Stealth Destroyer Zumwalt Is Getting Hypersonic Missiles

Stealth Destroyer Zumwalt Is Getting Hypersonic Missiles

Could this upgrade give the troubled class of expensive warships a new lease on life?

The Navy’s most expensive destroyer is set to receive a key weapons upgrade.

It was revealed late last month that the Navy plans to install Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS) hypersonic missiles onto its Zumwalt destroyers, after receiving initial approval from Congress to study the decision in the 2021 budget. This move by the Navy is part of a larger armament plan that also involves outfitting the Virginia-class submarines with CPS missiles by 2025.

The CPS program aims to develop the capability to hit any target in the world with hypersonic missiles in less than one hour. The U.S. defense community anticipates that the program will be a major boon for U.S. power projection capabilities, strengthening Washington’s conventional deterrent at a time when Russia and China are proceeding apace with a slew of hypersonic weapons projects. With their rapid launch times and reported accuracy of six inches within target location, these CPS armaments could prove particularly potent as a credible threat against critical enemy targets and infrastructure.

The Zumwalt class is a line of advanced guided missile destroyers, boasting extensive stealth capabilities and the bespoke Long Range Land Attack Projectile (LRLAP) naval projectile system. The lead ship, Zumwalt, was commissioned in 2016; the other two vessels in the class, Michael Monsoor and Lyndon B. Johnson, were scheduled to be commissioned in 2019 and 2020 respectively, with the latter now expected to reach initial operating capability (IOC) in 2021.

LRLAP development was cancelled in 2016 on the heels of cost concerns, prompting the Navy to repurpose the Zumwalt class along the lines of a more traditional surface warfare role. The LRLAP snafu was only the tip of the iceberg of the Zumwalt’s line’s many problems, with lawmakers and some defense commentators assailing the project as a profligate hodge-podge of muddled design decisions. Compounding the Zumwalt class’ rapidly growing list of problems were serious engine and electrical problems that came to light in the latter stages of development and also during the ships’ acceptance trials.

The hypersonic weapons upgrade package may serve to reinvigorate the troubled Zumwalt line with a clearer sense of mission purpose, though it won’t be a simple engineering task. According to Rear Adm. Paul Schlise, the conventional prompt strike missile is too large to fit the standard Mk 41 vertical launching system. To minimize downtime and labor, the Navy plans to refit the Zumwalt with larger missile launchers during maintenance periods. Schlise added that the ships procured under the Navy’s Large Surface Combatant (DDG Next) program will be able to accept such missiles natively: “We are working on the Large Surface Combatant top-level requirements right now, [they] were just recently approved. And we think a version of a larger diameter launcher that can handle a round like CPS will absolutely be part of that platform.”

Zumwalt will likely participate in fleet Integrated Battle Program exercises later this year, perhaps offering a clearer glimpse into the Navy’s future plans for its controversial destroyer line.

Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest.

Image: U.S. Navy.