- - Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Sometimes it is hard to believe how quickly time flies by. That statement is even truer in the life of modern weapons systems. As I stood in the heat of the day on July 4, 1991, little did I know that 24 years later I would so vividly recall the words, “Man the ship,” as they rang out over the announcing system to bring USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) to life. We were at the leading edge of innovative technology and weapons; built to fight and survive in the harsh demands of sustained combat operations on the high seas and in the littoral environment. Our ship represented the next generation of Navy warships and was touted as the future backbone of the American fleet. How prophetic that statement has become.

Any nation that wishes to defend its security at home and abroad requires a navy capable of those aspirations. The United States has lived with that benchmark for so long that most politicians and admirals serving today have never known the U.S. Navy to be challenged at sea. That is about to change and without innovation in both platforms and weapons systems, it will be inevitable the United States will cede its maritime dominance to other nations.

As addressed in a recent Hudson Institute Center for American Seapower paper titled “Technology, Timing, Threats, and the Future of the U.S. Surface Fleet,” unless innovation once again becomes the benchmark standard for U.S. weapons systems, the U.S. Navy and our nation will find itself on the defensive and desperately trying to play catch-up to other nations that view the sea as their own future domain, not ours.

China has already begun this journey. With every passing day at sea, they are gaining experience with aircraft carrier operations. Coupled with a robust shipbuilding program, they plan to become a regional seagoing power, eventually growing into a truly robust blue-water navy. Russia, while suffering from economic challenges, is struggling to reassert itself on the global naval stage by reinvigorating its navy in coordination with development of lethal anti-ship and anti-carrier weapons. Even Iran has gotten into the act by deployed a small surface-action group halfway across the world to demonstrate their understanding of how a navy defends security interests on the high seas.

In each of these cases, a strategic vision of the importance of naval power underpinned by innovation has been the standard for their growth. Not only have these countries deployed more capable ships, they have drastically improved complementing weapons systems, over-the-horizon capability and satellite systems to learn how integrated warfare at sea can have a multiplying effect on power projection.

Almost from its introduction into the fleet in the early 1980s, the Aegis Weapon System proved that technological innovation worked. Basic operations were quickly followed by the development of a new generation of tactics and techniques that set the Aegis apart as a force-multiplier. Success, however, is a fleeting partner and today, the Navy faces unique challenges to its superiority at sea and ability to project power in trouble spots around the globe. While effective in its day, the AN/SPY-1D radar and Aegis Weapon System suite are reaching the limits of their effectiveness against the modern weapons being developed to counter and overwhelm them. Once again, innovation in seaborne weapons systems must define the Navy’s future.

While development of a new generation of weapons systems continues — the Standard Missile-3, Standard Missile-6, over-the-horizon Harpoon replacement, and others — one system of note on the cusp of completing development and design is the Flight III Arleigh Burke class destroyer. As an already proven weapons system platform, this next iteration of this guided-missile destroyer is being engineered and configured to specifically support the next generation air- and missile-defense radar system — the Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR).

AMDR defines innovative design. It is a quantum leap forward in technological capability. Like its Aegis predecessor, AMDR will be capable of not only defending against a growing and diverse threat matrix but also evolving, as did the Aegis, into a very capable weapon system. Its envisioned capabilities include integrated air- and ballistic-missile defense, detection and neutralization of threats that attempt to capitalize on stealth technology, and robust command and control.

When I commissioned USS Arleigh Burke, there were setbacks and challenges, but like any new system, those challenges were overcome and now with more than 70 ships built to date, the DDG-51 program is the Navy’s premier surface combatant. Today, however, the Navy and all the services have been consumed by the budget battles that all too often define and then limit the very systems that can be fielded to defend the nation. We must invest in our national security future through innovative design that works.

Kirk S. Lippold is a retired naval officer who was the commanding officer of USS Cole (DDG 67) when it survived a suicide terrorist attack by al Qaeda.

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