Why do we build new classes of ships or aircraft? The answer is to incorporate new capabilities that can’t be achieved simply by adding upgrades to existing classes. Further, the presumption is that the new class will have several new capabilities that render the previous class hopelessly obsolete.
The WWII Essex class carriers were a vast improvement over the
The F-86 Sabre was a vast improvement over any previous propeller driven aircraft.
The Forrestal was an immense improvement over the Midway class.
You get the idea. Each major new class (for you nitpickers, I’m not talking about tweaks that produce sub-classes like the Sumner/Gearing) was an inarguably vast improvement over the preceding class. Unfortunately, that trend may be coming to an end. Let’s look at some recent new classes.
LCS. OK, this is everyone’s poster boy for a messed up program but, seriously, even if the modules ever pan out, they’ll not represent a vast improvement over existing ships and technology. The Avenger MCM vessels are arguably more capable than the LCS. The Perrys were better ASW vessels than the LCS will be – not surprising given that the LCS ASW module will consist purely of existing technology and the seaframe is not optimized for ASW (meaning quieting). Almost by definition it won’t be an improvement. The Perrys, before the Navy neutered them, were worlds better at ASuW than the LCS.
Could we not have kept building the Perrys and simply slanted the superstructure to add a bit of stealth? Add to that some new build Avengers and you’ve got the LCS (actually, a far more capable “LCS”) without all the added developmental costs.
Ford. Where is the huge leap in capability? The claimed increase in sortie rate has been debunked. The EMALS catapult is of dubious value. It’s claimed to be easier on aircraft but there has never been any data supporting that. Aircraft were built to take the steam catapult stresses so that claim is highly suspect. Same for the Advanced Arresting Gear which the Navy has just recently hinted may be a complete failure and have to be replaced by a conventional arresting system. The ship has some increased automation which is nice (until damage control is required and we find out the price we’ll pay for reduced crew size) but that’s something that could have been easily incorporated into the next Nimitz. The vaunted dual band radar has already been downsized and replaced for subsequent ships of the class. There is simply no need for a massively capable radar on a ship that carries only short range AAW missiles and is always accompanied for Aegis ships and Hawkeyes.
Could we not have added the EMALS to the next Nimitz and achieved the same capability as the Ford without the billions of dollars of developmental costs?
F-35. The F-35 is nowhere near as capable as the F-22. It’s aerodynamically on par with the F-16/18. It’s steadily losing any capability gains it might have as each year of development continues, decade after decade. The only real improvement might be the 360 degree sensor fusion if it ever works and sensor fusion is already being incorporated into upgrades of other aircraft. The F-35’s sensors are already technologically behind those of many other aircraft. Advances in IRST and anti-stealth detection technology are quickly negating the aircraft’s stealth advantage.
Could we not have added some stealth to the Hornet (oh, wait, we already have – the Advanced Super Hornet) and incorporated the 360 degree sensor technology if it ever matures? Or, could we not have simply continued building the F-22 with whatever bits of technology we wanted to add from the F-35? After all, we’ve already looked at the possibility of restarting the F-22 production line and found it to be feasible and cheap relative to continuing the F-35 debacle.
Could we not have simply continued the Wasp class with whatever tweaks were incorporated into the
? Heck, we
didn’t even improve the flight deck to the point that it could handle the
F-35B. We’re having to go back and
rebuild the flight deck and the compartments immediately under it. Surely, we could have done that with new
Could we not have continued building 688s with some of the new sonar arrays? We certainly could have added the proposed missile modules to the 688.
LX(R). The replacement for the LSD-41 class has only half the well deck which makes it a poor substitute let alone a successor. Even more baffling is that we’re retiring the LSDs before we need to. Could we not simply keep the LSDs and toss in a few modest upgrades? What leap in technology or capability does the LX(R) offer?
There’s nothing wrong with new ships. There is something wrong with spending billions of dollars designing new classes when we could simply add capabilities to existing classes. Yes, there would be some money spent to figure out how to incorporate new technologies but nothing even remotely approaching the cost of a new class.
Where are the leaps in capabilities that are typically associated with new classes? The problem is that the Navy has opted to forego conventional leaps in favor of generational leaps – none of which have panned out.
Conventional leaps would include the latest sensors, missiles, and systems that actually exist. The leap in capability would come from incorporating the cutting edge, but existent, technology with new, better platform designs. Instead, the Navy seems stubbornly fixed on repeating existing designs under the misguided notion that this will save money. ComNavOps is all for upgrades but there comes a point where upgrades simply won’t get you where you need to be. At that point, a new design incorporating the latest, existent, technology is the preferred approach.
Consider all the development programs that are just expensive repeats that don’t really offer the needed improvements.
The Burke-AMDR may be the poster boy for failed repeats. The AMDR requires a bigger, or at least differently designed, ship than the Burke. Because the Navy has opted to repeat the Burke design, the ship will have only a fraction of the desired performance.
There are two ways to approach “new” ships. We need to either do simple upgrades to existing ships or design new classes that offer significantly improved capabilities. The former option saves the bulk of the design money and the latter, while costing more, gives us new capabilities. The Navy is combining the worst of the two options by pouring lots of money into redesigns of existing ships that offer little improvement in performance – the worst of both options!