Will hypersonic missiles save the US Navy’s most problematic ship?

Three drops in the sea

At one time, the destroyer Zumwalt could become one of the most revolutionary ships in history. All thanks to its stealth and a set of advanced weapon systems. However, instead of a revolution, the Americans received a large heap of problems and very dubious prospects for a real manifestation of the destroyer’s capabilities. Ultimately, instead of the 32 originally planned for construction, the ships were limited to three: USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000), USS Michael Monsoor (DDG-1001) and USS Lyndon B. Johnson (DDG-1002). It is difficult to call such a step saving: the cost of building three ships was estimated by experts at more than twelve billion dollars, with a total cost of the program over 22 billion.

It is noteworthy that the United States never received the ship it wanted to receive. There is little doubt that finding the Zumwalt is much more difficult than, for example, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, but the weapons of the current destroyer are a pale shadow of what was previously planned. Recall that at one time the Navy abandoned the idea of ​​equipping the ship with a revolutionary railgun – an electromagnetic mass accelerator that accelerates a conductive projectile along two metal guides using the Lorentz force. It turned out to be technically difficult, expensive and energy-consuming. Then the Americans abandoned another idea – to use the LRLAP long-range guided projectile for the 155-mm cannon. As it turned out, the price of one projectile is comparable to the cost of a cruise missile and amounts to about 800 thousand US dollars. “We were going to buy thousands of these shells, but the number of ships simply killed an affordable shell,” Gazeta.Ru quoted a US Navy spokesman as saying.

In addition, instead of the originally intended powerful 57mm artillery systems, the ship was equipped with modest 30mm Mark 46 MOD 2 Gun Weapon System (GWS) guns based on the Bushmaster II. Not too long ago, Zumwalt fired these artillery mounts for the first time: not too big an achievement for a program of such cost.

Zumwalt as an add-on

Unsurprisingly, the role of the destroyer has been revised and adjusted several times. In 2018, they wanted to make him a “killer” of ships of a potential enemy (it is not entirely clear why this is needed if the US Navy has many aircraft carriers). Now, it seems, the role of Zumwalt has again decided to revise. The House of Representatives wants to see the destroyer as a carrier of hypersonic weapons. According to the US Naval Institute News, the House of Representatives defense budget for 2021 will contain a clause directing the US Navy to begin integrating the Prompt Global Strike (PGS) complex into destroyers’ weapons by 2021.

Earlier, USNI News reported that a Virginia-class multipurpose nuclear submarine was chosen as the carrier of the Common Hypersonic Glide Body (C-HGB) hypersonic units, created as part of the Conventional Prompt Strike. According to the plan, the US Navy wants to receive a two-stage missile with a diameter of 87 centimeters. It serves as the carrier of the C-HGB hypersonic glider, which is being developed by Dynetics Technical Solutions. The project is based on an experimental hypersonic warhead Advanced Hypersonic Weapon (AHW), which, according to unofficial data, has a range of up to 6,000 kilometers. It is known that during the tests carried out in 2011 and 2012, the warhead reached a speed of Mach 8.

Not all boats want to equip the new hypersonic complex, but specifically the new Virginia Block V, equipped with additional payload compartments Virginia Payload Module – modules with 28 vertical launchers.

It is not entirely clear how exactly the problematic and not yet ready for full-fledged operation of the warship should be included in these Napoleonic plans. It is also not clear how to add new missiles to the Zumwalt. Popular Mechanics in Congress Wants To Load Up Zumwalt-Class Destroyers With Hypersonic Weapons believes the CPS is too large a complex to fit into Zumwalt vertical installations.

Recall that the ship’s main armament is twenty Mk-57 universal launchers with a total capacity of 80 missiles. In theory, the fleet could go to dismantle the two AGS front guns, which have become de facto unnecessary due to the refusal to purchase shells, and add blocks with missiles equipped with hypersonic missiles in their place. However, this step may lead to a decrease in stealth rates: the Zumwalt profile is not an accident, but the result of the careful and painstaking work of many scientists. Changing it can have negative consequences for the stealth of the ship.

There will be other questions as well. If the new hypersonic missile of the Navy does not have any anti-ship capabilities (which is highly likely), the project will force the Zumwalt concept to be changed once again. That is, the ship will again become a tool for hitting targets on the shore instead of the previously proposed anti-ship role. Already now, American experts believe that such a “ping-pong” will only further delay the full-fledged start of operation of the fleet of three destroyers. Given that the first of them should be ready for service now.

In theory, a stealthy Zumwalt (provided that these characteristics are preserved) will be able to approach the enemy at a minimum distance and launch hypersonic missiles. However, upgraded Virginia-class submarines will be able to do the same. Fortunately for the United States, they belong to the last – fourth generation of nuclear submarines. Which, among other things, boasts a minimum noise level and, as a result, the difficulty of detection.

With all this, one should not forget that there are only three Zumwalt-class destroyers, and the modifications required to add missiles developed under the Conventional Prompt Strike can be very expensive.

Residual phenomenon

The plans announced now are not so much a desire to unleash the potential of Zumwalt, but to make the most of the capabilities of the new hypersonic missiles. The irony is that there is no such weapon in the American arsenal yet: if everything goes as they plan, then the new complexes will replenish the Navy’s arsenal around the mid-2020s. By that time, the very concept of using hypersonic weapons may have changed.

Much, of course, depends on how successful (or unsuccessful) the tests are. In general, the situation with Zumwalt is similar to the one that we can see in the Russian fleet. Recall that many large surface ships and nuclear submarines, including the heavy nuclear missile cruisers Peter the Great and Admiral Nakhimov, wanted to arm many large surface ships and nuclear submarines with the new Zircon hypersonic missile. “If now everything goes the way it is going, it will be (with” Admiral Nakhimov “- Author), probably the most powerful weapon that we have,” – said in 2019 the head of the United Shipbuilding Corporation Alexei Rakhmanov. But so far none of the ordinary mortals have seen any “Zircons”, and heavy cruisers do not last forever.

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