Navy Upgrades More Than a Third of Cruisers

Eight of the service's 22 active Ticonderoga-class vessels have completed upgrades designed to extend the service life of the ships for about 15 years.

The U.S. Navy is making progress modernizing its fleet of guided-missile cruisers, a class of warships engineered for anti-submarine warfare, surface missions and ballistic missile defense, service officials said.

The Ticonderoga-class of cruisers are engineered for Aegis ballistic missile defense, which uses a mix of computer, missile and radar technology to fire a Standard Missile-3 to knock an approaching enemy projectile out of the sky.

The 567-foot long warships are equipped with Tomahawk missiles, torpedoes, vertical launch tubes for SM-3s, SH-60 Sea Hawk helicopters, 5-inch guns and Phalanx close-in-weapons-systems, among other features.

The Navy had planned to build a new class of cruisers called CGX – but that program was cancelled in 2010, paving the way for the upgrades of the existing Ticonderoga-class cruisers, Navy officials said.

Thus far, eight of the service’s 22 active Ticonderoga-class vessels have completed a comprehensive modernization program designed to extend the service life of the ships for about 15 years beyond what would have been expected, according to Lt. Kurt Larson, a spokesman for Naval Sea Systems Command.

The overall lifespan of a guided-missile cruiser, including the modernization upgrades, is about 35 years, Larson said.

One analyst said the upgrades will ensure that the vessels will be advanced enough to combat potential threats in coming years.

“The upgrades to the combat systems, radar and displays are useful in helping the ships to do well against the fat part of the curve of the world’s threats — but there are other threats that are not on the fat side of the curve,” said Byran McGrath, managing director at FerryBridge Group LLC, a defense consulting firm based in Easton, Md.

“A modernized Aegis cruiser is among the most powerful and capable warships the world has ever created,” he added. “Cruiser modernization will make the ships better suited for many threats and get them to the end of their service life.”

The upgrades, which can cost up to $250 million a ship, include improvements to the hull, sonar, radar, as well as electrical, computer and weapons systems, Larson said.

Twelve cruisers have completed what’s called hull, mechanical and electrical, or HM&E upgrades, Larson said. Other elements are referred to as combat systems, or CS, improvements.  Thus far, eight cruisers have finished the combat systems upgrades, he said.

The latter “will ensure the cruisers remain tactically relevant into the future,” Larson said in a written statement. “The cornerstone of the combat systems modernization is an upgrade of the AEGIS Weapon System (AWS) computing infrastructure, incorporating the latest commercial computing technology, fiber optics, and software upgrades.”

The enhancements include improvements to the SPQ-9B radar system, an X-band radar designed for the littorals and engineered to detect anti-ship cruise missiles, the Navy website states. The radar is configured to interface with the Aegis system as well.

Weapons improvements include the MK 160 gun computing system, the technology used to remotely support the firing of the MK 45 5-inch guns. The effort also includes modifications to the ship’s vertical launch system to incorporate the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile, or ESSM, to improve self-defenses, Larson added.

“ESSM is a medium-range, semi-active homing missile that makes flight corrections via radar and mid-course data uplinks,” according to the service’s website. “The missile provides reliable ship self-defense capability against agile, high-speed, low-altitude anti-ship cruise missiles, low velocity air threats, such as helicopters, and high-speed, maneuverable surface threats.”

Another important part of the upgrades is improving the SQQ-89A(V)15 sonar suite with a multi-function towed array. The sonar suite includes hull-mounted  technology as well as several acoustic sensors and arrays designed to detect submarine threats.

Modernization is typically executed at the ship’s respective homeport, Larson said. Cruisers are slated to receive the work in San Diego, Calif., Norfolk, Va., and Yokosuka, Japan.