Guns and Gear

The Missed Opportunity Of The The Air-Capable Spruance

Harold Hutchison Freelance Writer
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Shortly after George W. Bush won re-election, the destroyer USS Hayler (DD 997) took its last voyage to a location somewhere in the Atlantic. She carried out one last act of service for the United States Navy, serving as a target for a SINKEX – in essence, a live-fire exercise – for the Expeditionary Strike Group centered on USS Saipan (LHA 2). USS Hayler represents an interesting might-have been. In fact, had Congress had its way, she would have been the lead ship of a new class of destroyers, often called the air-capable Spruance.

In many ways, the air-capable Spruance would have been like a normal Spruance-class destroyer: Two five-inch guns, eight Harpoon anti-ship missiles, Sea Sparrow missiles for point defense, an ASROC launcher (later replaced with a Mk 41 vertical-launch system), and assorted smaller weapons. But the big difference would have been the ability to carry twice the helicopters – either two big ones, like the SH-3 Sea King, or up to four SH-60B or SH-2F helicopters – as the normal Spruance.

The advantages of the extra helicopters would be obvious in anti-submarine warfare (ASW) – an important mission during the Cold War. The Navy’s standard air-dropped ASW torpedo, the Mk 46, had a small warhead, and there had been concern that newer Soviet designs, like the Oscar-class cruise-missile submarine, could survive hits. Having twice as many choppers meant that a second chopper could quickly follow up an attack. That’s not to say, other Cold War missions – like convoy escort – wouldn’t have been greatly helped by the adoption of the air-capable Spruance, either.

So, that’s the Cold War, you might say. Why not look at today’s Navy – and the controversy over the littoral combat ship, in particular – and ask if the Navy might have missed an opportunity to get a better replacement for the Perry-class frigates?

Neither of the two Littoral Combat Ship classes, which the Navy bought to replace the Perry-class frigates (along with the Avenger-class mine countermeasures ships), are bad designs. The Freedom-class, in fact, proved it could be very capable for maritime drug interdiction in a 2010 deployment to Southern Command, when USS Freedom (LCS 1) made four drug busts in 47 days. The problem is, the current armament of these ships is very light (one 57mm gun, and a Mk 31 launcher for the RIM-116 missile), plus two H-60 helicopters. Compare that to a modernized air-capable Spruance, with a pair of five-inch guns, eight Harpoons, a Mk 41 VLS carrying Tomahawks, vertical-launch ASROC, SM-2 or SM-6 missiles, a Sea Sparrow launcher, a Mk 31, two Phalanx Close-In Weapons Systems, and four H-60 helicopters. Should a war turn hot, which ship would you want on the scene?

Even in the lower-intensity conflicts, the air-capable Spruance would accomplish most of the same missions that the littoral combat ships are carrying out now. The real tragedy is that the Navy had done some of the preliminary work on this design before deciding to pass on it. How much could have been saved had the Navy decided to resurrect this program, based on the proven technology from the Spruance-class ships that were being prematurely retired? We may never know. In today’s increasingly perilous world, though, we may wish we had decided to find out.

Harold Hutchison