One annual tradition of the West conference in San Diego is an evening of dinner and drinks aboard the USS Midway (CV-41), now a floating museum on the downtown waterfront. I’m no naval historian – certainly not by the standards of this blog. So I look forward to historical clarifications and insights. But the long history of the Midway makes for a rather marked counterpoint to many discussions here ranging from a still-heated debate about the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program to shipbuilding in general.
The Midway class was designed and built in the wake of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Designed to carry prop-driven combat aircraft, she had a straight deck and was so heavily armed (including eighteen five inch guns and almost 30 40mm Bofors quad mounts) and armored that she was originally designated a CVB – a battle carrier. By the time she was decommissioned in 1992, Midway had an angled flight deck and had launched fighter jets in support of Operation Desert Storm. When built, she displaced 45,000 tons. By the time she was decommissioned, 75,000 tons. The spectrum of aircraft that have flown from her deck is truly impressive, and she maintained operational relevance across multiple and very different eras of naval aviation.
The one thing that seems certain is that the ships we conceive of and build today will be employed in ways and both employ and face weapons that we have yet to conceive of. We are already in the process of bringing directed energy weapons and electromagnetic rail guns into operational relevance and can keep things such as future power requirements in mind in ship design and configuration. But when the Oliver Hazard Perry (FFG-7) class was designed, the idea that an autonomous, unmanned helicopter would one day fly from the decks of a ship of that class probably never even crossed anyone’s mind – and even if it had, architects and engineers would almost certainly have had so little idea of how they might modify the design to better accommodate it that there would have been zero justification for taking that possibility into consideration for the final design. Hard-kill defensive systems have come a long way, but the problem of an anti-ship ballistic missile was neither an existing threat nor one technology was capable of defending against at the time many of the defensive weapons currently aboard U.S. Navy ships were originally being designed.
One point Under Secretary of the Navy Bob Work made yesterday was simply to point at the differences between an early Flight I and a recent Flight IIA Arleigh Burke. Indeed, at the pier at Naval Base San Diego yesterday, on one Perry-class frigate, a crude metal superstructure had been welded over the long-ago sealed off Mk 13 launcher in order to mount a 25mm cannon.
There is, of course, a broad – if abstract – understanding that there will be change over time in any shipbuilding program. But the physical changes alone made to the Midway over the course of her service life are a reminder of the sheer magnitude of how dramatic that change can be. Obviously, the Midway is an extreme example. But it is worth keeping her in the back of our minds when we discuss what we will need in a warship in the future.