The US Navy is planning to get serious about a next-generation large surface combatant

David Larter
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The US Navy is planning to get serious about a next-generation large surface combatant

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy in 2021 is planning to kick off a five-year research, testing and design effort for its next generation of large surface combatant, according to Navy budget documents released Monday.

The large surface combatant program is looking to install older, proven systems “into a new hull design that incorporates platform flexibility and growth capabilities to meet projected future Fleet system requirements,” according to Navy fiscal 2021 budget documents. The effort will be increasingly important as the Navy starts decommissioning its cruisers without a direct replacement.

And the Navy isn’t just talking about it — it’s asking to put real money toward it. The service is requesting $46.45 million in 2021, but funding is slated to triple the next year. In 2022, the Navy is expecting to spend $129.5 million, and $145.9 million after that.

The service released a request for information in 2019 with some ideas about where the Navy wanted to go, but the 2021 budget request is the first time it requested significant money toward its next generation of heavy warships.

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In 2021, the money will be divided among several entities, including the Naval Surface Warfare Center Philadelphia, which will do some engineering work on hull, mechanical and electrical systems to the tune of $2.1 million. Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock in Maryland would receive $6.2 million to perform some of the hull design work. Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in Virginia is slated to get $1.85 million for combat systems engineering work.

Notably, the service is putting $5.15 million toward a “Land Based Integration and Test” endeavor. The Navy has been criticized in the wake of the meltdown over the delays with the Ford-class aircraft carrier’s advanced weapons elevators, which did not have a land-based testing facility where the service could work out the kinks before installing it into the $13 billion ship.

Another $16.15 million is going toward an unspecified “Ship Design Engineering Contract,” which the documents say will be divided among various entities, and $9.5 million is for “shipboard systems development” for various government entities.

The Navy is beginning to develop system requirements for the program and a preliminary design, which should cap off with a requirements review in the second quarter of 2021, according to the documents. The process should then begin to incorporate industry designs, which will head to a preliminary review by the third quarter of 2025, the documents explain.

The service intends to start building the ships in the late 2020s, USNI News reported in January.

‘Learning lessons’

The goal for the large surface combatant, at least initially, will be to use the systems designed for the Flight III Arleigh Burke-class destroyer — the air and missile defense radar, Aegis Baseline 10 — and install them on a new hull that will maximize the margin the Navy has to modernize the hull as technology advances, the documents say.

"Initial LSCs will leverage DDG 51 Flight III combat systems as well as increased flexibility/adaptability features including expanded space, weight, power & cooling ... to allow for more rapid and affordable upgrades in capabilities over the ships' service life and allow for fielding of future high demand electric weapons and sensor systems and computing resources," the documents read.

Additionally, the Navy wants to install larger vertical launch system tubes to accommodate ever-bigger, ever-faster missiles with longer range. The service also wants to create enough excess power and cooling to give the ships “360-degree coverage with directed Energy weapons,” the Navy’s request reads.

The approach harkens back to the approach the Navy took with integrating the Aegis system into the fleet, said Bryan McGrath, a retired destroyer captain and consultant with the Ferrybridge Group.

With the Aegis cruisers, many still in service today, the Navy took a proven hull in the Spruance-class destroyer and modified it to house Aegis and its AN/SPY-1 radar equipment to reduce the risk associated with a new class. And once the service was comfortable with Aegis, it designed the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers from the keel up to support the Aegis system, but had reduced a lot of the risk with Aegis by gaining experience and competency building the cruisers.

With the future large surface combatant, the Navy will take risk with a new hull designed to be more easily modernized but, at least initially, the combat systems will be familiar to Navy shipbuilders and engineers thanks to the DDG Flight III.

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It’s an approach that the Navy did not take with the Zumwalt-class destroyer, which had so many new technologies that the price ballooned and the Advanced Gun System failed to pan out.

“It's a wise approach,” McGrath said. “It sort of harkens back to the glory days of Aegis: Build a little, test a little, learn a lot.”

The big innovation in the hull seems to be the abundance of electrical power the Navy plans to put in it to run future electronic warfare, electronic attack and directed-energy weapons the fleet anticipates incorporating in the future. And investments in things such as land-based testing seem like a good step, McGrath said.

“I think the Navy is going to do a good bit of developmental and research and development work on the kinds of things you have to get right: power distribution, power management, power conditioning, power storage,” McGrath said. “All of those things are going to be critical for a mid-to-late 20th century warship.

“I think this is a reasonable approach that learns from the past, doesn’t try and perturb too many things at one time, and hopefully it appears that the Navy, guided by Congress, is learning lessons.”