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'If It Flies, It Dies:' A Readers' Guide To The Navy's Best

The Aegis combat system is installed on the Navy's Arleigh Burke destroyers. What do our we or the candidates know about the firepower of the command and assessment system rated the best in world?
'If It Flies, It Dies:' A Readers' Guide To The Navy's Best
Image from: Wikipedia

Many issues have been missing from the season's politic discussions, but few with the immediate importance and impact on lives, global security, and the national budget as defense. For all the money spent and threats deterred, for the fights in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and postings in Africa, Europe, and the China Sea that engage US military personnel and equipment, most Americans know very little about the bang defense buys for the buck. Here's a readers' guide to a single system which is at the heart of our military readiness that doesn't involve the nuclear threat or boots on the ground, or air sorties. It is a system that belongs to the Navy, designed as a littoral combat ship for missions close to shore, and with 90 missiles, it is one of the more fierce defenders in the world--a global best of class.

The Arleigh Burke Class of Guided Missile Destroyers

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 Arleigh Burke destroyers the world’s most advanced ships by two generations. Its various technologies are in high demand by our naval allies.

Although the center of many debates, Defense, for most of the public, is a mystery. Politicians avoid the specifics of US advanced weapon systems like the Aegis or the tests of electronic infantry weaponry that can shoot and hit targets around corners. (It sounds like a comic book fantasy, but is described openly in Defense newsletters, and in public interviews by government and private officials.)

Arleigh Burke class destroyers caught my eye an Ex-O (Executive Officer, 2nd in command!) who was a young woman, confident and trained to meet any attack challenge. invited me to visit the yet-to-be commissioned destroyer, the USS Truxtun, during an open house in while in port in Charleston, SC.

I stood at the ship's 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, the most powerful weapons battery of an ship in the world. Whether the threat be ships, submarines, aircraft or land-based missiles--separately or all at once--the bridge officer issues commands the launch the ship’s loaded-in nuclear warheads, rockets and torpedoes.

Columnists and politicians speak of “decline,” and politicians warn of cuts, to create partisan fights. As I stand passively on the bridge, in a ship loaded with nuclear missiles and other advanced weaponry, electronically launched and guided, I think it is a blatantly unfair description of our readiness and our technology.

The Human Cost of Defense

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 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 for veterans and active duty personnel. The nation and the military—and certainly the families—would welcome a decline in these statistics!

Human costs aside, what are we getting or giving up in the strength and readiness of our national defense? Let's review the Arleigh Burke destroyers, high tech ships with the best eyes and coordination on the seas.

Building The Destroyers

The first Arleigh Burke class Aegis destroyers were commissioned in 1991. Contracts for the destroyers were split between the Northrop Grumman Ship Systems (now Huntington Ingalls Industries; 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 Huntington 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 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.

It takes 20 ships from the world's advanced navies to approach the military capacities of one Arleigh Burke class destroyer. The cost to build? A cool two billion dollars.

Current improvements include hangars for two SH-60B/F LAMPS helicopters and an enlarged flight deck. Additional improvements include 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 Destroyers' 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, considered the most advanced and reliable in the world. The Aegis system monitors and targets anti-ship missiles and other threats. What makes it unique is its passive sweep that allows it to simultaneously track, monitor, engage,and defeat a hundred, real-time attacks. (The real number is higher--and classified.)

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, the 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. (In December 2004, Raytheon initiated a new version of the SM-3.)

The Aegis BMD system provides the capability for long-range surveillance and tracking, and direct engagement of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. The Arleigh Burke class is the first US Navy class to be fitted out with anti-NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) warfare protection.

Weapons

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 also carry eight Boeing Harpoon surface-to-surface missiles. Aegis-fitted ships could provide anti-missile defense for Europe. (European experts estimate two to ten destroyers would be needed.)

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.

Countermeasures

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 that leads 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.

Propulsion

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. Women serve throughout the ship.

Remember the ships’ motto, “If it flies, it dies.” Is the state of modern US defense systems in decline and underfunded> Should the budget be expanded? Will political talking points keep us safe? Sixty-four Arleigh Burke destroyers are currently in service. How many do we need? The Navy has plans for ninety-one total--twenty-six additional ships at a cost of more than seventy-five billion dollars or more!

How can you run for President, insist on increasing Pentagon funding, and berating military readiness and our commanders without knowing the capacity--and expense--of the best we've got?

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