Hypersonic weapon systems are emerging as one of the critical capability battlegrounds of the next decade. Recognising the importance, the White House has hinted at ‘up-gunning’ the fleet of destroyers to incorporate the next-gen strike capabilities, but not everyone is sold on the idea.
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 has since the end of the Battle of Midway.
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 the other 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, 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 outgunned and outnumbered 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.
Forming the next stage of these developments, US National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien has bucked the trend to shed light on plans to upgrade the Arleigh Burke Class with a suite of next-generation capabilities, with hypersonic strike missiles at the forefront of the shopping list.
O'Brien explained the logic behind his mounting advocacy on the topic, stating, "The Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike program will provide hypersonic missile capability to hold targets at risk from longer ranges. This capability will be deployed first on our newer Virginia Class submarines and the Zumwalt Class destroyers. Eventually, all three flights of the Arleigh Burke Class destroyers will field this capability."
This comes at a time when the Navy, as with much of the US Armed Forces, reorientates itself to better counter the peer-competitor threats of great power rivals like Russia and China, as opposed to the asymmetric challenges experienced in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.
It is clear, however, that the increased capability proposed by O'Brien is targeted at one nation in particular: Communist China, which has rapidly expanded its own naval strike capabilities and sought to establish an advanced and integrated network of multi-domain capabilities designed to counter the traditional advantages of the US and its allies, including Australia.
Not everyone is sold on the idea
Despite the merit in the thoughts of O'Brien, not everyone is sold on the idea, especially given the complexity of the modernisation and acquisition programs underway, which may draw attention and, critically, funding away from critical capability delivery.
Bryan Clark of the Hudson Institute, speaking to Paul McLeary of Breaking Defense, explained his apprehension to the idea, stating, "This is a terrible idea for several reasons. They’re [Flight I Arleigh Burkes built during the 1990s] in their last decade, and their operation and support cost is 30 per cent higher than the Flight IIs."
McLeary expands on these points, stating, "The addition of the Arleigh Burke destroyers was a new touch not previously seen in Navy plans or in the 2021 defence budget markups by the House and Senate earlier this year. Upgrading all three versions — known as Flight I, II, and III — of the Arleigh Burke destroyers would be a huge ask for the Navy and its shipyards already struggling to repair and refit ships on time.
"The hypersonic missiles the Navy has been developing in conjunction with the Army are likely to be bigger than the missiles currently carried by the 68 Arleigh Burke destroyers, requiring a major refit.
"The newest flight III ships — the first one is slated to be delivered in 2024 — are also optimised for ballistic missile defence, meaning the addition of the hypersonic weapon would give them a complex new mission and a major refit right off the bat."
The impact of implementing these capabilities isn't without its merit, as Brent Sadler, a senior Fellow for Naval Warfare and Advanced Technology at the Heritage Foundation, explained to McLeary: "From the Chinese perspective when they see this, they’re counting ships and how many missiles on that ship, that ship, that ship … it’s going to cause the Chinese to go back and do their math again.
"Messaging is meant to complicate China’s threat calculus, because it makes the problem set harder."
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 share 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".