Cargo Ships As Missile Carriers Is One Of The Navy’s Options To Offset Cruiser Retirements

Next month, the U.S. Navy expects to have wrapped up a study comparing the potential value of fielding a large unmanned surface vessel equipped with some number of vertical launch system cells capable of holding various kinds of missiles against a variety of alternative options. Those other possibilities include adding missiles to various amphibious warfare and sealift ships, acquiring and arming commercial container and bulk cargo vessels, or buying examples of an all-new military or commercial design for this purpose. A key driver behind all of this is a desire to preserve or expand missile-launching capacity across the service’s surface fleets as older ships, especially Ticonderoga class cruisers, are decommissioned as part of broader modernization plans.

Defense News

was first to report on the impending completion of this assessment, officially known as the Distributed Offensive Surface Fires Analysis of Alternatives, earlier this week. In the annual defense policy bill, or National Defense Authorization Act, for the 2021 Fiscal Year, Congress demanded that the Navy perform this study and provide lawmakers with the results before they would even consider approving funding for a fleet of large unmanned surface vessels, or LUSVs. Separately, USNI News

has reported that the service is moving ahead with plans to decommission five of its Ticonderoga class cruisers, possibly before the end of the 2022 Fiscal Year in September. However, it’s not entirely clear which of the 21 of these ships currently in service may now be in line for retirement.

The US Navy’s Ticonderoga class cruiser USS Cowpens fires missiles during an exercise., USN

Of the new missile-armed ship options it is considering now, a LUSV, which the Navy first announced it wanted to buy in 2019, remains the service’s preferred option, according to Defense News. The Navy has already been working together with the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) for years now to explore how it could use LUSVs for strike and other missions using a pair of experimental vessels as part of the Ghost Fleet Overlord program. One of these ships, named Ranger, conducted a live-fire test involving the launch of a multi-purpose SM-6 missile from a four-cell containerized launcher last year. SCO formally transferred Ranger and its sister ship Nomad, to the Navy earlier this month.

The Ranger, in the foreground, and the Nomad, in the background, are a pair of experiential unmanned surface vessels (USV) that the Navy now operates., USN

The “four categories of [alternative] options being considered are modifying existing naval ship designs, such as amphibious ships, expeditionary fast transports and expeditionary sea bases; modifying commercial vessel designs, such as container ships and bulk carriers; creating a new naval ship design; or creating a new commercial ship design,” Defense News reported, citing a statement from Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA). “The analysis compares the LUSV baseline to alternate options in four focus areas: warfighting capability and capacity analysis, cost and affordability, technical risk, and industrial base considerations.”

This is not the first time the Navy has explored these kinds of possibilities as lower-cost avenues for increasing its overall afloat missile launch capacity as compared to acquiring additional traditional warships. Back in 2015, the service proposed adding Naval Strike Missile anti-ship cruise missiles, which have a secondary land-attack capability, and possibly other missile types, to its Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), as well as its amphibious warfare and logistical vessels, as part of an earlier Distributed Lethality concept.

The Navy has since begun to arm Independence class LCSs with NSMs, but has not yet formally followed through with any other part of that plan. Last year, the service did say that it was looking to fit NSM to at least one amphibious warfare ship, possibly a San Antonio class landing platform dock, on a test basis sometime this year.

However, this issue has increasingly come to a head more recently as the Navy has continued to push to retire various legacy surface warships, especially the five Ticonderoga class cruisers now on the chopping block, as part of broader modernization efforts. Each one of those cruisers has 122 Mk 41 vertical launch system (VLS) cells. 

The Navy is insistent that these ships have to go. Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Mike Gilday, the Navy’s top officer, told legislators during a hearing last year that the costs to operate and maintain, as well as upgrade, these cruisers were “running 175 to 200 percent above” previous estimates. “These ships were intended to have a 30-year service life, we’re out to 35,” he added at the time.

There have been multiple attempts over the years to start retiring them already. However, Congress had blocked those previous plans in no small part because each one of the Ticonderogas has a highly specialized air warfare battle management command center, a capability that other ships cannot quickly be adapted to provide and that has made these cruisers virtually irreplacable. 

Still, since 2019, the Navy has presented the acquisition of a fleet of VLS-equipped LUSVs as at least an ideal way to not only sustain, but potentially increase its total missile launch capacity and do in a cost-effective and flexible manner. Using variants of the service’s standard Mk 41 VLS from Lockheed Martin, these LUSVs could be loaded with a mix of Tomahawk land-attack and anti-ship cruise missiles, SM-6 missiles with surface-to-air and surface-to-surface capabilities, SM-2-series and Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) surface-to-air missiles, among many other types, depending on the mission requirements. 

A graphic showing just some of the missiles that can be loaded into variants of the Mk 41 Vertical Launch System (VLS)., Lockheed Martin

These unmanned arsenal ships would not have to carry radar or other sensors to find and target enemy forces at sea, in the air, or on land, instead, they would be networked together with various offboard platforms to provide that targeting data, helping to keep their overall costs low. They could potentially be mixed together with sensor-carrying drone ships to form entirely uncrewed surface action groups, too. 

The LUSVs could potentially have more radical designs since they would not have to sustain crews and might be smaller compared to similarly armed traditional warships. All of this could enable the Navy to acquire a larger number of these drone ships, which might be smaller than their manned counterparts, which would present additional benefits. More ships would mean the Navy could deploy them in greater numbers to more locations, increasing the total number of areas in which it could have a presence at once. This distributed missile launch capacity would present targeting and challenges for any opponent who would be faced with a need to neutralize a larger number of total threats across a broader area.

However, members of Congress have been wary of the idea of LUSVs because of the already growing need for this missile launch capacity and concerns about the maturity of technology needed to run these drone ships. Many legislators have, instead, suggested the Navy pursue add-on missile packages for various types of existing ships, including traditionally unarmed sealift vessels and the service’s new Expeditionary Sea Bases. The core arguments here are more or less the same as those in favor of the LUSVs. Again, they could offer lower-cost and flexible launch platforms that could be networked together with an offboard sensor architecture obviating the need for more costly modifications and significant increases in crew size.

The San Antonio class notably has space built into the design already for two Mk 41 VLS arrays that were not ultimately fitted to the ships. There are also multiple Mk 41-based launcher designs, including the containzeried one tested as part of the Ghost Fleet Overlord program, which do not need to be integrated deeply within a ship’s structure, simplifying their installation and reducing costs in the process. The Navy has a history with similar conversions, including the integration of armored box launchers for Tomahawk cruise missiles onto four Iowa class battleships in the 1980s.

A now-dated artist’s conception showing a San Antonio class ship, in the foreground, firing a missile from one of two Mk 41 VLS arrays that were ultimately not installed on operational examples., USN
One of the four-round Mk 143 armored box launchers on the now-decommissioned Iowa class battleship USS New Jersey, which is currently a museum ship., Steven Fine via Wikimedia

“If the Navy went out tomorrow and told MSC [Military Sealift Command] go modify this hull; put two, three VLS launchers in there; come up with the electronics, communication systems, the Tomahawk Weapons Control System, the different things that are necessary to essentially launch Tomahawks … I honestly think that it is something that could be implemented in a very short timeframe, essentially with existing capabilities,” Representative Elaine Luria, a Virginia Democrat and Vice Chair of the House Armed services Committee, told Defense News in response to questions related to the Navy’s ongoing study. MSC is a Navy command that operates various logistical and special mission ships utilizing hybrid crews made up of military personnel and merchant mariners.

The possibility of adding missiles launchers of various kinds to Navy sealift ships, such as the container and roll-on/roll-off cargo ships USNS Gunnery Sergeant Fred W. Stockham seen here, has been discussed on more than one occasion in the past. , USN

Any arguments in favor of repurposing commercial container or bulk cargo vessels as arsenal ships, something the U.S. military more generally talks about as a potential threat capability, or acquiring a new commercial design for this purpose, would no doubt follow a similar logic. This could all apply equally to the potential purchase of a new naval design that could be adapted to this role, such as a multi-purpose logistics ship, something MSC already sorely needs just to help sustain future expeditionary and distributed operations. The Navy most recently explored this latter idea through the Common Hull Auxiliary Multi-Mission Platform (CHAMP) program.

The Navy clearly continues to be most interested in acquiring an unmanned platform to meet this demand for additional missile launch capacity. Beyond that, CNO Gilday has said in the past that there could be a need to abandon preexisting ideas about maintaining a certain number of total VLS cells across the fleet if modernization is expected to happen.

“For us to pivot, under the budget line that we have right now, to pivot to a more lethal force, we need to give up some stuff,” Gilday said in February  “And you can’t just look at it through the lens of surface VLS tubes.”

“You need to look at where that money’s going, right, in terms of modernization, to take the fleet that we have now and make it even more powerful,” he added. “And I – it’s difficult for us to do that under a – under a top line that’s been fairly static for a while.”

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday., DOD

It is perhaps worth noting that some of the proposed alternatives, especially the acquisition of existing or new commercial designs and turning them into arsenal ships, could present a path toward the Navy’s ultimate goal of fielding a fleet of LUSVs. Ranger and Nomad started life as commercial vessels intended to support oil rigs and similar offshore operations before being converted into unmanned platforms. Another LUSV concept from shipbuilder Austal, seen below, includes a traditional bridge for operationally-crewed operations.


Whatever the case, with the Navy expected to wrap up its study of the available options in April, it should not be too much longer before we find out what the service has decided the best course of action to be. Whether Congress will then agree remains to be seen.

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Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.