The Buzz

Could North Korea 'Sink' America's New Zumwalt-Class Destroyers?

The USS Michael Monsoor, second of the Zumwalt-class destroyers, recently embarked on trials and will be delivered to the U.S. Navy in the next year. While neither the Monsoor nor its older sister Zumwalt are likely to be ready to contribute to a war on the Korean Peninsula in the near future, the crisis show no signs of abating. As tensions between the United States and North Korea grow, it’s worth asking what role the largest, most lethal destroyers in the U.S. arsenal might play in the conflict.

The Last War

In the first Korean War, the United States Navy used all four of its Iowa-class battleships, along with several gun-armed heavy cruisers, to bombard North Korean positions along the coast. This usage built upon the Navy’s experience during World War II, when heavy-gun-armed ships engaged in fire support during amphibious operations, and bombardment against Japanese coastal installations. While the operations against Korea were regarded as successful, they were not decisive; the Iowas could not strike at sufficient depth to disrupt Chinese and North Korean logistics. Still, the concept of attacks from the sea against land targets were deeply compelling to U.S. planners, as the U.S. Navy generally expected to have command of the sea.

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The Design

After the 1991 Gulf War, the U.S. Navy decommissioned its last battleships. The U.S. Marine Corps, among others, argued that the United States still needed gunfire support for amphibious operations, and platforms for long-range attacks against targets in the littoral. The Zumwalt class was conceived in response to this need, as the Navy sought a land-attack warship that could operate with minimal support to disrupt and destroy advancing enemy formations. The keys to this capability were a stealthy design that would preclude attacks against the ships from aircraft and coastal missile installations, a large magazine of land-attack cruise missiles, and the Advanced Gun System, which could theoretically hurl 155-millimeter shells up to eighty miles with tight precision and a high rate of fire.

The Zumwalts have since been tasked with an antiship mission, in part because of changes in the strategic situation, and in part because of procurement difficulties associated with munitions for the Advanced Gun System. Unfortunately, the LRLAP (long-range land-attack projectile) that could strike at advancing columns and defensive positions deep inside North Korea was canceled, due to excessive cost. This has had the effect of limiting the potential effect of the AGS to coastal areas, depending on how the Navy finally determines to equip the system.

Still, within a couple of years the Zumwalts could well be equipped with the Excalibur munition, which has an effective range of about thirty miles. This would give the Zumwalts a deeper punch than the Iowas, with the ability to hit targets with ten rounds per minute from each of their two 155-millimeter guns. The combination of precision and high rate of fire could give any North Korean formations unlucky enough to find themselves under attack an extremely bad day, especially given advances in precision laser-targeting for artillery projectiles. When fully integrated, each destroyer could carry over a thousand projectiles.

The Zumwalts also have an eighty-cell vertical-launch system, enabling them to carry cruise missiles for attacks against North Korea targets. Of course, the U.S. Navy already has extensive cruise-missile attack capabilities, but with the Zumwalts operating in the North Korean littoral, the missiles could strike with relatively little warning. A network of sensors would provide targeting data for the missiles, allowing Zumwalt and Monsoor to maintain their low, stealthy profile.

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