US Zumwalt class is being modified for hypersonic weapons

The U.S. Navy recently confirmed that the 155mm cannons aboard the three Zumwalt-class destroyers will be removed to make room for firing cells for the U.S. hypersonic missions. This conversion is scheduled to begin during 2023 and should be completed by 2025.

USS Zumwalt, the Zumwalt-class destroyer, in the Pacific Ocean a month ago. (Photo: MC1 Peter Burghart / US Navy)

The 155 mm guns aboard the Zumwalt class were specially built to fire long-range projectiles that could accurately hit targets from 60 to 100 kilometers away. These cannons were to provide fire support to the Marines during amphibious landings by hitting coastal targets or strategic targets deeper on land. The accuracy of the cannons was provided by equipping the projectiles with a GPS control system. However, the cost of a projectile turned out to be around $ 800,000 to $ 1 million each, which is about the same as a Tomahawk cruise airplane. Given these high costs and similar function to Tomahawk, the U.S. Navy previously decided not to purchase this particular ammunition.

These guns will therefore be removed, the U.S. Navy confirmed to USNI News.

Conventional prompt attack program
The hypersonic missions to be replaced will be the Common Hypersonic Glide Body (C-HGB). It is identical to the Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW) missionary used by the US military. In 2020, tests with C-HGB were still performed.

C-HGB is part of the U.S. Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS) program as ammunition.

The U.S. Navy has not yet said exactly how many hypersonic missions will be placed aboard the Zumwalts, U.S. Navy Admiral Mike Gilday told USNI News about at least two launch cells.

The proposed launch cells will be different from the Mark 41 and 57 launchers currently in use in the Navy. The new hypersonic missions are significantly larger than the SM-2 and Tomahawk, and require special custom launch cells.

The US Navy therefore has Multiple All-up Round Canisters (MAC), which are on Ohio-class submarines, adapted for Zumwalts. These MACs would have room for three hypersonic weapons. In total, the Zumwalters will therefore receive at least six hypersonic missiles per. ship.

In this way, the US Navy will have access to hypersonic weapons relatively quickly, to make up for the Russian and Chinese navy’s lead in that area.

Another new role for Zumwalts
With a new rearmament, the role of the Zumwalters in naval warfare also changes. Zumwalt’s original role was to serve as a command ship and support amphibious landings. Both roles stem from the Zumwalt family’s stealth design. The radar echo of a Zumwalt destroyer is reportedly smaller than a fishing vessel [2]† This design makes the ship difficult to detect, making it either a good place to house a naval unit’s command staff or to get relatively close to an enemy coast to provide fire support to amphibious troops. The latter is much less relevant with the removal of the cannons and the arrival of hypersonic weapons over long distances.

In 2018, the US Navy already initiated a change of course. After the cannons proved essentially useless, the Zumwalts were transformed from a ship capable of aiming at land targets, into a ship aimed at sea targets. The anti-ship roll is now moving to the background again.

The C-HGB’s long range of approximately 2,700 kilometers and its hypersonic speed, combined with Zumwalt’s stealth characteristics, change Zumwalt’s role from a tactical to a strategic. These new features in Zumwalt are more in line with those of a nuclear submarine equipped with nuclear weapons. Its stealth properties allow the ship to operate undetected while being able to launch a first surprise attack or major counterattack against an enemy squadron.

The deployability of Zumwalts in this role also allows for more options. The ship can either operate completely independently out of sight of enemy units, as a nuclear submarine does today. An alternative scenario is for Zumwalt to become a permanent part of advanced aircraft carrier squadrons. In this role, the destroyer’s modern sensors and command center can be used for the role of the squadron’s flagship or general coordination center. The very small radar profile of the Zumwalt destroyer still allows the ship to be later detected by enemy sensors and weapon systems, keeping the ship and its personnel out of damage for extended periods of time in the event of an enemy attack.

Major renovation
The change of weapon system results in a major renovation. In addition to the towers, the warehouses and other spaces under the deck are also disappearing. The new weapons require the Zumwalts to be modified five decks deep.

The first Zumwalt goes under the knife in October 2023, and the adjustment was to be made in 2025.

The USS Zumwalt was commissioned in 2016, but is still not fully operational. By 2025, the U.S. Navy hopes this ship will be fully operational. The Zumwalt class was originally supposed to consist of 32 ships, but it was reduced to three ships due to the high cost.

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