Surface Combatant Development in the US Navy, and What is Next?

Lazarus has a nice little piece at Information Dissemination outlining the development of surface combatants in the US Navy post-World War II.


The truncation of the Littoral Combatant Ship (LCS) to 32 units, and subsequent search for a more “lethal” and “survivable” combatant has triggered a useful discussion on the shape of the future U.S. surface combatant fleet. Captain Arthur H. Barber’s “Rethinking the Future Fleet” in this month’s Naval Institute Proceedings is especially insightful on this topic. Senior civilian and military leaders should however first look back on the last 60+ years before discussing issues of lethality and survivability for future warships. U.S. surface warships of all sizes from the 15,000 ton Zumwalt class destroyer to the 3000 ton Littoral Combatant ship are all descendents of the frigates (DLG) built just after the end of the Second World War. A combination of a new operational concept, new threats at sea, and rapidly advancing technology combined to create a persistent design in U.S. surface combatants that endures to the present day. The postwar surface combatant has been primarily assigned as a defensive platform based on the experience of World War 2 and those that followed in Vietnam. Its design features the primacy of sensory, communication and weapons control equipment over stout construction and armor. It was specifically designed to support defensive rather than offensive missions. These features have been a constant in a parade of ships that have entered the fleet from 1947 to 2014. If senior national security decision makers desire greater lethality and enhanced survivability in future surface combatants, the characteristics so prevalent in U.S. warship design since the late 1940’s must be re-evaluated.

via Information Dissemination.

Of course, the comments go into discussion of passive protection, which for, read “armor.” But here’s the thing, with the exception of the USS Long Beach (CGN-9), every US surface combatant since World War II has been a destroyer type, as Lazarus argues, and destroyer types have never relied on armor.

Further, passive protection for ship survivability is far more than just armor. Destroyer types historically relied on far more subtle methods of survivability, such as “unit” machinery arrangements  that would allow the ship to maintain power even if large parts of the engineering plant were damaged. Robust damage control capability, and good compartmentalization, along with heavier scantlings than comparable foreign designs meant US ships had a better probability of surviving a given level of damage.

And while I might quibble a bit about the influences that drove the post war ocean escort design, Lazarus is pretty much correct that the post war surface combatant design has, for over 60 years, been tailored to serve as a defensive screen for the fast carrier task force, or, in the case of ocean escorts, a defensive screen for amphibious shipping, the combat logistics force, and merchant shipping.

I think that the LCS is the first major program to deliberately eschew this role as an escort. That paradigm shift meant to some extent that Big Navy had no baseline of experience to form the requirements and expectations of the program, and that lead, in part, to the hash the program has become.

3 thoughts on “Surface Combatant Development in the US Navy, and What is Next?”

  1. Since they went with your choice of either a mega yacht or high speed ferry as the designs for the lcs, and armed it with an optically aimed 57mm gun, it appears that they eschewed the ‘warship’ part of the design.

  2. One would hope that the experiences of the USS Stark, the Falklands, etc. were used in the designs. It has always puzzled me how 1 CWIS is expected to provide adequate all around defense. How fast can one of those things be reloaded? At 4 or 5 thousand rounds per minute it should be a consideration.

    1. Most ships have two or more CIWS to cover all aspects. Ships such as the FFG-7s and the LCS, however, do not. The FiGs really didn’t have the weight or space to carry more than one. And of course, CIWS is the last ditch, not the first line of defense. They have enough ammo for more than one engagement. If they need more than that, the defenses have already been saturated.

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