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The USA’s failed Arleigh Burke-class replacement: the Zumwalt-class destroyer


Technological advancement in the military never stops because if a country does stop, others develop further, which diminishes a country’s military capability and deterrence. Technological boundaries are therefore always pushed further to remain at the forefront, the cutting-edge of technology in an effort to stay ahead of others. In attempts to drive the edge of this technological knife further, it is only natural to sometimes end up getting cut. Not all military projects work out and go the way they were envisioned because of the many factors involved that can both make and break a project.

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer has been in use since 1991 and has seen some upgrades and changes to maintain its military capability. The version of which there are still twelve on order and seven in construction is the Flight III, but older versions of the ship are also still in use and being upgraded. The Flight III version of the ship is technically the fourth version of the ship because besides the Flight I and II versions, there is also an IIA version of the ship in existence. One of these Flight IIA ships, the USS Preble was equipped with the High Energy Laser and Integrated Optical-dazzler with Surveillance (HELIOS) system in August of 2022 and is currently being tested. This system can blind and damage optical sensors on unmanned drones and anti-ship missiles, making it far more cost-effective than current countermeasures like surface-to-air missiles and Gatling guns.

But why has this new system been installed on an older ship when a different class of ship meant to replace the Arleigh Burke-class has already been commissioned?

This new destroyer is the Zumwalt-class, and it has proven to be the cause of some of the more recent cuts that the US military has had to endure in their attempt to push boundaries and create the destroyer of tomorrow. The destroyer was envisioned in 1994 and was meant to set new standards in automation and stealth, resulting in a smaller crew necessary to operate the ship and making this 190-meter-long ship look like a fifteen-meter-long fishing vessel on radar. The ship is 40% larger than an Arleigh Burke-class and was supposed to have a crew of 95 sailors compared to the Flight IIA Arleigh Burke with a crew of 380. This amount of 95 sailors was later changed to a minimum of 158 crew members required to operate the ship, but for a ship that is quite a bit larger than its predecessor, it still required a significantly smaller crew.

The biggest problem that was encountered with the Zumwalt-class was the fact that the military tried to incorporate too much new technology into the ship which lead to cost overruns. The original plan was to build 32 of these ships at a cost of $1.3 billion each, but by 2005, the price per ship had risen to $3 billion per ship and the fleet-size was reduced to seven ships. This rise in cost triggered what is called a Nunn-McCurdy Amendment breach, an amendment designed to curtail cost growth in military weapons procurement programs. If the cost-per-unit price rises over 50% of what was originally planned, the program is automatically terminated unless the Secretary of Defense comes up with an explanation for why the program is essential to national security. In the case of the Zumwalt-class, the unit cost ballooned to $5.9 billion per ship in 2009, which was 81% more than what was originally planned. Because of this, only 3 ships were built, which lead to other problems that have further crippled this program. The ship was built around 2 advanced gun systems capable of firing a unique type of artillery shell known as Long Range Land Attack Projectile (LRLAP) at a range of 185 km away, but that number was later reduced to 111 km. Each LRLAP round was supposed to cost $35.000, but that was based on arming 32 of these ships with this projectile. Once the fleet-size was reduced by 29 ships, the price per round skyrocketed to somewhere between $800.000 and $1 million. For comparison, a subsonic long-range Tomahawk Land Attack Cruise Missile has a similar price of $1 million, a range that is fifteen times greater, and a payload that is thirty times heavier. Therefore, only 150 LRLAP artillery shells were made which left the three Zumwalt class ships without ammunition, as each ship has a fully automated storage system that can hold up to 750 rounds. The ships were therefore unable to do what they were designed for, which was providing naval gunfire support. Because of this inability to carry out the mission they were designed for, the US navy has continued the construction and upgrading of the aging Arleigh Burke-class destroyers.

The US is now looking for ways through which they can repurpose the three existing Zumwalt destroyers. There are plans to reconfigure the ships to carry large hypersonic missiles that would not fit in the ship’s current configuration. The Advanced Gun System for which the military does not have much ammunition will be replaced with an advanced payload module that can fire these hypersonic missiles. Equipped with these missiles, these ships will have a high degree of deterrence because they can be easily tracked as they are surface ships. Submarines could carry similar missiles and launch them but that would not have the same deterring effect, as submarines are generally way harder to track. According to retired submarine officer Bryan Clark, a submarine with such weapons would be out of sight and therefore out of mind most of the time. A Zumwalt-class ship with such weapons would certainly pose a threat, but it would be much lower on the escalation ladder than an unseen and very capable submarine.

Another proposed plan is to turn the ships into command and control vessels capable of directing unmanned ships and aircraft from a safe distance. The downside of this plan compared to the previous proposed use is that when turned into a command and control ship, it will not be able to take over the role of the Arleigh Burke destroyers.

Lastly, there were also talks about installing electromagnetic railguns on the third and final Zumwalt ship, but this prototype weapon has some drawbacks of its own that do not make it a clear winner over the other repurpose options. Through the use of electricity and magnetism, American railguns accelerate 20 kg projectiles that are non-explosive and purely kinetic to speeds past Mach 6. They can certainly deal a lot of damage but not as much as a Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) or the before-mentioned hypersonic missiles that could very precisely strike land targets. The LRASM is the better option when it comes to the damage it can deal, its accuracy, and its range. The last issue that the railgun has is the fact that its projectiles are not fully guided because once a projectile is launched it can only home in on a pre-determined location. Its projectiles are not fully guided, which would allow them to pick a target once fired and implement course alterations to hit a moving ship. If this final issue with the railgun of today is solved, it could be a viable option to mount on the Zumwalt ships.

For now, Arleigh Burke will continue to serve as the US navy’s main destroyer-class ship, but that does not mean that the Zumwalt-class can be deemed a complete waste of tax-payer money. Despite being unable to replace the Arleigh Burke, the Zumwalt class has found itself at the cutting edge of stealth technology, with a radar cross-section of only 2% compared to its predecessor. For a long time, the ship was also criticized for its shape which further decreased its radar cross-section and the Tumblehome wave-piercing hull design. This hull shape was said to be very unstable, but USS Zumwalt sailed through a storm in 2019 and was said to be more stable than other hull designs. Captain Andrew Carlson said that he would rather be on a Zumwalt-class ship than any other ship.

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