Future Navy Innovation Rests On Refitting 20-Year-Old “Gen Z” Ships

Christel Deskins

Refitting the “Generation Z Fleet” is a cheap and fast way of getting high tech into the field. BLOOMBERG NEWS As the nation recovers from a COVID-19 induced economic depression, the U.S. Navy will face severe resource constraints for a decade or more. In such a challenging environment, the value […]

As the nation recovers from a COVID-19 induced economic depression, the U.S. Navy will face severe resource constraints for a decade or more. In such a challenging environment, the value in “Generation Z” platforms—20 year-old ships that have been bought and paid for—risks being ignored. Rather than refit the “Gen Z” fleet, the U.S. Navy, under pressure from the Department of Defense, is eying another, rather more risky route to save money by trying to sell a skeptical U.S. Congress on the value of unmanned craft and keeping the conventional shipbuilding industrial base alive. 

While removing personnel from the maritime battlefield and maintaining America’s shipbuilding industrial base are all worthy endeavors, the Pentagon’s focus on ambitious technological leaps may create more problems. A more incremental approach, using older, albeit updated ships to field advanced sensors and fix existing—and knotty—integration problems will be an enormous help in advancing unmanned innovation, reducing both risk and vulnerability.

The technological siren-song of some brave unmanned future cannot push aside the pesky fact that comprehensive upgrades of plebeian platforms are cost effective and innovative in themselves. Put bluntly, America’s older platforms offer a viable route to get America’s innovative next-generation sensors and combat systems into the field far faster—and with far less cost—than new ships and unmanned craft can.

But time is short and focused leadership is lacking. Much of America’s “Generation Z” surface fleet is due for a comprehensive mid-life refit, and those refits, if they are to be done correctly, require funding and a coordinated approach by both the Chief of Naval Operations and the current Secretary of the Navy. 

A lot is at stake. American taxpayers have already invested over $100 billion dollars in 47 Flight IIA Arleigh Burke (DDG-51) class guided missile destroyers, 13 San Antonio (LPD-17) class amphibious transport docks, and 14 Lewis and Clark (T-AKE-1) class dry cargo ships. By quirk of fate, the production runs for these three ship-types aligned so that they all entered service in the early 2000’s. Now, after a good twenty years at sea, all these ships are due for a significant midlife refresh.

The Clock Is Ticking:

Midlife refits, or midlife availabilities, comprehensively update each vessel, preparing middle-aged ships to serve another two decades. The challenge for the Navy is to determine just how deeply the refits might go. Will the older ships, built for a simpler era, only get a bare-bones refresh of hull, habitability, mechanical and electrical components—permanently consigning the ships to second-tier status within the fleet? Or might these older “Gen Z” combatants receive a significant systems and sensor package upgrades to support future high-tech operational priorities?

The clock is ticking. If significant changes are to happen on a coordinated basis, the Navy has little time to dither. Almost half of the total Flight IIA Arleigh Burke class destroyer fleet was built before 2005, when the build rates stood at 4 ships a year. Unless planning deadlines are revised to align with the recent shifts in amphibious doctrine, the San Antonio class midlife overhauls are expected to begin in fiscal year 2026, and the Lewis and Clark class may follow on about the same timeline. 

This virtually simultaneous refit of three key ship classes offers the United States an unmatched opportunity to coordinate the combat capability of these vessels in aggregate, aligning them all to support future maritime combat needs. A synchronized, fleet-wide refit program, adding in Lockheed Martin
’s Baseline 10 Aegis Combat System and Raytheon
Technologies’ scalable AN/SPY-6 Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR), offers older ships the same technologies set to be fielded aboard the Navy’s next-generation surface combatants, the Flight III Arleigh Burke class destroyers and future guided missile frigates. 

In essence, a strong refit program allows the U.S. Navy to get the capabilities of the Flight III Arleigh Burke class into the fleet faster than new-build Flight III Arleigh Burkes can arrive – by about 25 years.

This unparalleled opportunity to align existing combat concepts and drive commonality in combat systems, radars and other capabilities merits more attention from both the U.S. Navy and the Congress. Economies of scale, combined with force-level configuration management, a common Combat System Training Base and, potentially a new common Combat System personnel policy, can, over time, save the Navy more money than the Admiralty realizes. 

Refits Are Worthy But Unpopular:

Midlife refits are never popular, but, at times of rapid technological change, they are worth every penny. It is hard for the Navy to get excited about a refit. After a ship type has been in the fleet for two decades, the fleet is “mature”, operating on something akin to autopilot. With the big training, technology and operational challenges resolved, middle-aged surface combatants are staid and boring assets, neither as particularly cutting-edge nor as organizationally exciting as fancy new ships. Career-minded officers look elsewhere to make their mark.

While refits fail to capture the the Navy’s imagination, foresighted naval leaders have forced comprehensive midlife refits on the surface fleet before. In 1959, Admiral Arleigh Burke, a two-star rear admiral who had been catapulted over several more senior Flag Officers to serve as Chief of Naval Operations, inducted the first of 131 World War II-era destroyers into a “Fleet Rehabilitation and Modernization” (FRAM) midlife refit. For less than half the cost of a new vessel, the refits shifted the aging destroyers’ obsolete armament to focus on an emerging Soviet undersea threat. Initially meant to extend the service life of these useful combatants by a mere 5-8 years, unexpected budget constraints kept the FRAM ships in service for far longer.

Those refits became a basis for America’s maritime supremacy in the Cold War. Many FRAM ships served a full and productive 35 years in active U.S. Navy service and then went on to serve in foreign navies into the early 2000s, serving almost sixty years. A Gearing class destroyer FRAM I recipient, USS Orleck (DD-886), served 37 years in the U.S. Navy and then served another 17 years with the Turkish Navy. USS Hammer (DD-718), representative of several transfers of FRAM I vessels, served 33 years with the U.S. Navy and then enjoyed 23 more years of service with the Taiwanese fleet.  

Like the ships entered into the FRAM program, America’s cadre of post-Cold War surface combatants are mature platforms that benefitted from years of incremental innovation. Optimized for a slightly different type of threat, a technology refresh enables these platforms to serve in the front line of the fleet for several years, holding the line while the U.S. Navy tests and trials new maritime technologies. 

What Good Refits Bring To The Fleet:

The path forward for the Arleigh Burke Class is clear. Adding Lockheed Martin’s Baseline 10 Aegis Combat System and Raytheon’s scalable AN/SPY-6 Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR) make the legacy Flight IIA Burkes a low-cost near-equivalent to the pricey Flight III Burkes that are already under construction. Even though electric plant and cooling capacity are constraints aboard Flight IIA Burkes, changing existing radars to an AN/SPY-6 AMDR variant (sized to accommodate the Flight IIA’s power and cooling constraints) offers the fleet a much more sensitive, solid state radar that requires substantially less maintenance. Such an upgrade adds capability and could, if leaders decide, help drive fleet-wide commonality in bridge design and equipment—resolving problems identified after the Navy’s two fatal ship collisions in 2017. 

As the U.S. Marine Corps suggests divesting their legacy amphibious assault fleet, the U.S. Navy may find a more ambitious refit of surplus San Antonio (LPD-17) class hulls a worthwhile venture, shifting the capabilities of a still-useful platform to better address burgeoning risks. Enabling some of these otherwise unwanted amphibious transports to serve as an interim tactical fusion center or command vessel makes sense. Adding a basic AN/SPY-6 Enterprise Air Surveillance Radar, boosting communications capabilities and other features is an opportunity for the vessels to help build the Recognized Maritime Picture for the fleet. 

Another, more ambitious—and potentially contentious—option is to see if these amphibious transport ships can serve as an interim large-surface combatant or unmanned support platform. A surface combatant variant—carrying a potentially more sophisticated AN/SPY-6 variant, combat system, missile launchers and other capabilities. Such improvements may help the Navy step away from the now-aging Ticonderoga class cruisers while an unmanned support platform might help the Navy better understand how future large surface combatants might use unmanned capabilities to compliment the fleet’s surveillance horizon.

Lewis and Clark class refit plans might consider adding weapons-firing and magazine-refilling capability as well as unmanned support features. Though some naval advocates worry about the price and diluting the resupply mission, armed logistical ships merit consideration. More ambitious efforts, adding an AN/SPY-6 radar, combat system and a few other features to these otherwise unarmed high-value targets makes them de-facto guided missile frigates, and a far tougher nut for adversaries to crack.    

Aside from driving fleet-wide sensor and combat system commonality, a unified, fleet-wide mid-life refit program for “Gen Z” platforms offers the Navy their best opportunity to drive fleet-wide adaptation of common, “open architecture”-oriented hardware that is capable of employing modern software as well as quickly accommodating future fleet-wide software updates. Once the fleet starts using the same software, thousands of interoperability gaps will be eliminated—but that won’t happen without leadership forcing a somewhat stove-piped fleet to work together. 


America’s cadre of post-Cold War surface combatants are tried and tested examples of ship designs that, in turn, benefitted from years of incremental innovation. While optimized for a slightly different war-fight, a strong midlife update offers these aging—but already bought— platforms a new lease on life. In return, U.S. Navy gets top-tier combat capability for pennies on the dollar, a fleet perfectly capable holding the line while the U.S. Navy tests and trials fancy new maritime technologies. The money saved by common supply, training and operational pipelines offer the U.S. Navy the lifeline the surface Navy needs in the tough years to come. 

But leadership is needed. The FRAM refits, given the same prioritization as the nascent Polaris ballistic missile program, flourished under Admiral Burke’s watchful eye. We shall see if the current Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Gilday, gets after this program with a similar vigor, bringing the Secretariat along with him.

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