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The US Navy will enter the era of hypersonic missiles with the Zumwalt class destroyers

The US Navy will enter the era of hypersonic missiles with the Zumwalt class destroyers

The program relating to the Zumwalt class destroyers was immediately characterized by various problems and second thoughts by the US Navy itself. Giovanni Martinelli's in-depth analysis

One of the US Navy's most controversial programs in recent years is certainly that relating to the Zumwalt class destroyers. A program born with great expectations, which should have developed on significant numbers in terms of units to be built and, finally, potentially capable of bringing with it significant innovations.

The reality, however, is that much of this was disappointed, to the point of transforming everything into an (almost) failure. A failure, however, which still has some possibility of being mitigated; to the extent that an important modification is planned for these units which appears destined to change not only some of their characteristics but, in fact, also their very destiny. That is, making it less “bitter”.

The development of these new destroyers was complex and conditioned both by a conception that occurred at a particular time and by too long a timeframe. In fact, his first steps date back to the 90s; even if the acceleration towards a precise definition of its characteristics occurred in the early 2000s. A somewhat innovative operational requirement is placed at the basis of the capabilities of these new platforms; that is, a greater emphasis on “littoral” contexts,

In other words, not the classic destroyer designed for equally classic operations on the high seas; rather, a ship designed to support those that are destined to take place near the coast. From here derive 2 of the key characteristics of the then future Zumwalt class fighters: a marked "stealthness" (i.e. a reduced radar signature) and, above all, 2 powerful artillery pieces.

However, the program was immediately characterized by various problems and by the US Navy itself having second thoughts. Just one fact above all, useful to demonstrate what confusion ended up crossing it: from the 32 units initially planned, in the end the American Navy decided to cut it to just 2 ships. Only congressional intervention will bring the final number to 3.

But the damage, so to speak, was now done; the enormous research and development costs and those linked to the construction of just 3 units (then built by the Bath Iron Works shipyards, with the collaboration of the current Huntington Ingalls Industries, HII) caused the overall cost of the entire program to skyrocket to over 24 billion dollars. In practice, 8 billion for each single destroyer; till today.

Of course, in the face of this huge expense it must be recognized that the characteristics and final capabilities of these ships are remarkable, as are their dimensions: 190 meters long and almost 25 meters wide, all for a displacement of approximately 15,600 tons. Given these dimensions, as mentioned, a reduced radar signature, thanks to innovative hull shapes and a large, carefully shaped superstructure, inside which are then enclosed not only some important rooms for operations, but also sensors, antennas as well as other equipment of the ship itself. In addition to the hangar for helicopters (piloted and unmanned) embarked on it.

Despite their truly significant dimensions, another series of innovations introduced on these units allowed the number of crew members to be limited to just 147 (plus another 28 from the aeronautical detachment). Among these, a sophisticated platform control system (with various related safety devices). Although the most distinctive element is represented by an even more sophisticated combat management system, known as Total Ship Computing Environment Infrastructure (TSCEI) which, in fact, transforms these ships into enormous "floating computers".

The propulsion system is also equally innovative, consisting of 2 main and 2 auxiliary gas turbines which together provide the power of 78 MW; all these turbines actually work as power generators that power the electric motors (which then provide propulsion to the ship) and, at the same time, provide electricity (for on-board utilities). The picture in terms of performance is therefore noteworthy, symbolized by the maximum speed of over 30 knots.

In line with the difficult path of these units, some "turbulence" was also recorded on the front of the main sensors; in fact, originally the Zumwalts were supposed to be equipped with 2 different radars but the need to reduce costs led to the decision to eliminate one. And so, the Zumwalts themselves are now equipped with only the AN/SPY-3, which performs various functions. To remain in the field of sensors, the sonar suite is worthy of note, equipped with fixed equipment mounted on the hull and another towed to extend the detection range against underwater threats.

But another distinctive aspect of these destroyers is represented by their armament; in particular from the 80 MK 57 vertical launch cells which can contain missiles for air defense (such as the ESSM and SM-2 Block IIIA), others for anti-ship/attack function against land targets (i.e. the Tomahawks or any other future ordnance similar) and, again, missiles for fighting submarines (VL-ASROC). But the most interesting aspect of these launch cells is that they have been moved to the sides of the ship, unlike their traditional arrangement on modern ships.

And the reason is easy to tell; the need to make room for the 2 powerful 155 mm Advanced Gun System (AGS) artillery pieces and the associated ammunition depots underneath. Precisely these pieces should have been the most important element of the ship, because they were theoretically capable of firing self-propelled and guided projectiles (the LRLAP, Long Range Land Attack Projectile) at great distances; even around 100 miles. In reality, things went differently since the exorbitant cost of these projectiles led to the cancellation of their production and, consequently, to the complete uselessness of the AGS themselves.

But then the turning point; the US Navy, like the other American Armed Forces, understands the potential offered by the new hypersonic missiles, i.e. those devices capable of flying at speeds greater than Mach 5. This is how it started the first studies in 2018 as part of a program jointly with the US Army, with the aim of developing a substantially identical missile and then adapted for the specific needs of the 2 future users. For the US Navy, the missile in question thus assumes the definition of "Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS) system" and will be a device with impressive dimensions and performance: approximately 12 meters in length, launch weight of almost 7,500 kg, estimated range of at least 3,000 km and a speed (always estimated) of Mach 17!

Once the step linked to the development of the missile itself had been overcome, the next step could only be represented by the choice of the platform that would host it; and here's the intuition. That is: remove the 2 AGS of the Zumwalts (and the underlying ammunition depots) to install the new hypersonic missiles in their place. And in fact this is what will happen. The first unit has in fact just arrived at the HII shipyards where (within a couple of years) this transformation will take place. Away with AGS and what is connected to them; in their place 4 so-called Advanced Payload Modules (APM) which will in turn contain 3 CPS each, for a total of 12 weapons.

Afterwards, the same route will be followed by the other 2 ships of the class; so as to allow the US Navy not only to be able to return to having fully operational units but, at the same time, to be able to cross the new "frontier" of those hypersonic missiles destined to revolutionize the battlefields of the future. Given that in the near future, these devices will also be hosted by the Virginia class nuclear submarines, thus giving the US Navy itself the ability to hit targets at great distances in a short time; in short, a “game changer”.

This is a machine translation from Italian language of a post published on Start Magazine at the URL https://www.startmag.it/smartcity/la-us-navy-entrera-nellera-dei-missili-ipersonici-con-i-cacciatorpediniere-della-classe-zumwalt/ on Mon, 18 Sep 2023 11:26:33 +0000.