The Buzz

America's Stealth Destroyer Zumwalt Has Some Big 'Guns' (But the Bullets Are Unaffordable)

As James Holmes of the Naval War College wrote on The National Interest last month, “the US Navy has an image problem.” Perhaps, as Steven Wills of Ohio University (a.k.a. Lazarus) argued in the comments, it’s merely that ships like the Zumwalt-class destroyers “are just popular bad news sources for defense journalists to sell magazines and get clicks for their web pages.” This week, however, the Navy produced its own clickbait, in announcing its intention to avoid buying cannon shells for its biggest cannons. This is more than an image problem; it’s a deadly serious problem that was eminently avoidable. Fortunately, there are at least three ways out of this mess now, and at least two should be pursued in parallel.

Since the very successful Arleigh Burke-class destroyers were designed in the mid-1980s, almost every new class of ship bought by the US Navy has had significant developmental problems. In some ways, the best news so far about the Zumwalt-class destroyers has been the 155 mm “Advanced Gun System” from BAE Systems; these six-inchers have basically passed their tests as advertised. Lockheed Martin’s associated 155 mm Long-Range Land-Attack Projectile (LRLAP) has also passed its developmental tests. The Navy had laid plans last year to buy 150 rounds and some associated items for operational testing in 2018. So all should be well, right?

The Navy’s issue is with the price: $113 million, or about $800,000 per round. Shocked by that sticker, the department is proposing to terminate the program, and to hold a competition for new rounds in the future. This would leave the Zumwalts for some time, to paraphrase Defense News’s headline, as “new ships with big guns but no bullets.” The problem, it seems, is volume. The Navy originally intended to buy 32 Zumwalts; with a fleet of now only three, and just two guns per ship, Lockheed could never achieve the economies of scale needed for a reasonable price. As an unnamed naval official told Christopher Cavas, “quantities of ships killed the affordable round.”

Not everyone has been immediately satisfied with that answer. Kyle Mizokami (@KyleMizokami) of Popular Mechanics asked on Twitter “is this a joke? How long have they known they were only getting three destroyers?” I can answer that: since Defense Secretary Robert Gates truncated the Zumwalt program in April 2009. The Navy has had over six years in which to have figured this out, but has done little. As such, it’s possible that this move is just a “Washington Monument strategy,” an occasional ploy in the US Navy’s budgeting, in which the service declines to fund something so obvious that the Congress will reflexively find the money elsewhere. Or maybe someone in the admiralty finally said enough is enough with crazy spending plans. Either way, the headlines were sure to be embarrassing.

The Navy should forthwith figure up a strategy for those big guns, but if it will only have six big guns, it ought to reconsider alternatives as well. After the technical failures of Raytheon’s Extended Range Guided Munition (ERGM) and Alliant Techsystems’ Ballistic Trajectory Extended Range Munition (BTERM) programs, the service reasonably cut back on advanced munitions in five-inch (127 mm). But the Navy has been talking again about buying guided sub-caliber rounds for the many five-inchers on those cruisers and destroyers, as at least one contractor seems to have succeeded recently. Leonardo is currently (if slowly) producing 127 mm sub-caliber Vulcano rounds for GPS/INS-guided shore bombardment at up to 100 kilometers, and attacking ships with infrared guidance at up to 80 kilometers. That doesn't deliver nearly as much blast effect as a full-caliber 155 mm round, but it’s available now.

But what of those six AGSs? Presumably the service isn’t yet countenancing removing the guns in favor of refurbished five-inchers. Raytheon would also like the chance to adapt its 155 mm Excalibur precision-guided howitzer round for naval use. The loading mechanisms and the barrel velocities are completely different, so the engineering problem is not trivial. Any naval Excaliburs would thus would come later, but the howitzer round does have an excellent combat record from Iraq and Afghanistan. Leonardo similarly produces a 155 mm Vulcano round for howitzers, and so might be interested in such a project too. If either company could credibly offer a naval version, Lockheed would at least need to rethink its approach and price. If a lower price isn’t attainable by any of these prospective suppliers, then a wholly different weapon might be appropriate.