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