Since their introduction in the early ’90s, the Arleigh Burke Class destroyers have served as the backbone of the US Navy. However, the growing capability of peer competitor platforms and limitations on hull form have triggered a major shift for the US, with Admiral Michael Gilday, the US Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations, declaring that a new destroyer class will learn the lessons of the recent past to avoid cost overruns and capability shortfalls.
Throughout history, no naval force has so effectively and dominantly managed the security and freedom of navigation on the global maritime commons as the US Navy – emerging from the Second World War as the world's premier naval power and surging out the other side of the Cold War, it seemed as if none could challenge the unassailable might of the US Navy.
Today, as we look not only across the Indo-Pacific but more broadly around the globe, many established and rising powers are expanding the capability and composition of their respective naval forces as tensions continue to mount in the post-COVID world.
The US, divided domestically and weary from decades of serving as the world's policeman is feeling the weight of its global responsibilities, is being stalked by the 'newcomer'; Communist China, an ancient power, with a proud and storied history, reinvigorated by decades of development seeking to extend its influence and prestige as a truly global power once again.
This economic, political and strategic competition is gaining increasing traction in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly as both sides embark on one of the single largest naval modernisation and recapitalisation programs in history.
China's rapid recapitalisation and modernisation has seen the People's Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) evolve into one of the world's most powerful and modern navies, capable of global reach on an increasing scale, with aircraft carriers, ballistic missile submarines, amphibious warfare ships and next-gen large surface combatants all on the shopping list.
On one side of the Pacific, the US Navy is struggling to modernise, repurpose and recapitalise a range of Cold War-era platforms that have formed the backbone of the world's most powerful navy since the end of the Second World War – increasing budget overruns, delivery delays and a focus on land-based wars in the Middle East have seen the fleet fall by the wayside.
For both the US and Chinese Navies respectively, increasingly capable destroyers serve as the backbone of their surface fleets, while 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.
Combining 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.
As Beijing steadily increases the number of advanced large-hulled guided missile destroyers, namely the Type 055, Type 052D and Type 052C class vessels, America's fleet of Arleigh Burke Class destroyers are finding themselves increasingly out gunned and out numbered by adversary platforms of equal quality.
Currently, 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.
In response, the US Navy has sought to upgun and modernise the Arleigh Burkes, with four 'flight' (Flight I, II, IIA and III) variants providing various technology and capability enhancements. Broadly, 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 destroyers' weapons systems are guided by the SPY-1 radar and Aegis combat system and are armed with a traditional five-inch naval gun, between 90-96 cell vertical launch systems (VLS) for Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles, 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.
However, given regional developments and the costly failure of the multibillion-dollar Zumwalt Class of stealth destroyers, the US Navy's Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Admiral Michael Gilday, is seeking to avoid the failures of the recent past, with the aim of getting a new class of destroyers to the fleet as soon as possible.
Toward 'DDG Next'
The Arleigh Burke Class is one of the US Navy's most successful contemporary designs, with significant growth margins 'built' into the base vessel design which stems from the last-days of the Cold War, seeking to maximise the lessons and success of the class, ADM Gilday has set some very clear priorities and parameters for what is referred to as the 'DDG Next'.
For ADM Gilday the lessons of the failed, extremely costly and short run Zumwalt Class destroyers – designed in large part to replace the Ticonderoga Class guided missile cruisers, incorporating low observability materials and cross sections, electromagnetic rail guns, advanced sensor platforms and smart weapons systems in order to serve as the backbone of the carrier strike group's area defence capabilities – are clear.
"I don’t want to build a monstrosity. But I need deeper magazines on ships than I have right now," ADM Gilday explained to a virtual audience at US-based Defense One's 'State of the Navy' event.
Driving the thinking behind the design, development and introduction of the DDG Next concept is a growing need for ever increasing numbers of missile silos at sea, namely, something ADM Gilday believes is limited in the existing fleet of Arleigh Burkes and the planned Flight III variant of the vessels.
"I’m limited with respect to DDG Flight IIIs in terms of what additional stuff we could put on those ships. … So the idea is to come up with the next destroyer, and that would be a new hull. The idea would be to put existing technologies on that hull and update and modernise those capabilities over time," ADM Gilday said.
As part of the accelerated timeline, the US Navy is expecting to purchase the new ship beginning in 2025, fitting in line with the Navy's 2020 30-year shipbuilding plan. In order to achieve the lofty ambitions, ADM Gilday is clear that the Navy will focus on maximising the use of existing leading-edge technologies with significant room for growth and modernisation and new capacities to maximise the life and capability, while also serving to limit significant growth in cost and delays in delivery of the platforms.
ADM Gilday explained, "So think DDG-51 (that’s exactly what we did): We had a new hull but we put Aegis on it. We put known systems that were reliable and were already fielded out in the fleet. That’s kind of the idea. I call it DDG Next to kind of right-size it. Smaller than a Zumwalt but packing some heat nonetheless."
Increasingly, platform commonality and capability aggregation will serve as an important force multiplier for the US Navy and its allies, including the Royal Australian Navy, sharing the burden and embracing a collaborative research and design and industry engagement program could enable the US Navy to sure the cost, while providing opportunities for Australia's growing naval shipbuilding industry to get access to a next-generation major surface combatant design to enhance the combat capability of the Royal Australian Navy fleet.
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.
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".