Railguns, Lasers and Nuclear Power: The U.S. Navy's Next Super Ship?
While the U.S. Navy will start to build new Flight III Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers equipped with Raytheon’s new AN/SPY-6 Air and Missile Defense Radar next year, the service will eventually have to develop a new surface combatant to replace the vintage DDG-51 and Ticonderoga-class hull-forms. Navy officials expect that such a new Future Surface Combatant (FSC) would enter service in the 2030s—but the Navy has to start planning for those vessels now since construction needs to start around 2028. No one—not even the Navy—knows exactly what those new ships might look like.
But we can make certain assumptions even at this early stage. The new ship will need to generate a huge amount of electrical power to run future naval weapons which many predict will include lasers and railguns. It’s also very likely that the FSC will need to simultaneously run extremely power-hungry radars and other systems. Indeed, when current deputy defense secretary Bob Work was at the Center of for a New American Security, or popularly known as CNAS, he described his vision for a future Navy fleet that would rely on railguns and lasers for fleet defense. The addition of energy weapons would solve the problem of magazine depth—basically running out of missiles during a pitched battle. “[Lasers] would be able to shoot down cruise missiles coming in that are relatively close,” Work had said. “The electromagnetic rail gun is really horizon to horizon; if it flies, it dies.”
If the Navy can develop working railguns and lasers that are practical enough for a warship, it would not only solve the magazine depth issue, but would also free up missile tubes for the FSC’s offensive sea-control and land attack missions. But there are technical challenges that must be overcome. Firstly, the size and power requirements for railguns and lasers must come down. Further, those weapons need to be able to fire rapidly; reliably and accurately enough to replace all but longest-range over-the-horizon surface-to-air missiles like the Standard SM-6.
But a future Navy warship needs to have the power and cooling capacity to run these energy intensive systems. Those would include not only directed energy weapons, but also a myriad of high-powered sensors and electronic warfare systems. And while the Navy can draw on the fifty-eight megawatt integrated power systems found on the three-ship Zumwalt-class destroyers—which are basically glorified technological testbeds—the service should very seriously consider nuclear propulsion to address the FSC’s energy requirements.
While the upfront cost of nuclear power is high, the life-cycle costs might be worth it. That’s especially true with the kind of electrical power-generation requirements these future vessels might need. The price of oil is low right now—and it might remain low for some time to come—however, it won’t always remain low. Longer term, China will almost certainly continue to develop—wishful thinking by some—and its demand for energy will grow as its economy once again picks up steam. That means the prices will eventually spike—possibly to the levels we used to see in recent years.
With nuclear-power and the directed energy weapons for defense, a future destroyer with say 140 missile tubes—up from the 122 on the Ticonderogas—could focus on offensive missions. Those missile tubes could be filled with new next-generation anti-ship missiles and some sort of long-range next generation land attack cruise missile.
Basically, the Navy has to get back into the business of offensive sea-control as Rear Adm. Peter Fanta described at the Surface Navy Association earlier this year. It also goes without saying that the FSC should have a powerful anti-submarine warfare capability—subs are probably the most lethal threat to surface ships out in the open ocean.
That being said, I don’t see having an extremely capable ship as running counter to the Navy’s Distributed Lethality concept. The Navy is still going to need very capable ships even if those vessels aren’t necessarily going to have every single bell and whistle onboard. In any case, the Navy’s concept of distributed lethality is smart— but at the end of the day—the service is going to need new ships since the DDG-51 design will be more than forty years old by 2030. But it must be noted that by Navy’s own admission, distributed lethality is still largely a PowerPoint presentation. Meanwhile, the Russians seem to have essentially gone ahead and executed something very similar without fanfare or notice—as the recent Caspian Sea missile raid demonstrated.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.