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AMERICA’S SURFACE NAVY: Great Ships, But Are There Enough?

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MEET THE SURFACE NAVY
While carriers have gotten much of the glamour among the ships in service with the United States Navy, they are only part of a strike group. Often, these groups will consist of a carrier and four escorts. Many of these escorts pack a powerful punch in and of themselves.

America’s surface navy is centered around twenty-two Ticonderoga-class cruisers and sixty-two Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers. These ships not only escort the Navy’s 11 aircraft carriers presently in service, they also carry out independent deployments, and handle missions ranging from counter-piracy patrols off Somalia to serving an asset in ballistic missile-defense. This is a total of 84 ships.

While the destroyer total of 62 is higher than it has been since 1989, the cruiser total is the lowest it has been since 1963 – a nearly 50-year low. Now consider that in 1993, the United States had 52 cruisers in service. Many of those older cruisers were retired early – most notably nine nuclear-powered guided missile cruisers and five early-construction Ticonderoga-class cruisers that used the Mk 26 missile launcher.

MEET THE TICONDEROGA-CLASS
The Ticonderoga-class cruiser got its start about 35 years ago, when the SPY-1 radar was mated with the hull of the Spruance-class destroyer. The result was to create a ship that not only was the best anti-air system in the world, but which retained a superb anti-submarine warfare suite. The first five were built with the Mk 26 missile launchers used on the Virginia-class cruisers and Kidd-class destroyers, and the next 22 were built with the Mk 41 vertical-launch system (VLS).

The Mk41 turned the Ticonderoga-class cruisers into much more than just an escort – it gave the ship the capability to fire the BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missile. With nuclear land-attack, conventional land-attack, and anti-ship variants, the Tomahawk can reach several hundred miles, and delivers its payload with extreme accuracy (it is accurate enough to target a specific garage door in a two-car garage).

With nine nuclear-powered cruisers, the United States would have had a total of 36 cruisers. However, the nuclear-powered cruisers were retired in the mid-1990s, and the first five Ticonderoga-class cruisers were retired in 2004 and 2005, even though they were still valuable assets.

“31-KNOT BURKE’S” LEGACY
The Ticonderoga-class cruisers were well along the way to production when the first Arleigh Burke-class destroyer was commissioned in 1991. The ships were intended to be a complement to the cruisers. From the start, the ships had the Mk 41 VLS and the SPY-1 radars. The first 28 ships, however. did not have the ability to embark helicopters.

That was rectified with the Flight IIA destroyers, also known as the Oscar Austin subclass. Those destroyers were given the ability to operate two SH-60B or MH-60R helicopters, vastly improving the ship’s anti-submarine warfare capabilities. Not that the Burke-class destroyers were a slouch in that department – being equipped with an SQS-53 sonar and the RUM-139 Vertical-Launch ASROC.

The Flight IIA destroyers did have a cost. They no longer have the Mk141 launchers for the Harpoon anti-ship missile, which means the only anti-ship capability on board are AGM-119 Penguin anti-ship missiles fired from the Seahawk helicopters. This could be a problem, as the Penguins will displaces torpedoes dropped from those same helicopters.

OTHER ASSETS
The United States Navy also has 27 Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates in service. These frigates were mostly built in the 1980s. Originally, these ships were equipped with a Mk 13 missile launcher, capable of carrying forty missiles (usually thirty-six SM-1 and four Harpoons), but those launchers were removed starting in 2003.

The Perry-class frigates are being replaced by the Freedom and Independence classes of Littoral Combat Ship. These vessels are not being commissioned fast enough to replace the Perry-class ships. In 2009, when Senator Mel Martinez asked about keeping them in service to keep the force levels up, the Obama Administration declined to do so. The Navy also has thirteen Cyclone-class patrol craft in service. These vessels carry two 25mm M242 Bushmaster chain guns, and a mixture of crew-served weapons (M2 machine guns, M240 machine guns, and Mk 19 automatic grenade launchers).

The American surface combatant force is powerful, but the real issue is that these ships are not able to be in two places at once. During the 2012 Presidential campaign, Mitt Romney proposed increasing the Navy’s shipbuilding program. The surface navy needs it.

Article by Harold Hutchison