Surface Forces: Zumwalt Seeks Redemption and Relevance


June 11, 2023: The Zumwalt-class DDG-1000 destroyers have turned into a very expensive experiment into how not to build a new class of warships. Because of the high cost, which is now nearly $8 billion per ship, only three were ordered. Construction began in 2011. Only one of the three is in service, and limited service at that. The second ship is in the water but still having weapons and equipment installed. The third ship is also in the water but not completed and is undergoing sea trials to make sure it can operate at sea. All three Zumwalts won’t be in service until 2024 at the earliest. Their problems are many but the key ones are an overly ambitious design and a willingness to keep spending more money to make it work. The previous Burke-class destroyers worked and cost $2 billion each

The U.S. Navy has encountered seemingly endless problems and delays in getting the first of three new DDG-1000 class stealth destroyers into service. The original date for being fully operational was 2021 but that soon slipped to 2025 or later. The delays stem from continued efforts to deal with a list of 320 “serious deficiencies” compiled after the first Zumwalt completed sea trials in early 2016. All this increases costs and those have risen annually since construction began. Those unanticipated, but not unexpected, increased costs are the reason the ships cost more than three times what the earlier Burkes did. So far Zumwalt is not as effective as the latest Burkes.

At this point the total cost for the DDG-1000 program will be over $23 billion, meaning each of the three DDG-1000s to enter service will probably cost about $8 billion. This includes $10 billion in research and development, which was to be spread over 32 DDG-1000s. Even so, that would have been $312 million per ship. Among its many failures, the most notable one was the inability to get its two 155mm guns operational. The DDG-1000 was designed mainly to provide gunfire support for marines but technology passed the DDG-1000 in that department. That, plus cost overruns mean the DDG-1000s will enter service with the two 155mm guns still there but not operational. Sad but very symbolic of the DDG-1000 project and U.S. Navy shipbuilding efforts since the 1980s.

The navy finally abandoned the custom gun system for Zumwalt and is replacing those two guns and their ammunition storage areas for twelve VLS (vertical launch system) cells containing hypersonic missiles that are still in development and not expected to be ready until 2025, at the earliest. This is not a big problem because it will take years to remove the two 155mm gun systems and modify the Zumwalts by installing the VLS cells.

Replacing the 155mm guns was not the first effort to make the Zumwalts relevant. In 2017 the navy decided to upgrade their air defense systems. This involved spending about $100 million to upgrade the DDG-1000 fire control systems to handle the new RIM-175 SM-6 anti-aircraft missiles. The DDG-1000 was built to be multi-purpose (anti-air, anti-sub, anti-ship and land attack). That last item, land attack, was to be carried out by two 155mm guns firing GPS guided shells. These shells could hit targets over a hundred kilometers inland with great accuracy. Through a series of misadventures, the Navy found it could not afford the ammo for these 155mm guns and could only afford to buy three DDG-1000s. The two 155mm guns currently being replaced with hypersonic missiles that can hit ships or land targets. The new SM-6 antiaircraft missiles are effective against other ships as well as aircraft.

The SM-6 is an upgrade of the older SM-2 in that it can now do everything better, especially the way it handles surface targets. This was a recent (2017) development. One test used a retired U.S. frigate as a target; one SM-6 sank the ship because of modifications to the guidance system. SM-6 entered service in 2011 and anti-ship capability was added later. The initial order for SM-6 was for 1,200 missiles. These are replacing all the older SM-2s (entered service in 1979) and SM-3s (an advanced version of SM-2 that shoots down ballistic missiles). The SM-2 ER, which entered service in 1980, was also capable of being used against ships. SM-6 has a longer range and more effective guidance (and resistance to countermeasures like jamming) than the SM-2 and is meant to deal with aircraft, cruise missile and ballistic missiles more effectively as well. Max range of the SM-6 was initially 240 kilometers but quickly increased to about 340. The longer range and higher speed of the SM-6 make it particularly effective against other ships. The SM-6 is basically the existing SM-2 anti-aircraft missile with the more capable guidance system of the AMRAAM air-to-air missile, as well as general improvements in the electronics and other components.

The DDG-1000 upgrade also enabled Zumwalts to use the Maritime Strike variant of the Tomahawk cruise missile. This version received a new guidance system that enables the cruise missile to hit moving ships at sea. This version can also hit land targets as well and has a range of 1,700 kilometers. The anti-ship version needs some other ship or aircraft to determine the general area where the target is. DDG-1000 has 80 VLS (Vertical Launch Tubes) containing either anti-ship, cruise or anti-aircraft missiles. Now the mix of missiles will be SM-6, SM-3 (the anti-missile version) or Tomahawk. The new VLS cells are larger so they can handle the new hypersonic missile.

DDG-1000/Zumwalt class was earlier known as DD-21 or DD-X. It was designed with stealthy superstructure that deceives enemy radars to believe they have spotted a much smaller ship. In reality Zumwalt’s are huge, at 14,000 tons. This means a destroyer that is 194 meters (600 feet) long, and 25.5 meters (79 feet) wide. The crew of 150 sailors operates a variety of weapons, including the 155mm guns being replaced with large hypersonic missiles, 80 VLS cells, two 30mm automatic cannons for close-in defense, six torpedo tubes, a helicopter, and three helicopter UAVs. DDG-1000 has sonar, Aegis radar, electronic warfare equipment, and the ability to shoot down ballistic missiles.

Alas, because of the flaws of the American warship procurement system, DDG-1000 proved too expensive to build in the quantities desired. Many other nations do not have the procurement problems the U.S. Navy is suffering from. Attempts to fix the U.S. Navy procurement mess constantly run into political opposition and that is another matter altogether. In 2009 the navy decided to build only three of the DDG-1000s instead of 32. To cope with the loss of new destroyers the navy resumed building older DDG-51 Arleigh Burke class destroyers. It was a matter of cost. The new DDG-1000 destroyers (and slightly larger versions designated as cruisers) would cost more than $4 billion each if built in large quantities. The Burkes cost $1.9 billion each. The last of 62 original Burkes was ordered in 2002 and the last of those entered service in 2011. But by 2019 the new Burkes were entering production. Currently there are 71 with plans for 19 more if the navy can get the money. The DDG-51 is less than half the cost of the DDG-1000, but some navy officials believe that, in the long run, the larger and more expensive DDG-1000 would be a better investment. The key problem here is the inability of the Navy to control costs, and cost estimates, and the inability of the DDG-51s to provide space for new technologies.

Cutting the DDG-1000 order to three ships meant the GPS guided shell for the 155mm guns was too expensive (about a million dollars a shell). That means DDG-1000s were built with inoperative (no ammunition) 155mm guns. The Navy considered converting the guns to fire unguided ammo as that would be the cheapest option. Replacing the six 155mm guns on the three DDG-1000s was considered too expensive but that was later done anyway because otherwise the ships were much less effective. The six 155mm guns removed from Zumwalt’s are going into storage, for possible future use. This includes use as coastal defense weapons.

The first DDG-1000 was supposed to enter service in 2016 and the initial sea trials were promising. But the problem began to appear in the many new systems and technologies in the DDG-1000. At this point all three are not expected to be in service until the late 2020s. Experience with the DDG-1000, the Seawolf SSN, Ford class carriers and LCS (3,000 ton littoral combat ship) indicate that the navy has not yet fixed its fundamental inability to design and build new ships. The navy plays down how serious this problem is but the seriousness of the problem is only made worse by the Chinese success at building new ship classes much more quickly and on budget. The U.S. Navy used to be able to do this and the loss of that capability continues to be the most serious threat the navy faces and the one too few navy leaders are willing to take on, partly because much of the problem is Congressional interference prompted by defense contractors. Congress uses its power over flag rank promotions to have its way here.




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