What If All Future American Warships Looked Like the Stealthy Zumwalt?
Key point: The Navy is thinking about what it needs for the next big war. Among the technologies being considered are making more of its ships stealthy.
The U.S. Navy’s next big warship could look a lot like its current DDG-1000 Zumwalt class of stealthy destroyers, Rear Adm. William Galinis, the Navy’s program executive officer for ships, said at a June 19, 2019 symposium.
By contrast, the new ship probably won’t look like the DDG-51 Arleigh Burke class, currently the mainstay of the 290-ship U.S. fleet, Galinis said. The Navy is still studying how many of the new large surface combatants it should try to acquire in coming decades.
Ben Werner reported Galinis’s comments at the news website of the U.S. Naval Institute.
“The signature aspect of it, what does that do to the shaping of deckhouse hull form,” Galinis mused. “I will tell you, not to predispose anything, but I think in the end, you know, it’s probably going to look a lot more like a DDG-1000 than a DDG-51 if I had to say so. But there’s still a lot of work to kind of go do in that area.”
The Burke class is conventional in layout. The $2-billion vessels are heavily armed with as many as 96 missile cells apiece. The Navy is pleased with the condition of its 66 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and plans to keep all of them in service for 45 years, decommissioning the oldest vessel no earlier than 2036.
Another 22 of the 9,000-ton Burkes are under construction or funded, including the first examples of the Flight III version, which adds a powerful new radar.
The $4-billion Zumwalts, by contrast, are novel and niche vessels. The Navy possesses three of the 16,000-ton vessels and plans to deploy them for experiments as well as for front-line operations. Each packs 80 missile cells in a stealthy, downward-sloping hull.
The new large surface combatant would first replace the fleet’s 22 1980s-vintage Ticonderoga-class cruisers, each of which carries 122 missiles in a 9,000-ton displacement hull.
“The Navy had planned to buy the first of its new class of large surface combatant in 2023, but Galinis said the Navy has since pushed back the start date,” Werner wrote. “USNI News first reported the Navy now is looking at awarding a contract in fiscal year 2025. The current Arleigh Burke-class multi-year contract expires in 2022.”
“By pushing back the production timeline, Galinis said the Navy can refine its requirements now and incorporate feedback from industry and current programs to help improve the ship design and control costs,” Werner reported.
In any event, the Navy is likely to de-emphasize large surface combatants as it hews toward a new fleet design. The service expects to complete a force-structure assessment in 2019 to replace an older assessment from 2016.
The bottom line is that the old Ticonderoga-class cruisers could go away soon. In the meantime, the fleet could borrow systems from the new Arleigh Burke Flight III destroyers in order to upgrade older Flight II destroyers.
Farther in the future, the missile frigates the Navy plans to buy beginning in 2020 -- as well as the new large surface combatant that's still in development -- could replace the oldest destroyers.
The end result, in the 2030s, could be a fleet with more smaller warships. "If I had a crystal ball and had to predict what the FSA was going to do, it’s going to probably recommend more small surface combatants, meaning the frigate," deputy chief of naval operation Vice Adm. Bill Merz told USNI News.
The 2016 FSA called for a fleet of 104 large surface combatants including cruisers and destroyers, up from 88 that the fleet in 2014 said it needed. The 2016 assessment also recommended the Navy acquire 52 small surface combatants, the same number of small ships the fleet in 2014 required.
The large and small warships were part of an overall future larger fleet of 355 ships, up from 289 that were in service in 2019.
The 2019 FSA likely will stick to the 355-ship overall fleet, as the 2020 edition of the Navy's 30-year shipbuilding plan optimistically projects steady growth to 355 vessels. But compared to 2016, the mix of small and large combatants could change.
The Navy's 22 1980s-vintage Ticonderoga-class cruisers could be the first casualties of the new plan. The cruisers are old and have suffered structural cracks and other material problems. The Navy for years has asked Congress for permission to decommission the vessels. Lawmakers rejected all the requests and compelled the Navy to enter the cruisers into a refit program.
"We’re sort of undoing that in '20," Merz told USNI News. With new Flight III Burkes entering the fleet in large numbers and the missile-frigate buy beginning in 2020, lawmakers finally seem open to letting go of the cruisers. Four of the Ticos could go by 2022, according to USNI News.
The Navy in 2020 plans to buy its first new, 5,000-ton missile frigate with 32 missile cells. The originally plan was for the Navy to buy 20 frigates to complement 33 lightly-armed Littoral Combat Ships, ultimately giving the Navy one more small surface combatant than it required under the 2016 force-structure assessment.
But the frigate promises to be sophisticated and heavily-armed despite its relatively small size. And at just $1 billion a copy, it costs half as much as a Burke does, potentially helping to reduce the high cost -- at least $25 billion a year -- of growing the fleet. "I think the FSA is going to give a lot of credit to the frigate," Merz said.
The future large surface combatant is a wild card. The Navy hasn't finalized the new warship's design. It might use the same combat systems that the Flight III Burke does. But Galinis’s comments hunt that it might borrow the Zumwalt class’s hull.
How many of the new large warships the fleet acquires depends on how many of the other frigates, destroyers and cruisers the service decides to maintain, and for how long.
David Axe serves as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels War Fix,War Is Boring and Machete Squad. This first appeared in 2019.