The Buzz

Could America's Old Battleships Sink the Navy's New 'Stealth' Destroyers?

Assuming that both ships remained afloat and interested after the missile exchange, the next step would be to draw within gun range for the kill. USS Zumwalt can probably use this opportunity to escape (especially with the battering that Wisconsin took), but it’s not obvious that Zumwalt’s captain will make that decision.

In order to hurt the Zumwalt, Wisconsin would need to close within visual striking distance. At such ranges, the nine 16”/50 guns of the battleship would quickly disable and destroy the stealth destroyer. It would not take long, and it would not be pleasant for Zumwalt. But odds are Wisconsin will never reach firing position.

With its two 155mm Advanced Gun System turrets, the Zumwalt can begin hitting Wisconsin at a range of around 80 nautical miles with the Long Range Land Attack Projectile (as we’re assuming that Zumwalt is fitted out for naval combat, these will constitute the entire armory). This weapon reputedly has a circular error probability of around 50 meters, meaning that we can expect roughly 125-150 of the 700 or so shells fired by the Zumwalt over the course of half an hour will hit the battleship.

No one has ever hit an Iowa class battleship with 150 6” shells over the course of 30 minutes. However, World War II offers some experience; the German battleship Bismarck underwent an even more vicious storm of fire and steel, and the Japanese battleship Hiei suffered something similar. Both ships survived the initial onslaught, but were disabled and later sank. Undoubtedly, Wisconsin’s armor would provide a great deal of protection from 6” shells armed with fragmentation (rather than armor piercing) warheads. The Wisconsin is armored against 16”/45 shells, which are much heavier and have much greater penetrating power than the land attack munitions fired by Zumwalt. Nevertheless, the sheer number of hits would leave Wisconsin’s lightly armored ends and unarmored upper works devastated and in flames.

Even assuming Wisconsin remained afloat, it is unlikely that she would be able to continue combat with her superstructure and decks in flames, and her ends riddled with holes. The onslaught would almost certainly destroy her advanced sensors and communications equipment, as well as the Harpoon missile launchers. This would leave the battleship blind, deaf, and slow, making any effort to close with Zumwalt almost completely hopeless.

The USS Zumwalt is going to win this battle in almost any conceivable scenario. This is not surprising; Zumwalt will enter service over seventy years after Wisconsin. If we start the fight with different assumptions (without Zumwalt’s long range munitions, or without the Tomahawk Block IV), then things look rather better for the battleship, but the destroyer probably still inflicts serious damage and escapes. It is nevertheless remarkable to imagine that Wisconsin could possibly survive the fight, even in battered condition.

Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to the National Interest, is author of The Battleship Book. He serves as a senior lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His work includes military doctrine, national security and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and MoneyInformation Dissemination and the Diplomat.

This first appeared in Summer 2016. 

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