The US Navy is kick-starting a five-year research and development, design and testing period to replace the service’s large surface combatants (LSC) beginning later this decade – this time frame comes at a similar point when both the Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy are looking to replace portions of their own LSC fleets.
Naval power has always played a critical role in the way great powers interact – competitions to design the most powerful warships often characterising the great power competitions of the past.
The decades leading up to the outbreak of the First World War saw an unprecedented competition between the UK and German Empire, with much of the emphasis placed on Dreadnought battleships echoing a similar, albeit smaller, naval arms race gathering steam between the US and China.
Further challenging the previously unrivalled dominance of the global maritime commons by the US is the resurgence of an increasingly modernised Russian Navy and the proliferation of advanced, increasingly capable weapons systems, once previously only the domain of global powers.
These factors, combined with a period of sequestration during the Obama administration and rising funding challenges, have given rise to growing concerns about the US Navy developing a 'hollow force', one that has a large fleet, with little to no manpower to support the tactical and strategic requirements of America's national security doctrines.
While much of the emphasis is placed upon large 'capital' ships like aircraft carrier platforms, the relatively benign state of carriers means that traditional, large surface combatants, typically guided missile cruisers and destroyers, play pivotal roles in the maritime strategies of many navies, including the US Navy.
As has been well established, the US Navy is facing an increasingly ageing surface fleet, with the advent of increasingly modern and capable peer and near-peer competitor vessels fielded by the Chinese and Russian Navies highlighting the limited capacity for modernisation of legacy platforms like the Ticonderoga and older Arleigh Burke Class vessels.
This realisation is also serving to inform the current early stage planning of both the Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy as both nations seek to replace the Type 45 Daring Class and small number of Hobart Class guided missile destroyers.
Interoperability is emerging as a key focal point for the three nations, with platform commonality driving the integration of air combat capabilities, namely in the form of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, while key sensor integration and capability aggregation through common use systems, namely the Aegis combat system, serve as an additional examples.
Recognising these factors, the US Navy has used the FY2020-21 budget documents to kick start the development of the US Navy's next-generation LSC to replace ageing platforms while ensuring that major capital ships, like aircraft carriers, remain survivable in the era of great power competition.
Real money towards LSC and learning from past mistakes
As part of the US Navy's budget request, the service has declared that it is looking to minimise risk and cost overruns throughout the development and fielding phases of the future LSC, through what it defines as leveraging proven technologies and systems "into a new hull design that incorporates platform flexibility and growth capabilities to meet projected future fleet system requirements".
However, in order to achieve this, the Navy needs 'real money' at a time when the service's financing is already stretched on the back of expensive, big ticket acquisition programs, namely the Zumwalt, Columbia and Gerald R Ford classes.
Despite this, the US Navy has requested US$46.45 million ($69.1 million) in FY2020-21 with the funding slated to triple in FY2021-22, bringing the funding to US$129.5 million ($192.8 million) and US$145.9 million ($217.2 million) in the years following, with the money divided between a number of entities across Navy and the defence industry.
This early-stage of research and development, design and testing aims to have the first vessels under construction by the late-2020s for fielding with the fleet in the mid-2030s at a time when even the heavily modernised Ticonderoga and Flight I/II and IIA Arleigh Burke Class vessels will face increasing obsolescence.
It is expected that the earliest variants of the LSC will draw on the lessons learned throughout the procurement of the Flight III Arleigh Burke Class to inform future technology insertion and capability enhancements, lowering risk and costs associated.
The US Navy's request for information (RFI) released in late-2019 also painted an image of what capabilities the LSC would be equipped with: "Initial LSCs will leverage DDG 51 Flight III combat systems as well as increased flexibility/adaptability features including expanded space, weight, power and cooling to allow for more rapid and affordable upgrades in capabilities over the ships' service life and allow for fielding of future high demand electric weapons and sensor systems and computing resources.
"Additionally, the Navy is looking to install larger vertical launch system tubes to accommodate ever-bigger, ever-faster missiles with longer range. The service is also looking to create enough excess power and cooling to give the ships 360-degree coverage with directed energy weapons."
Replacing Type 45 and Hobarts
The Royal Navy’s long-troubled and costly Type 45 Daring Class vessels are slated for replacement beginning in the mid-to-late 2030s, with the Royal Navy currently kicking off research and development for the next-generation of guided-missile destroyer.
It is envisaged that future Type 45 replacement will be responsible for providing the Royal Navy with an advanced, future-proofed area-air defence and surface combatant capability in support of the Queen Elizabeth Class carrier strike groups and operating independently in contested environments.
Reportedly known as Project Castlemaine, the Royal Navy’s Type 4X program aims to build on the success of the Type 26 Global Combat Ship with the selection of the vessel by the Royal Canadian Navy and Royal Australian Navy to maximise the spread costs associated with research and development and acquisition by guaranteeing a larger production run and shared component and acquisition lines.
This approach also provides an opportunity for increased and sustained levels of interoperability for key Five Eyes allies all operating the same or similar platforms.
The similar delivery timeline and capability requirements currently fulfilled by both the Daring and Hobart classes serves to build on the precedent established by the Type 26 and paves the way for larger production runs to meet the growing operational and strategic requirements of both nations.
Type 26 also serves to show that US combat systems, favoured by the Royal Australian Navy, can be integrated within the confines of a large, British-designed surface combatant and could serve to pave the way for a Hunter Class-based Australian replacement for the Hobart, supporting the government’s long-term naval shipbuilding program, supporting the development of Australia’s defence industrial base.
Given the geographic area of responsibility Australia will become increasingly responsible for and dependent on, will the RAN and the recapitalisation and modernisation programs currently underway be enough for Australia to maintain its qualitative and quantitative lead over regional peers?
As an island nation, 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.
Submarines are critical to the nation’s ability to protect these strategically vital waterways and key naval assets, as well as providing a viable tactical and strategic deterrent and ensure the nation’s enduring national and economic security. Recognising this, the previously posed questions will serve as conversation starting points.
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.