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According to recent reports, the US Navy’s programme to develop its future large surface combatant (LSC) is likely to gather pace, with the Navy aiming to deliver the first vessel in the class by 2028. The combatant will fall in between the DDG-51 (Arleigh Burke-class) and the DDG-1000 (Zumwalt-class) in terms of its displacement and will likely have a displacement of 12,000–13,000 tonnes. Early indications from current and former senior US naval officials suggest that the vessel will represent a step change in terms of both the offensive and defensive capabilities available to the Navy’s surface fleet. On one hand, this purchase makes intuitive sense. The Ticonderoga, currently the US Navy’s largest surface combatant, is due to be out of service by the 2030s. Moreover, the emergence of large cruiser-sized vessels such as the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) Type 055 cruiser would suggest the need for a comparable vessel. In addition, the maturation of capabilities such as the electromagnetic railgun and directed energy weapons – all of which require large amounts of power – incentivises the construction of a large vessel with the power generation capacity to host them.
This said, significant questions remain about what the future role of such a combatant will be and whether its construction could introduce opportunity costs that exceed its value. To be viable, the programme requires early clarity in the concept of operations guiding the vessel’s use and the Navy’s resultant decisions with regard to considerations such as hull structure. The current ambiguity around these details could result in the programme facing the same fate as projects like the abortive strike cruiser which was stripped of funding by Congress in the 1970s after the Navy failed to articulate its purpose.
The LSC and the Future US Navy Force Structure
A key question that US Navy decision-makers will need to answer is precisely what they want from the LSC programme. Is the programme evolutionary – effectively providing a modern replacement for the Ticonderoga-class cruiser – or is the Navy more revolutionary in its ambitions?
Statements by senior Navy officials thus far have highlighted the desire to field larger- diameter vertical launching system cells on the LSC to enable the launch of hypersonic missiles for surface strike and deep strike missions. Moreover, the vessel will likely have the spare power generation capacity to enable the incorporation of technology such as directed energy weapons and railguns as they mature. However, this planned capability growth does not answer the question of whether the vessel will be an evolutionary or a revolutionary asset.
The key consideration in this regard will be the degree to which the vessel adheres to existing design principles. The current statements from the Chief of Naval Operations about the project suggest that the US could follow the example of the Type 055, which is an essentially evolutionary development in PLAN shipbuilding. It incorporates technology that the PLAN pioneered while developing their Type 052 destroyers and for the most part adheres to design principles that characterised previous Chinese vessels. Where the vessel differs from predecessors is its size, the introduction of new capabilities in the form of an integrated mast and large-diameter VLS cells, and its power generation capacity. An evolutionary vessel built on similar lines would have the advantage of avoiding potential cost overruns by building on existing institutional knowledge and could, at least in principle, be produced rapidly. This will be of particular importance if the US Navy wishes to avoid a trough in its capacity in the decade or so following the retirement of the Ticonderoga – which it will currently struggle to do.
However, it is not clear that a direct replacement for the Ticonderoga is needed. Its air defence role in protecting US super-carriers can be fulfilled by providing carrier pickets with additional Arleigh Burke Flight III DDGs, which provide a comparable defensive capability. It is not obvious that an LSC represents a more fruitful avenue for expenditure than procuring additional Arleigh Burke-class vessels in larger numbers, which can also be refitted to carry larger hypersonic strike missiles. Currently, the cost of procuring an LSC creates opportunity costs in terms of both the numbers and quality of the US’s future destroyer fleet. According to the Navy’s 2020 shipbuilding plan, the Navy is likely to find itself beneath its desired inventory threshold of 88 major surface combatants by the mid 2030s as it retires older Arleigh Burke-classes. Moreover, due to budgetary considerations, the newest Arleigh Burke Flight III lacks certain key technologies, such as an integrated mast. One might ask whether the money spent on an LSC could be better spent outfitting future Arleigh Burke-classes with improved technology and building them in larger numbers.
Nor can it be argued that size is a pre-condition for the future incorporation of new technologies, although it may be an advantage. Smaller vessels like the Royal Navy’s Type 26 Frigate are considered viable candidates for the future incorporation of technologies like the railgun and directed energy weapons. This is enabled by an integrated full electrical propulsion system, which enables more efficient use of the vessel’s power generation capacity. Admittedly, power generation capacity is an advantage if all other factors are held constant, and smaller vessels may need to incorporate new technology more judiciously. However, the case needs to be made that this marginal capability advantage offsets the capacity advantage of having more vessels at sea. As such, any large surface combatant that represents an evolutionary step would need to be justified against the alternative of procuring larger numbers of somewhat smaller vessels with comparable, if not quite identical, capabilities.
The second option open to the US Navy is pursuing a more revolutionary stealthy vessel design akin to that of the Zumwalt. Statements by Rear Admiral William Galinis seem to suggest this is being considered. A ship designed with a stealthy hull comparable to that of the Zumwalt and equipped with an unprecedented suite of offensive and defensive capabilities could be a formidable asset. Such a vessel could carry out strike missions from forward positions in the denied waters of the first island chain against both land and maritime targets by virtue of its stealth. Moreover, it could serve as a command node and provider of wide area air defences for distributed formations of smaller unmanned combatants. The vessel could thus be a key component of the mixed formations of large manned and smaller unmanned assets that many analysts identify as key to successfully executing the US Navy’s distributed lethality framework for operating in contested waters.
If this is the US Navy’s aspiration, it will need to make certain points clear from the outset. First, it will be critical to clarify that the vessel is not a like-for-like replacement for the Ticonderoga. Current discussions, which link procurement requirements to a carrier protection role, suggest that the US Navy has failed to do this. Failure on this front will likely open the programme to congressional criticism given that a revolutionary vessel is not needed for a carrier picket role. Second, US Navy decision-makers need to make the case for accepting the risk of significant cost overruns on such a project. Consider, for example, that the Zumwalt-class DDG saw cost overruns of 44% – well in excess of most US naval projects. If an expensive project with potentially large cost overruns is to be justified, the US Navy needs to make a clear case that the military reward justifies these risks. Delinking the vessel’s mission set from carrier protection and explicitly demonstrating its role in the Navy’s distributed lethality framework will thus be critical.
If the LSC is to be a viable project, the US Navy needs to clarify which requirements the vessel will meet now. The Navy could procure an evolutionary asset built around an existing hull form that will replace the Ticonderoga on a like-for-like basis. This will require the more rapid procurement of vessels than is currently planned. The vessel would also need justification over a smaller vessel comparable to the DDG-51 or the Type 26 which could be procured in larger numbers. Alternatively, the US Navy needs to demonstrate that the LSC has a key role in its distributed lethality framework which justifies the risk of investing in a more revolutionary project.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: The Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Cowpens (CG 63) returns to Fleet Activities Yokosuka after an underway in the US 7th Fleet area of responsibility. Courtesy of US Navy by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Devon Dow/Released.