While not a militarist, I point to the Arleigh Burke class of guided missile destroyers, the world’s most advanced destroyer class, whose motto is, “If it flies, it dies.” The US Navy calls it “a total weapons system, from detection to kill.” It can search, track and direct fire simultaneously at more than 100 targets. Its multi-mission capacity includes land, water surface, air and underwater intercepts against all known foes and current systems. Built in Mississippi and Maine, its Aegis combat system makes the Arleigh Burke destroyers the world’s most advanced ships by two generations. Its various technologies are in high demand by our naval allies.
The center of many debates, Defense, for most of the public, is a mystery. The political sirens avoid the specifics of US advanced weapon systems like the Aegis or tests of electronic infantry weaponry that can shoot and hit targets around corners. It sounds like comic book fantasy, but is described openly in Defense newsletters, in interviews by government and private officials.
Arleigh Burke class destroyers caught my eye when I met an Ex-O (Executive Officer, 2nd in command!) who was a young woman, confident and trained to meet any challenge. Invited to visit the yet-to-be commissioned ship, I stood at the bridge, its computerized displays dark. I was within easy reach of dials and switches that could defend against simultaneous attacks by air, land and sea. Whether the threat be ships, submarines, aircraft or land-based missiles, the bridge officer issues commands launching the ship’s loaded-in nuclear warheads, rockets and torpedoes. Columnists and politicians speak of “decline,” and politicians warn of cuts, and create partisan fights. I think it is a blatantly unfair description of our readiness, and our technology.
The real military decline is in citizen participation. We have a volunteer military that privatizes war into a profession; the military is now a public enterprise rather than a public service. We thank those who serve, but the rest of us avoid the military’s experience of dangerous, underpaid public duty. Its fiscal pain is in private, no-bid contracting that produces shoddy, incomplete, dangerous work, and massive waste (and profits!) through cost overruns. The human costs of revolving deployments of three, four and five tours in combat, more than seen by any modern combat troops, destroys the members of our uniformed services as much as the acts of our enemies.
Women in uniform are still more likely to be assaulted than see combat; suicide rates are way too high. The nation and the military—and certainly the families—would welcome a decline in these statistics!
But what are we getting or giving up in the debate over the strength and readiness of our national defense? An example is the Arleigh Burke destroyers, ships with the best pair of eyes and coordination on the seas.
The first Arleigh Burke class Aegis destroyers were commissioned in 1991. Contracts for the destroyers were split between the Northrop Grumman Ship Systems (formerly Litton Ingalls Shipbuilding; 28 ships) in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and the General Dynamics subsidiary, Bath Iron Works (34 ships), in Bath, Maine. Since 1997, 33 destroyers have been commissioned and are in active service. The Arleigh Burke class is the first US Navy class to be fitted out with anti-NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) warfare protection.
The Ingalls Mississippi shipyard pioneered the modular techniques used to build Aegis destroyers in the 1970s. Advanced three-dimensional computer-aided design (CAD) is linked to computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), which, in turn, is networked with minicomputers throughout the shipyard. Digital data directs manufacturing equipment to cut steel plates, bend pipe and lay out sheet metal, which reduces the steps needed to turn drawings into ship components and improves precision, efficiency and production time.
During construction, hundreds of sub-assemblies are built and outfitted. These are joined with other sub-assemblies to form the ship’s hull, integrating electrical panels, propulsion equipment and generators. The ship’s superstructure (the deckhouse) is lifted atop the ship’s midsection early in assembly, making it easier to connect electrical and electronics components with precision.
Fewer than 20 ships in the world approach the military capacities of one Arleigh Burke destroyer. The cost? A cool two billion dollars.
Current improvements include hangars for two SH-60B/F LAMPS helicopters and an enlarged flight deck, Kingfisher mine detection sonar, Kollmorgen optronic sight and Aegis radar system upgrades, new combat systems software, and radar-guided air-to-air Evolved Sea Sparrow missiles.
The Arleigh Burke Systems
The 510-foot ships are steel. Vital areas are protected by two layers of steel and 70 tons of Kevlar armor. Arleigh Burke class destroyers are equipped with the Aegis combat system, which integrates the ship’s sensors and weapons systems. The Aegis system monitors and targets anti-ship missiles and other threats.
The Aegis system has four subsystems:
- AN/SPY-1 multi-function radar,
- Aegis Display system (ADS),
- Aegis Command and Decision system (CDS),
- Aegis Weapon Control system (WCS).
The CDS (Command and Decision system) receives data from ship and satellite sensors, evaluates threats and provides command and control options. The WCS (Weapons Control system) receives instructions from the CDS, and selects weapons, linking with the weapons fire control systems.
In March, 2003, its Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles (ESSM) were tested in live firings. Lockheed Martin developed the Aegis ballistic missile defense (BMD) that allows the Aegis combat system to target and kill ballistic missiles with the SM-3 missile. The Aegis BMD system provides the capability for long-range surveillance and tracking, and direct engagement of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. In December 2004, Raytheon initiated a new version of the SM-3.
Aegis class destroyers carry 56 Raytheon Tomahawk cruise missiles for land attacks, along with anti-ship missiles for surface threats, and four surface-to-air missiles. The missiles fire from two Lockheed Martin vertical launch systems. Aegis destroyers carry eight Boeing Harpoon surface-to-surface missiles. I’ve seen maps that show one or two Aegis-fitted ships could provide anti-missile defense for Europe. (European experts say ten, but that’s a huge, huge stretch.)
The ships are outfitted with one BAE Systems 127mm gun with an electro-optic sight, two Raytheon/General Dynamics 20mm Phalanx close-in weapon systems with thermal imaging, Ku-band radar and longer gun barrels providing fire at 4,500 rounds per minute. New destroyers have the US Navy’s most advanced gun, which can fire guided munitions to a range of 60 miles.
The new tactical Tomahawk missiles have mission planning onboard, in-flight targeting and even loitering functions.
The ship’s electronic countermeasures include a Raytheon system that performs radar warning and jamming. The ships can array air and sea decoys. Two Lockheed Martin six-barreled launchers fire chaff, infrared flares and torpedo decoys.
Arleigh Burke vessels are also being fitted with the BAE Systems active missile decoys—a hovering rocket system leading incoming missiles away from the ship.
The air search and fire control radar for the Aegis system is made by Lockheed Martin. The sonar suite (also by Lockheed Martin) includes bow-mounted active search and attack sonar and a passive towed array. The ships have been upgraded to deploy a remote mine hunting system.
The destroyers are powered by four GE LM 2500 gas turbines, each rated at 33,600 horsepower, with controllable pitch propellers. Top speed is over 30 knots per hour. Cruising range is a phenomenal 4,400 miles at 29 knots. The ships are designed for high speeds in high seas.
Remember the ships’ motto, “If it flies, it dies.” What do you think?
For a slide show that chronicles the building of the destroyers from shipyard to mission, click here. (Scroll down the new page.)
The video below is an official naval video that cuts live test firing footage with explanations of how the Aegis systems work. Judge for yourself the state of the modern US defense systems, and whether, as some argue, they are in decline and underfunded. Also, should it be expanded?
(Portions of this post have previously appeared in the author’s blog, Black History 360*)