The US Navy’s new Zumwalt-class destroyers are impressive ships – as large as a WW1 battleship, and more sophisticated than any other warship in the world by a long way – but they’ve turned out to be pretty controversial. There are questions about whether the small crew is capable of handling damage control – plus doubts about whether the staggering cost is worth it for the extra capabilities over the current generation of Arleigh Burke ships. Naval architects still don’t even agree on whether the radical hull design is seaworthy or not. Now there’s a new problem – the ammunition for its main gun system is so expensive the Navy can’t afford it.
One requirement of the Zumwalt project was that the ships must be capable of delivering at least as much naval gunfire support as the mothballed Iowa-class. The Navy insisted they would be; however, the USMC – and the old battlewagons’ many fans – had their doubts. How could a destroyer with a pair of medium-calibre guns even equal the firepower of an Iowa’s secondary armament, never mind the main battery of nine 16” rifles?
The answer, according to the Navy, was by fitting high technology guns that could fire extended range precision shells. The Zumwalt might not be able to turn a whole grid square into fire and wreckage every thirty seconds like the battleships could, but each of its two turrets would be able to deliver rapid fire with pinpoint accuracy to far beyond the battleships’ 23-mile range. Of course they’d need longer range – the massively armoured battleships could come inshore right to the six-fathom line, while the Zumwalt would need to stay out of range of enemy artillery – but technology could deliver that in spades.
The Zumwalt’s Advanced Gun System is a 155mm weapon – larger than the Navy’s traditional 5” guns – with a very sophisticated fire control system. An autoloader and water-cooled barrel give it a rate of fire of ten rounds per minute per gun, so a Zumwalt can fire 20 shells a minute to an Iowa’s 18. Obviously the shells are a lot smaller – they contain 24 pounds of explosives, while a 16” HE round has 153.6 pounds packed into a shell the weight of a compact car. But Zumwalt’s are also guided for improved accuracy, and have a much longer range. In fact the AGS can hit targets out to 83 nautical miles away with the right ammunition.
Unfortunately the right ammunition is an issue. The Zumwalt was designed to fire the Long Range Land Attack Projectile, a 225-pound weapon with pop-out wings that let it glide once the motor burns out, plus combined inertial and GPS guidance that can land it within 160 feet of the target (realistically a lot closer than that) even at maximum range. The idea was that by using rapid precision fire it could have at least as much effect as the apocalyptic blast of a battleship salvo.
The problem is the LRLAP shells have turned out a bit more expensive than the Navy was planning on. In fact they cost $800,000 to $1,000,000 each. That’s an awful lot of money to drop 24 pounds of explosives on a target – especially when a Tomahawk missile is even more accurate, carries a 1,000-pound warhead, has a range of 900 miles and costs $1,000,000. That’s a lot more capability for little (if any) extra cash. Plus the Navy already has plenty of ships that can launch Tomahawks.
Lead contractor Lockheed Martin says the massive price is because the program was planned round a production run to keep 32 ships supplied, and works out more expensive when they’re only making shells for three. Others suspect it’s just another case of defense cost inflation. Either way, the Navy has now cancelled LRLAP. Each of the Zumwalt ships can carry 750 of the shells – $600 million dollars to fill a single destroyer’s magazines – but Lockheed Martin have made just 90. An unknown number have already been fired in tests, and there won’t be any more.
So the Zumwalt class has lost the capability that was supposed to replace the battleships, and there isn’t much chance of it being resurrected in the future. That doesn’t mean the guns are dead weight, of course. They’re 155mm, the NATO standard medium artillery calibre, so it shouldn’t be too difficult or expensive (unless Lockheed Martin does it) to develop new ammunition based on existing designs. With conventional extended range rounds they should be able to provide useful fire support out to 40 miles or so, and using Multiple Round Simultaneous Impact each gun can drop a six-round burst on a target in less than two seconds. It’s not a bad capability at all, certainly far ahead of any other destroyer in the world. But it’s a long way short of what the USMC was promised, and there are likely to be some angry Marine voices demanding to know who screwed up.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.