Surface combatants -- cruisers, destroyers, and frigates -- provide the Navy with a wide range of capabilities and choices to satisfy U.S. national security objectives. Initially, in the 1950's the newly revived term 'frigate' was used for large ships. However, in 1975 the terms and names were revised and produced three basic types of naval ships: CRUISERS, which were supposed to be anti-air warfare (AAW) specialists; FRIGATES, which were to be anti-submarine warfare (ASW); and destroyers which were supposed to be a mixture of both cruiser and frigate. In practice, these distinctions broke down more or less immediately.
In peacetime, these large, heavily armed multimission ships carry out a wide range of day-to-day overseas presence missions and enhance U.S. crisis response capabilities. During a conflict, surface combatants would conduct combat operations against enemy submarines, surface ships, aircraft, missiles, and targets ashore either independently or with other military forces. Over the last decade, technological advances, such as the Aegis combat system, the vertical launching system (VLS), and the capability to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles, have significantly expanded the range of tasks that the newer, more capable ships entering the force can undertake.
The Navy believes that surface combatants and other forward deployed forces will be important early in a conflict. Surface combatants can provide protection of sea and air routes, ports, coastal airfields, and facilities and substantial command, control, and communications capabilities. The Navy also believes that surface combatant forces will provide initial capabilities until additional forces arrive in the area. Forward-deployed surface combatants could be available to immediately strike targets on land with Tomahawk cruise missiles and provide naval fire support for ground forces.
In the future surface combatant forces are also expected to provide defense against ballistic missiles. A 1995 Navy surface combatant study concluded that defense against theater ballistic missile and Tomahawk strikes will be a high-priority task of Aegis-capable ships early in a Major Regional Contingency.
Currently, the majority of surface combatants deploy as part of carrier battle groups for routine 6-month deployments to the Mediterranean Sea, western Pacific Ocean, and North Arabian Sea. As a major element of a carrier battle group, surface combatants provide the primary defensive capabilities for the group and contribute significant strike and fire support for joint operations ashore. Navy officials stated that one or more surface combatants are necessary at all times to escort and protect the aircraft carrier. Without them, an aircraft carrier could not safely deploy. Although the Navy has emphasized using its surface combatants more independently, they are still inherently linked to carrier force structure and deployments.
The Navy's notional carrier battle group has six surface combatants, an aircraft carrier and its airwing, two nuclear attack submarines, and a fast combat support (logistics) ship. This notional configuration is considered to have the necessary capabilities to provide an initial crisis response from a forward posture. However, the actual number and type of ships assembled for each deployment will depend on the available assets, surface combatants already in area, and the needs of the joint unified commands.
Surface combatants can also be deployed without a carrier either independently or as part of a surface action group. A surface action group generally consists of two or more surface combatants and deploys for unique operations, such as augmenting military coverage in world regions, providing humanitarian assistance, and conducting exercises with allied forces.
During the 1991 Persian Gulf War surface combatants were used to conduct several sea control and power projection missions, which included protecting maritime traffic, performing maritime intercept operations of contraband shipping to sever Iraqi trade, conducting deep-strike Tomahawk missile attacks against Iraq, and providing combat search and rescue operations in the region.
The specific circumstances of the two envisioned MRCs would significantly affect the number of ships the Navy might use. According to current strategy documents, the Navy envisions a greater emphasis on fighting in littoral areas in the future. The Navy has not said how this shift in strategy to fighting in littoral areas would affect the size of its surface combatant fleet. Crisis and contingency missions for surface combatants include maritime intercept operations to enforce sanctions, humanitarian relief, air surveillance and air control, protection of U.S. forces, and strike operations.
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