The Buzz

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

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.

What would happen if the US Navy’s latest destroyer, the USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000) fought against the Navy’s last battleship, the USS Wisconsin (BB-64)? Fireworks.

Let us not tarry on the question of how the 2020 edition of USS Zumwalt would encounter and engage the 1991 version of USS Wisconsin. We will assume that neither ship is receiving external support; although both were designed to operate as part of a system, each will fight this battle alone. We’ll also assume that each is operating in a configuration (including weapon load) optimized for ship-to-ship combat. Finally, we’ll assume that the technologies key to the DDG-1000 class are both functional and available.

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The Missile Volley:

The battle between the two ships will begin with missiles. Since we’re assuming that neither ship is receiving outside assistance, the beginning of the encounter depends on how each ship identifies and targets its opponent. Since Zumwalt and Wisconsin used roughly comparable helicopters (and drones), we’ll assume for the ease of calculation that they identify each other at roughly the same time, at a range of about 200 nautical miles.

Zumwalt has a lot of missiles to throw at Wisconsin. Zumwalt carries 80 VLS cells, and while Tomahawk missiles will not fill all of these cells (Zumwalt needs to defend itself with Evolved Sea Sparrow missiles, fired from the same system) we can assume that Tomahawks will occupy no fewer than half of the arsenal. Zumwalt will carry modern Block IV Tomahawk missiles that can be retargeted in flight toward moving ships at sea, giving the Zumwalt a huge advantage, especially as Wisconsin lacks sufficient anti-aircraft weapons to knock down Zumwalt’s helicopters or drones.

Wisconsin would reply in kind. The BGM-109B Tomahawk Anti-Ship Missile (TASM) was retired in the early 1990s, but Wisconsin could have carried 32 of the missiles in any kind of anti-shipping configuration. Wisconsin also carried 16 Harpoon anti-ship missiles. The TASMs could reach a range of 300 miles, while the Harpoons were limited to about 70.

The problem would have been targeting. The Navy retired the TASM in part because its range exceeded that of available sensors, meaning that the missile needed to use internal radars to discern between targets at the end of its flight. Assuming the TASM found its way to the general vicinity of Zumwalt (likely even if Zumwalt manages to shoot down loitering helicopters or drones), it might struggle to find and target the low-radar cross section of the huge destroyer. Zumwalt’s active defenses would have provided an even bigger problem. Recalling our assumption that Zumwalt would devote 40 VLS cells to Evolved Sea Sparrows, it can allocate four missiles to destroying every incoming Tomahawk, and still have a few left over for contingencies.

What happens then? If a TASM manages to hit Zumwalt, nothing good. Despite its large size, the Zumwalt is not designed to survive hits from cruise missiles. Even a single hit has the potential to sink or (more likely) disable the warship. It is possible that the Zumwalt could continue the fight, but very hard to predict what would happen after taking extensive battle damage.

We have somewhat better sense of what would happen on Wisconsin. The Tomahawk is not an ideal weapon for killing battleships; it lacks the size, warhead, and especially the supersonic speed of the world’s more deadly anti-ship missiles. Its subsonic speed also makes it a better target for Wisconsin’s air defenses (although good luck hitting a Tomahawk with 5”/38 gun mount). Still, Wisconsin will likely take more than twenty hits, doing very serious damage to the unarmored parts of the ship, including the bow, stern, and superstructure. Wisconsin will find her sensor and communications capabilities hampered, and her speed reduced.

To the Guns!

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.