Ship Types and Missions

Ship Types and Missions

By Jim Barton, Captain, USN(Ret)

I thought I would post one about ship types these days to provide some background about the differences between Arleigh Burke which is more traditionally manned, Zumwalt and LCS. When we are talking Bridge watch teams it is important to understand the differences.

Let us not mix metaphors, roles and missions of ships. There are in the CRUDES force, at least for this discussion, three distinctly different ships, each designed by the Navy, not defense contractors, for distinctly different tasks.




And what we are looking at today sadly gets down to money, or affordability as they refer to it these days. Most of us commenting on this page grew up in a world of plenty. When I was commissioned we had 900 ships. Today the number is around 265 and we are hard pressed to man even those due to costs. Today it is about trade-offs, even though in these two instances recently tradeoffs likely did not play a role. So, let us look at ships.

The Zumwalt, by any definition a cruiser (and probably will be redesignated), had its genesis in the immediate post-Cold War era. The Navy was faced with shrinking budgets and reductions in ship hulls. The reality was (and is) that maintenance and manning costs were piling up. Ships were deteriorating and could not be adequately maintained by ship crews. We went to contracted maintenance for the complicated tasks. Not new but self-sufficiency was a disappearing concept and had been since the 1990s.

OPTEMPO and PERSTEMPO, however, was increasing as the U.S. was facing threats in what was called the littoral. The old maritime strategy which was based on countering the USSR, defending the Sea Lines of Communication, had become obsolete and the Navy could no longer defend its budget and proposed fleet size. Hulls that should have lasted longer were falling apart and some had outlived service life. We are talking ships many of us probably served on reaching the end of service life much earlier than anticipated. So, in short order, away went the ships of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

Rightly or wrongly, the Navy and DARPA looked at a single mission strike platform equipped with high technology systems. That platform was called Arsenal ship. It was designed for a land attack in the littoral, armed with 512 VLS cells and equipped with every technology available and minimally manned. The original Navy manning goal given to the contractors? ZERO crew ultimately changed to 50 for an up to 800-foot platform. In the design of that platform and the ones which followed every billet had to be justified before adding to crew size. Does that sound Buck Rogers? Yes, it was. Its role was survival until launch. After that, it could hopefully avoid detection until it could be rearmed. Crazy, huh?

All of the technology that was innovatively designed into that platform, from hull shape, masking, combat systems design, propulsion, etc. went into what became CG(X), then DD(X), then DD-21 which ultimately became Zumwalt, a smaller version of Arsenal ship (never built) with a few changes learned from the functional design process. All of the things that the traditionalists hate such as crew size, hull shape and so forth were built into this reduced manning platform. While it may have multi-task capabilities, this ship is a missile thrower. Because of its costs, there will not be many of these.

The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) was developed from the same mindset, to operate in the littoral. But with the dilapidated condition of the Oliver Hazard Perry Class, and departure of the two previous frigate classes and guided missile destroyers, the Navy recognized it needed something more capable than a class of patrol frigates.

The Navy went to a modular design concept. These ships were to be forward deployed and with interchangeable modules to equip them for ASUW, ASW and other missions. That concept has pretty much gone by the board. The ships in the original concept, forward deployed, were to be manned with Blue/Gold crews as we see in the FBM community.

All of this was planned to cap costs. Right or wrong, that is the driver today. That is the reality. And to keep two shipyards and combat systems integrators viable, awards were made for two distinctly different hull forms each with the same combat systems capabilities. That program has been fraught with problems from the outset because of Navy changing requirements.

But at the center of all this is manning. At the center of everything is manning. That represents over 50% of the defense budget. And so technology is developed to compensate for reductions in crew size. Rates were consolidated for the same reason. And so we have what we have. Two officers man the watch on the Bridge operating systems and using screens and tasks hitherto manned by a 12 man watch team but with the support from inside of CIC by other techs. For special detail, the watch is augmented.

But see these two examples of ships, for all the criticism they may engender from you guys, are not the ones that were involved in recent collisions. No, those were Arleigh Burke (DDG-51 Class) destroyers. That is a platform which came into service in 1991 while I was still on active duty and I have been retired for 20 years. The lead of the class will soon be pushing 30 years service.

I don’t know how many of you “old navy” types have been aboard a Burke-class ship, walked through its propulsion spaces, it’s decks, it’s CIC or Bridge. Those who have been amazed by the technology. It has the look and feel of a warship. It is an unbelievably capable ship which has been upgraded with successive builds. You go on its Bridge and while the systems may be different to some of you used to steamships, it is more akin to the FFG than an Adams-Class DDG. All of you would definitely feel more at home than you would on the Zumwalt or an LCS.

While minimally manned to a degree, they were not designed that way. They have much larger crews than the other two. They have watch teams more on the order to what you are used to. So, how did these ships get in collisions? Does it have a Bridge wing? Yes. Does it have a watch team similar to what you guys remember? Yes. Does it have a manned CIC? Yes.

So what happened in my opinion on a ship class with these capabilities? Lack of training perhaps and certainly lack of tactical awareness and untimely action to prevent collision at sea. That is usually the common denominator. For as good as we think we were, we had bone-headed mistakes in our Navy too back in the days fellows. And while there may well be training deficiencies navy wide, the failure here was on watch.

Collisions at sea are not new. What it comes down to in the end is that they result from failure to take early action caused by errors in judgment, confusion and lack of experience.

These collisions did not occur because there was no lookout. It was most likely the result of a CO in bed (at least in case of Fitzgerald) and a watch team which failed.


4 thoughts on “Ship Types and Missions

  1. bob gray says:

    i heard something on the news today that part of the problem was that the crew had to work as much as 100 hours a week. as a MM2 that served back in the dark ages we did that with some regularity. as the previous comment says i will with hold judgement until all the facts are in. but it still bothers me that the Navy is not training men as it should.
    thanks you sir.


  2. William Wright says:

    Capt. Barton has outlined/echoed many of. The same comments going round. Most of us agree with his ending comment w/o reservation. The FF/FFG class were the beginning of the “modulation” era of Naval warships. In the end however, you get what you pay for – equipment or fully trained/qualified personnel, While we are losing ships and trained professional our adbevsaries or building up.


  3. From what I read today in a preliminary report , there was only on lookout and he was on the port side, no one was assigned to the starboard lookout position, and the old had not done the job of reporting to the captain as directed, they are blaming the crew and the fact they were not properly trained to react to the situation. To me if the crew wasn’t doing its job properly how could the Captain , XO leave the bridge less than 5 minutes apart. I spent 5 years in the 60’s on a tin can, the Captain in those circumstances should with the heavy traffic have been on the bridge and there should have been 2 lookout on the bridge


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s