By Arnold Lewis
Friday, October 20th, 2011
Re-Written Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

With endless counter-insurgency operations falling out of favor with the Obama administration and many think-tanks in Washington, the US military seems poised for an essential restructuring for twenty-first century conflicts with near-peer and asymmetric threats.

With states focusing on destroying the US’ Carrier Strike Groups with anti-ship ballistic missiles, supersonic and hypersonic anti-ship missiles, and fleets of small fast attack craft loaded with deadly anti-ship missiles, the US’ current ships (especially the new wave of Littoral Combat Ships and the small handful of Zumwalt-class destroyers that the US Navy is expected to purchase) are woefully inadequate to counter such threats. Combined with the loss of naval fire support for amphibious and land-based forces, as well as the continued development of an anti-ballistic missile shield using the aging Ticonderoga and new Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, it becomes clear that the Navy needs ships that are not only affordable, but can also perform a wide variety of missions. Unsurprisingly, the Navy has already conducted the research into the perfect platform: the Arsenal Ship.

In 1993, the RAND Corporation published a white paper titled “The New Calculus: Analyzing Airpower’s Changing Role in Joint Theater Campaigns.” In this white paper, the authors suggested that an invasion by land forces could be halted if 20% of the invading force’s vehicles were destroyed with precision munitions. Although aircraft would take several days to destroy the required amount of vehicles, such an effect could be achieved with large numbers of land attack missiles launched from a surface vessel almost instantly. Although the study was not included in the Surface Combatant for the 21st century proposals, each would be more than sufficient for such a mission, each armed with 512 VLS cells. With the Arsenal Ship program in full swing following the cancellation of SC-21 by CNO Jeremy Boorda, the Navy’s joint-venture with DARPA would have produced a working prototype by the year 2000, one that would be armed with around 500 VLS cells, have a crew of fifty, and cost less than $520 million for the lead ship. Had such a prototype actually come to fruition, it would have given the Navy a ship that not only cost a third of an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, but could bring the firepower of a battleship to bear in an engagement. Sadly, the Arsenal Ship program was canceled in favor of a revised SC-21 program, which was named CG(X); however, this too was canceled in 2010 following the Quadrennial Defense Review.

With the US lacking a capable replacement for the Ticonderoga-class cruiser, there is no perfect time than now to revive the Arsenal Ship. For the mission of ballistic missile defense, the relatively low-cost hull could be packed with VLS cells, which would then be loaded with SM-3s. These missiles could then be slaved to the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System on an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, giving any potential ballistic missile shield far more firepower at a fraction of the cost. Although this would mean that the missiles would cost more than the vessel, the vessel pays for itself by being able to stay on station for a long period of time, especially with a crew-swapping arrangement. For the critical naval gunfire support mission, such a vessel could be armed with a wide range of missiles, including the Army Tactical Missile System. This missile was more infamously known as “steel rain” by Iraqi soldiers after Operation Desert Storm due to its anti-personnel submunitions, and a system that could launch such weapons during an amphibious operation would give landing troops the vital cover that they need. In a more conventional role within the CSG, such a vessel could be loaded with offensive and defensive weapons for engaging threats such as attacking aircraft and ships, as well as inbound anti-ship missiles.

Clearly, the Arsenal Ship can give the US military the capabilities that it not only wishes to have, but currently needs. The US is at a crossroads for what its Navy potentially could be, and vessels such as the LCS only weaken the central focus of the US military by adhering to an outdated foreign policy. Although the Zumwalt is a clear attempt to reassert US naval power, such vessels are not politically palatable due to their high cost. With states like India and China investing heavily in newer surface combatants, the US needs a warship with the capabilities to reassert the US as the world’s definitive naval power and at a low cost. The Arsenal Ship is that vessel.
Arnold Lewis is the Content Editor for ENGAGED Magazine and his interests currently lie with International Politics & Security. Currently, he resides in Boulder, Colorado.


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