The U.S. Navy plans to acquire as many as two new destroyers per year for the next five years and beyond, a move reflected in the service’s recently released thirty-year shipbuilding plan. The plan also seeks to more heavily arm the surface fleet with substantial attack weapons and offensive “blue-water” warfare mission capabilities.
The conceptual maturation of the December 2020 30-Year Shipbuilding Plan likely involved careful considerations about new ship weapons, sensor ranges, radar systems and survivability systems fit within a broader, integrated force structure intended to rely upon hardened networking, long-range, high-fidelity sensors and over-the-horizon extended scope weapons attack on the open seas against a major power rival.
The Navy has, for instance, already put ten DDG 51 Flight III Destroyers on contract and is well underway with current efforts to engineer the first one. Flight III Destroyers will rely upon the most powerful variants of a new radar system called SPY-6 v1, a system known to incorporate exponential leaps forward in the realm of image fidelity, range and overall effectiveness. SPY-6 is often discussed by Navy and industry leaders as being able to detect objects half the size and twice as far away with high-fidelity resolution, according to Navy and Raytheon weapons developers.
Flight III Destroyers are also built with more on-board electrical power so that the platform can soon fire high-power laser weapons, operate a large amount of high-speed, next-generation computing technology and enable greater levels of automation and onboard autonomy allowing manned crews to perform other, more pressing tasks. The Flight III ships on contract include shipyards at General Dynamic Bath Iron Works in Maine, the same shipyard where the first Zumwalt class destroyer was built.
Increased weapons and technology capability will enable a smaller number of large surface combatants to perform a wide range of missions otherwise performed by a greater number of ships. Longer range, more sensitive radar covering wide-spanning, dispersed maritime areas with surveillance enables fewer ships to execute a broader range of missions historically performed by numerous differently designated large vessels.
Part of the equation with such improved weapons, sensing and ship-defense technology is that it may explain part of why the overall number of Large Surface Combatants will actually decrease from what is now ninety-one down to seventy-four by 2050. This not only suggests that vastly improved technical capacity will enable a single destroyer to cover the territory and perform the mission set of what used to require multiple destroyers, but also seems to pertain directly to the fast-increasing numbers of large drone ships now being planned for by the Navy.
The Navy is quickly expanding its overall fleet, with a particular emphasis upon Small Surface Combatants, Amphibious Assault Ships and drones. However, perhaps of greatest significance, none of this means the crucial role of large warships such as Flight III destroyers is in any way diminished or decreased in importance. If anything, the reverse is true. The firepower, range and defensive envelope offered by Aegis Radar Destroyers is quite substantial, and having larger numbers of smaller ships is intended to offer large warships like Destroyers more of an ability to focus upon heavy threats, high-risk operations and “blue water” maritime warfare.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.