Saturday, October 06, 2007

Revisiting the Arsenal Ship

The Arsenal Ship-A 21st Century Battleship

Some may recall the Arsenal Ship as an attempt by the Navy to create a new battleship for the Cruise Missile era. Basically it was a low-cost, low-tech missile barge which was world's opposite from the hi-tech, hi-cost wonders such as super carriers and Aegis cruisers currently on the Admirals' wish list. Reading this 1995 NY Times article describing the revolutionary new warship, one can see why the carrier bloc within the Pentagon must have been a little worried about the future of their pet projects:

Aircraft Carrier May Give Way To Missile Ship

After 50 years as the global symbol of America's military might, the aircraft carrier may soon be shoved off center stage by a new warship that would be able to rain 500 missiles within a matter of minutes on targets hundreds of miles away, without risking pilots' lives.

Prospects for that ship, which is still on the drawing board but could be in the fleet within five years, raise questions about how many new carriers the Navy will need. A carrier costs $4.5 billion to build and $440 million a year to operate. The new ship, essentially a floating missile barge, might cost only $500 million and just tens of millions a year to run.

The new ship would fire Tomahawk cruise missiles, long-range artillery shells or rocket barrages against ammunition dumps, command posts and artillery, for instance, the same targets that warplanes flying off the carrier Roosevelt were bombing in Bosnia this week...

I can see the red flags going up all over the Pentagon at the thought of losing even one aircraft carrier. So what became of the Arsenal Ship? Despite the potential that such a vessel might have in being far more survivable as well as more relevant for 21st Century warfare, it was quietly canceled in early 1997 in favor of the still unbuilt DDX destroyers.

Plans were for the Arsenal Ship to enter service by 2001, which would have been just in time for the opening of the War on Terror after 9/11. Can you imagine the Taliban's reaction when a warship with up to 1000 cruise missiles appeared in the Indian Ocean, all aimed to strike their corrupt regime? Likely they would have given us Osama Bin Laden's head on a silver platter! Not to mention the oft-sanctions defying Saddam Hussein, who knew from experience the power of such new age weapons against his Cold War era air defense system.

Besides an immense missile-firing platform, other unique extras in the design included:

  • Very small crew-Only 50 were deemed necessary to operate the 500-800 foot craft. Compare this to 300 on much smaller destroyer, or 6000 needed to crew a Nimitz class aircraft carrier.
  • Low cost-The initial version cost about $450 million, or about the price of the tiny new littoral combat ship. The huge weapons payload would have added to the cost, but still come in far less than the $6-$8 billion price tag of a heavy carrier.
  • Water armor-Plans were for the ship to have ballast tanks similar to a submarine, which could be filled to provide a low profile in enemy waters. An added benefit to this, as proved in the Tanker War of the 1980's, is that such a vessel providing its own buoyancy would be extremely difficult to sink.
  • A Digitized Warship-She could have been operated by remote control, with her weapons systems tied into to other Aegis Ships or AWACS aircraft, and aimed accordingly. She would have been an integral part of the US Ballistic Missile Defense program.
In 1996, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jeremy Boorda committed suicide. Boorda was the chief proponent of the radical new design, and with him went the hopes for fielding the Arsenal Ship. Admittedly, in a time of Clinton defense slashing and without a clear enemy at sea due to the end of the Cold War, such an untried vessel stood little chance. Still, I can't help but imagine the carrier admirals breathing a collective sigh of relief with the fall of this latest threat to their dominance of the defense budget.