In CRS: Discussing Large Surface Combatants

by Craig Hooper on July 16, 2021

With the release of the Pentagon’s 30-year naval force structure estimates, the indefatiguable Ronald O’Rourke, over at the Congressional Research Service, updated his analysis of the Navy’s surface combatant programs, using, in part, my concerned post over at (here). In the Forbes piece, I detailed how the Pentagon could be setting up to ramp-down surface combatant production as well conduct a a rapid cull of older surface combatants–basically trimming all the old Aegis cruisers and Flight I, IA and Flight II Arleigh Burke destroyers, and head towards a base Fleet of about 100 crewed surface combatants of various sizes.

My sense is that rapid divestment of these bought-and-paid-for platforms is a mistake, and that low-cost FRAM-like solutions are available to keep many of these platforms sufficiently combat-relevant for the years ahead. But the Navy, never one to support refits over shiny new platforms, may well be making the cuts inevitable by running the cruisers and early-flight Burkes into the ground. The Navy has resisted cruiser and early Burke refits for years now, complaining that, after years of crappy maintenance, that comprehensive refits cost too much and aren’t worth the money.

I’d believe it if the Navy hasn’t accumulated a long record of this sort “self-sabotage-for-a-new-boat” behavior. IF the Navy commits to a viable path forward in modernizing the Flight IIA DDGs, eking maybe 80% of the Flight III’s performance out of the older ships, then I’d be more sanguine about the cuts, but the moment the next general arrangement for the next large surface combatant appears in a Pentagon PowerPoint, I’ll bet that the Flight IIAs are going to face a similar ignominious fate. I also suspect that the tech-addled unmanned advocates in the Pentagon are going to leverage the Navy’s behavior to “lock in” their changes, tying the Navy to a costly strategy that has yet to demonstrate sufficient “bang-for-the-buck”.

In short, I’m not optimistic.

Anyway, it is great to be out there, helping Ron O’Rourke inform Congress! Here’s the bit I wrote that Ron included in his June 28 report, “Navy DDG-51 and DDG-1000 Destroyer Programs: Background and Issues for Congress“:

A June 23, 2021, press article that presents one observer’s perspective regarding the figures in Table 1 states that the June 17, 2021, long-range Navy shipbuilding document…

“…telegraphs enormous cuts to America’s large surface combatant fleet of cruisers and destroyers. The mild verbiage from the report, saying “that growing the small surface combatant force enables reductions in the quantity of large surface combatants while yielding a more distributed and lethal force,” masks a likely brutal downsizing. 

The cuts will be deep and potentially rapid. Today, 92 large combatants are in the fleet, but the Navy’s longer-term plans suggest the legacy large surface combatant fleet of Ticonderoga Class (CG 47) cruisers, Zumwalt Class (DDG 1000) destroyers and Arleigh Burke Class (DDG 51) destroyers will shrink to a fleet of 63 to 65 large surface vessels over the next 30 years. Amphibious assault vessels (LHA/LHDs and LPDs) and command, support and fast transport ships will be cut as well, and the future small surface combatant fleet of littoral combat ships and frigates is only projected to grow to between 40 and 45 ships from a current fleet of 35. 

The cuts are widespread, but one place the axe falls hardest is upon the Navy’s large surface combatant fleet. First, the Department of Defense will force the Navy to eliminate the entire 22-hull Ticonderoga Class cruiser fleet. But even that drastic cut is not enough for the Navy to get to the Department of Defense’s current projection of 63 to 65 ships. With 88 Arleigh Burkes in service, under construction or already authorized, Arleigh Burke destroyer procurement will likely cease and 27 older Flight I, Flight IA and Flight II Burkes will be ushered out of the fleet. 

The only question is just how fast the cuts to the large surface combatants will happen. 

If left to normal attrition, most of the 27 older Arleigh Burke Class destroyers, deprived of a few hundred million dollar service-life extension six years ago, will simply age out over the next 30 years. Commissioned between 1991 and 1999, early-Flight Burkes were built with a service life expectation of about 35 years and, since the Navy has been unable to find money to systematically modernize and extend the life of the aging ships, most of the older Arleigh Burke destroyers are set to start decommissioning sometime after 2026. 

That would be relatively normal practice. But, in a rush to claw back additional money, lock in savings, and make the proposed cuts permanent, aged Ticonderoga cruisers and older Burkes may well be pulled from service quite quickly—far faster than anyone outside of the Pentagon expects. 

What should scare surface warriors is that the administration’s proposed 30-year goal of 63 to 65 large combatants can be achieved without procuring a single new hull. And while one of America’s two remaining large surface combatant yards may help build Constellation Class (FFG-62) guided missile frigates in the coming years, the Navy’s surface combatant industrial base will fall under serious strain without some modest level of large surface combatant procurement. 

The end of the Burke production line is in sight. The newer, Flight IIA Burkes were built to have a 40-year service life, and, even with no additional vessel procurements beyond the authorized-but-unnamed “DDG139, the Navy would only need to give six Burkes, DDGs 79 through 84, a 10-year service life extension to meet the current fleet-size goal.

Those handful of refits would let the Navy show up in in 2051 with about 60 Arleigh Burkes and three DDG 1000s in service, clocking in right at the low end of the Navy’s 30-year estimate….

A large surface combatant procurement pause may be inevitable”

My sense is that the drawdown of America’s large surface combatant inventory is going to happen–and far faster than most people outside DOD think.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Keith August 2, 2021 at 9:37 pm

It’s insane that the Navy is by far the absolute worst at waste when it comes to service lives, maintenance, and then wants even more $$ for new hulls. We have a reserve fleet that has no intention of ever being activated- and probably dubious in being taken care of- and while we always hear the casual mention of extending a Nimitz, it’s then reversed and we hear let’s not refuel a mid-life carrier too, so we can get in the new gold plated Ford, or kill off some more LA class and then say woes me, I don’t have enough attack subs. The government needs to find a way to A. not retire these ships until they are bled dry on service life B. let the private shipyards refurb more of the ships and worry less about building new ones and C. repurpose or use them smartly as to extend the lives. How bout using older LA class subs in a way for less wear and tear and in a way that their less quiet reactor is less a hindrance, such as crawling slowly at 5 knots in chokepoints and homebased close to enemy waters? need an arsenal ship, how bout using the hangar space in a Tarawa class to instead host a load of MK 41’s? You need not man it with anywhere close to previous levels, it’s main job is haul missiles to where some other ship directs them to the enemy. Put some reserve soldiers in older aircraft carriers that can be surge bomb haulers in time of war, relying on newer carriers to be the C&C suites for a task force. Oh, the aviation arm is just as guilty. While we tool with mq-25’s that will never be delivered in enough quantity, S3’s capable of hauling 20k + pounds of jet fuel could have used Lockheed’s own software to be the new drones, and they are sitting in a desert FREE. But that is not sexy enough I guess.


Bill Smith July 31, 2021 at 10:57 am

Yes, of course, with China doing China-stuff, NorKo in the hands of a nuclear-armed mad man, and Russia recently admitting it is back in a cold war with the US, let’s cut the fleet’s most capable ships by 35-40%.

Even cheaper than a full FRAM would be to take the oldest Burkes and upgrade them to ABM capable Aegis and SM levels and use them rotationally in strategic spots (Eastern Med., Arabian Sea, South China Sea, and most-importantly the Northern Pacific) to counter Russian, Chinese, Islamic, and North Korean ballistic missile threats? They wouldn’t need the full capability upgrades to Flight III or IV status and they would relieve more-capable ships from those semi-static duties while increasing defensive capabilities and countering the most-significant threats against us and our allies.

And, if the Navy decomms the Cruisers, what replaces their C2 capabilities which were the “necessity” which kept them in commission long after the Burkes were in their third upgrade? Will the Flight IVs have C2 capability? Or perhaps a “Flight IIIA?”


James O'Keefe July 16, 2021 at 8:59 am

On a different note, why not extend the length of the Burke 25-75 feet to give it the capacity to have a bigger radar? The Ticonderoga-class was just a somewhat bigger Spruance/Kidd, after all.


James O'Keefe July 16, 2021 at 8:57 am

Meanwhile, China expands the number of DDG/FFGs it has and has the capacity to build more than we can if needed. After tens of billions devoted to R&D that went nowhere, four costly, poor or, at best, marginally effective ship classes, the push towards uncrewed ships seems like madness. I really do not understand what Navy leadership is thinking.


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