While aircraft carriers will continue to serve a pivotal role in the era of increasingly advanced, long-range integrated anti-access/area denial (A2/AD), heavily armed arsenal ships have been floated as complementary platforms that can enhance the lethality of contemporary navies – supporting destroyers, cruisers, frigates and aircraft carriers and amphibious power projection operations.
Prior to the successful raids against the Italian naval base at Taranto and US naval base at Pearl Harbour, the battleship and its quicker brother, the battlecruiser, were the undisputed king of the seas. Heavily armoured and armed, they came to represent not only the prestige of the nation, but also served to highlight the intention and power projection capability of great powers.
However, as is inevitable, the passage of time and rapid evolution of technology rapidly diminished the power and relevance of the battleship – the Pacific theatre and to a lesser extent the Battle for the Atlantic gave rise to the aircraft carrier and its revolutionary carrier air wing and the power projection capabilities afforded to aircraft carriers and their supporting task groups.
By the end of the Second World War, the battleship had seemingly reached the pinnacle of its design, armour, speed and offensive capability – culminating in a series of designs built by Germany, Japan, the UK and the US. It seemed as if the era of the battleship was at an end – while the Soviet Union and its successor, Russia, operate the nuclear powered Kirov Class, only the US would retain the battleship comparable in the now famous Iowa Class.
As carrier-based combat aircraft and their weapons systems and long-range precision munitions became ever more advanced throughout the Cold War, even the US phased the venerable battleship out of service – replaced by advanced guided missile cruisers, destroyers and frigates powered by increasingly advanced radars like the SPY-1 system and supporting Aegis combat system, and armed with a suite of advanced gun and missile systems.
The advent of advanced integrated anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) networks in the Indo-Pacific, combined with increasingly capable anti-ship cruise and ballistic missile batteries and integrated air defence networks supported by long-range precision fire from short batteries, have limited the effectiveness of carrier-based strike aircraft with their limited range and payload capacity.
In response, both the US and Russia have sought to respond with a modern incarnation of the battleship, a heavily armed long-range maritime strike platform capable of supporting aircraft carrier strike groups and amphibious operations; the arsenal ship.
The US arsenal ship and DD-21
Initially proposed by the US Navy in 1996 – the early concepts of the arsenal ship highlighted a ship with a comparatively small crew and as many as 500 vertical launch tubes to provide ship-to-shore bombardment and fire support for amphibious operations fulfilling the role traditionally occupied by the battleships of old and to a limited extent guided missile cruisers, destroyers and frigates.
However, while US Congress cancelled funding for the project in 1998 – the US Navy modified the four oldest Ohio Class ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) to a guided missile role (SSGN), allowing them to carry up to 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles using vertical launching systems (VLS) installed in the ballistic missile tubes. The modified SSGN were used to great affect in operations against the regimes of Muammar Gaddafi and Bashar Al-Asad.
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Building on this and the ensuing trial of the Ohio Class concept, the US Navy initiated development of the DD-21, which would eventually become the Zumwalt Class guided missile destroyer that would serve as a test-bed for a follow on cruiser concept and incorporate a range of advanced weapons systems, including a electromagnetic rail gun and a battery of approximately 256 VLS tubes.
It was also anticipated that the DD-21, the Zumwalt Class and follow-on cruiser would make use of an advanced gun system (AGS), which would also make use of guided rocket-assisted five-inch munitions that could be rolled out across the rest of the fleet and, potentially, allied fleets including the Royal Australian Navy.
Russia's Kirov and Lider Class
Russia and the preceding Soviet Union established a small fleet of heavily armed, nuclear powered Kirov Class battlecruisers designed to counter the traditional maritime dominance of the US Navy's aircraft carriers and supporting strike groups and to rapidly intervene in any potential US support travelling across the Atlantic in the event of a Soviet invasion of western Europe.
However, the heavily armed vessels while undergoing a suite of modernisation programs – the Kirov Class is expected to eventually make way for a fleet of advanced Lider Class guided missile destroyers designed to replace the Kirov Class vessels in the anti-shipping and long-range maritime strike role, with a focus on establishing sea control and enhancing Russia's growing sea control ambitions.
A new piece to the jigsaw puzzle
Arsenal ships are designed to fulfil a unique role within the overall confines of contemporary naval doctrines and force structures. Such vessels when integrated as part of carrier or amphibious strike groups can also serve two roles – one of the supplementary air defence escort and the second being the long range maritime strike for ship-to-shore and anti-ship roles.
Australia is defined by its relationship and access to the ocean, with strategic sea-lines-of-communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost effective and reliable nature of sea transport. Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.
The Indian Ocean and its critical global sea-lines-of-communication are responsible for more than 80 per cent of the world's seaborne trade in critical energy supplies, namely oil and natural gas, which serve as the lifeblood of any advanced economy.
Traditionally, Australia has focused on a platform-for-platform acquisition program – focused on replacing, modernising or upgrading key capabilities on a like-for-like basis without a guiding policy, doctrine or strategy limiting the overall effectiveness, survivability and capability of the RAN. Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below, or get in touch with [email protected] or [email protected]