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Navy's hardest-punching but aging warship has no replacement in sight

Sailors aboard the USS Carl Vinson watch as the guided missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill performs a replenishment at sea in heavy seas in the Pacific Ocean Dec. 24, 2011.

DEAN M. CATES, U.S. NAVY

By CARL PRINE | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: May 20, 2017

ABOARD THE BUNKER HILL (Tribune News Service) — Less than an hour after a recent dawn rolled west into the Pacific Ocean, Capt. Joe Cahill sat in his starboard chair, a lined face pointed toward a line of warships wheeling north around San Clemente Island.

In the lead, the destroyers Halsey and Higgins cut through the waves in a tight turn toward land, trailed by the looming flattop Theodore Roosevelt and the destroyer Sampson in its wake.

And in the far rear, like a bear protecting her cubs, was the San Diego-based Bunker Hill, the 10,000-ton cruiser that orchestrates the air defenses for Carrier Strike Group 15. It’s on guard in case there’s ever a need to blast to dots enemy jets, helicopters, drones and missiles arcing toward the flotilla.

The ships’ path last week was designed to mimic the world’s most dangerous sea channels — the bustling Strait of Malacca and the Singapore Strait, traveled by a third of the globe’s commercial ships, plus the Strait of Hormuz, a flash point between U.S. Navy vessels and the Iranian patrol boats and aircraft that pester them.

“Reps and sets. The geography of Southern California helps make these exercises more realistic,” said Cahill, 46, who has performed this ballet on water dozens of times in his quarter-century career.

Cahill is widely considered as one of the most penetrating minds on Navy surface warfare, with years both at sea and on teams that designed futuristic warships and advanced tactics.

Until he took the helm of the guided-missile cruiser Bunker Hill last July 22, Cahill directed Vice Adm. Tom Rowden’s Distributed Lethality Task Force, the cell that created a new doctrine of savagely prosecuting sea battles across vast distances, the warships widely spaced out so they can hit an enemy from multiple angles without warning.

And no Navy surface ship throws a harder punch than the Bunker Hill, a cruiser armed with a high-tech battery of missile tubes and advanced sensors that probe for faraway targets to destroy.

“They provide our civilian and uniformed military leaders with a persistent, maneuverable warfighting capability, where and when needed around the world,” Rowden, the Naval Forces commander, wrote in an email to The San Diego Union-Tribune. “The complexity of integrated air and missile warfare is growing more challenging by the day. We need these cruisers, and the follow on to the cruiser, to be as flexible and capable as possible ...”

The Bunker Hill is slated to deploy this autumn alongside the Roosevelt, and then its lifespan wanes. The Navy plans to decommission the Ticonderoga-class cruiser in 2019, mothballing it after 33 years of service.

It will be the first of the Vertical Launch System “Ticos” to exit the fleet. The brass wanted to swap these aging cruisers for a futuristic warship called the CG(X), but admirals balked at the estimated price tag of $3.5 billion to $6 billion each.

The last of the Tico litter, the Port Royal, is slated to retire in 2045. Until then, it and eight other cruisers will receive hundreds of millions of dollars in high-tech upgrades, including advanced radar and sonar, launchers and a much more potent missile interceptor.

“The bottom line is that the upgrades will add life to the cruisers and those upgrades are necessary. They will remain the most impressive integrated missile platforms afloat, but they’re not the long-term solution,” said Bryan McGrath, a retired destroyer commander who now directs the Maryland-based FerryBridge Group of consultants.

Escalating crew costs in an age of austerity — at full staff, the Bunker Hill has about 360 sailors — also doomed the Ticos. Paced by the Zumwalt, the latest class of destroyers are bigger than the Bunker Hill but boast a crew less than half its size, thanks to robots and software.

The Bunker Hill’s crew is considered to be one of the best on the high seas. On May 10, it received the Navy’s coveted Battle “E” award for superior combat effectiveness. Six weeks earlier, Lt. Ryan P. Kelly, the Bunker Hill’s plans and tactics officer, was named the Surface Warfare Officer of the Year for 2016 by Naval Surface Forces, U.S. Pacific Fleet.

During the past nine months, Kelly and the rest of the crew have been honed for new missions built around “distributed lethality.” It’s a debated topic within the Navy, but at its heart, distributed lethality is a bundle of tactics wrapped in a swagger that’s designed to give a potential enemy pause before daring to challenge America at war.

Distributive lethality returns the Navy to its historical roots, when “rat catcher” captains and their crews hunted with ruthless precision their foes at sea.

With an offensive mindset, it prizes commanders who evade their foes before jabbing them like boxing champs. Distributive lethality requires nimble skippers who aggressively exploit an enemy’s mistakes and drive home an attack until a foe’s warship, aircraft or land target is obliterated.

To wage that type of smart, sneaky and relentless battle, the Bunker Hill’s crew drinks daily what Cahill calls a “warfighting ethos.” Distributive lethality is a way of “owning the problem” caused by potential foes worldwide who increasingly field potent, stealthy, long-ranged and super-fast missiles and planes capable of crippling an aircraft carrier, he said.

Cahill said the payoff is peace.

“There’s a perspective about conventional deterrence,” Cahill said. “So if an adversary is advantaged to move first, in any environment, and that adversary understands that if he chooses to move first he will not accomplish his aims, then he will not move first.”

And that might be the last great act of the Bunker Hill and its sister cruisers. Once the feared warships of their age, they now must hang on long enough for the Pentagon to build their replacements while cowing rising powers such as China, Russia and Iran from shooting first.

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©2017 The San Diego Union-Tribune
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