Earlier this month the first Zumwalt class DDG-1000 stealth destroyer was dropped into the water with some pretty decent press coverage to go along with it. I have followed this program back through three name iterations and one entire class change. Even with so much mutation it amazes me that the same DoD and Congress that are willing to build dozens of toothless, combat questionable, failed concept Littoral Combat Ships, in two classes no less, are only ordering three Zumwalt Class Destroyers. It would be logical to order one as an experimental test ship, or make the leap and order a bunch to replace a percentage of retiring picket ships, or order none at all. Ordering three just seems like a very odd action, most likely a product of congressional log-rolling more than logic or major consideration about America’s future force posture, but the with the peculiarities with the DDG-1000s don’t end with the number of ships ordered, not by a long shot.
A technological marvel built around the latest in stealth technology and applied on unprecedented physical scale. A machine that can work farther “down-range,” closer to enemy threats than any of its predecessors, while still packing up to 80 munitions that can obliterate key enemy targets on the first day of war. A weapon system capable of ranging thousands of miles across the globe to strike at the heart of the enemy’s ability to wage war. A product of well over a decade of expensive research, design, and development, all focused on creating a technology that threatens our enemies even though they may have no idea it is within striking range… Does this all sound eerily familiar? I bet it does. Because I am actually describing the B-2 Advanced Technology Bomber. In so many ways, the Zumwalts have become the B-2s of the high seas. Both were and are potentially game-changing technologies that were cancelled after a very short run, before anyone even knew how important and relevant their capabilities truly are.
It is outlandish that we still have not learned the same lesson we have painstakingly taught ourself over and over at incredible cost. Both the B-2 and Zumwalt are cutting edge weapon systems that are the victim of an abysmally nearsighted group of decisions makers in Washington DC, paired with an unfairly inflated price tag. I don’t think anyone with a head on their shoulders in Washington would have made the same call to end B-2 production at 21 units in retrospect. This remarkable machine remains the centerpiece of American air power and allows us to keep our enemies in a state of vulnerability at all times. Yet another cutting edge, first of its kind technology that we spent well over a decade developing, will get the short end of the budgetary stick without the DoD or congress even taking the time to see what it can do. Instead of getting behind this new technology via backing full production and outfitting of the Zumwalt DDG-1000 line of destroyers that has never been more relevant, we are going to purchase upgraded Arleigh Burke class destroyers, known as Flight III ships, a thirty year old design that is not survivable or effective during a peer state conflict against an enemy possessing anti-access/area denial capabilities. Also, like the F-22′s premature cancellation based on its price compared to the untested F-35, the Burke Flight III program is breaking cost barriers in the wrong direction, while the Zumwalts are coming down in price drastically. Sadly, with these ballooning costs we don’t even get a new platform that could provide a whole new strategy and doctrine of fighting on the high seas. We simply get more “hulls” and a design that will have reached its maximum maturity. In other words, we are investing billions in an old design that will have limited upgrade potential over its 35+ year lifespan. As it sits now the DDG-1000 line was abandoned due to its high cost, yet the Flight III Arleigh Burke class, the less expensive alternative, will most likely cost more than the DDG-1000, and at best it will cost the same…
Innovation, the mightiest weapon in America’s quiver, once again gets tossed overboard in an attempt for a one-size-fits-all, lower-risk option, which usually ends up being the costlier choice in the long run. The cancellation of the Zumwalt line is a cowardly decision from the same folks who, once again, brought you the Littoral Combat Ship, a vulnerable, toothless, quagmire of a concept that America does not even need, especially considering other options and force structure mixes are available via procuring off the shelf (time for America to import an improved Visby class corvettes) and/or semi-off the shelf designs, such as the National Patrol Frigate (in recent form as the Patrol Frigate 4921). If the drastic contrast in choices surrounding the continuing attempt to make the failed LCS concept relevant, and the abandonment of the most promising program in America’s surface warfare stable, does not show you that we have lost our way when it comes to defense procurement philosophy than I do not know what will. You can come up with any catch phrase for defense strategy, but if procurement does not back it up, they are just empty slogans. Pivot towards the Pacific? More like a stumble and fall into the globes muddy littoral waterways.
The DDG-1000 costs $3.5B for the first in its class, and will be down to about $2.5B for the third ship, if not less. Still, price is a relative thing when it comes to military hardware. If you build a fraction of the original planned number of units, then of course the cost will be horrendous as economies of scale, a very important thing when you are dealing with massive up-front R&D costs, can never be realized. As a result a feedback loop is created amongst the powerful yet uninformed. The Zumwalt’s potential capability may be stunning but it is too expensive because we are not building enough of them, and we are not building enough of them because they are too expensive. This grotesque circular logic is so damaging that it has led to our military’s combat edge shrinking at an astonishing rate, and has cleared the path towards the end of a flexible “high-low” capability mix that was, and remains, the only way to maintain global military dominance in a sustainable fashion.
The assault on the Zumwalts started long before only three ships were ordered. The design started off as a larger cruiser, the right boat to replace our Ticonderogas, but then cost cutting and the like made them into a supersized destroyer that has certain key features withheld. Once again, don’t blame the boat or the technology, blame the folks who demanded she be less than her potential on the phony grounds of “savings.” This is not to say that most of these capability gap issues could not be addressed, quite the contrary, but ask yourself this: if these boats were given the hardware that would allow them to reach their full potential, won’t the dated design that the brass and congress put back into production instead of the Zumwalt class be questioned? As always, I am very suspicious of strange holes designed into a new or proposed weapons system via omission of peripheral hardware or software. Usually such practices are more about protecting a competing concept or design and thus the careers of those who chose to field it instead of the other then about large cost savings.
Beyond the strange holes in the ship’s potential capabilities, which we will discuss in a moment, there are some larger questions that those in the know have raised about the DDG-1000 design, such as the stability of its unique tumblehome hull form, the size of the crew in relation to battle damage control, and the durability of the ship’s composite superstructure (the third and final ship in the class will have a steel deckhouse) amongst other potential ”nuts and bolts” issues. These really interest me very little. If the ship is really not seaworthy due to its hull design than that is a bigger scandal all together and a whole other topic, and I highly doubt this is the case. Beyond these issues, I have some questions I would like to raise:
First off, how are these ships, which seemingly lack a dedicated CIWS system, prepared to defend themselves against anti-ship cruise missiles that may ”squirt” through their outer defenses? After pondering this for a moment, I cringed at the potential answers:
One possibility is that industry and those in the Pentagon who wanted this ship built so badly did not design in robust close in weapons system (CIWS) defenses because of the cost to integrate such a system into the ship’s stealthy slab-sided design was to great. The second possibility, whiche is even more ridiculous, a dedicated CIWS was not included in the final configuration because the ship’s proposed “stealthiness” made such threats a non-issue. Wouldn’t such a statement do wonders when selling the design to the geniuses on The Hill, even though it is clearly near-sighted and potentially deadly?
Although I do not know exactly what transpired that resulted in the Zumwalt’s lack of a dedicated CIWS system, a combination of both potential answers described above is probably most likely. The reality is that the Zumwalts, like all low-observable weapon systems, are NOT invisible, they are simply detectable at far shorter ranges when compared with their more conventional predecessors. Low observability, especially for a ship, is a fantastic capability, but against a networked foe, there are multiple ways to detect and prosecute an attack on a ship at standoff distances that do not necessarily include medium and long-range radar. The enemy may have to get lucky or use non-traditional forms of searching and tracking, but it is fully possible. Additionally, if the ship was struck in another fashion, by a torpedo, mine, aircraft or anti-ship ballistic missile, I doubt that its radar signature would stay highly masked. Trying to deal with damage control with a skeleton sized crew is bad enough, not having a CIWS capable of rapid engagements that can work automatically as sea-skimming missiles are bombarding a now unmasked and crippled ship is a very full-headed call. Things happen, the enemy can get lucky and vulnerabilities in any technology can be exploited without warning, so it is better to be safe than sorry when it comes to a last line of defense against prevalent air-breathing anti-ship missiles. Especially since these munitions are now able to search an area for targets of opportunity, and engage those targets all on their own, and in many cases without the use of radar.
Some may say that a traditional CIWS, such as one based on the Phalanx or Rolling Airframe Missile system, are not necessary as the Zumwalt class will be well stocked with a variety of the latest surface to air missile technologies, which will create a ”layered defense” ranging far from the ship. When it comes to the stripped down Zumwalts this is only partly true. These Destroyers, even with their cutting edge SPY-3 AESA radar and super sensitive electronic service measures (ESM) systems, ended up being focused on land bombardment, not on air defense, as that would be the job of the Flight III Arleigh Burkes and existing Aegis equipped surface combatants. In fact, although the ship has most of the physical hardware needed for wide-area air defense missions, even anti-ballisitic missile defense for that matter, it runs non-Aegis software that does not have the capability to fire and use SM-2/3 “Standard” missiles. That is right, to my knowledge, DDG-1000 will only be stocked with Evolved Sea Sparrow missiles for the air defense “mission,” thus vastly cutting down on the range and breadth of the ship’s air defense potential. Additionally, the SPY-4 radar system, originally designed to work in concert with the installed SPY-3, was removed to save on cost and to promote the flight III Arleigh Burke ships into this role. This system would have allowed the Zumwalts to utilize both volume and horizon search modes in an unprecedented fused manner. Instead, the SPY-3 was installed without its counterpart SPY-4 and was given software to perform both roles, although it will only be able to focus on one or the other at any given time without degrading the capability of the system greatly. In other words, between the undeveloped software and the lack of the Zumwalt’s original radar suite, what could have been a new standard in air defense capability was degraded to save a few bucks and in the process gave the multi-role penetrating sea combatant a much greater focus on land attack and shore bombardment.
You can pack four Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles into a single VLS tube, this is great as it gives you the ability for more engagements and the ESSM is a fantastic missile that is effective against a wide range of targets, but it lacks the range (far less than half that of latest SM-2) and anti-ship ballistic missile defense capability that the larger Standard series of missiles possess. In fact, the DDG-1000 will have less organic air defense capability than the new Ford class nuclear carriers. Considering these super carriers operate while cocooned inside a thickly layered air defense net, provided by Arleigh Burke and Ticonderoga class guided missile picket ships, all with magazines bristling with Standard missiles as well as ESSMs, and these floating air bases also pack around their own air force as well, this does not make a good case for the adequacy of the Zumwalt’s anti-air arsenal. In fact, the radar system on the Ford class carriers will be more capable than the Zumwalts, as it included both the SPY-3 and SPY-4 arrays. When you consider that the stealthy DDG-1000s will most likely be operating alone and closer to the enemy’s shores (it has to fire its Tomahawk cruise missiles and its 155mm rocket assisted guns at something) than its SM-2/3 equipped progenitors, having an inferior air defense capability when compared to an aircraft carrier that is dependent on AEGIS equipped destroyers and cruisers is not a good thing. In reality, DDG-1000′s anti-air capability is self-defensive in nature, with only a limited capability for highly localized air defense in a lower threat environment. This is a travesty of a missed opportunity that makes no sense, monetarily or tactically.
In the not so distant future, ballistic missile defense will not just be about protecting a region from a rogue attack, it will be more about protecting the anti-ballistic missile ship, and its floating companions, themselves. In a world where anti-ship ballistic missiles are more and more becoming a reality (read here), ballistic missile defense capability will become more of a necessity than a niche capability. Once again, this is especially true for a ship that may be operating hundreds, or even thousands of miles closer to the enemy’s shores than its non-stealthy cousins. In other words, DDG-1000 may not have the anti-ballisitic missile “umbrella” over its head that a Burke or Ticonderoga could provide, and it is a long ways away from being upgraded to eventually acquire such an ability, not by original design, but by choice.
In the end the Navy is betting A LOT on the idea that this huge ship, that moves in two dimensions at moped speeds, will never be detected and thus engaged. Planning and designing front line weapons platforms with the worst possible scenario in mind is a much cheaper way to ovoid having to learn lessons the hard way than believing that technology can make you invincible. I get it, new whiz-bang enriched cool-aid can be really sweet to taste, but relying on it exclusively for a weapon system this large, with this many lives on board, sounds a little reckless. Seeing as this ship will be the pinnacle of the Navy’s surface attack capability, and as such will be in closer proximity to the enemy’s threatening abilities, the Navy should just bite the bullet and give her the best chance of surviving such missions. Instead, they stopped short, turning what could have been the future of surface warfare and air defense into an Tomahawk chucking gunboat that shoots shells that cost tens of thousands of dollars each. Not giving the Zumwalts the proper hardware and software to execute the area air defense and eventually the ballistic missile defense mission is just like fielding the F-22 without a helmet mounted cueing system for the latest AIM-9X sidewinder missile. Spend tens of billions of dollars, then draw the budgetary line arbitrarily at key survivability and capability features, all in the name of “cost savings.” Shameful.
Does it even make sense to shoehorn the purchase of a weapon system that will no longer be the same weapon system after such funding molestation and capability deflation? For first day of war, leading edge weapons that you are not going to have many of, it is wise to give them the best chance at remaining force multipliers for the rest of the less capable fleet, and you do this via giving said weapon system every shot at survival and strategic impact. If you want a stealth Tomahawk chucker guess what? We already have three of them with over double the rounds that the DDG-1000 can dispense. These are the converted Ohio class SSGNs, and they were a fantastic investment. Have the stripped down Zumwalts become the above water SSGN’s? A stealthy anti-submarine, special warfare, and land attack arsenal ship? If so why not just build a submarine instead? It will be more survivable and can stay on station much longer…
Back to the CIWS issue, or lack of a dedicated CIWS issue I should say. Some may say that cutting edge “soft kill” capabilities that utilize powerful AESA radar beams, lasers that dazzle electro-optical or infra-red sensors or high-end electronic jamming may “fry” or blind incoming missiles, and thus there is no need for a dedicated CIWS. Sure, why not? Technologies are advancing in this area but I highly doubt that they are in anything beyond a semi-reliable state at this point. Even so, the enemy will adapt with hardened missile components and dual mode seekers for terminal guidance and so on and so forth. Additionally, during a time of war against a serious peer-state competitor, the enemy will rarely attack using a single missile, instead they will attack with multiple missiles, from multiple vectors, in an attempt to overwhelm a ships defenses. Is the DDG-1000 up to surviving such a task once it has been discovered?
You would think that a version of the Rolling Airframe Missile launcher, that sits flush behind sliding door on each side of the ship’s super structure, could have been feasible, but as of now nothing like this has been described as existing on the DDG-1000. Even the mounting of a stealthy Oerlikon Millennium Naval Revolver Gun would be an off the shelf CIWS solution for the Zumwalt. To be fair, the DDG-1000s do pack a pair of 57mm Mk110 cannons which obviously have CIWS capabilities. Generally, this gun is well-respected and capable, especially with the P3 programmable ammo, but do these comparatively slow firing cannons really offer the reliability and maneuverability of the RAM or the rapid engagement capability of the Phalanx? Maybe the latest versions of this cannon and its air bursting P3 ammo, tied to the DDG-1000′s cutting edge sensor and combat management system, can put up a good fight against incoming air breathing threats, but one has to ask: if this is the case then why does the Navy equip all of its main surface combatants with expensive RAMs and/or complex Phalanx systems when a widely used multi-role medium caliber cannon will do? Just take the Littoral Combat Ship’s word for it! It packs the same Mk110 57mm cannon as the Zumwalt Class, but it also packs a C-RAM (RAM launcher with Phalanx self-contained radar system) or a Phalanx installation. Do you find it somewhat odd that an LCS will have better close-in protection than the word’s most advanced and expensive forward deployed surface combatant? I certainly do…
Beyond the CIWS conundrum, one also has to ask themselves what the value of three stripped down and shrunken Zumwalts are when the proper investment will not be made in other technologies suited for a ship that is totally different from anything that came before it? For instance, I would think that a stealth destroyer would be an ideal candidate for toting equally low observable anti-ship missiles. Currently Lockheed’s stealthy LRASM (long-range anti-ship missile) is in development yet I have heard nothing about the Zumwalts assuming a VLS configured version of this missile. Currently, the latest block of Tomahawk cruise missile supports some anti-ship capabilities, but how survivable is a subsonic, non-stealthy cruise missile, fired very near or behind enemy lines, against ships advanced enough to be worth destroying during a conflict? Additionally, the Tomahawk itself is dated and less than ideal to be used against a capable foe with a high-grade integrated air defense system and strong shoreline and ship-borne defenses. A new stealthy cruise missile would be much more appropriate for the Navy’s new stealthy Destroyer. Additionally, the Zumwalts peripheral vertical launch tubes are larger than the Mk-41 systems found aboard Ticonderogas and Burkes, so a stealthy cruise missile with enhanced range or additional submunitions could be fielded by the Zumwalt.
Even the Zumwalt’s helicopter capability could be enhanced eventually and made more tailored to the ship’s low observable design. We know full well that stealthy H-60/S-70s exist (Bin Laden’s fence can attest to that!), and without a doubt it would be challenging packing all the capabilities of a MH-60R into a stealthy frame, but surely some capabilities could be fitted. Additionally, a Zumwalt is the only American stealth sea platform that is capable of launching special forces raids via helicopter. In other words, the Zumwalt is one hell of an enabler for the aforementioned stealth special operations Blackhawks. In the fuel miserly world of helicopters, even launching an extra 50 miles downrange toward a target can mean the difference when it comes to a mission’s logistical feasibility. Currently, submarines provide a capability for special forces raids against enemies that can deny our surface vessels feasible access to the vicinity of their shores, but this tactic limits potential targets to those that are in the close vicinity to the coastline. The Zumwalt, with its low radar and emissions signature, and its large hangar space and aviation deck, when paired with low observable helicopters, is a platform that could make even anti-access/area denial capability possessing nations vulnerable to deep penetrating special forces raids. Additionally, the Zumwalts 155mm guns, and its rocket assisted shells can reach 100 miles from the ship with pinpoint accuracy. Such a capability is ideal for supporting special forces missions with remote fire support without putting aircraft overhead, although without a stealth airborne delivery vehicle, special forces penetrating far beyond the coastline is less than ideal. Theoretically, with an airborne stealth insertion platform, a single Zumwalt could provide the launch point, command and control, and fire support for special operations missions dozens of miles inland, while still remaining undetected miles off an enemies shores. No other platform in the world could provide such a capability at this time.
What I am getting at here is that because the Navy pulled anchor on the Zumwalt so early in its lifetime I doubt that proper investment will be made into their ongoing evolution, not just in the way of radars and subsystems, but in the way of game changing and ”synergistic” peripheral technologies that could be tailored directly to the Zumwalts unique attributes. So instead of investing in the next leap in surface warfare and the weapons and subsystems that need to go with it, the Navy decided to evolve an already mature and over-grown platform, the Arleigh Burke class destroyer, one that does not bring much to the table when it comes to an anti-access/area denial battlefield environment. Yet because the Burkes are where the Navy is spending the bulk of their destroyer procurement dollars, the Zumwalts will have to largely make do with weapons and systems built without their unique needs in mind.
All these issues add up to a massive missed opportunity for the Navy and the total force overall. Instead of building a Zumwalt cruiser, they opted for a smaller destroyer, which has about two-thirds of a Ticonderoga’s missile based offensive punch (122 VLS cells on the Ticonderoga vs 80 on the Zumwalt). Instead of giving the ship the other half of the radar system it was designed to carry and the software it needs to fully realize that system’s potential, the Navy stopped short, thus stripping the ship of its area air defense capability and its potential anti-ballistic missile capability. Even the ship’s last-ditch defenses are less than what has been historically required, an oversight that may prove not just foolish but deadly. Finally, a surface combatant like the Zumwalt is really a container and deliverer of other weapon systems and munitions, otherwise known as a weapons platform. Seeing how different her design philosophy is compared to her predecessors it is a shame that she will have to soldier on using weapons that do not take full advantage of her capabilities.
Instead of fielding a game-changing surface combatant in relevant numbers, the Navy has bought a token force that will be excruciatingly expensive to operate and upgrade, opting instead to retreat back to a known and overgrown design. Like all major defense programs the DDG-1000 “question” cannot be looked at as a Zumwalt class vs Arleigh Burke class decision, it is a total force structural decision. Seeing how the Navy has continued with the sad LCS concept in order to keep up an arbitrary “hull number” requirement, funds simply were not there for the ship that the force really needs, a fully outfitted DDG-1000, or even better, a larger CG-1000. While protecting the LCS, the Arleigh Burke was the low risk design, but things are changing rapidly. We are supposedly pivoting towards the Pacific, where enemies in mud huts will give way to enemies with real anti-access capabilities. How does procuring dozens more Arleigh Burke class destroyers fit into and anti-access environment? Not well, especially when a stealthy alternative exists for close to the same price and we have already paid billions to develop it. Just like the USAF’s disastrous force structure and procurement mistakes of the last two decades, the Navy surface warfare folks, along with the greater DoD and congress, have chosen the wrong constellation of technologies and capabilities, not just the wrong destroyer.
For instance, if the LCS was cancelled, a force structure made up of a fully outfitted Zumwalts, National Patrol Frigates (Patrol Frigate 4291), and enhanced Visby class corvettes could have been realized. Additionally, money would be left over for investing in a true wide area ballistic missile defense ship, sporting the full-sized Air and Missile Defense Radar apertures that the Flight III burke will lack, along with hundreds of VLS tubes, some of which could be far larger in size, for larger exo-atmospheric missile interceptors, than any vertical launch tube fielded today. This ship could be based on the San Antonio LPD and would really be the correct host for long endurance anti-ballistic missile patrols. Additionally, a proper frigate, with a miniature version of the AEGIS system and its SPY-1 radar, along with a VLS system, would be able to take on the more mundane missions that are falling on destroyers and cruisers more and more. This included area air defense in up to medium threat environments. Additionally, Visby class, or similar, enhanced Corvettes could pick up many of the LCS tasks, especially missions that actually take place in the littoral regions, and they could do these missions in greater numbers. It is so astonishingly clear, that a world without the Littoral Combat Ship, much like the F-35, is one of a sustainable and more effective force structure, where flexibility and a high-low inventory mix offers a wider array of vessels that can do tasks suited particularly to their unique, yet overlapping capabilities.
Like so many weapons systems that has come before it, the Zumwalt class has had its true potential stolen from it, both in production numbers and installed capability. The incredibly short attention span of the DoD has led to a force structure that makes no sense in terms of the proposed strategy. Even worse, it has supported the fielding of $600M+ surface “combatants” that lack offensive punch and survivability (LCS). It is not to late to fix these mistakes, especially considering the building tensions in the Pacific. Cancel the LCS, cancel the Arleigh Burkes, build a couple dozen fully outfitted DDG-1000s, augment them with the National Patrol Frigate, and provide mine-sweeping or littoral combat operations with a boat that is cost-effective and survivable like the Visby class. All the while, begin work on dedicated ballistic missile defense picket ships that can take full advantage of the technology at hand. A force structure change similar to this, while the LCS and DDG-1000 are still very young, will allow for a more flexible, sustainable, and deadly fighting force for years to come. More importantly, it will hopefully put an end to the Navy building ships that have had their capabilities hollowed out because they are busy breaking their piggy bank on impotent, vulnerable and generally irrelevant “fighting ships.”