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Why the US Navy Might (Or Might Not) Build Big Warships Again

Warships
151207-N-ZZ999-435 ATLANTIC OCEAN (Dec. 7, 2015) The future USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) is underway for the first time conducting at-sea tests and trials in the Atlantic Ocean Dec. 7, 2015. The multimission ship will provide independent forward presence and deterrence, support special operations forces, and operate as an integral part of joint and combined expeditionary forces. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of General Dynamics Bath Iron Works/Released)

What does the US Navy’s next big ship look like?

The Navy has undertaken *many* studies examining the prospect of building a new large surface warship. The last new surface warship to enter service was the Zumwalt class destroyer, but the buy was curtailed at three after questions about the technology and questions about the mission developed. Other efforts have included “arsenal ships” and large cruisers of varying configuration and powerplant. None of these efforts have panned out, and the Navy continues to rely on the 10,000-ton Arleigh Burke-class destroyers as its main surface fighting force.  The Navy’s most recent surface acquisition has been the LCS program, which remains plagued by too many problems to count, and the somewhat more promising Constellation class frigates, which should begin entering service later this decade.

The Navy’s latest effort at procuring a big ship essentially collapses the distinction between “cruiser” and “destroyer,” which had in any case become detached from their original meanings over the last half of the twentieth century. It envisions a ship larger than the 10,000-ton Arleigh Burkes but smaller than the 16,000-ton Zumwalts. If the ships are expected to take on the same role as the existing Ticonderoga class cruisers, some two dozen ships would be needed.  If the form is expected to replace the Burkes, then a great many vessels would become necessary.

Perhaps the Navy doesn’t need a new large surface combatant? Ship displacement is historically a balance between lethality, survivability, and affordability. If size makes ships both more lethal and more survivable, warships will increase in size. Over the course of naval history, lethality and survivability have not necessarily scaled with size. “Ships of the line” in the Age of Sail were built to similar designs for a remarkably long period of time, in part because an increase in size reduced stability. In the 20th century, navies found that larger battleships were both more lethal and more survivable, leading to a rapid expansion in battleship size between 1905 and 1920, and another rapid expansion at the beginning of World War II. Navies also discovered that larger aircraft carriers could carry larger numbers of more powerful aircraft, making large carriers exponentially more powerful than their smaller cousins.

But the logic doesn’t apply to all ships. Most navies around the world gave up survivability at the end of World War II, when torpedoes and guided missiles made even the most heavily armored battleships vulnerable. At this point, it became clear that warships of modest size (10,000 tons or smaller) could handle jobs such as ASW and air defense, and that there were no particular returns to scale for larger vessels. Larger ships could carry more missiles, but they enjoyed no survivability benefits and could not strike at ranges longer than modestly sized warships. Modern naval vessels are dependent on sophisticated communications and surveillance technologies that are largely impossible to protect from attack through passive means (such as armor). Even if a vessel survives a missile attack, it will often be blinded as shrapnel shreds delicate electronic equipment on the outside of the hull. Bigger ships simply don’t pay off their extra expense with greater fighting power.

But there are at least two reasons to think that big surface vessels may be on the way back. The first is power generation; many of the sensor, communications, and defensive systems that make a ship both lethal and survivable require lots of energy, and a larger ship can carry a powerplant that won’t leave the component systems thirsty. This extends to electronic warfare systems that could disrupt attacks from terminally-guided ballistic missiles and from swarms of drones. The second is magazine capacity. With the development of vertical launching systems, the complexity of carrying different kinds of launchers for air, surface, land, and ASW strikes has declined. A larger ship with more missiles can be better at every job that a surface ship needs to do, apart from presence.

That said, evidence for the imminent return of large naval vessels is real, but thin. The aforementioned Zumwalts are a third again as large as the Arleigh Burkes, even if they represent an evolutionary dead-end. The Navy may still be able to make something of them, however. South Korea’s Aegis destroyed make good use of their size, as does China’s new Type 055 cruiser. Russia has been modernizing one of its old Kirov class battlecruisers for some time, and although the recommissioning date has been slipping for about 7 years it does seem as if Admiral Nakhimov will cut an impressive profile when she returns to service.

By that time the US Navy may have another plan in place to build big ships, even if no such ships will likely see service before the 2030s.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020).

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. Jimmy John Doe

    January 9, 2022 at 8:42 pm

    Zumwalt is a complete humbug, worse than Gerald Ford vessels or Nimitz ships.

    The future warship or warship of the future is a fast ocean-sailing Very Large Destroyer capable of launching stealth drones while itself is armed with railguns and hypersonic rockets and batteries of Gatling guns and laser cannons.

  2. JIm O'Brasky

    January 10, 2022 at 8:50 am

    Please remember that the difference between a DDG’s design speed of 27 knots (full load displacement with dirty hull) and a design speed of 30 knots is the demand for twice the propulsion power. Over the last 30 years, the time spent above 27 knots is 3% with half that time spent on speed trials. If that excess power were allocated to electrical power generation, there would be ample power for energy weapons and high power sensors.

    The PIM of a CSG is typically 15 knots. A SSN or a DDG sweeping out the PIM ahead or astern of the movement is crossing the PIM at a 45 degree angle implying a silent search speed of about 22 knots against modern quiet submarine threats in the first convergence zone. That DDG should have sufficient electrical power to become fully mission capable within a second at 22 Knots implying that the “battle speed” is at least 22 knots.

  3. JA

    January 10, 2022 at 9:25 am

    That is a solid case for a Zumwalt evolution.

  4. thelaine

    January 10, 2022 at 9:41 am

    I’m not sure the Navy is competent to build new ship designs anymore. That is why we keep building more Arleigh Burkes. We should probably just stick with that hull until the Navy proves it is can build the Conny.

  5. Karl R Maier

    January 10, 2022 at 10:23 am

    Long range drones eliminate the argument for Aircraft Carriers.

    1,000 drones can be fielded for the cost of an Aircraft Carrier.

    More mobile, ablative, updated, replaceable, surgical, etc. and losing one won’t cost you thousands of lives, treasure, and potentially the war.

  6. Lee Kondor

    January 10, 2022 at 10:49 am

    With the right integrated power and propulsion system, the Arleigh Burke hull can maintain its top speed capability and have up to 88 megawatts of electric power available for energy weapons. The trick is to use a hybrid propulsion drive instead of the huge direct drive electric propulsion motors used on Zumwalt. The Guided Missile Destroyer Program Office (PMS 460), however, just can’t seem to get there.

  7. Jack

    January 10, 2022 at 10:56 am

    @ Karl R Maier Drones are close to useless against someone with an air defense system even just soft kill let alone hard kill systems like Phalanx or Aegis. Aircraft carriers are more survivable than airbases that can’t move.

  8. L'amateur d'aéroplanes

    January 10, 2022 at 11:37 am

    The French Navy had planned at the beginning of this century a large series of 17 multi-mission frigates (FREMM) of 6,000 tons. Since 2005, the staggering and revisions of targets for this program have led to a change in its production cost which, on the basis of the factor cost in force in January 2005, rose from 8,235 million euros for 17 buildings. to 6,480 million euros for 8 buildings. The cost of a good radar alone drives up the cost of warships. It’s no longer the size that matters, it’s the on-board electronics.

  9. Dan

    January 10, 2022 at 12:15 pm

    If the last 20 years have taught us anything, it’s that the Navy doesn’t seem to have a theory of “how to win” in the 21st Century. I’m not an expert, but I’m pretty sure that in a war with China, the Navy won’t send carrier strike groups within 500nm of China to bomb airfields with F-35’s and F/A-18’s. One thing seems certain, a war with China will be very different from the war we’re planning for.

  10. Brian Foley

    January 10, 2022 at 12:19 pm

    It’s an interesting situation. Of course larger ships will require larger crews and more sailors isn’t on the horizon, in fact the Navy should be making plans about how to perform its missions with fewer sailors. Sailors aside, the increasing use of high tech sensors and weapons will require greater power production. Its a really interesting question…what to do, what to do.

  11. Johnathan Galt

    January 10, 2022 at 12:36 pm

    Build nuclear Battleships. Create shorter ranged anti-torpedo torpedos and give it hundreds. Add lasers and rail guns to the 18” guns, along with the customary cruise missiles. Watch nations bankrupt themselves trying to counter them.

  12. tony

    January 10, 2022 at 2:50 pm

    the zumwalt yeah, both hype and typical mismanagement, the fact that it needs special versions of the navy’s standard missiles (irony what is thy name)

    but use the money spend and the experience. take the good parts, maybe use a more conventional hull, the combat center and propultion are valid base for building a next gen cruiser

  13. Lee Lawrence

    January 10, 2022 at 4:55 pm

    Retired US Navy here, I work on the maintenance side of some of these programs. Ships planning and development often puts the proverbial cart before the horse, like on CVN78 AWE, the elevators were installed then it was decided to build the land based mockup. I was there for that one. For Johnathan Galt, US Navy never had 18″ guns in inventory and the rail gun is way too expensive to field the munitions, let alone the power requirements. The kind of ship you are envisioning is not practical from a manning or maintenance standpoint. Let’s hope the new Constellation class frigates don’t fall victim to rushing unproven technology or get bogged down with the Navy larding on new or some admirals gee whiz requirements.

  14. Mastro

    January 10, 2022 at 5:22 pm

    No mention of the Arsenal Ship? Is that idea dead?

  15. L'amateur d'aéroplanes

    January 11, 2022 at 1:14 am

    @Mastro : The American Arsenal Ship project is based on the principles established by the French engineer René Loire for a ”Frappeur” (batter). Only South Korea officially launched such a program a few weeks ago.

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