The US Navy’s future Lethal Next-Gen Destroyer

The US Navy has begun development of a future guided missile destroyer that will bring increased firepower and efficiency to the fleet, even as the service is still in the midst of constructing Flight III of its Arleigh Burke-class large surface combatants. 

 While the Navy considers the Arleigh Burke-class Flight III destroyer the world’s most capable surface combatant platform, the service “has maximized the space, weight, power, and cooling capabilities” through 30 years of upgrades to the hull form. Hence, the need for the Navy’s Next-Generation Large Surface Combatant program, or DDG(X), said a Navy spokesperson in an email.

 The first of the Arleigh Burke-class ships was commissioned on July 4, 1991, and the destroyer since then has gone through several evolutions. The latest, Flight III, is centered around the Raytheon-made SPY-6 air and missile defense radar, which enables the ship to “simultaneously perform” anti-air warfare and ballistic missile defense and “satisfies the Navy’s critical need for an enhanced surface combatant Integrated Air and Missile Defense capability,” a service fact file said.

 The service plans to deliver the first of the Flight III Arleigh Burke-class ships, the USS Jack H. Lucas, this year, Secretary of the Navy Carlos del Toro said during a keynote address at the Surface Navy Association’s annual conference in January. In its 2024 budget request, the Navy is seeking $5 billion to acquire two Flight III destroyers.

 In that same budget proposal, the Navy is requesting $187.4 million in research-and-development funding for DDG(X), the follow-on to the Arleigh Burke class. 

 According to a Congressional Budget Office analysis of the Navy’s fiscal year 2023 shipbuilding plan published in November, the service has indicated DDG(X)’s “initial design prescribes a displacement of 13,500 tons,” nearly 40 percent greater than the 9,700-ton displacement of the Arleigh Burke class. This increased capacity will give DDG(X) immense flexibility for the future, the Navy spokesperson said.

 Initially, DDG(X) will have the same combat system elements as the Flight III Arleigh Burke-class destroyers — including the Aegis Weapons System “that provides area coverage and command/control focus in all dimensions of Naval Warfighting and Joint Military Operations” — plus two 21-cell Rolling Airframe Missile launchers, the spokesperson said. “DDG(X) will be built following an evolutionary, or incremental, process with the introduction of minimal developmental technologies on initial ships … providing the flexibility and the necessary space and weight margins to succeed” the Flight III Arleigh Burke-class “as technology advances.”

 The motivation behind DDG(X) is simple: “So we can have a stick that beats that of our adversaries,” said Rear Adm. Fred Pyle, the director of the Navy’s surface warfare division.

 DDG(X) is “going to bring us the opportunity to use larger missile launchers,” Pyle said during a panel discussion at the Surface Navy Association conference. “It’s going to bring us the opportunity to use … higher power lasers and long-range strike hypersonic weapons — as well as sensor growth — as we go into the future.”

 Directed energy weapons in particular are a technology the Navy would like to integrate into DDG(X), he added.

 “Shipbuilding is a long game, right? So, when we achieve the directed energy power that we’re looking for … we want to have a platform to land it on,” he said.

 In a potential Indo-Pacific conflict, onboard directed energy weapons could play a key role in defending aircraft carriers, said Bryan McGrath, managing director of the Ferrybridge Group consultancy.

 “Aircraft carriers are going to be among the most important things in our arsenal, because they may be the only way we can apply tactical air power,” McGrath said during a panel discussion at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space conference in April. “At the end of the day, having a destroyer close by that can last for seven to 12 seconds on a target that is in flight and destroy it at a cost of like $112 rather than $50 million or whatever, that’s where we need to go.”

 A directed energy weapon “cannot go” on the Flight III Arleigh Burke-class ship given its limited capacity, making the transition to DDG(X) all the more important, he said.

 The Navy is developing a number of directed energy systems, but the service has “not consistently taken key steps to support” the expected transition of these prototypes to full-fledged acquisition programs, according to a Government Accountability Office report published in April.

 “While the Navy fielded several directed energy weapon prototypes and identified a potential transition partner, it does not have documented transition agreements for the directed energy programs that GAO reviewed,” the report said. Without these agreements, the Navy risks “developing directed energy weapons that may be misaligned with operational needs.”

 And without a proven directed energy weapon, the Navy also risks losing out on funding for DDG(X), McGrath said.

 Every time the Navy has previously changed the size and shape of its destroyers, “it was in response to technology that existed,” he said. “The problem that the Navy has right now is that it doesn’t have that 600-kilowatt to 1-megawatt maritime laser out on a ship or a barge, showing the world that we have it, and we can do it. If that laser existed, a lot more people would be willing to say, ‘Let’s make the jump’” to DDG(X). 

 The Navy spokesperson said: “Rather than tying the success of DDG(X) to developmental technology, the Navy is using known, mature technologies on a flexible platform that can be upgraded for decades to come, as the technology of tomorrow becomes more proven and mature.”

 One new capability the DDG(X) will have is an Integrated Power System, which will provide centralized power that operators can allocate to either propulsion or combat systems depending on “real-time needs,” the spokesperson said. “This allows for the power generation system to operate in the most efficient manner as possible,” giving DDG(X) increased fuel efficiency, range, and time-on station, as well as the “flexibility to accommodate future combat capability power needs.”

 In March, the Navy opened a DDG(X) land-based test site at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Philadelphia, where the service will “mature and test” the Integrated Power System, the spokesperson said.

 “DDG(X) development places a heavy emphasis on land-based testing to reduce critical integration risks informing detail design and minimize discovery during shipboard activation on the waterfront,” the spokesperson said. 

 Along with the land-based test site, the service is employing modeling and simulation capabilities to inform the system’s design and reduce future risk, the spokesperson said. The test site will utilize “legacy test equipment” to validate the modeling and simulation results, allowing testing to begin this year and “proving the capability to parallel gas turbine and diesel generators on a single distribution bus.”

 The service this year also began procurement of Integrated Power System equipment to install and test at the site, the spokesperson added. The Defense Department announced on March 30 a $16,748,330 contract award to GE Aerospace for an LM2500+G4 gas turbine engine and auxiliary systems in support of the DDG(X) land-based test site. The engine and auxiliary systems are expected to be completed by March 2025, the release said.

 Following the work at the test site, the Navy will transition to a land-based engineering site for DDG(X) using the same hardware from the test site that will be “updated into tactical shipboard form based on [land-based test site] findings and final ship design,” the service spokesperson said.

 The engineering site “will enable integration testing prior to shipboard activation, ultimately supporting crew training and in-service engineering while DDG(X) is in service,” the spokesperson said.

 Despite the Navy and industry getting to work on DDG(X), the date the Navy plans to procure the first ship “just keeps going further to the right, and eventually it will wander into the window for building” SSN(X), the service’s next-generation attack submarine, McGrath said.

 According to the Congressional Budget Office report, the Navy’s fiscal year 2023 shipbuilding plan has DDG(X) production starting in 2030, “two years later than envisioned in the December 2020 plan and five years later than in the fiscal year 2020 plan.” The 2023 shipbuilding plan has the service beginning construction of SSN(X) in 2034, the report said.

 CBO estimated DDG(X) would have an average cost of between $3.1 billion and $3.4 billion, in 2022 dollars, while the Navy’s estimate was between $2.3 billion and $2.4 billion in the 2023 shipbuilding plan, the report said. According to a Congressional Research Service report, Arleigh Burke-class ships currently cost about $2.2 billion each. They are built by General Dynamics Bath Iron Works and Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Ingalls Shipbuilding division, which have built every large surface combatant for the Navy since fiscal year 1985.

 The CBO report said the Navy doesn’t expect DDG(X) to cost significantly more than the Arleigh Burke class because the combat system and radar of the former will be “substantially similar” to those of the latter, with DDG(X) only requiring a new hull and power system. The report added: “The uncertainty about the ultimate size and capabilities of the next-generation destroyer suggests that its final cost could differ substantially from both the Navy’s and CBO’s estimates.”

 In addition to questions about the actual cost, there are questions about how the transition to the production of DDG(X) will play out. The Navy spokesperson acknowledged the transition from producing Arleigh Burke-class destroyers to DDG(X) will be a “years-long effort.”

 “Were DDG(X) development efforts not worked in parallel with [Arleigh Burke class] production, there would be a nine-plus year gap between [the Arleigh Burke class] and DDG(X), resulting in an unacceptable production gap for our industrial base partners and unacceptably delaying the delivery of DDG(X) to the fleet,” the spokesperson said.

 McGrath said the Navy has experience handling transitions such as these.

 “We moved from two yards building cruisers to two yards building destroyers over the course of about five years in the late 80s and early 90s,” he said. “Presumably there are people around who can remember that far back, and there are lessons that can be put to work. But we need to get on that.” ND