Why the U.S. Navy's Arleigh Burke-class Destroyer Just Won’t Die
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The Arleigh Burke-class destroyers are old. Although there are several variants of the venerable ship, the Navy created the original blueprints in the mid-1980s, and the first hulls went into service later that decade. Still, they're pretty capable.
The design contained lessons from the Royal Navy's brief foray into Latin America during the 1982 Falklands War. Shipbuilding began to favor aluminum hull structures as a weight-saving measure, but British experience showed that aluminum was significantly less resistant to fire and other war damage than an all steel design. The Arleigh Burke class opted for an all-steel hull and superstructure.
It was also one of the first ship designs in the navy to incorporate a degree of stealth into its design. The main mast, which houses the ship's bridge and communications equipment, has been tilted up slightly to better deflect enemy radar, making the ship less visible.
The Arleigh Burke class was to be replaced this year by the annoying missile destroyers of the Zumwalt class, although this was not the case. The Zumwalts suffered from extreme cost overruns - surprisingly, a single Zumwalt ship costs more than a nuclear-powered submarine. Instead of the Navy buying thirty-two Zumwalt hulls, only three were ultimately laid down and put into service.
Since the Zumwalts are not in the picture, the Arleigh Burkes of the Navy are to be replaced by the Large Surface Combatant ship, which is still under development. The LSC program was intended to replace Arleigh Burke-class destroyers by 2023, although that date has now been moved to 2026 or later.
The Navy is currently dealing with different priorities. During a naval meeting, a senior naval official explained what these different priorities mean for the LSC:
"We are currently considering whether, in view of these conceptual discussions about the Large Surface Combatant, we need something that goes beyond a Flight III [the latest variant of the Arleigh Burke class] of the 51er." And again, I tell people that the budget always gets a vote, so you have to think about what the Navy will do about shipbuilding over the next five to ten years: we have frigates online, Columbia [ballistic submarines Missiles] are undoubtedly a top priority. We recapitalize the Sealift fleet. We still have to build Virginias [attack submarines]. We just made a two carrier purchase. “Right now, it seems Arleigh Burkes just has to keep going.
By 2034, the Navy plans to be a fleet of 355 ships. To reach this mark, they have to put ships in the water, ready or not - and the Arleigh Burke class has to get them there. Nevertheless, the class has already been improved almost to the maximum. The design's internal space constraints do not allow for improved power generation on board, and newer communication, radar and propulsion systems cannot be installed because they require more juice. The Navy's targeted energy weapons, which are still under development, are unlikely to be installed in the class.
The Navy has squeezed all sorts of accomplishments out of the Arleigh Burke class. Let us hope that the LSC can be put into service before the American Arleigh Burkes have to go to war.
Caleb Larson is a defense writer for national interests. He has a Master of Public Policy and deals with US and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.
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