, the risk in the future ship would be much lower due to featuring combat capabilities that had been “wrung out.”

“So where do we take some risk? Probably the hull form, probably integrated power and the integration of those pieces,” Black added.
“So we’ve got some time and we’ve got some support to do that.”

It is still unclear what the Navy will do between the end of the current Flight III DDG contract and the beginning of the Future Large Surface Combatant procurement.

Program Executive Officer for Ships Rear Adm. Bill Galinis told USNI News last summer that the Navy may look into “something beyond even a Flight III” as a bridge between the current DDGs and the large combatant “to try to keep up, to pace the threat, to outpace the threat” while the Navy decides what its next class of large combatants would look like.

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein is the former deputy editor for USNI News.

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