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US navy warship, forward-deployed Ticonderoga-class cruiser USS Chosin (CG 65), docks at the Sydney Harbour in front of the Harbour Bridge on October 4, 2013. (SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Technology, Timing, Threats and the Future of the U.S. Surface Fleet

Seth Cropsey

The U.S. Navy’s surface combatants are the spine of the American fleet. They escort and help protect aircraft carriers from threats on, above, or under the sea, provide ballistic missile defense, carry Tomahawk cruise missiles that can hit targets far from the shore, conduct exercises with partner nations, and are sufficiently numerous to help reinforce both the idea and the fact of American presence around the world. Their technological edge cannot be separated from the U.S. Navy’s global dominance, and this edge requires care and investment.

However, as the pressure of defense budget cuts grows, investments in future strength necessary to meet existing defense commitments are increasingly at risk. For example, the Navy canceled its next generation cruiser program, the CGX in part to fund current operations. It cut back the purchase of its new maritime patrol (P-8) aircraft to help pay for current operations.

Extending this approach by postponing technological advances would send fissures through the keel of American seapower. It would open the way to a feebleness that is justified neither by America’s interests nor by its current finances – defense spending as a percentage of GDP is at one of the lowest levels since 1948. America is still a wealthy nation. Cost is not the issue. Political will is.

Lessons Learned?

“In modern war,” wrote Adam Smith in 1776, “the great expense of firearms gives an evident advantage to the nation which can best afford that expense…” Smith was right about wealth. But robust defenses also depend on seizing opportunities at once, exploiting new technology without delay, and maintaining or increasing an advantage over an adversary. Delays in taking the whip hand can be fatal, or at least perilous.

Early 16th century Venice, for example, was awash in wealth earned from commerce, and fees that were charged for the transfer of goods between land and sea. Their Ottoman enemies were also well off. And they applied themselves successfully to modernizing the design of huge siege cannon whose rounds could penetrate the walls of strategically placed Venetian fortresses built centuries earlier. Venetian cannon makers caught up within a few years but not before the city-state had lost several key positions to superior Ottoman weaponry. This was a large step in Venice’s descent from its former position as the foremost Mediterranean naval power. Timing can be critical.

And so it is for the U.S. Navy surface fleet. Over the past decade the surface fleet has experienced the cancellation of a new generation of cruisers and the virtual elimination of a new class of destroyers. Can solutions to these unanticipated misfortunes arrive in time to assure America’s continued dominance at sea?

Warfare is like a river that deliberately changes course to vex bridge builders, tunnels, commerce, and transportation. In human conflict adversaries constantly seek to use strategy, tactics, technology, and organization to confound one another. Both contestants rake the battlefield with machine gun fire and one of them builds the tank. One side realizes the effectiveness of aerial bombing. The other develops radar to detect enemy planes. The contest does not end except for the vanquished and those who accept the consequences of disengagement.

Competitive Advantage Today

When the guided missile cruiser, USS Ticonderoga (CG 47), was commissioned in early 1983, a new age dawned in naval warfare, that of the air warfare dominance ship. Integrating a steered beam, phased array radar, the SPY-1A, with the standard missile family of interceptors, Ticonderoga made every other air defense ship on Earth obsolete on the day she sailed. Phased array radars transmit a host of pulses that—unlike previous radars—can be swiftly slewed from one direction to another thus allowing a ship to track and target a multitude of airborne threats with a single defense system.

Twenty seven air dominance cruisers of the Ticonderoga-class were eventually built, and the Aegis weapon system at the heart of those ships was further integrated into a line of air dominance destroyers of the Arleigh Burke-class. Beginning with USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) in 1991, the Navy has built or plans to build in excess of 70 of these ships, known as Flight I, II, or IIA destroyers.

Designed to combat the threats posed by the former Soviet Union’s navy and land-based air forces, American cruisers and destroyers fitted with Aegis systems formed the backbone of the Navy that helped end the Cold War and which dominated the world’s oceans for two decades thereafter. As time passed, they added capability against ballistic missiles to their existing defenses against air-breathing threats, both manned and unmanned.

But the world has changed, and the contest between new and newer technologies is as sharp as ever. Threats to our fleet, fielded forces, friends and allies, and our homeland have become more lethal. Potential adversaries do not seek to confront us on the high seas, but deny the U.S. Navy access to the areas from which we can honor our treaty obligations to allies like Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines.

Russia has built an anti-ship missile, the SS-N-26 (Yakhunt) that it offers to the export market including such rogue states as Syria. The missile travels at several times the speed of sound at various altitudes including close to the sea surface, and carries a 550-pound explosive warhead. This missile significantly challenges even the updated defenses of aging U.S. surface ships and opens the possibility of their destruction or serious compromise.

China is far along the path of introducing advanced anti-ship cruise missiles, together with over-the-horizon and satellite sensors to guide them to their targets. This includes an anti-ship ballistic missile that could hit an aircraft carrier underway at a distance of up to 1000 miles. If China were to succeed in effectively severing communications between the U.S. Navy and our Asian allies, and then use its growing arsenal of submarines, surface vessels, missiles, and naval aviation to buttress its newly empowered position in the West Pacific, America’s current position as the pre-eminent Pacific power would become vulnerable, if not untenable.

Iran cannot hope to threaten the U.S. fleet as seriously as China. But the Iranians’ combination of swarming small boats packed with explosives and suicide crews, midget submarines, and sophisticated anti-ship missiles—both cruise and ballistic—parallel China’s goal of denying the U.S. Navy access to strategic nodes of the Persian Gulf.

In short, America’s rivals have developed or are in the process of fielding systems specifically designed to counter the Aegis system and to neutralize the U.S. advantage in air and missile defense: high speed cruise missiles with maneuvering ability at the very end of their flight, stealthy manned aircraft that fire precision weapons, and anti-ship ballistic missiles.

At the same time, the cruisers and destroyers of our Aegis fleet have begun to show their age. Congress authorized the Aegis-equipped Ticonderoga-class cruisers in the Carter administration. The cruisers were built for nearly a decade and a half beginning in 1980. The first went into service in 1983. They have started to reach the end of their useful service life. The first five cruisers were taken out of service from 2004 to 2005. The rest will be retired as a class by 2029 unless money can be found to modernize half (11) of the remaining Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers.

Between a defense budget-cutting administration and a compliant Congress that are together responsible for well over a trillion dollar reduction in defense spending, that remains a big “unless.”

In any event, the air defense technology that offered a substantial tactical advantage to the U.S. combat fleet at the beginning of the Reagan administration is not keeping up with the lethality of the threats that the Navy faces.

Once the U.S. fleet’s air dominance is removed or countered, the aircraft carrier will become more vulnerable. And if aircraft carrier defenses against enemy planes and missiles cannot be reasonably assured, they will be forced to operate further from their targets. Greater distances generate less power. If carriers are forced beyond the range of their aircraft they must choose between irrelevance and the risks of operating under extremely dangerous conditions. In the end, if power cannot be effectively projected from the U.S. Navy’s premier platform, friends and allies will look elsewhere for security as adversaries are emboldened.

Flight III DDG

When the Navy canceled its next generation cruiser program (CGX) in 2010, the fleet was left with no successor to the Ticonderoga-class cruisers, nor had it planned for a successor to the Flight II-A Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. The workhorses of the fleet were fast falling behind the evolving threat, and the Navy needed to adapt its shipbuilding plan to ensure it stayed ahead of the threat without a substantial gap in production.

The answer was the Flight III Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. It was designed to carry the next generation integrated air and missile defense dominance radar, called the Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR). Originally planned for the CGX, AMDR represents a quantum leap in surface integrated air and missile defense.

AMDR is not the only advanced technology that the Navy plans to assure its technological edge. Others include a supersonic cruise missile that offers ships the ability to strike targets independently of satellite or previous internal guidance, and the electro-magnetic rail gun, a weapon that uses electricity to generate a high-speed magnetic field to launch a projectile whose velocity requires no warhead to destroy its target.

But AMDR is central because it is key to defending the ships equipped with new offensive weapons. Thirty times more sensitive than the latest version of the SPY-1D radar at the heart of the AEGIS combat system, the new air defense radar is able to process thirty times the number of discrete air and missile tracks.

The air and missile defense radar fully integrates the air defense and ballistic missile defense missions so that a ship equipped with the radar can neutralize ballistic missiles as well as air-breathing threats simultaneously. Most important though, the increased sensitivity of the radar provides increased ability to detect, track and neutralize stealthy threats. These include lower radar cross section (RCS) targets as well as those that are capable of high speed end-game maneuvers, for example the above-mentioned Russian SS-N-26. The new radar also dramatically increases ships’ capabilities against a number of ballistic missile threats.

Initially envisioned with an integrated S-band search radar and an X-band tracking radar, the Navy chose to equip the first 10 Flight III’s with the AMDR-S and relied upon the existing AN-SPQ-9B radar to fill the X-band requirements. The second tranche of destroyers will have a new X-band radar (AMDR-X), which will be competed separately from the S-Band radar and its radar system controller.

This second tranche of destroyers represent a straightforward opportunity for the command and control upgrades necessary to turn the Flight III destroyer into a combatant that is close to a true “cruiser,” a powerful combatant the need for which is as firm as the political winds required to pay for it are inconstant. The cruiser’s mission is one that the Navy desperately wishes to continue to fill, as is demonstrated by leadership’s willingness to exchange the immediate use of 11 cruisers by laying them up for years in exchange for their eventual modernization.

The substantially increased power and sophistication of new radars are useful not only to defend a ship but to project its power. Missiles borne by surface ships to defend against aircraft and other missiles will also benefit from the new radar’s expanded range and accuracy.

Centerpiece of Fleet Air and Missile Defense

The immediate prospects for needed increases in the Navy’s shipbuilding accounts appear dim. The cancellation of the CGX and the huge looming costs of replacing the ageing Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine fleet (SSBN) are signs of sharpening financial woes. Thus the Navy seems unlikely to build a “cruiser” replacement for the retiring Ticonderoga-class.

This suggests that the AMDR-equipped Flight III Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer will be the centerpiece of fleet air and missile defense for much of the 21st Century. It also indicates that the Flight III ships will eventually have to evolve to meet the command and control requirements that the cruiser force now performs. This would likely include a larger combat information center with added stations/consoles to accommodate the air and missile defense commander role, in addition to larger staff planning areas, and increased communications capabilities. None of these upgrades are particularly complex, but they will have to be planned in advance and then integrated at a useful point in the fielding of the Flight IIIs.

This is exactly where money and timing intersect. One of the congressional committees that controls defense spending decreased funding for AMDR this year by $17 million dollars as a result of what it assumed would be program delays. No such delay took place. And the cut will likely be restored. But it stands as a small example of disruptions that can delay the modernization of the Flight III Arleigh Burke-class destroyers’ defense.

The relatively insignificant slight to the Flight III program’s AMDR is not the whole story. It is a case in point, a means of glimpsing the whole by looking at a part. The many obstacles confronting American seapower today are symptoms of a great naval power in decline: sequestration, budget cuts that will occur even if sequestration is lifted, cancellation of planned ships, interruptions in fielding the systems required to modernize vessels that are being constructed, diminishing objectives for the size of the future U.S. combatant fleet, and long-term plans for fleet size and shape that depend on large and sustained additions to the historic size of the Navy’s shipbuilding budget.

The fortunes of American seapower have paralleled the international community’s search for order. This order waned in the interwar years and revived with a strong postwar American economy matched by a robust military and a clear vision of defending the U.S. and its allies. Revitalizing American seapower alone cannot address the civil wars in Libya and Syria, the consequences that will follow if Iran becomes a nuclear power, the rise of a brutal Middle East terror state, Russia’s slow-motion invasion of Ukraine, and China’s increasing boldness in sovereignty disputes with its neighbors. But it would be a good start.

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