They are the workhorse of the US Navy, but in light of increasingly tight budgets, the older Arleigh Burke Class destroyers are headed for the chopping block as the US Navy aims to focus its limited resources to better meet the needs of the future fleet and future fight.
Hailing from relatively modest roots in terms of warship design and role, modern destroyers have evolved to become the undisputed multipurpose surface combatants of major navies around the world.
Large hulls, long-ranges and high speeds support a wide variety of mission profiles, from convoy and battle-group escort for high-profile assets like aircraft carriers and amphibious warfare ships, to maritime security, land attack, anti-air and anti-submarine defence, destroyers are the core of the navy.
Meanwhile, the advent of increasingly powerful combat systems and advanced weapons systems including ship-mounted lasers are driving the role evolution of destroyers to include things like ballistic missile defence (BMD), while enhancing the already formidable capabilities of these key platforms.
Throughout Indo-Pacific Asia, destroyers are rapidly being commissioned or transferred to the region to beef up navies and secure key strategic assets, lines of communication and support power projection platforms.
The US Navy currently operates about 32 Arleigh Burke Class destroyers in or around the Indo-Pacific, ranging from forward deployed destroyer squadrons based in Yokosuka, Japan, to destroyers based with carrier and amphibious strike groups on deployment away from home ports at Pearl Harbor, San Diego and Everret in Washington state.
First commissioned in the early 1990s, the Arleigh Burke Class of destroyers serve as the workhorse of the US Navy. The Arleigh Burke Class currently has four 'flight' (Flight I, II, IIA and III) variants providing various technology and capability enhancements.
The class ranges from 8,184-9,800 tonnes with a top speed in excess of 30 knots to keep pace with nuclear aircraft carriers. The destroyer's weapons systems are guided by the SPY-1 radar system and Aegis combat system, and are armed with a traditional five-inch naval gun, between 90 and 96 cell vertical launch systems (VLS) for Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles.
US Navy Arleigh Burke's are also armed Harpoon anti-ship missiles, Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles, SM-3 (BMD) missiles, Phalanx close-in weapons systems, various large calibre, small arms installations, Mk-46 or Mk-50 heavy weight torpedoes, and MH-60 series Seahawk helicopter(s) for anti-submarine warfare.
The Arleigh Burkes also serve as the backbone of the US Navy's afloat BMD network, with a number of the vessels based in the Pacific operating with the new Baseline 9 of the Aegis system and conducting frequent testing of the BMD software and evolved SM-3 missiles in conjunction with Japanese Aegis destroyers to perfect the at-sea BMD capability.
However, despite the prominent role the Arleigh Burke Class play in the US Navy and President Donald Trump's commitments to achieving a 355-ship fleet, capable of guaranteeing global maritime security, freedom of navigation and stability in the face of increased peer and near-peer competitors – the funding question remains an important one for consideration.
Budget limitations, even for the US Navy
Indeed recently, Defense Secretary Mark Esper explained the importance of balancing readiness with force and platform modernisation to the Senate Armed Services Committee:
"This need to balance current readiness with modernisation is the department's central challenge and will require strong leadership, open and continuous dialogue with others, and the courage to make tough decisions."
In spite of these factors, the President has sought to capitalise on a surging US economy to pass yet another increase for the US defence budget – expected to see the Pentagon receiving US$738 billion for FY2020-21.
While the figure is less than the US$750 billion President Trump called for earlier this year, the US$738 billion figure will still see a major ramp up in the modernisation, recapitalisation and expansion of the US military at a time of increasing great power rivalry.
Despite the concerns regarding the potential for a 'hollow force', Secretary Esper speaking to DefenseNews articulated his commitment and ambitions to getting the US Navy to a 355-ship fleet by 2030, with an aim to achieve a much higher number in response to the mounting global challenges.
"To me that's where we need to push. We need to push much more aggressively. That would allow us to get our numbers up quickly, and I believe that we can get to 355, if not higher, by 2030," Secretary Esper said.
This statement echoes the statements made by acting US Navy Secretary, Thomas Modly, who stated, "It was also the President’s goal during the election. We have a goal of 355, we don’t have a plan for 355. We need to have a plan, and if it’s not 355, what’s it going to be and what’s it going to look like?"
Discussing the composition of this future force, Secretary Esper posited some interesting ideas for consideration, leveraging advances in unmanned and autonomous/semi-autonomous ships to ensure the US Navy meets its force structure obligations.
"What we have to tease out is, what does that future fleet look like? I think one of the ways you get there quickly is moving toward lightly manned [ships], which over time can be unmanned," he added.
"We can go with lightly manned ships, get them out there. You can build them so they’re optionally manned and then, depending on the scenario or the technology, at some point in time they can go unmanned."
Shrinking surface combatant numbers over the mid-to-long term and the value-for-money proposition
Despite these commitments, the US appears to be targeting its older Arleigh Burke Class destroyers to save costs and better utilise the limited funds and better prepare the US surface fleet for future obligations and challenges.
US Navy Assistant Secretary for Research, Development and Acquisition James Geurts said, "Service life extensions can be targeted, physical changes to specific hulls to gain a few more years, or a class-wide extension based on engineering analysis. The Navy has evaluated the most effective balance between costs and capability to be removing the service life extension on the DDG 51 class."
It is revealed by DefenseNews that these cuts to service life extensions will see the US Navy lose some 27 destroyers from the fleet in the years between 2026 and 2034 – these cuts would further compound the planned cuts to shipbuilding over the next five years of Flight III Arleigh Burkes.
This brings the cuts to approximately a 37 hull reduction in the US Navy's surface fleet at a time when the US Navy will face an increasing Chinese fleet, particularly in the Indo-Pacific.
Speaking to the US Naval Institute News, Vice Admiral Bill Merz explained that modernisation and hull life extensions don't deliver the same result as new-build hulls: "You cannot use [the life extension] as a surrogate for building the new ones, or when those things tap out then we go off a cliff, and we’ll never get there."
Despite these comments, Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) Commander, Vice Admiral Tom Moore explained that the future of the US Navy's workhorses remained of paramount importance for US lawmakers and the Navy hierarchy.
"Both the secretary of the Navy and the [chief of naval operations] are very interested in a program that would extend the service life of the DDGs in particular. It has great interest from the Hill as well. I think we’ve come through the technical hurdles and it’s just at this point, like everything else, it’s balancing everything else we want to get done in the budget," VADM Moore explained.
"It’s got to be part of our overall strategy to get to 355. It’s the only way you can get there – instead of getting there in 30 years, it’s the only way you can get there in say maybe 10 to 15 years. So I think that’s something we really want to go look at."
It appears to be a long and rocky path forward for the US Navy and its goal of achieving a 355-ship fleet, and the Arleigh Burke Class will play a critical role in the future structure of the fleet – however, numbers and availability will continue to remain in question, placing increased pressure on Australian and allied assets in the Indo-Pacific.
As an island nation, Australia is defined by its relationship with the ocean. Maritime power projection and sea control play a pivotal role in securing Australia’s economic and strategic security as a result of the intrinsic connection between the nation and Indo-Pacific Asia’s strategic sea-lines-of-communication in the 21st century.
Further compounding Australia's precarious position is an acceptance that 'Pax Americana', or the post-Second World War 'American Peace', is over.
In response, Australia will require a uniquely Australian approach and recognition that the nation is now solely responsible for the security of its national interests, with key alliances serving a secondary, complementary role to the broader debate.
It is becoming clearer that Australia cannot simply rely on the US, or Japan, or the UK, or France to guarantee the economic, political and strategic interests of the nation. China is already actively undermining the regional order through its provocative actions in the South China Sea and its rapid military build-up.
To assume that Australia will remain immune to any hostilities that break out in the region is naive at best and criminally negligent at worst.
As a nation, Australia cannot turn a blind eye to its own geopolitical, economic and strategic backyard, both at a traditional and asymmetric level, lest we see a repeat of Imperial Japan or the Iranian Revolution arrive on our doorstep.
It is clear from history that appeasement does not work, so it is time to avoid repeating the mistakes of our past and be fully prepared to meet any challenge.
There is an old Latin adage that perfectly describes Australia’s predicament and should serve as sage advice: "Si vis pacem, para bellum" – "If you want peace, prepare for war".