USS Zumwalt: From Being the Best to Barely Practical

Zumwalt class was supposed to be the successor to the very potent Arleigh Burke class destroyer. It would further the bar of naval vessel capability beyond any system either testing or serving today. They went from that to having a 50km SAM only, a poor CIWS, no dedicated anti-ship capability onboard (we will discuss this), no shells for the dual 155mm guns and a very very high price tag. How can a project be messed up so bad? How can a project designed to secure the future fall behind its predecessor? This article explores how the USN changed its fleet requirements and made these iconic vessels redundant.

In the early 1990s the USN realised that the Soviet threat of fleet vs fleet action was rusting in the ports & airbases of the erstwhile USSR. Around the same time Iowas were being retired for the last time yet and there was a need for cheap sea to shore fire support. Till then the USN was following the timeline of one decade between new ship classes. Arleigh Burke class destroyers & Ticonderoga class cruisers entered service in the 1980s, thus a new class would be needed by the start of the 21st century. They started the Surface Combatant for 21st century program a.k.a. SC-21 which includes a new destroyer DD21 and a new cruiser CG21. These programs were changed to DD(X) and CG(X) following some changes. We won’t be talking about the CG(X) but concentrate on the DD(X) only.

9An early render of the DD(X) protecting USN’s amphibious taskforce from threats in the littorals.

The DD(X) was supposed to be a long term replacement of the Spruance class destroyers and the then new Arleigh Burkes. The lot size was supposed to be 32 destroyers with more procured as and when needed. These vessels would have the best of everything and would be at the cutting edge of technology. They would have heavy guns to bombard shore based enemy installations for supporting amphibious assaults. Since stealth was starting to be a big thing then, the ships would have VLO shapings to reduce their radar returns and so on.

But then several programs overshot their budget and they were curtailed or cancelled. I wonder, what would have happened if the US armed forces had bigger fleets of the following assets.

  1. F-22 production capped below 200
  2. B-2 production capped at 21
  3. RAH-66 Commenche cancelled
  4. A-12 Avenger II cancelled
  5. Seawolf production capped at 3 boats
  6. DD(X) curtailed from 32 to 24 to 7 to 3 ships

Thus the DD(X) was now supposed to be a technology demonstrator of what the future surface combatant would look like. This was still fine, in the present configuration these ships would be very very capable and were still superior on a single ship basis. They could lead amphibious assault flotilla or be that vessel in a CBG that is the closest to hostile factions. But the USN had something else in mind.

The rising threat of Chinese navy meant that the USN needed regular destroyers again instead of those optimised for the littorals. Production of Arleigh Burkes was restarted in 2009 and only 2-3 vessels of the now so-called DDG1000s were planned. The first was laid down in November of 2011, followed by 2nd in May 2013 and the last in the Jan of 2017. The gaps in start of construction shows the reluctance for building these destroyers. Zumwalts cost a whopping $4 billion per ship or $7 billion if we include the R&D costs. For comparison a single Arleigh Burke class destroyer costs around $2 billion, so 3 can be built in the amount spent on R&D and construction of 1 Zumwalt.

9USS Michael Murphy DDG112 went from being the last of its class to having 26 more ships after it.

We discussed the change of role USN came up with for its future vessels but let us now consider what was new in these vessels and what has made them barely practical. Let us list features that make it standout from other plain gray vessels.

  1. Two Advanced Gun System (AGS) batteries, i.e. 155mm naval guns with special shells for long range shore bombardment. Range: ~130km
  2. Future installation of Rail Guns or Laser based systems.
  3. Dual Band radar (DBR) similar to that on USS Ford for better situational awareness.
  4. Integrated Electrical Propulsion with huge headway for supporting power hungry systems.
  5. Tumblehome design with VLO shaping to reduce radar signature.
  6. Integrated super structure for a variety of sensors.
  7. Larger flight deck for 2x MH-60R or 3x MQ-8 simultaneous operations.
  8. 20 Peripheral Mk57 quad cell VLS modules for efficient utilisation of space.
  9. Dual 57mm guns to be used as CIWS against attack boats.

And now here is the list of what went wrong.

  1. AGS’s long range round was cancelled, thus the operational guns have no rounds to fire.
  2. Off the various SAMs and Cruise missiles, only Enhanced Sea Sparrow with a 50km range has been added in the Mk57 VLS.
  3. DBR was downgraded by removing AN/SPY-4 S-band radar, thus it only has AN/SPY-3 X-band radar.
  4. Dual 57mm guns replaced by 30mm Bushmasters.

11The DBR has also been deleted from future Ford class carriers, only the lead ship i.e. USS Ford has it.

For those who didn’t get the significance of the defense mumbo-jumbo above.

  1. The USN now has three 15,000 tonne destroyers whose primary role was long range fire support from sea to shore which they cannot fulfill at all. Other USN vessels have a 127mm gun with different ammo not compatible with the 155mm gun.
  2. It can theoretically carry 80 cruise missiles or 320 SAMs (sounds nice) but of meager 50km range which is nothing compared to over 200km range of SM-6 or the 100km Barak 8. More importantly, no Harpoons or Tomahawks that means “ZERO” offensive capability.
  3. Reduced capability in detecting long range and VLO targets.
  4. Inferior CIWS with no possible use against incoming anti-ship missiles.

Adding to the Sea Sparrow thing, the Zumwalt don’t have dedicated fire control radars thus need its missiles to be programmed differently. This adds a complexity reducing fleet commonality and increasing the cost. In the future, US army’s Excaliber 155mm round might be added after modifications but a decision is still needed for it to happen.

Zumwalts thus become the best looking destroyers ever which

  1. Cannot carry out their primary role,
  2. Have very reduced capability in secondary roles and
  3. Cost as much as 3 proven Arleigh Burke class destroyers.

Hence I believe they are barely practical!!

Do checkout our articles about USN’s massive carriers!

USS Nimitz vs Heavy aircraft carrying cruiser Admiral Kuznetsov

Carriers of the US Navy: USS Enterprise

Carriers of the US Navy: Ford class

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One thought on “USS Zumwalt: From Being the Best to Barely Practical

  1. Hi,

    While the issue with the 155mm gun ammo is well known, besides the sensors, I don’t think the other issues are what you say. For example, the missiles can be adapted for the mk 57 cells. They just haven’t done it yet.

    There are other positives. The stealth is nothing short of amazing. A 200m long ship which looks like a 10m fishing boat on radar?

    In addition, no one has denied that the Zumwalts ability to submerge itself 3 feet lower into the water. This means it is harder to physically see, and the ship propellers are lower in the water, so the wake is harder to see. Ships are detected via satellite by detecting the wake of ships.

    If they get off their butts and integrate the USN missiles, the Zumwalt could be like a solo assassin.

    And if they make an evolved version, by putting a normal 5 inch gun on, and placing a 64 cell mk 41 block in place of the other 155mm gun system, it can become even better, imho.

    Like

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