The history of the U.S. Navy is replete with ships that were not built, finished, or commissioned. One only need remember that the great carriers USS Lexington (CV 2) and Saratoga (CV 3) were built on the hulls of two uncompleted battle cruisers that were outlawed as a result of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty. A more modern example is that of the so-called “Sea Control Ship” (SCS) of the 1970s. Designed to provide many of the same kinds of services as the escort carriers (CVEs – “Baby Flat Tops”) of World War II, they fell victim to bureaucratic infighting and the double-digit inflation of the times. Nevertheless, the SCS story has an intriguing ending and legacy in the context of today’s navies.
The early 1970s were a time of great challenges, turbulence, and confusion for the Navy. As America began to wind down its involvement in the wars of Southeast Asia, there were also requirements to “pivot” to deal with the emergence of a growing “blue water” fleet by the Soviet Union, along with several other challenges confronting the Navy. These included the block obsolescence of a large portion of the U.S. fleet built during World War II, and especially the modified Essex-class carriers that formed the bulk of the carrier fleet.
The man chosen to lead the Navy through these transitions was the youngest Chief of Naval Operations ever picked to serve up to that point: Adm. Elmo “Bud” Zumwalt. Zumwalt was an extraordinary officer for his day, a surface warfare officer with combat experience dating back to World War II, who also possessed an intellect rarely matched in Navy history. And while many of his personnel policies grated against the “deck plate” Navy, his work toward the interests of sailors has figured immeasurably in the character and shape of the fleet today. However, it is perhaps his work and vision in the matter of shipbuilding in which his greatest influence on today’s Navy is felt.
Throughout the 1960s, Zumwalt had written about and been a supporter of what he called the “Hi-Low” mix of shipbuilding. By this he meant building the future U.S. Navy fleet with two separate streams of shipbuilding, each focusing on a different sets of Navy roles and missions. The “high-end” ships, such as the Nimitz-class (CVN 68) nuclear supercarriers, Los Angeles-class (SSN 688) nuclear attack submarines, Tarawa-class (LHA 1) amphibious assault ships, and Spruance-class (DD 963) destroyers, were designed to project power forward and engage the Soviet fleet if required. The “low-end” ships, however, proved to be a real challenge.
Designed to provide escorts for convoys during wartime, these ships would also provide “mass” to the U.S. fleet in the decades ahead. But in the early 1970s, this meant replacing several hundred warships built during World War II. These included nine carriers of the Essex-class (CV 9) modified in the years after the war to be used as antisubmarine warfare platforms (called CVSs), along with destroyers given Fleet Renovation and Modification (FRAM) upgrades. Given the double-digit inflation of that period, and the declining defense budget that followed Vietnam, clearly a one-for-one replacement program was completely impractical. What resulted from this difficult requirement were several intriguing classes of warships, along with a number of supporting aircraft and electronic systems.
The best known of these were the Oliver Hazard Perry-class (FFG 7) guided missile frigates, of which 51 were built for U.S. service, along with 20 more for assorted allied nations. Though considered lightly armed by the standards of the day, the FFG 7s were extremely effective ASW escorts thanks to their towed sonar array and an oversized hangar and flight deck able to carry a pair of the new SH-60B Seahawk helicopters. A big part of what made them such good ASW ships was the inclusion of the Light Airborne Multi-Purpose System (LAMPS), which took data obtained from the SH-60B’s airborne sensors and sonar buoys, transmitted back to the ship via a secure datalink for processing, to help guide the helicopters to their targets. LAMPS was eventually deployed on three other classes of U.S. warships: the Ticonderoga-class (CG 47) guided missile cruisers, the Kidd-class guided missile destroyers, and the Spruance-class ASW destroyers. Along with the 46 frigates of the Knox-class (FF-1052) – originally typed as destroyer escorts (DEs)), this gave the USN about 100 “low mix” escorts if World War III ever broke out.
Unfortunately, replacing the World War II-era CVEs and CVSs turned out to be a significantly greater problem. Initially, the Navy developed a requirement for what was called the “Sea Control Ship” (SCS), which would have two primary missions:
- Intercepting and destroying Soviet maritime patrol and targeting aircraft, like the Il-38 May and Tu-95 Bear-D.
- Prosecuting and sinking Soviet submarines, using targeting data delivered from the ocean floor SOSUS (SOund SUrveillance System), along with land-based sensor systems, other warships, and allied maritime patrol aircraft.
Navy renderings of the final design for the SCS show a small aircraft carrier with a full-length, straight flight deck with two elevators, a hangar deck, and a large island structure on the starboard side. Some of the details of the production SCS (a total of 8 were planned) would have included:
Displacement: Approximately 17,000 tons
Length: Approximately 670 ft.
Propulsion: 2 GE LM2500 gas turbines
Speed: 26 knots
Range: 7,500 nautical miles at 20 knots
Crew: Approximately 80 officers and 625 enlisted
Armament: Two Mk. 15 Phalanx CIWS