America's Stealth Destroyers Are Experimenting on How to Fight Alongside Drones
Learning the future of warfare.
Key point: Washington isn't sure what to do with its stealth destroyers so it might as well have them experiment. The Navy is hoping to use these ships along with others and drones to figure out how all these advanced weapons might work together in a real war.
The U.S. Navy plans to assign its three Zumwalt-class stealth destroyers to an experimental squadron that will develop new tactics for naval warfare.
The squadron also will include at least two types of drone warship plus four early-production Littoral Combat Ships.
The plan does not prevent the Zumwalts from also deploying for front-line operations. All three of the radar-evading destroyers eventually will sail from San Diego.
The Navy on Jan. 26, 2019 commissioned into service the second Zumwalt, USS Michael Monsoor. The third ship in the class, Lyndon B. Johnson, is slated to commission later in 2019.
The Zumwalts’ 20-year journey into front-line service has been ... complicated. The experimental squadron is only the latest wrinkle for the stealthy vessels.
Work began on the class in the 1990s. The goal was to develop a large, heavily-armed and highly survivable ship. Over that decade the concept changed. With the Navy focusing more on near-shore warfare, the Zumwalt evolved into a stealthy fire-support vessel sporting powerful 155-millimeter cannons.
Costs rose. The Navy cut the class down from 32 ships to just three. But the research-and-development overhead contributed to the three ship's enormous, per-vessel cost of nearly $8 billion, which is four times as much as the latest Arleigh Burke-class destroyers cost.
The Zumwalts feature low-signature tumblehome hulls. Their missile-launch cells are along their outer hulls and double as armor. Their 155-millimeter guns, in theory, are more powerful than the 127-millimeter models on other surface ships and can fire farther.
But the ships have problems besides their high cost. Their guns are incompatible with the Navy's standard ammunition. Efforts to develop custom, precision-guided shells have failed on account of the low volume and resulting high cost. All three Zumwalts lack ammunition for each of their two guns.
But 610 feet long and displacing 16,000 tons, the Zumwalts are roomy, making them prime candidates for upgrades. They boast sophisticated electrical systems. Their radar signatures are lower than those of other, similar ships.
Aiming to make best use of the three ships once they're all in service, in early 2018 the Navy asked Congress for money to convert the Zumwalts into ship-killers. The $90 million would pay for the integration of SM-6 and Tomahawk missiles. The SM-6 is a long-range surface-to-air missile that also can strike ships.
In early 2018, Adm. Harry Harris, then commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific region, justified the conversion as a way of countering China's own growing navy. "I need increased lethality, specifically ships and aircraft equipped with faster and more survivable weapons systems," Harris told Congress. "Longer range offensive weapons on every platform are an imperative."
With just three Zumwalts, the Navy probably reliably can deploy just one at a time. Between deployments, the other two ships could participate in the experimental squadron the sailing branch plans to establish.
In January 2019 Vice Adm. Rich Brown, commander of the Navy's surface force, said he wanted to conduct "aggressive experimentation" to take advantage of new ships and weapons. In addition to the third and final Zumwalt, the surface fleet is planning in coming years to acquire a new missile frigate and a variety of large robotic warships.
Citing tactical experiments taking place within the Navy's mine-warfare community, Brown proposed to establish a "surface development squadron." The idea dates back to early 2018, when other officials called for a "experimental squadron" to work out joint tactics for the Zumwalts, unmanned ships, Littoral Combat Ships and other vessels.
The Navy has designated the new unit Surface Development Squadron 1, Tyler Rogoway reported at The War Zone. According to Rogoway, the squadron’s organization includes:
Pairing the Zumwalts with unmanned ships. The first of these vessels will be two Sea Hunter[-class] experimental drone ships—one of which has been operating for years and has been incredibly successful—a main reason why the Navy is now betting big on unmanned surface warfare. The other will be delivered in 2020.
The medium and large drone ships the Navy has set out to procure this year will follow those efforts, working with the Zumwalt-class ships experimentally to build a list of key recommendations that will drive everything from future procurement to tactics and procedures for the fleet.
Between 2020 and 2023 SURFDEVRON will have all three Zumwalt-class destroyers operating alongside the two Sea Hunter experimental unmanned surface vehicles for experimentation.
By 2024, medium and large USVs will begin joining the squadron.
Around the same time, the first four Littoral Combat Ships built, which are now relegated to testing and training, will join SURFDEVRON, as well. This will integrate work they are doing with small USVs, leaving seamless continuity of unmanned surface vehicle experimentation and operation.
"We need this squadron to develop solutions to tough operational problems, accelerate new warfighting capabilities and rapidly assist in the development and validation of tactics, techniques and procedures," Brown said. "It will be a place to take calculated risks and see what works and what doesn’t work."
As recently as early 2019 there was some hope that the Zumwalts might finally get shells for their high-tech cannons. In a test in the summer of 2018, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer fired 20 hypervelocity projectiles from its 127-millimeter gun.
The shell, designed by BAE Systems, is a sabot round, meaning it includes a penetrator and a surrounding casing that separates from the penetrator after firing.
Enlarge the casing and you can fit the same penetrator to larger-caliber guns such as the Zumwalts' 155-millimeter weapon. "That is one thing that has been considered with respect to capability for this ship class," Naval Sea Systems Command's Capt. Kevin Smith said. "We’re looking at a longer-range bullet that’s affordable, and so that’s one thing that’s being considered.
BAE's new shell reportedly costs around $90,000 per round, roughly a tenth the cost of the purpose-made shells the Navy developed, then canceled, for the Zumwalt class.
But now it seems the Navy is taking a different tack. “The service has been struggling to find a use for the ship’s advanced gun system — the largest of its type fielded by the service since World War II — and now is considering stripping them off the platform entirely,” David Larter reported at Defense News.
David Axe serves as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels War Fix, War Is Boring and Machete Squad. This first appeared in 2019.