Surface Forces: January 28, 2004


Americas plan to build a fleet of 375 ships has been put on hold, at least for now. The desire for quality over quantity is the new priority of the US Navy. Ships, aircraft and weapons have become much more powerful in the last two decades, so the number of ships is not as important as it used to be.

The problem is warships are being retired faster than they can be replaced. The remaining Spruance destroyers are on their way out, along with 5 of the 20-year-old Ticonderoga class cruisers. The last Perry class frigates, now minus their missile launcher, will be gone by decades end, if not sooner. 

This major reduction in fleet composition has a bright side. Sixty-two of the advanced and powerful Arleigh Burke destroyers are already authorized by Congress. The Burkes are well armed and armored, equipped with Aegis radar, and cruise missiles in vertical launchers. This makes them vastly more powerful and versatile than the vessels they are replacing.

With the deployment of the Mk-41 VLS (Vertical Launch System, with missiles launched from containers just below the deck) since the 1980s, America now has what some have called a vast missile magazine. Modern cruisers and destroyers carry from ninety to a hundred missiles safely hidden below decks. The missiles can be fired singly or in salvoes, according to the discretion of the commander, giving the Navy firepower unequaled by any seapower. 

Four converted Trident submarines are set to deploy in the next few years, which can fire over 150 Tomahawks while submerged. Such undersea battleships will further augment the Navys unparalleled presence in the worlds oceans. America also has hundreds of fighter-bombers on 12 aircraft carriers. Armed with precision guided weapons, these can strike targets with greater accuracy than ever before. 

The Navy can now surge from US ports on very short notice, as witnessed last year in Operation Iraqi Freedom. This bolsters Admiral Clarks confidence in the fleets capability, despite the reduced numbers. Vital funding can now be channeled into new construction and the continuing War on Terror. 

Yet doubts persist on what form the new warships will be. The DD(X) program born, out of the defunct DD-21 of the 1990s now seems to be still born because of excessive cost. The Littoral Combat Ship is an interesting project, which may introduce advanced hull forms and new weapons, is still being funded, though how many eventually will be built is still unclear. With the smaller Virginia class submarines costing as much as their predecessors, the larger and faster Seawolf, can even these be afforded in the numbers required? -- Mike Burleson


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