The U.S. Navy's Stealth Destroyer: A Pretty 'Battleship' That Can't Fight?

The U.S. Navy's Stealth Destroyer: A Pretty 'Battleship' That Can't Fight?

One word can be used to sum up the United States Navy's Zumwalt-class destroyer: "controversial."

 

One word can be used to sum up the United States Navy's Zumwalt-class destroyer: "controversial."

Designed as a new class of multi-mission stealth warships with a focus on land attacks, the sleek vessels could also take on secondary roles including surface and anti-aircraft warfare. The next-generation, multi-mission destroyers are also equipped with a state-of-the-art electric propulsion system, wave-piercing tumblehome hull, stealth design, and the latest war fighting technology and weaponry. But does the ship pack in too much new technology?

 

21st Century Warship

Looking like something out of science fiction, these are truly state-of-the-art and cutting-edge, but history has shown that new designs can be problematic.

Classed as destroyers, the Zumwalt-class was designed to be larger than any active destroyer or even cruiser but also met the congressional mandate for a warship that has the naval fire support of a battleship. The new warships were also developed to be capable of performing a range of deterrence, power projection, sea control and command and control missions – and were designed to operate in both the open ocean and near-shore environments.

The streamlined, wave-piercing tumblehome hull has a "knife-like profile," which provides the 600-foot-long warship class with the radar signature of a fishing boat. And despite concerns over the stability of the hull, when it was tested in January 2020 off the coast of Alaska the lead vessel of the class, USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000), handled rough waters as well – perhaps even better – as previous classes of destroyers.

Yet, it hasn't been smooth sailing for the Navy's cutting edge warship. A 2016 article in The National Review even described the vessel as "an unmitigated disaster," after the $4 billion lead vessel broke down while passing through the Panama Canal just a month after it was commissioned.

The entire program also faced multiple delays and cost overruns, even as the Navy called the delivery of the warship a "major milestone." It had originally planned to buy more than two dozen of the larger stealth destroyers, but that number was reduced to just three as costs ballooned and questions came up over what its role would actually be.

Land-Attack Drama

At issue is exactly how the warships could accomplish their primary mission of land attacks. As a new generation of warships, the Zumwalt-class was designed to be fitted with two 155mm Advanced Gun Systems (AGS), which are capable of engaging targets with precision-guided shells at a range of up to 60 miles. In wartime, the destroyers could use such an ability to engage targets from close to shore to create a path for an amphibious landing.

The problem is that the Long Range Land Attack Projectile, the precision-guided shell to be used in the AGS, ballooned in price from $50,000 to $800,000 for each round – making it simply too expensive to fire. The Navy has yet to find a replacement. The issue was even addressed in a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, which called out the Navy for ongoing problems with the vessel's armaments.

Over the past year, the Navy has explored other options for the Advanced Gun Systems, and as a result, the role of the destroyers has changed from land attack to offensive surface strike – and modifications to make that switch cost around $1billion, the GAO noted as reported by Business Insider.

In October 2020, the Navy announced the DDG 1000 successfully executed the first live-fire test of the MK 57 Vertical Launching System with a Standard Missile (SM-2) on the Naval Air Weapons Center Weapons Division Sea Test Range, Point Mugu. The Navy said that during the tests USS Zumwalt also demonstrated its capability to detect, track and engage an Anti-Ship Cruise Missile threat with a SM-2. The structural test fire assessed the material readiness of the ship against shock and vibration of the weapon firing, as well as measure any hazards or degradations as a result of firing live ordnance.

According to the U.S. Navy, DDG 1000 will continue tactical training and operational scenario engagement in support of attaining Initial Operational Capability in 2021.

Despite the issues, the second of the Zumwalt-class, the USS Michael Monsoor, has been undergoing combat system activation at her homeport of San Diego, while the third and final ship, the USS Lyndon B. Johnson, is currently under construction in Maine.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.