WASHINGTON – The U.S. Navy’s new shipbuilding plan shows that over the next five years it plans to decommission 11 cruisers with more than 1,340 vertical launch tubes, but Congress doesn’t think the Navy has a serious plan to replace them with a new generation of large surface combatants, according to the text of a recent funding bill.
Citing a lack of clear direction for its large surface combatant building program and a recent reduction in plans for the next iteration of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, Congress is set to strip the project of more than 70 percent of the requested $45.5 million in funding for planning and early development costs.
“Despite repeated delays to the [large surface combatant program], the Navy has reduced the acquisition profile for DDG-51 Flight III destroyers in recent budget submissions, and has not delineated a clear acquisition path for large surface combatants following the conclusion of the current DDG-51 Flight III destroyer multi-year procurement contract in fiscal year 2022,” the text of the bill reads, citing the Navy’s 2018 multi-year procurement of four of the new Burkes.
“Absent a clear understanding of future Navy LSC force structure requirements and acquisition strategies, the proposed increase in funding for LSC, to include $17,100,000 in preliminary design efforts, is not supported.”
All told, Congress reduced funding for the future large surface combatant by $33.3 million. The bill has yet to be signed by President Trump.
The move to strip funding is the latest blow in the nearly two-decade-long effort to field a new large surface combatant to replace the retiring cruisers and make up for lost ground pursuing designs that were deemed too expensive to produce in numbers.
In June, Defense News reported that the lack of clarity from the Navy and the disorganization around the Defense Department’s failure to submit a 30-year shipbuilding plan had hurt the Navy’s plans to start moving out on a Large Surface Combatant with Congressional authorizers, who also made cuts to the design efforts. Congressional appropriators cut the funding entirely to preliminary design efforts.
The funding cut was also a blow to the outgoing Trump Administration, which put out a last-minute plan that reversed some of the decisions from its own budget released just 10 months earlier. The President’s fiscal year 2022 budget raised Congressional ire by including cuts to the next iteration of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer that includes a much more powerful radar and cuts to the Virginia-class submarines program.
In the appropriations bill, Congress pointed to frequent delays to the Navy’s large surface combatant procurement plan and the Navy’s decisions to request just four Flight III DDGs between 2023 and 2025 as a reason for cutting the Navy’s funding for a next-gen large surface combatant. The new 30-year shipbuilding plan reverses the cuts to Flight III but it came too late in the game to have any impact on this year’s budget.
“[T]he Navy is planning to procure only four DDG-51 Flight III destroyers from fiscal years 2023 to 2025, well below the current 2.4 DDG-51 destroyers per year MYP acquisition, and that in each of the last two budget submissions the Navy has reduced the procurement profile for DDG-51 Flight III destroyers,” an explainer attached to the bill reads. “This is inconsistent with previously stated shipbuilding objectives, and the lack of a predictable and stable acquisition strategy for large surface combatants undercuts naval maritime superiority and injects risk into the industrial base.”
The Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition must submit a plan to Congress for large surface combatant acquisition going forward.
The never-ending story
The Navy’s quest to field a next-generation large surface combatant is the victim of a lost generation of future surface Navy combatants, which included the Zumwalt-class destroyer and the next-generation cruiser CG(X). Zumwalt was truncated from 32 ships to just three, while CG(X) was cancelled entirely at the outset of the Obama Administration.
CG(X) was initially supposed to start entering service in 2017, three years ahead of the Navy’s oldest active cruiser, the Bunker Hill, reaching its 35-year hull life.
In the 10 years since the cancellation of CG(X), the service has yet to settle on a new generation of large surface combatant. In the interim, it restarted the Arleigh Burke lines at Ingalls Shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and Bath Iron Works, Maine, to offset the 2008 Zumwalt cancellation and redesigned the Burkes to incorporate Raytheon’s more powerful SPY-6 air defense radar in the forthcoming Flight III.
But as for a new generation of large surface combatant, it now appears it will be at least 16 years between the decision to cancel CG(X) and the start of procurement of its replacement.
Former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson had called for the Navy to start buying a large surface combatant in 2023, but that timeline has slipped to 2026 or later as the Navy waffles on what kind of ship it wants and has been unable to land on a clear answer.
The ship was conceived around the idea of a large power source and a big hull to accommodate larger, faster missiles that won’t fit in the Navy’s ubiquitous Mk-41 vertical launch system. But at other times the Navy has talked about a Flight IV DDG, and now the Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday is describing the ship as a next-generation destroyer from a clean-sheet design.
In the latest 30-year shipbuilding plan, the Navy is calling for the program to begin funding non-recurring engineering costs – money spent on refining the design of a new ship as well as preparing the winning shipyard and its suppliers for beginning the class building project – to start in 2026, another year’s delay to a long-delayed project.
Congress, for its part, has been pushing the Navy to begin a land-based engineering testing lab to work out the new power and propulsion system to reduce the engineering risks up front, a tack it took also with the requirement to build a similar facility for the new Constellation-class frigate.
The Navy’s current thinking is to put the latest in the current generation of technology into a new hull design with plenty of power and a magazine big enough to hold newer, bigger missiles.
“I don’t want to build a monstrosity,” Gilday said in October. “But I need deeper magazines on ships than I have right now.
“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 modernize those capabilities over time.”
Joe Gould contributed to this story from Washington.
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.