The Arleigh Burke-class DDG-51 guided missile destroyer is the most capable surface ship in the U.S. Navy and is the workhorse of the fleet.
Today, sixty-two of them roam the oceans, giving meaning to American “command of the seas” and to the multi-decade Pax Americana that operates so seamlessly we mostly take it for granted. These ships are the go-to capability when it comes to showing the flag and asserting U.S. rights under international law. Just last month, the USS Russell, DDG-59, an Arleigh Burke destroyer, conducted a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea. The United States has conducted similar operations with Arleigh Burkes in the Black Sea, using the opportunity to signal American commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance.
With its powerful suite of offensive and defensive weapons systems, the Arleigh Burke is a true multi-mission ship, capable of performing anti-submarine, air defense, missile defense, and land/sea-attack missions. The Arleigh Burke is the best air and missile defense ship in the world. Its powerful AN/SPY radar allows it to track both air and missile targets. The Aegis Combat System allows these ships to engage multiple targets simultaneously. The newest Arleigh Burke variants have the excellent SPY-6 anti-air and anti-missile radar on board. The Aegis Combat System will then choose the right weapon from its inventory of Standard Missiles (SM). This inventory includes the new SM-6, capable of engaging fixed wing aircraft, helicopters, cruise missiles, and some ballistic missiles, and the SM-3, which is designed to engage longer-range ballistic missiles. The next defensive system to be deployed on the DDG-51 will be a laser.
Offensively, the Arleigh Burke also packs a powerful punch. It carries the Tomahawk long-range, land attack cruise missile, including the newest Block V. This version has extended range, enhanced navigation and communication systems, and an improved data link. The Block V will be deployed in both a maritime strike version, able to target moving ships, and a hard target kill variant that can destroy land structures such as hardened command posts. Along with the Tomahawk, many DDG-51s carry a mix of Harpoon missiles, torpedoes, and anti-submarine rockets. The more modern variants also operate two MH-60R helicopters that can handle both submarines and surface targets.
U.S. policy and strategy has adopted an enhanced focus on military competition with China in the western Pacific region. A large fleet of surface combatants is required to implement this strategy, along with aircraft carriers and submarines. Meanwhile, Navy force planning, and the American political system are converging on accelerating acquisition of a new class of frigate, the Constellation, and quickly designing a new, larger ship called the Large Surface Combatant. This is anticipated to be a replacement for the Arleigh Burke and possibly also the Ticonderoga-class cruisers. The Navy is also looking at producing new, smaller amphibious ships for the Marines and possibly a light carrier.
Because of the desire to move to a large new surface combatant, construction of Burke destroyers is expected to taper off. But a new ship program is an expensive effort. It will take at least a decade to design an entirely new combatant and begin construction. All defense acquisitions are difficult, but getting a new class of warship into production is especially challenging.
The U.S. Navy has had significant challenges with new surface combatant designs the last twenty years. The DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class destroyer, a truly magnificent and revolutionary warship, was so whiplashed by mission uncertainty, new technology integration, and design change orders that a planned acquisition of thirty-two ships ultimately produced three. The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) has been judged as not up to the needs of the blue-water Navy as its original mission as a counter-terror, coastal platform has receded. Recently, engine problems caused the Navy to refuse to accept any additional Freedom-class LCSs.
It is worth remembering that the Navy terminated the Arleigh Burke program to devote those resources to production of the DDG-1000. From 2006 to 2009 it did not acquire any DDG-51s. When the decision was made to truncate the Zumwalt-class, the Navy had to restart the Arleigh Burke production line. The additional costs associated with a production restart were significant.
It might make sense to keep building the DDG-51 and upgrade and modernize her successful hulls for specific and additional missions. The U.S. shipbuilding industrial base knows how to build the Arleigh Burke. There are two hot production lines, one in Maine, one in Mississippi. Keeping this building program going will maintain and even grow the fleet size quickly and at a known cost.
The Navy should proceed carefully with its two new surface warships, the new frigate and Large Surface Combatant. It is important to make sure the Navy does not inadvertently shrink the fleet size if either the larger vessel or the new frigate (or both) get into design, mission, technical or political trouble.
The Arleigh Burke destroyer is steel on the water today. It has solid Congressional support, a multi-year budget plan that saves money, and a proven combat record. The next planned DDG-51 multiyear contract in fiscal year 2023 could extend or even increase this “block buy.” This will give the Navy time to perfect new surface combatant planning without risking the combat power of the current fleet.
Merrick “Mac” Carey is CEO of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia.