RAN Commodore Lee Cordner’s excellent article in the March 2009 PROCEEDINGS, “Aussie Frigates Reborn”, provides an interesting summation of the RAN’s Project SEA 1390, the upgrading of the combat systems on their newest four FFG-7 Adelaide-class frigates (Adelaide and Canberra will not receive upgrades). The upgrades of the ASM, UW, and AW capabilities will make the upgraded FFGs far more capable and potent surface units (a “quantum leap”, in the words of the author) and extend their service lives. One of the most impressive achievements in this upgrade is the installation of the Mk 41 VLS in the FFG-7 hull.
The Commodore’s article begs the question; Why can’t we? Such an upgrade to an existing platform, albeit with its difficulties, seems to be something the US Navy has entirely neglected in the last two decades, despite the fact that the USN is retiring modern and highly capable warships with half of their designed service life remaining. And those vessels, once retired, have seldom been preserved, but instead have been almost immediately disposed of, either by scrapping or sinking as targets. Invariably, the replacements are far more expensive, and are being built in far fewer numbers than those that preceded them, a disparity that any increased technological capability cannot hope to mitigate.
Beginning with the Navy’s decision to decommission the four CGN-38 Virginias in the early 1990s, the US Navy has needlessly shrunk its surface fleet to dangerously low levels. Next was the decision not to modernize the 31 DD-963s but instead retire and dispose of them, despite, like the Virginias, several serving fewer than 20 years of their 35 year projected life cycles. The reasons given for these decisions usually revolved around “operating costs”. The CGN-38s were noted as costing $40 million annually, versus the $28 million of the then-new CG-47 Ticonderogas. But does a $12 million difference in annual operating costs justify the retirement of these modern, technologically advanced ships with half their service life remaining, to be replaced by units costing more than $1 billion each? Similarly, the early decommissioning in 2004-05 of the first five of the Ticonderogas, due supposedly to costs of retrofitting the VLS and other modernizations, shows an irresponsible short-sightedness on the part of the Navy, especially in light of the successful installation of that very system in the Australian FFG-7s in the article noted above.
It wasn’t always this way in the US Navy. In the decades following World War II, the US Navy numbered some 1,000 ships. Those ships represented a massive expenditure of national fortune, and the Navy went to great lengths to squeeze useful service out of as many as they could. The re-building of several Baltimore-class CAs and Cleveland-class CLs into guided missile cruisers (CAG/CLG) yielded greatly modernized, useful, and highly-capable warships that bridged the gap between the all-gun Navy and the missile age. The extensive modernization of the Essex– and Midway-class CVs allowed many to return to service and remain the backbone of the US carrier force until the CVN super-carriers and larger and faster aircraft made them obsolete in the 1970s (a decade later for the Midways). FRAM conversions of the DD-710 Gearings in the late 1950s and early 1960s allowed the US Navy to maintain a counter to the expanding Soviet submarine threat, where these handy little ships served alongside the Forrest Shermans and Charles F. Adams into the 1970s, with some in foreign service into this decade.
With exploding shipbuilding costs and a shrinking of the numbers of US Navy surface combatants, what is required by the Navy is a return to the philosophy that allowed for modernization of capable older hulls to extend service life and increase capability. Continuing down the current path of replacing many capable ships with a few extremely expensive replacements will cause the US Navy to scramble to fill its traditional missions of securing sea lanes and forward presence.
Though one can debate as to whether 313 ships is a magic number, we can likely guess that 287 ships are hardly sufficient, at least in current mix. Ergo, the 220 or fewer ships we seem to be headed for will leave the US Navy alarmingly short in some critical area, facing some substantial threat, at the worst possible time. The example of the RAN in their upgrade of the FFG-7s should be taken to heart. Such a modernization program is possible and effective. The US Navy has a tradition of keeping her warships modern and capable, and should return to it.