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Thompson Files: The DDG-1000 firefight

DDG-1000 defenders say their vessel has much greater potential to defend against both overhead and undersea threats if the Navy would spend money to acquire the capability, and that the service hasn't admitted the full cost of installing better defenses on Aegis destroyers.
by Loren B. Thompson
Arlington, Va. (UPI) Oct 1, 2008
In midsummer the U.S. Navy outraged some of its strongest supporters on Capitol Hill by proposing to end a next-generation destroyer program after building only two vessels, potentially squandering billions of dollars in development money.

The service said threats had changed in a way that made the new destroyer, designated DDG-1000, less relevant to future needs. It also claimed that the long-range guns around which the ship was designed were not needed because the service had other ways of providing fire support to forces ashore.

The firestorm of opposition sparked by this announcement has now forced the U.S. Navy to agree to construction of a third ship. But service leaders are still determined to abandon DDG-1000 and revert to production of the existing DDG-51 destroyer, which they contend is a better match for emerging challenges.

Obviously, when a service expends vast effort to develop a new warfighting system and then decides on the eve of production that it would be better off buying a system that debuted 20 years ago, it has some explaining to do.

The public story is that in 2006, Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Party of God in southern Lebanon, nearly sank an Israeli warship off Lebanon with an advanced missile, which led to doubts within the U.S. Navy about both the capabilities and the operating concept for the DDG-1000.

But that is just the beginning of the challenges the U.S. Navy faces. China has begun testing a new missile that can precisely attack U.S. aircraft carriers if a suitable network of targeting sensors is assembled.

U.S. Naval Intelligence has been predicting such a threat for some time, but the Chinese have made faster progress than expected in developing a maneuvering warhead and the combination of sensors required to find distant carriers.

The U.S. Navy can limit danger in the near term by reducing various "signatures" emitted by the fleet, but what it really needs is a missile-defense ship capable of intercepting the incoming warheads.

When you add this nascent danger to all the other threats found near the coastlines of potential adversaries -- sea-skimming cruise missiles, stealthy diesel-electric submarines, smart mines and suicidal terrorists -- it is clear that the U.S. Navy's capacity to operate its surface fleet in littoral regions is increasingly at risk.

The good news is that there are lots of things the joint force can do to degrade the "anti-access" capabilities of enemies. The bad news is that it might not get the chance to exercise those options until after an aircraft carrier with 5,000 sailors and aviators on board has been lost. So the U.S. Navy is determined to field better missile-defense capabilities as soon as possible.

U.S. Navy planners say they already have committed money to develop such capabilities for the DDG-51 destroyers. DDG-51 hosts the Aegis combat system, which is currently the most potent air defense capability in the world, and there are dozens of Aegis-equipped destroyers in the fleet.

Why spend billions of dollars to develop a parallel capability on DDG-1000, they say, when the service plans to buy only a handful of the new warships?

But DDG-1000 defenders say their vessel has much greater potential to defend against both overhead and undersea threats if the Navy would spend money to acquire the capability, and that the service hasn't admitted the full cost of installing better defenses on Aegis destroyers.

Sorting out these arguments without damaging the fragile U.S. shipbuilding industry will be a challenge for the next administration in Washington -- and that's before it even gets to the debate about how much fire support forces ashore really need.

(Loren B. Thompson is chief executive officer of the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank that supports democracy and the free market.)

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