The Navy's Ticonderoga class cruisers are in the back half of their operational careers yet the seagoing service has struggled to produce an actionable strategy to replace their unique capabilities. The 'Ticos' lives may be able to be extended a number of years, but a replacement will be needed and it will take years to move such an initiative from thought to form. Now, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Admiral John Richardson, has put forward his vision and strategy to field such a vessel and it's bound to be a controversial one.
In an interview with Defense News' David Larter, the CNO explained that he wanted to model the next generation cruiser project on the FFG(X) frigate program that is currently underway. That program, which is as much a referendum on the stumbling Littoral Combat Ship as anything else, aims to procure an existing, mature hull design and modify it with the Navy's preferred sensors, combat system, and weaponry. The down-select of five competitors occurred just two months ago and the contract will be awarded to the winner in 2019. The first frigates are slated to come online in 2025, making the program quite aggressive in terms traditional naval procurement.
The difference between FFG(X) and the new cruiser initiative is that there are few existing large-hull surface combatant designs available to chose from. The Flight III Arleigh Burke has already maxed-out the class's hull and power generation capacity, so that's not an option. There really isn't anything from an allied country that could work without massive modifications either.
This leaves the DDG-1000 Zumwalt class's exotic hull form and the LPD-17 San Antonio class design which has already been pitched for use as a missile defense picket ship, as well as a slew of other configurations. LPD-17 is also the basis for the upcoming LX(R) replacement for Harpers Ferry and Whidbey Island class amphibious landing dock ships.
The problem is that the San Antonio class ships are huge with broad hulls and displace roughly 25,000 tons. For comparison, the Ticonderoga class is shy of displacing 10,000 tons. Most notably, these ships cannot keep up with a carrier strike group, lacking a third of the speed to do so.
In addition to being an existing hull design, the vessels also have to possess the ability to produce large amounts of power. Richardson told Larter:
“Power plant and power generation, you need to really pay attention to that because its very hard to change after you buy it... And if you think about the kinds of combat systems and weapons systems we’re going to have on future ships, they have got to be able to generate pulsed power and those sorts of things... So, lots of power. Buy as much power as you can afford because it’s like RAM on your computer, you’re going to need more as soon as you buy it.”
The CNO is clearly thinking of lasers, railguns, electronic warfare systems, and very powerful radars and other sensors here, and he is right to do so. The Zumwalt class, in particular, has the most capable power generation system of any U.S. Navy surface combatant, but the San Antonio class, with all of its room, could be modified to handle any of the Navy's future power needs as well.
The third requirement Richardson puts on the future cruiser program will be its most controversial—modularity. His idea, which he has vaguely alluded to before, involves building the cruiser with a number of critical hardwired systems, like those pertaining to navigation, propulsion, and sustainment of the ship's compliment. But others, including sensors and weapons launchers, could be swapped out with much greater ease than they are today. Richard proclaimed:
“Everything else, though, is swappable, and that has to be designed into the DNA of the ship so you can come in on a short upkeep and swap out your radar system, or your combat system, or put this weapons system in... It has a lot to do with designing standards so that everybody can build to those standards so it’s a much more dynamic, swappable type of a thing... We’ll get this design done. And because some things will be permanent and some things will be swappable, let’s just get that thing out there. It will be 100 percent better than the current cruiser... And then [when] we get smarter, we’ll put the next iteration out there.””
That may sound great at first glance, but the truth is the Navy has an absolutely miserable track record when it comes to a much less ambitious but similar program in which modularity was supposedly a key selling point—the Littoral Combat Ship. That program originally saw various mission modules that could be swapped-out pier-side in a number of hours before the ship was sent back out to see. Fast forward a decade and the mission module concept has largely failed not just in terms of ease of swapability, but also in terms their effectiveness and deployability. Keep in mind that this concept wasn't nearly as far-reaching as the one Richardson is proposing here, in which even the ship's combat system and its primary sensor arrays would be exchanged cost-effectively in just a short maintenance period.
These videos are really a hoot, talk about science fiction, it's all going to be so easy!:
Other Naval arms have approached modularity in a far simpler way, providing for the capacity to swap containerized weapons that include self-contained command and control systems into their hulls. But what Richardson is talking about here is rapidly swapping out key components that are traditionally deeply integrated into a surface combatant's design and construction.
It seems as if this cruiser, or 'large surface combatant' initiative would not only replace the Ticonderoga class, but it would also replace at least a portion of the Arleigh Burke class destroyers as well, the first of which were commissioned in 1991.
It really seems as if the DDG-1000 Zumwalt class design may have an opportunity to make a comeback of sorts here. It already has the power generation that Richardson is looking for and the open-architecture network technology that could work as a base for a more modular approach to future combat systems. Above all else, its unique command center, known as the Ship's Mission Center, acts like a floating combined operations center of sorts and has all the room required for high-level command areas. This feature alone could prove to be invaluable for directing future anti-air warfare operations.
Make sure to read all about the Zumwalt's capabilities, and its massive deficiencies, in this past War Zone special feature.
With the removal of the ship's twin Advanced Gun Systems (AGS), which currently have no purpose anyway due to a total lack of ammunition, maybe an area for a modular weapons bay could be fitted as well as additional vertical launch cells to at least meet the number found on the Ticonderoga class, which is 122 cells. Currently, the Zumwalt class vessels have 80 Mk57 vertical launch tubes arrayed around the ship's periphery.
Some modularity could be designed into a new version of the ship's deckhouse as well, with extra apertures and cooling available for future systems to be installed. The hangar bay and flight deck is large on these vessels. So some of that room could also be turned over to an area for a weapons module or two.
But Zumwalt's tumblehome hull design could remain an issue. Cruisers have to accompany the aircraft carriers under their protection anywhere they travel, and sometimes that includes transits through very rough seas. Maybe it could be redesigned to include a traditional bow if the low-observable requirements placed on the DDG-1000 design were largely dropped or at least relaxed. The truth is that the Navy has already greatly watered down the ship's stealthy signature anyways due to a long string of laughably short-sighted cost-cutting decisions. Considering cruisers often work as air warfare battle management nerve centers alongside the aircraft carriers they protect, low observability shouldn't be a high priority.
The Navy continues to degrade the Zumwalt's low radar signature via bolting on systems in order to save money. With just three ships in inventory, and unusable deck guns among many other watered down capabilities, these vessels will be lucky to remain operational in the coming decade:
Still, that's one big list of modifications, and the Navy will have to study just how feasible doing so would be. But the service could also go another direction and just field a Zumwalt class follow-on in the cruiser role with minimal modifications, making tweaks to the deckhouse, network, and combat system for future modularity and removing its guns in exchange for more VLS cells and room for future expansion. This would be similar to the long-canceled CG(X) that originally gave birth to the Zumwalt's current configuration.
Doing so would be more economical than an extensive redesign and it would help the existing but tiny fleet of three Zumwalt class destroyers survive what is going to be a very costly future sustainment initiative in order to keep them viable.
By buying in bulk, with Zumwalt and her two sister ships having rung out the bugs in the design, would also drastically lower unit costs. As the Zumwalt program shrunk ever smaller, unit cost skyrocketed. It was the classic Pentagon death spiral, but by some estimates, if those ships were brought in numbers, their cost would have been slashed dramatically and would have been competitive with the Arleigh Burke Flight III destroyers that were controversially chosen over the production of more Zumwalt class ships.
We will have to see if the CNO's plans for a ship that is supposedly so easily transformable but also based on an existing design come to pass. But hopefully, the Navy can blend some of those ideas with the Zumwalt class that the service has already paid over $10B to develop. Otherwise, the Navy would have to start from scratch, which would be hugely expensive and considering the last decade or so when it comes to the service's procurement track record of developing and fielding ships with modular capabilities, it could end up being a mess that never really delivers what was promised.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com