It has been almost thirty years since the USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) entered U.S. Navy service. Back then, in a Cold War fleet full of nuclear surface combatants and cruisers, the Arleigh Burke class destroyer was a decidedly mid-tier warship, set to replace a handful of aging surface combatants. Today, both the U.S. fleet and the Burkes have changed, and now America’s sixty-eight Arleigh Burke destroyers comprise the high-end backbone of the U.S. surface fleet. American shipyards are set to crank out brand-new, cutting-edge Flight III Burkes well into the next decade.

For a ship class that started out as a low-end, low-cost selection from an array of far higher-end Cold War alternatives, it has been quite a run.

This is a pattern that the Navy likely hopes to repeat with the newly-named Constellation (FFG 62) class guided missile frigate, which, today, is seen as a lower-cost, lower-capability surface combatant to the Burke class. Awarded to Wisconsin’s rough-and-tumble Fincantieri yard in April, the Navy seems pretty clear that the new frigate will, in time, become the mainstay of the future surface fleet. Once the Constellations start hitting the fleet in numbers, the first Arleigh Burkes will be ushered to the exits, followed quickly by a call for an “improved” Flight II Constellation. And, just like the Burkes, the versatile Constellations will iterate from there. 

But the gradual transformation of America’s latest “lowest-cost technically acceptable” platform into the high-end surface combatant-of-the-future is not without risk. For a platform that was procured largely on the basis of future potential, the challenge right now is to preserve the frigate’s long-term flexibility as engineers struggle to stay within the platform’s designated cost-cap.

This is a perilous period for new ship designs. While everything looks rosy for the Constellation class right now, ship designers are doing hard work converting a contract design into a detailed, production-ready platform. And with cost-control a central priority, this is the time when poorly thought-through—and often irrevocable—design decisions get made. While the path to a contact design was a deliberate process, debated at a variety of levels, tired, glassy-eyed naval architects are making hasty, last-second tradeoffs as they race the clock and struggle to control costs.  

This is a time when a lot of ships get sunk.

Only Suckers Race To The Bottom 

Today’s Army-dominated Department of Defense is only dimly aware that the Arleigh Burke was, back when it was conceived back in the ‘80s, a relatively low-end craft. The original Burke design was less capable than the already-in-production Ticonderoga (CG 47) class air-defense cruiser, which, in itself, was a low-end alternative to a far more ambitious nuclear-powered strike cruiser and a proposed Aegis-equipped Virginia class nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser.

Despite emerging as a cohesive, well-thought-out combatant, the Arleigh Burke preliminary design was a jumble of cost-cutting compromises, omitting several items that had long been critical contributors to small surface combatant effectiveness. At the time, the most noticeable deletions were the lack of a second five-inch gun, the elimination of a second air-search radar and the ability to permanently embark a rotary-wing aircraft. Many of these changes were debated, worried over and then designed to be reversed later if the fleet wanted these money-saving changes reversed. Sure enough, hangar and support facilities for a rotary-wing aircraft were incorporated in Flight IIA Arleigh Burke variants. 

Cost caps dominated the effort to develop the Burke’s final detailed design. And these last few cost-driven design changes were the ones that have compromised the Burke’s continued viability as America’s high-end surface combatant. Somewhere in the path from an initial contract design to the final product, penny-pinching naval architects shrank the ship’s beam, eliminated a fourth electrical generator and weakened the electronic warfare system. The modest initial investment necessary to preserve space and weight for both the advanced electronic warfare system and the fourth generator would have been well worth the modest costs, and maintaining the Burke’s long-term combat relevance would have been far easier. 

Designers of the Flight III Burkes have really struggled to find a way to add additional electrical generation and cooling capability. Had the original Burkes retained a fourth generator, the path from the platform’s current 7.5 megawatt generating capability would have been a far less daunting—and far less costly—task. And had legacy Burkes been capable of generating about 10 megawatts by adding in a fourth generator, it would have been far easier to upgrade existing vessels to a near Flight III capability. 

The late-stage design changes may have been penny-wise at the time, but today, with billions of taxpayer dollars sunk into sixty-eight legacy Burke Class destroyers, those last-second changes turned out to be pound-foolish.

Braithwaite’s Challenge

While the Secretary of the Navy Kenneth Braithwaite awaits the eventual outcome of the Presidential race, he has an obligation to ensure that Constellation’s designers are making the right decisions. Certainly, cost-caps are important, but any steps taken to keep the Constellation under a relatively arbitrary cost cap must not compromise the innate flexibility and extra margins that made the Constellation’s design so attractive in the first place. High-level, accountable focus on the platform’s march towards a final detailed design is the only way the new Constellation class guided missile frigate will be able to match the enviable 56-year service record set by the design’s 1797 namesake, the venerable wooden-hulled, 38-gun USS Constellation.

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