Navy ship building and shipboard electronics strive to do more with less

March 31, 2021
U.S. naval fleet size falling behind that of China, as priorities emerge for new ballistic missile submarine, seagoing frigate, and unmanned undersea vehicles.

By Edward J. Walsh

NASHUA, N.H. - In late April 2020, Navy leaders started an order-of-magnitude shift in their surface warfare vision by awarding a $795 million contract to Fincantieri Marinette Marine Corp. in Manitowoc, Wis., for detail design and construction of the first ship of a new class of guided-missile frigates. The contract contains an option for nine more ships. In October, the Navy announced that the new frigates would be the Constellation class, with lead ship Constellation (FFG 62) to be delivered in 2026. The Navy plans to build 20 ships.

The frigate award addressed long-simmering tensions within the service, among defense analysts, and in Congress aroused by the littoral combat ship (LCS) program. The Constellation class, called FFGX since it started in 2017, represents a huge retreat from the thinking behind the LCS, which has divided Navy planners for nearly 20 years.

The LCS was conceived in 2001 as a multi-mission ship to back up the Navy’s new “From the Sea” strategy that stressed close-to-shore “littoral” operations in
unstable regions. The Navy funded design of two ship types, a conventional destroyer-like design called Freedom (with odd hull numbers), by Marinette Marine and a trimaran, the Independence variant (even hull numbers), by Austal USA. Separately developed “packages” of surface and anti-submarine warfare and mine countermeasures sensors and weapons would enable the ships to conduct all three missions.

Since the program started in 2004, both teams experienced serious cost overruns and delays. LCSs have had expensive system failures. Both hull types were criticized as poorly designed, under-armed, and unsurvivable in combat. Despite improvements, the criticism persists, and the Navy continues to build the ships.

In January Rear Adm. Casey Moton, program executive officer for unmanned and small combatants, acknowledging the problems, said the ships would get a “lethality upgrade” that includes a new common combat management system and the naval strike missile built by Kongsberg Gruppen in Kongsberg, Norway, teamed with Raytheon Technologies Corp. Missiles & Defense segment in Tucson, Ariz.

Funding constraints

Meanwhile, persistent funding constraints have caused serious fleet-support problems. The Navy’s fiscal year 2021-2023 Business Operations Plan reported in October that “the Navy was challenged by a combination of high-tempo operations and a reduced fleet size. These factors resulted in a maintenance backlog and reduced readiness.”

The funding shortfalls and maintenance backlogs developed as China threatened U.S. interests in the Pacific. The Secretary of Defense Annual Report to Congress on military and security developments by the People’s Republic of China, released last September, said “the PRC has the largest navy in the world, with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines, including over 130 major surface combatants. In comparison, the U.S. Navy’s battle force is approximately 293 ships as of early 2020.”

Intelligence sources also have cited aggressive operations by Russia’s navy worldwide. The New York Times reported that in August 2020 three Russian ships entered the U.S. economic zone in the Bering Sea and ordered U.S fishing vessels to leave the area. The Coast Guard advised the American vessels to comply. The Washington Institute, a foreign policy think tank, reported late last year that Russia has added ships, including the guided-missile cruiser Moskva, to its 10-ship Mediterranean Fleet.

In mid-January Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday released his 2021 Navigation Plan, declaring that “We are engaged in a long-term competition that threatens our security and way of life.” He announced that the Navy will “execute a tri-service maritime strategy” with the Marine Corps and Coast Guard based on four priorities—readiness, capabilities, capacity, and sailors.

Gilday said that strategy means retiring older assets: “To remain ahead of our competition we will divest ourselves of legacy capabilities that no longer bring sufficient lethality to the fight. This includes divestment of experimental LCS hulls, legacy cruisers, and older dock landing ships. It also includes divesting non-core Navy missions like Aegis ashore.”


The new Business Operations Plan cites the need for a new 30-year shipbuilding plan and a long-range maintenance and modernization plan. The plan aims at a fleet of 355-ships within 10 years, a target established by a 2016 Navy Force Structure Assessment and adopted by the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act.

Navy officials have said the new force structure will consist of fewer cruisers, destroyers, and amphibious-assault ships, and more frigates and LCSs. The 355-ship goal does not include unmanned surface or undersea vehicles operated from manned ships.

In 2019 the Navy initiated a new future force-level goal called “Battle Force 2045.” Last October then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper revealed that the goal of Battle Force 2045 is 500 manned and unmanned ships, including the 355 manned ships by 2035. That fleet could include as many as 50 to 60 amphibious ships to support Marine Corps operations, and six light aircraft carriers.

The Navy 2021 budget request sought $19.9 billion for seven new ships: one Columbia-class ballistic-missile submarine (SSBN); one Virginia-class attack submarine (SSN); two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers; one FFGX; and two salvage/rescue ships — four fewer ships than the 11 requested for 2020. The $19.9 billion requested is $3.9 billion less than the amount sought in 2020, when Congress actually approved $24 billion for shipbuilding.

The 2021 five-year shipbuilding plan calls for 42 new ships — 13 fewer than the 55 sought in the 2020 five-year plan, and 12 fewer than in the 2020 30-year plan.

The 12-ship Columbia-class of SSBNs is billed as the service’s number-one acquisition program. In early November the Navy awarded a $9.5 billion contract to General Dynamics Electric Boat for construction and testing for the first two boats, Columbia (SSBN 826) and Wisconsin (SSBN 827). The award pays all construction costs for Columbia and advance procurement, advance construction, and engineering for Wisconsin.

Ballistic missile submarines

The new class will replace the older Ohio-class boomers, with Columbia scheduled for delivery in 2027, and to enter active service in 2030. The Navy says the Columbia class will be built with a “life-of-ship” reactor that allows shorter maintenance periods to enable the Navy to meet its requirement with the 12 subs versus 14 Ohios.

Also in November Electric Boat awarded a $2.2 billion contract to Huntington Ingalls Industries for design and construction of six module sections of Columbia and Wisconsin, with delivery of the first in November 2022 and the final module in January 2028.

The frontline surface combatant program remains the Arleigh Burke-class (DDG-51) Aegis destroyer, with 68 ships now at sea. The Navy is building new Flight III Burkes, designed around a new SPY-6(v) air-defense radar, new weapons, and mechanical and electrical upgrades.

Huntington is building the first and third Flight III ships, Jack H. Lucas (DDG 125) and Ted Stevens (DDG 128), and has contracts for five more. General Dynamics Bath Iron Works is building Louis H. Wilson (DDG 126) and in December started fabrication work on William Charette (DDG 130). Bath has four Flight III ships under contract.

The two yards are finishing the Flight IIA construction, with DDG-121 and DDG-123 at Huntington Ingalls. Bath is building DDGs 122, 124, and 127.

The Navy will field three Zumwalt-class (DDG-1000) destroyers for land attack and air defense. In October Zumwalt conducted a successful live test launch of an SM-2 air-defense missile from its Mk 57 vertical launch system. The ship will start fleet service this year. Michael Monsoor (DDG 1001) is going through testing at San Diego. General Dynamics Bath is building Lyndon B. Johnson (DDG 1002).

LCS builders Fincantieri Marinette Marine and Austral USA continued to stamp out new ships. In June the Navy took delivery of Independence variant Oakland (LCS 24) and in August christened Savannah (LCS 28). In October Austal laid the keel for Santa Barbara (LCS 32), the 16th Independence type. That month Mobile (LCS 26) completed an acceptance trial in the Gulf of Mexico.

Austal also is building LCS 34 and will start work on two more ships this year. In August Minneapolis-Saint Paul (LCS 21) completed an acceptance trial. In November Fincantieri Marinette Marine launched LCS 25 and soon will deliver LCSs 27, 29, and 31.

Amphibious assault ships

In July Huntington Ingalls administratively commissioned the America-class amphibious assault ship Tripoli (LHA 7). The yard is building Bougainville (LHA 8) and
is under contract to build LHA 9.

The four-America-class ships replace five Tarawa-class LHAs, now all decommissioned. The America-class ships, which would support F-35B fighter aircraft, use the same propulsion system as the last Wasp-class amphib Makin Island (LHD 8), a combination of two gas turbine engines and two auxiliary motors for low-speed propulsion. The Navy is considering building an additional LHA to replace the Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6), which was decommissioned after being damaged in a fire last July.

Huntington Ingalls also is building four 684-foot-long San Antonio-class (LPD 17) amphibs, LPD 28, LPD 29, LPD 30 and LPD 31. In 2018 the Navy started an LPD Flight II program of 13 ships starting with LPD 30 to bring the class to a total of 26 ships. The company has delivered 11 San Antonios.

Flight II ships LPDs 30 and 31 will have relatively the same capabilities as the Flight Is but cost less. Flight II would replace the Flight I composite mast with a steel one.

CRS reports that the 50 to 60 amphibious ship force envisioned for Battle Force 2045 could include a new 28-to-30-ship class of amphib called the Light Amphibious Warship or LAW. The LAWs would be smaller and less expensive than the LHA/LPD/LHD ships.

The Navy-Marine Corps team is strengthening the ability to move men and materiel through replacement of its fleet of 91 105-ton landing craft, air-cushion (LCACs), which ride on an air-filled fabric skirt. Textron Marine Systems delivered two new Ship-Shore Connectors (SSCs) last fall.

The SSCs will be built with fly-by-wire steering controls, new composite materials to eliminate corrosion, an improved skirt to reduce drag, and Rolls Royce M7 gas turbine engines — a variant of the V-22 Osprey aircraft engine. The SSC will be able to haul 75-ton payloads, or 145 Marines, at 35 knots. Like the LCACs, the SSCs will deploy from welldecks of all the big-deck amphibious ships.

Weapon systems

In December the Navy awarded Raytheon Missiles & Defense an $82.7 million contract for new options on production support and systems integration for the SPY-6(v) air and missile defense radar — the centerpiece of the DDG-51 Flight III rebuild and the foundation of the fleet’s new ballistic missile-defense architecture.

For the Flight III Burkes, the Raytheon-built SPY-6(v) will replace Lockheed Martin’s SPY-1(v) phased-array radar now aboard all the Burkes and Ticonderoga-class (CG 47) cruisers.

Raytheon says the use of gallium nitride (GaN) semiconductor technology for the new radar’s transmit-receive modules will permit huge increases in signal
processing speed. The company says the faster processing will enable the 360-degree coverage necessary to detect high-speed ballistic and anti-ship missiles. The greater processing speed also permits fabricators to use less of it, achieving major weight and cost savings.

The Flight III ships will get a (v)1 variant, consisting of 37 radar assembly modules. In November, Huntington Ingalls had installed two of four SPY-6(v) arrays on the deckhouse of Jack H. Lucas (DDG 125).

In October Raytheon delivered a SPY-6 live test array to the Navy’s Combat Systems Engineering Development Site (CSEDS), near Lockheed Martin’s Moorestown N.J., facility, which produces the Aegis combat system computer software programs.

The combat system is the architecture of computer hardware and software that controls shipboard weapons and sensors. The Aegis system, in numerous versions, is aboard all the Burkes and Ticonderogas.

Advanced sensors

When the live array arrived at CSEDS, Capt. Phillip Mlynarski, commanding officer of the Aegis Techrep team, said “we’re ushering in a new age of advanced sensor technology and a leap forward in combat power and lethality ... we are integrating game-changing technology and cutting-edge combat system algorithms to sharpen the tip of the sword.”

The new test array will be integrated with the Aegis Baseline 10 program, developed specifically for the Flight IIIs.

Other SPY-6(v) configurations are the Enterprise Air Surveillance Radar (EASR), which will be fielded throughout the surface fleet. America-class LHAs and Nimitz-class aircraft carriers will get an EASR SPY-6(v)2 — a rotating radar with nine radar modules — for cruise missile and anti-air and anti-ship defense and air-traffic control.

A (v)3 system, with three arrays, will go aboard Ford-class carriers and Constellation-class frigates. The system scales up to a (v)4, with four array faces and 24 radar modules for the BMD and cruise-missile and airborne defense missions for backfit to fielded Burke DDGs.

In July Raytheon won a $125 million contract for options for low-rate initial production for four EASR (v)2 units and two (v)3s. Bougainville (LHA-8) and will be the first (v)2 ship followed by John C. Stennis (CVN-74), Richard M. McCool Jr., (LPD-29), and Harrisburg (LPD-30). The (v)3s are set for John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) and Constellation (FFG-62).

An engage on remote exercise last November provided critical validation of the SPY-6(v) and Aegis interface for ballistic missile defense. The U.S. Missile Defense Agency, the Program Executive Office for Integrated Warfare Systems, and Navy labs collaborated to launch an SM-3 block IIA missile from the Burke destroyer John Finn (DDG-113) to destroy an ICBM target near Hawaii. The ship used Aegis baseline 9.C2.0K to pass the targeting data to the missile from the Army’s Reagan Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

New radar

The SPY-6(v) is the linchpin for a longer-term initiative to develop a single combat system for the surface fleet by using advanced software and hardware to enhance sensor responsiveness and weapons lethality.

Lockheed Martin Rotary and Missile Systems has moved ahead with two major sensor initiatives, the high-energy laser with integrated optical-dazzler and surveillance (HELIOS) and SPY-7 radar. The company delivered a production HELIOS to the Surface Combat Systems Site at Wallops Island, Va., in December for Navy testing. The laser, officials say, is ready for integration with ship combat systems. Unlike a missile system or gun, the laser draws on ship power and never “runs out” of ammunition.

Lockheed Martin says the SPY-7 potentially could backfit to fielded DDGs and other Navy surface combatants and those of Canada, Japan, and Spain, which use Aegis. The SPY-7 solid-state GaN technology is derived from the company’s development of the Missile Defense Agency’s long-range discrimination radar (LRDR), to be installed at the Clear Air Force Station, Alaska.

Navy and industry officials are discussing plans for a surface combatant combat systems engineering agent (SCCSEA) for the Burkes, Ticonderogas, Constellation-class FFGs, and LCSs and Australian, Japanese, Norwegian, South Korean, and Spanish Aegis ships.

A SCCSEA would oversee the engineering needed for definition, design, systems integration, testing, and support for combat systems. A 10-year SCCSEA contract could commence when current combat systems contracts expire. Lockheed Martin now acts as CSEA for Aegis and for the LCSs and Constellation-class combat systems and the ship self-defense system aboard carriers, LHDs, and LPDs.

Computer consoles

To support new combat systems the Navy is taking delivery of computer consoles, displays, and peripheral equipment (CDP) built by Leonardo DRS under a five-year contract, potentially worth more than $460 million. The award follows deliveries of similar equipment under an earlier Common Display System contract.

The CDP equipment includes consoles, thin-client displays, and peripherals that run “software agnostic” programs in support of open-architecture combat systems aboard several ship classes.

Shipboard weapon system development moved forward in December with a $145 million Naval Air Systems Command award to Raytheon for 90 full-rate production Block V ship-and submarine-launched Tactical Tomahawk missiles. Also in December the company and the Navy conducted two flight tests of the new Block V Tomahawk from the Burke destroyer Chafee (DDG 90).

The company is developing a Block V(a) variant for a maritime strike capability and a Block V(b) with a programmable warhead for more accurate land attack. Both will be deployed in 2021. Raytheon is managing a Tomahawk modernization program to extend the Tomahawk service life by 15 years.

Raytheon also is building components of the Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) — a system of computers and sensors that generate a single composite track of airborne targets, enabling CEC-equipped ships to operate as an integrated air-defense network. CEC processors and antennas are aboard most Aegis DDGs, CGs, and the E-2CB Hawkeye surveillance aircraft. In September 2020 the company won funding for contract options for CEC design-engineering support.

Shipboard electronic warfare

Northrop Grumman won a new production contract last fall for new Block 3 units of the SLQ-32(v)7 shipboard electronic warfare system under the Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program (SEWIP) — a phased upgrade of the Navy’s old SLQ-32 with involvement of several companies. The new award is for Block 3 production for the Burkes. SEWIP Block 3 adds an active electronic attack capability to the system.

In a related effort Lockheed Martin, prime for the Block 2 SEWIP work, in October awarded Cobham Advanced Electronic Solutions a $50 million contract for antenna array panel assemblies for the Block 2 system.

On the undersea warfare front, Raytheon Technologies in December won a $26.7 million award for production options for the Mk 54 Mod 0/Mod 1 lightweight torpedo common parts kits for the Belgian, Netherlands, and New Zealand navies. Northrop Grumman builds the nose arrays for both the Mk 54 lightweight torpedo and the Mk 48 heavyweight torpedo.

Northrop Grumman tested the first industry-built prototype of a “very lightweight torpedo,” (VLWT) based on a Navy design developed by Penn State’s Applied Research Lab. Northrop Grumman funded the VLWT research. The Penn State design is based on a compact rapid-attack weapon (CRAW) program funded by the Office of Naval Research. Barber-Nichols Inc. of Denver has built a stored chemical-energy propulsion system for the VLWT.

Unmanned Systems

Navy leaders in 2020 pushed to implement concepts spelled out in the service’s March 2018 Strategic Roadmap for Unmanned Systems, which consists of three components: a medium unmanned surface vehicle (MUSV); a large USV or LUSV, and an extra-large unmanned USV, the XLUUSV.

In September the Navy awarded six contracts, roughly $7 million each, to Huntington Ingalls, Lockheed Martin, Bollinger Shipyards (Lockport, La.), Fincantieri Marinette Marine, Austal USA, and naval architect Gibbs & Cox for studies of the LUSV. The companies will develop specifications and requirements, aiming at a design and construction contract. Capt. Peter Small, manager of unmanned maritime programs at NAVSEA, said that the studies “will allow the Navy to harvest the learning from our land- and sea-based prototyping efforts ... to refine requirements for an affordable, reliable, and effective LUSV.”

L3/Harris Technologies Maritime Systems unit will deliver a prototype MUSV in early 2023, company officials say. The Navy awarded the company $35 million in July to act as MUSV systems integrator and to build one MUSV with options for eight more. The Navy says the MUSV will be a pier-launched self-deploying modular surface vessel capable of autonomous navigation and provide intelligence and situation awareness data.

Dave Zack, Maritime Systems president, says the MUSV will be a modified version of a commercial-crew vessel built by Incat Crowther for resupply of oil rigs. Swiftships will built the vessels.

In other unmanned systems work, in July General Dynamics Mission Systems won a $13. 5 million award for support work for the surface mine countermeasures UUV (SMCM UUV) also called Knifefish. The Knifefish vehicle when fielded, will provide volume and bottom mine-hunting in a tactical environment. The work includes engineering support, test and evaluation, and system upgrades.

Textron Systems received a May contract worth $20.7 million for engineering support for the Unmanned Influence Sweep System (UISS). Operating from the LCSs, the UISS conducts mine countermeasures sweeping and targeting for acoustic and magnetic mines.

In August four companies won orders to support the unmanned surface vehicle Mk-18 Family of Systems. Advanced Acoustics Concepts LLC, Arete Associates, Northrop Grumman Systems, and Peraton Inc. will provide trade and test and verification studies, and other deliverables. The Navy says the Family of Systems includes systems that comprise the future unmanned surface fleet in such areas as payloads, non-payload sensors, mission support systems, vehicle control systems, among others. In a related effort, Hydroid Inc., of Pocasset, Mass., won a $39 million contract for production support for the Mk-18 system.

In December Northrop Grumman Systems won a $22 million award for options for sustainment for the MQ-8 Fire Scout helicopter-like unmanned aerial vehicle, which takes off and lands on surface ships. A newer Fire Scout, the MQ-8C next-generation UAV is based on the Bell 407 helicopter. The company received an award in June for production and delivery of three MQ-4C Triton long-range high-altitude UAVs and ancillary main operating bases and a forward operating base. The Triton provides intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance over wide ocean areas.

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