Key point: The Zumwalt destroyers aren't very useful and it is unclear what role they will fill.
The three new Zumwalt-class destroyers are in trouble. Originally envisioned as a fleet of more nearly three dozen destroyers, and the weapons that justified them, the Zumwalts have faced delays, cuts and staggering cost increases. As the ships teeter on the verge of white elephant status, could they become relevant again by taking on a new role, that of a stealthy ship killer?
The Zumwalt-class destroyers were originally envisioned as a fleet of thirty-two destroyers designed to attack targets far inland with precision-guided howitzer shells. Designed in part to support amphibious landings by the U.S. Marine Corps, the Zumwalts were meant to make up for the lack of big-gun firepower caused by the retirement of the Ohio-class guided-missile submarines.
Unfortunately, cost overruns and technical problems caused the Pentagon to trim the number of Zumwalts to just three ships. Even worse, the service has decided the long-range attack-projectile shells that justified the ships are too expensive to purchase. This puts the remaining fleet in a poor position to support future naval landings, as only one ship is likely to be at sea at any given time.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy is witnessing the rapid rise of the People’s Liberation Army Navy. The PLAN was barely a force to be reckoned with as early as 2000, when the Zumwalt class was in early development. Today, the Pentagon describes the PLAN as “the largest Navy in Asia, with more than 300 surface ships, submarines, amphibious ships, and patrol craft.” While the United States and China are not direct adversaries, aggressive Chinese activity in the South and East China Seas outside of international norms and against U.S. allies could bring the two into conflict. Similarly, Russia has increased the use of its navy in the Baltic, the Mediterranean and the Pacific.
The stealthy nature of the Zumwalt class, whose design reduces the ship’s radar signature to that of a small fishing boat, lends itself to operating in enemy waters. Coupled with a large magazine of missiles, the Zumwalt class could become the ideal warship for an aggressive antisurface-ship role. Operating as a lone wolf but fully networked into the U.S. Navy’s battle network, a Zumwalt could be sent to hunt down and destroy enemy task forces far and wide.
The conversion would start with deleting the two 155-millimeter Advanced Gun System howitzers on the bow and replacing them with a large field of Mk. 41 vertical launch systems. Each Mk. 41 can hold a single missile, which in this case will be the new Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM). Removing the guns could free up room for up to two hundred Mk. 41s, resulting in more silo-based firepower than even the Ohio-class guided-missile submarines. The combination of a stealthy ship and stealthy antiship missiles guided by artificial intelligence would make a formidable adversary. Alternately, the two hundred or so silos could be filled with Tactical Tomahawk missiles for a land-attack mission.
A ship-killing Zumwalt would by necessity operate alone, as an escort would be easy for enemy sensors to detect. Fortunately, the combination of the ship’s AN/SPY-3 Multi-Function Radar and SM-2 and ESSM missiles makes for a powerful self-defense suite. The Zumwalts’ eighty Mk. 57 silos, already installed onboard the ship, would be reserved for defensive weapons. The eighty silos could provide a layered defense with a combination of medium-range Standard SM-2 air-defense missiles and short-range Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles (ESSM). If the newer SM-6 surface to air missile fits in the Mk. 57, the secondary antiship role of the SM-6 would give the Zumwalts a backup antiship weapon for use against enemy vessels that don’t rate a LRASM.
That’s not to say an attack Zumwalt wouldn’t have any escorts at all. As envisaged, the destroyer would lack any active antisubmarine-warfare systems. Like a carrier strike group, one or two nuclear attack submarines could accompany the Zumwalts into combat, screening for undersea threats. The submarines could also launch diversionary attacks against enemy task groups and scout the waters ahead for enemy surface forces.
The key to the Zumwalt’s success as a hunter-killer would be being properly networked into the rest of the Navy. The ship would receive sighting reports from satellites; MQ-4 Triton high-altitude, long-endurance drones; P-8 Poseidon patrol aircraft; carrier-based aircraft; surface ships; submarines; and air, surface and subsurface drones. The Zumwalt could locate and track an enemy task group by proxy, setting up an ambush when conditions are favorable, without even turning on its radar or sending out drones of its own. As a corollary, the network would help keep the Zumwalt alive, allowing it to outmaneuver dangerous threats.
Creating what would amount to an American pocket battleship, operating alone on the high seas in the face of the enemy, is a risky proposition. Still, the concentration of firepower such a ship could bring to bear also makes it an attractive one, and the ship’s stealthy nature, extensive defensive-weapons capability, and America’s lead in military communications and networking all give it an edge in survivability. While it may mean a few more years in the shipyard, especially for the lead ship already commissioned into the fleet, what will emerge is a ship more suited for the growing task for sinking enemy ships. From the progress America’s potential adversaries are making in shipbuilding, that task isn’t going away anytime soon.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami. This first appeared in July 2017.