As recent as even five years ago, starry-eyed visionaries in the US Navy and Marine Corps had different plans and requirements for the US Navy’s new ZUMWALT DDG 1000-class destroyers. While the ships of the class were initially intended as a high-tech, land-attack warship providing long-range precision fire support for Marines ashore, the vessel is evolving in other mission directions.
Fast forward to 2019. The lead ship of the class has been commissioned years later than expected and is more than a year from operational status. The second vessel, USS MICHAEL MONSOOR, scheduled for commissioning this 26 January, has yet to start the second phase of equipping, and the third and final ship is still in build at Bath Iron Works (Maine). While Captain Kevin Smith, the class programme manager, told a media availability during a Naval Sea Systems Command briefing at the 2019 Surface Navy Association’s National Symposium: “The navy considers this ship to be a game changer in the Pacific,” many questions remain on the classes’ weapons systems, crew size and how the novel (for the contemporary US Navy), “tumblehome,” hull performs in heavy sea and wind conditions. The ZUMWALTs now are designated as surface strike platforms, with some anti-submarine capabilities.
The status of the BAE Systems’ 155 mm advanced guns systems (AGS) installed for the land-attack mission, conceptually supporting Marines ashore out to 70mi+ (113km), is in doubt after the long-range munitions developed for them proved to be too expensive. Separate testing of other munitions, including hypersonic guided projectiles fired last year from the standard 5-inch naval guns, could be used with the AGS. Tests on ZUMWALT are planned with Raytheon’s Standard Missile-6 missiles and Smith said the programme also is looking at the company’s naval-strike TOMAHAWK missile (see accompanying MONCh article here).
USS ZUMWALT’s designation as an operational fleet unit is not expected until next year – and that is caveated with a few significant ifs – beginning with activation and testing of the Mk57 combat system, the SPY-3 X-band radar and associated “topside” systems which must be conducted before ZUMWALT can start comprehensive operational testing. And then there is stabilizing the destroyer class’s propulsion systems, no minor task, as DDG 1000 is the first US Navy surface combatant to integrate an all-electric drive with an integrated power system consisting of two main turbine generators, two auxiliary turbine generators and other materiel. Indeed, the lengthy list of very public engineering woes, reportedly being fixed as they emerge, include ZUMWALT breaking down at least twice during its transit from Maine to San Diego – including in the Panama Canal.
Supported US combatant commanders should not expect to see individual DDG-1000s assigned to their mission sets any time soon. Indeed, a more realistic and pragmatic future for at least one or two ships of this new class, would primarily be serving as technology and training testbeds, allowing the service to more realistically and affordably design and equip manned- and unmanned future ship classes, with forward-leaning technologies in their onboard systems.