The U.S Navy today has around 280 major warships, fewer than at any time since the 1930s. For many officers, congressmen and industry leaders, that’s reason enough to call for a massive expansion. Current plans will see the fleet grow to 313 hulls over the next 15 years at a cost of around $15 billion annually.
But is it worth it?
Not if increased firepower is the goal, says Bob Work from the nonprofit Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Today’s Navy is the already the most powerful in the world by an unprecedented margin, he says, and the fleet expansion will mean only a slight boost in strength. How do we know? “Count the number of VLS cells,” Work advises.
Vertical Launch System cells are individual missile packs mounted vertically in a warship’s hull. Since the 1950s, missiles have comprised the primary armament of most major warships. In the early decades missiles were launched by mechanical launchers with singe or double rails. A missile would get fed from a magazine onto the launcher then fired – a system that required a minute or more per cycle and occupied a great deal of space inside a ship’s hull. In the 1980s, the U.S. Navy began switching to VLS, which let a warship carry more missiles – around 100 – and fire them faster. Today VLS is standard across the U.S. destroyer and cruiser forces; rail launchers have all but disappeared. Even many attack submarines boast VLS cells.
“We have 84 Aegis [radar-equipped] VLS ships bought and paid for,” Work says. When the last of the current generation of Aegis ships enters service in 2010, he adds, “We’ll have 8,460 VLS cells [in surface ships] plus another 1,000 in subs.” That’s nearly 10,000 VLS cells that might be loaded with: land-attack Tomahawk cruise missiles; surface-to-air Standard missiles, including the SM-3 models optimized for shooting down ballistic missiles; or anti-submarine rockets tipped with torpedoes.
According to Work, those 10,000 cells represent the greatest destructive force ever to put to sea, and “are a greater magazine capacity than the next 30 navies combined.” China, by comparison, has around 48 VLS cells in a handful of modern warships firing only surface-to-air missiles.
If VLS cells represent combat power, then the Navy is actually regressing with its latest classes of ships. The new Zumwalt-class destroyer, costing at least $2 billion apiece, is fitted with just 80 VLS cells versus the Burke destroyer’s 96 and the Ticonderoga cruiser’s 127. The $300-million Littoral Combat Ship features no VLS cells at all. Still, most of the current force of Burkes and Ticos is good for another 30 years of service, during which no other navy will even approach VLS parity.
Says Work, “The power of this fleet is unbelievable.” And he’s not even counting our aircraft carriers, the subject of part three of this series.
Cross-posted at War Is Boring