The Burke class destroyers are considered a marvel of modern engineering and have set the bar for all subsequent naval warship design and construction – at least, that’s the opinion of many. The reality is that the Navy’s warship design has gotten so bad that we now consider a Burke to be “good”. That’s lowering the bar, not setting it.
Consider, if a WWII ship designer had proposed building a cruiser size ship, which is what a Burke is, with no armor, thinner than normal hull and deck plating, and weaker than normal steel, he’d have been tossed out on his rear end and yet today we consider the Burke to be the gold standard of shipbuilding!
This, however, is not the point of this post. I covered that bit of historical comparison merely to set the stage for the main premise by pointing out that the Burkes are not the gold standard – they are, pathetically, the best of the worst in terms of warship design and construction. With that in mind, we have now disposed of the fiction that the Burkes are a good design and we can move on to consideration of a better design.
To further set the stage, we all recognize the death spiral that the Navy is in. As we try to make each ship more and more multi-functional, the ships become bigger and more expensive. Because they are more expensive we can’t afford as many and numbers get cut. As numbers decrease, unit costs increase and we try to compensate by making each ship even more capable and more multi-functional which further drives up the cost which further reduces the numbers which means we have to put more capability on each ship which drives up the cost which cuts numbers which …
Ridiculously optimistic (and unfunded) projections of fleet sizes of 355 ships notwithstanding, the reality is that our combat fleet has been steadily shrinking in numbers for the last few decades and that trend shows no signs of stopping. We have submarine and destroyer shortfalls programmed into our 30 year shipbuilding plan which, itself, is fictionally optimistic! Our carrier fleet is steadily shrinking. We’re down to 10 carriers and only 9 air wings. Our logistics support and replenishment fleet is vanishing. Our mine countermeasures ships and aircraft are nearly non-existent. And so on.
How can we break out of this death spiral before we reach a fleet of one mega-ship? How can we design better warships? How are those two questions possibly related?
The answer, or at least a major portion of the answer, is the Burke. The Burke is a poor design which is symptomatic of all that we just discussed. It is a $2B+ (likely $3B+ for the Flt III) ship that has been designed to perform anti-air warfare (AAW), anti-surface warfare (ASuW), long range cruise missile strike, anti-submarine warfare (ASW), helo-based aviation support operations, and a host of other functions. Thus, the Burke has lots of capabilities which makes it a flexible and powerful vessel, according to proponents. The reality is that the very range of capabilities makes the ship of limited use.
If the Burke is to perform AAW escort for a carrier or amphibious group then, by definition, it can’t go sailing off to perform ASW twenty or thirty miles away. Thus, the ASW is useless. Conversely, if the ship is performing ASW twenty or thirty miles away, it can’t provide AAW protection to a group. Thus, the AAW is useless. This is a long winded way of saying that one ship can’t be in two places at the same time.
Further, do you really want a $2B+ ship playing tag with a diesel-electric SSK which has all the advantages? Do you really want to risk the most capable AAW ship in the fleet (along with the Ticonderogas which the Navy is desperately trying to early retire) to be taken away from AAW escort duties to play submarine tag and run the significant risk of being sunk?
What makes the Burke “flexible”? In large measure, it’s the vertical launch system (VLS) which allows the ship to mix loads of Standard, ESSM, Tomahawk, and ASROC missiles. The problem is that the more multi-purpose and flexible you make the loadout, the less capable the ship becomes in any one area. For instance, if you opt to load 50 Tomahawks, you reduce the AAW VLS capacity to only 46 cells. We see, then, that flexibility comes at a severe price.
So, again, how does all this relate to our death spiral solution?
The answer is to break up the Burkes. We need to stop building multi-functional, uber destroyers and return the days when we built ships for a single specific purpose. That’s not to say that a ship couldn’t perform multiple missions but each ship design had a clear, primary function that it was optimally designed for.
We had ASW destroyer escorts. We had anti-ship destroyers. We had escort cruisers. We had strike (surface and land) battleships that also happened to be outstanding AAW escorts. And so on.
Let’s list the Burkes main functions again.
- AAW escort
- Ballistic Missile Defense
Strike Long Range
What would happen if we broke those functions out and allocated them to individual ships? Here’s the separate ships/functions that would result.
AAW Escort – High value ships require dedicated AAW escorts and that’s what this ship is. It’s a Burke minus the hanger, flight deck, ASW outfit, and cruise missile capacity. It’s an Aegis equipped AAW barge that is “tethered” to the ships it escorts. With no need for extra VLS cells devoted to cruise missiles, the entire VLS load is surface to air missiles (Standards and ESSM) which means we don’t need as many cells. Burkes have 96 cells but a third or so are typically devoted to Tomahawks. That means we can build a dedicated AAW escort with only around 60 cells and still match the Burke’s AAW capacity!
Cost. If we take away the flight deck, hangar, and reduce the VLS capacity to around 60, we should be able to shorten the ship by around 30%. That will make a significant cost savings. Eliminating the ASW fit, hull mounted sonar, towed array, and torpedo tubes should save additional significant money. Finally, the various reductions combined with the deleted helo pilots and maintenance personnel will significantly reduce the size of the crew and the associated berthing, galley space, food and water storage, waste management, and other hotel services which, in turn, further reduces the size of the ship. Let’s put the crew size at 170 versus the standard Burke crew size of 270 or so.
Conceptually, this ship is akin to the WWII Atlanta class anti-aircraft CLAA.
|Atlanta Class Anti-Aircraft CLAA|
Cost. Considering all the reductions, I’m going to put the cost of this ship at $1.1B versus the nominal $2B cost of a standard Burke. The bulk of the cost is the Aegis/AMDR sensor fit.
ASW Escort – This ship must be cheap enough to be acquired in numbers and cheap enough to be considered expendable since ASW is a high risk mission and we’ll lose a number of these.
|Buckley Class DE|
The ship will be optimized for ASW with acoustic isolation of all internal machinery, multi-frequency hull mounted sonar, towed array, variable depth sonar, Hedgehog/RBU, flight deck and hangar for two helos, ASROC launched from either the old Mk112 deck launcher or an 8-cell VLS (I’ll leave it to naval engineers to decide which is preferred – I’m thinking the old Mk112). Additional capabilities will be short range AAW in the form of SeaRAM/CIWS and a Mk 110 57 mm gun. Radar will be a TRS-3D or equivalent. The ship will be around 300 ft long or less, if possible, although the flight deck/hangar probably dictates 300 ft.
Conceptually, this ship is a combination of the WWII Buckley class destroyer escort and the Spruance class ASW destroyer.
Cost. The ship is significantly smaller than the Freedom class LCS and does not waste space on expansive flight decks or worthless high speed engineering plants. Thus, the cost should be less than an LCS. I’ll put the cost at $350M.
ASuW / Land Attack – This ship is a Burke without the AAW fit and somewhat fits the generic destroyer classification. It has only a medium/short range AAW (ESSM/SeaRAM/CIWS). Additional VLS cells carry Tomahawk cruise missiles and ASROC. Let’s call it around 60 VLS cells. Three to five 5” guns provide additional firepower along with 24 Harpoon/LRASM plus two dozen shorter range surface to surface Hellfire, or equivalent, missiles. Six 21” torpedo tubes add to the surface attack capability. Sensors are limited to TRS-4D or equivalent plus 360 degree EO/IR. A modest ASW fit is included as a secondary function. There are no helos or flight deck/hangar.
Conceptually, this ship is somewhat akin to a modernized Fletcher class DD.
Cost. A Burke without AEGIS/AMDR, no flight deck, no hangar, and fewer VLS should cost around $800M.
Ballistic Missile Defense – This could either be combined with the dedicated AAW escort ship or split out as a separate ship. In this case, as a separate ship, it would be fitted with a specific, optimized, ballistic missile defense radar like the SBX-1 Sea Based X-Band Radar and two dozen SM-3 missiles. The ship would be a small, cheap, low performance, commercial based vessel. It would have no flight deck/hangar/helos, no generic AAW defense other than two SeaRAM, no guns, and no ASW.
Cost. A small, simple, minimally manned, commercial based ship would be very cheap. Given that we can build a commercial large tanker/cargo ship for $100M or less, let’s call this ship’s cost $100M. Of course that excludes the SBX-1 radar for which I have no cost estimate whatsoever.
We see, then, that the broken up Burke consists of the following ships:
AAW Escort $1,100M
ASW Escort $ 350M
ASuW Land Attack $ 800M
Ballistic Missile Defense $ 100M
Total Cost $2,350M ($2.35B)
So, for the cost of a single Burke, we can build four single function ships that perform each of the single functions as well or better than a Burke and can be in four places, performing four functions at once.
Four single function ships that perform their functions better than a Burke increases the overall capability of the fleet, allows four missions to be performed simultaneously in four different locations, increases fleet size by a factor of four for each Burke not built, generates more work for the industrial base, employs more naval architects/designers/construction workers, increases fleet presence by increasing ship numbers, and reduces risk aversion by making each ship cheaper and more expendable – hence, more likely to be committed to the actual task for which they are intended.
There is overwhelming historical precedence for this from WWII. We didn’t build single, massively multi-functional ships that were too valuable and too expensive to risk in combat. No, we built multiple, single function ships (yes, they had secondary functions but they were built with a primary function for which they were optimized), that were affordable, could be risked in combat, increased our fleet numbers, and could be in multiple places, performing multiple tasks at the same time.
This makes overwhelming sense. We need to drastically rethink our fleet composition and start down this distributed functionality path immediately.
Note: No one, myself included, knows what a non-existent, conceptual ship will cost. I’ve described how to build focused, affordable ships in previous posts and comments so I’ll stand by my cost guesstimates until something better comes along. What I won’t do is engage in cost discussions – it would be pointless. Even if I’m off on the numbers, the concept remains. Maybe I’ve overestimated the costs and we can build 5 ships for 1 Burke instead of only 4 as I described. Or, maybe we can only build 6 or 7 ships for every 2 Burkes, instead of 8. Who cares? The concept is valid. Unless you are a naval procurement specialist who deals exclusively with major ship purchases and can factor in my previously described affordable acquisition practices, don’t waste my time debating costs. It’s pointless and I won’t allow it. If you care to discuss this post, focus on the overall concept.