Surface Forces: Failed Destroyer Design Finds A Purpose

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September 30, 2021: In August 2021 the U.S. Navy finally had USS Lyndon B. Johnson, its third, and last Zumwalt-class destroyer ready for sea trials. These trials will take an unusually long time because the navy does not expect the Johnson to join the fleet until 2023. The main reason for the unusually long trials period is that the navy considers the Zumwalts as valuable testbeds for new technologies, especially ones that made the Zumwalts useful. They lost their gun turrets because the ammunition was too expensive. That was because the ammo purchase was based on 32 Zumwalts being built. With only three ships the cost per shell was prohibitive. Meanwhile the marines found a cheaper and more useful substitute for the 155mmm guided shell, whose main purpose was providing artillery support for marines and other troops on hostile shores.

The alternative weapon for the Zumwalt gun turrets was the new railgun, which was also dropped because of cost and reliability issues. Because of the Zumwalt the navy has already cancelled two expensive new weapons technologies; 155mm guns using GPS guided shells and the electric rail gun, that were planned for future use on many other ships. The 155mm gun could only be justified if it had guided shells and those shells were only affordable if the navy equipped a lot of ships with the new gun, to provide improved fire support for the marines. Seemed like a good idea at the time but the marines were seeking less-expensive solutions and found it in the army’s GMLRs missile (guided rocket), which entered service in 2007. The marines adopted the HIMARS truck launcher version because it could be used from the flight deck of their amphibious assault ships as well as on land. The marines found a 16-ton HIMARS vehicle, carrying a full load of four missiles, could be brought to the flight deck of a navy amphibious ship and successfully used from there. The rail gun concept was another one of those “weapons of the future and always will be” situations.

The Johnson was perhaps the most troublesome of the three Zumwalts and was threatened with cancellation several times. The first of these DDG-1000 ships, the Zumwalt was similarly troubled by unexpected delays encountered before it was ready to join the fleet. In fact, this became the norm for all three Zumwalts and none of them has yet “joined the fleet” even though all three are seaworthy but seem destined to spend a long time serving as testbeds for new ship technologies that the navy cannot yet get to work or have doubts about. It’s less embarrassing to cancel a new tech only used on the Zumwalts than after this new stuff is installed on a lot of ships and found to be an expensive failure, the kind the navy critics and the media love to feast on. In late 2019 the navy said the first Zumwalt would be fully operational by September 2021. That did not happen, so the navy quietly changed the purpose for the Zumwalts, to prevent calls for the three new ships to be scrapped before they even got into service.

For the first Zumwalt, the delays stemmed from continued efforts to deal with a list of 320 “serious deficiencies” compiled after its completion of sea trials in early 2016. In effect, the Zumwalt had failed sea trials. For the Zumwalt, the first of its class, these new “unexpected problems” meant the costs for completing the ship increased for 11 years in a row. Those unanticipated (but not unexpected) increased costs have totaled over $4 billion since 2010. At this point the total cost for the DDG-1000 program is over $23 billion, meaning each of the three DDG-1000s to enter service will cost about $8 billion. This includes $10 billion in research and development, which was to be spread over 32 DDG-1000s. Even so, that would have been $312 million in development costs for each of the 32 ships. Among its many failures, there were some major ones, like the inability to get its two 155mm guns operational. The DDG-1000 was designed mainly to provide gunfire support for marines but technology passed the DDG-1000 in that department. That, plus cost overruns meant the DDG-1000s would enter service with the two 155mm guns still there but not operational. The uproar over that led the navy to leave the two turrets on the Zumwalts but to not install the useless guns. Sad but very symbolic of the DDG-1000 project and U.S. Navy shipbuilding efforts since the 1980s.

In 2017 the navy believed they had found a new purpose for the DDG-1000; anti-ship warfare. This was to be accomplished by spending about $100 million to upgrade the DDG-1000 fire control systems to handle the new RIM-175 SM-6 anti-aircraft missiles. The DDG-1000 was built to be multi-purpose, as in (anti-air, anti-sub, anti-ship and land attack systems. That last item, land attack, was to be carried out by two 155mm guns firing GPS guided shells. These shells could hit targets over a hundred kilometers inland with great accuracy. The navy gun was made obsolete when the marines found HIMARS.

The key to this DDG-1000 success is now the new SM-6 (an upgrade of the existing SM-2), which can do everything better, especially the way it handles surface targets. This was confirmed in 2017 when the Block 1A upgrade of the SM-6 passed its first tests. These missiles were fired from a land-based facility. The SM-6 performed just as well when fired from VLS cells on a ship. One test was conducted against a retired U.S. frigate and the SM-6 sank the ship with one missile. Block 1A improvements are largely about the guidance system, especially the new anti-ship capability. SM-6 entered service in 2011 and anti-ship capability was added later. The initial order for SM-6 was for 1,200 missiles and it will eventually replace all the older SM-2s (entered service in 1979) and SM-3s (an advanced version of SM-2 that shoots down ballistic missiles). The SM-2 ER, which entered service in 1980, was also capable of being used against ships. SM-6 has a longer range and more effective guidance and resistance to countermeasures like jamming than the SM-2 and is meant to deal with aircraft, cruise missile and ballistic missiles more effectively as well. Max range of the SM-6 is given as 240 kilometers, later increased to about 340. The longer range and higher speed of the SM-6 make it particularly effective against other ships. The SM-6 is basically the existing SM-2 anti-aircraft missile with the more capable guidance system of the AMRAAM air-to-air missile, as well as general improvements in the electronics and other components.

The DDG-1000 missile upgrades will also enable the ship to use the Maritime Strike variant of the Tomahawk cruise missile. This version gets a new guidance system that enables the Tomahawk to hit moving ships at sea. This version can also hit land targets as well and has a range of 1,700 kilometers. The anti-ship version needs some other ship or aircraft to determine the general area where the target is. DDG-1000 has 80 VLS (Vertical Launch Tubes) containing either anti-ship, cruise or anti-aircraft missiles. Now the mix of missiles will be SM-6, SM-3 (the anti-missile version) or Tomahawk. At one point it was proposed the two empty gun turrets be reconfigured to launch the army 227mm GMLRS guided rocket, which the marines had adopted to provide more affordable and practical fire support for the marines. That proposal was shot down because it would require major work on ship structure. Proposals to use the turrets for existing 127mm guns used on other destroyers is still a possibility but still considered an unnecessary expense for a ship that already has plenty of unexpected costs.

The DDG-1000/Zumwalt Class, also known as DD-21 or DD-X design, has a stealthy superstructure and is very big at 14,000-tons, 194 meters (600 feet) long, and 25.5 meters (79 feet) wide. The crew of 150 sailors operates a variety of weapons, no longer including the failed 155mm guns. The largest gun on the 14,000-ton ships are two 30mm automatic cannons for close-in defense. There are also six torpedo tubes, a helicopter, and three helicopter UAVs. The main weapons are in the 80 VLS cells. DDG-1000 has sonar, Aegis radar, electronic warfare equipment, and, because of the new anti-aircraft missiles, the ability to shoot down ballistic missiles.

Alas, because of the flaws of the American warship procurement system, DDG-1000 proved too expensive to build in the quantities desired. Many other nations do not have the procurement problems the U.S. Navy is suffering from. Attempts to fix the U.S. Navy procurement mess constantly run into political opposition and that is another matter altogether. In 2009 the navy decided to build only three of the DDG-1000s instead of 32. To cope with the loss of new destroyers the navy resumed building older DDG-51 Arleigh Burke class destroyers. It was a matter of cost. The DDG-1000 destroyers, and slightly larger versions designated as cruisers, would cost more than $4 billion each if built in large quantities. The existing DDG-51 Burke class destroyers cost $1.9 billion each. The last of 62 original Burkes was ordered in 2002 and the last of those entered service in 2011. By 2019 new Burkes were entering production to replace older Burkes that were supposed to be replaced by Zumwalts. While DDG-51 is less than half the cost of a mass produced DDG-1000, some navy officials still believed that, in the long run, the larger and more expensive DDG-1000 would be a better investment. The key problem here is the inability of the Navy to control costs, and cost estimates, and the inability of the DDG-51s to provide space for new technologies.

The first DDG-1000 was supposed to enter service in 2016 and the initial sea trials were promising. But the problem began to appear in the many new systems and technologies in the DDG-1000. Before the unofficial decision to use the Zumwalts as testbeds for new techs, the three built were not expected to be in service until 2025.

Experience with the DDG-1000, the Seawolf SSN, Ford class carriers and LCS (3,000-ton littoral combat ship) indicates that the navy has not yet fixed its fundamental inability to design and build new ships. The navy plays down how serious this problem is but the seriousness of the problem is only made worse by the Chinese success at building new ship classes much more quickly and on budget. The U.S. Navy used to be able to do this, the loss of that capability continues to be the most serious threat the navy faces and the one too many navy leaders are willing to take on.

 


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