James Holmes

America’s Newest Destroyer Is Already Outdated

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James Holmes

America’s Newest Destroyer Is Already Outdated

To be effective, Zumwalt destroyers require command of the sea, which the US can no longer take for granted.

America’s Newest Destroyer Is Already Outdated
Credit: DoD photo by Glenn Fawcett

Hie thee hence, sea fighters, to peruse Information Dissemination‘s take on the U.S. Navy’s Zumwalt-class destroyer. Pseudo-pseudonymous pundit “Lazarus” gives a nifty profile of the newfangled vessel. That’s worth your time in itself. Though not in so many words, moreover, he depicts the attention-grabbing DDG-1000 stories of recent weeks and months as a red herring. Sure, Zumwalt features a “tumblehome” hull that makes the ship look like the second coming of USS Monitor. (This is not a compliment.) The hull tapers where it should flare and flares where it should taper. Zounds!

Yet more than cosmetics occasions commentary. Some navy-watchers voice concern about tumblehome hulls’ seakeeping ability in rough waters. Others question their ability to remain buoyant and stable after suffering mishaps or battle damage. That’s a worry in a “minimum manned” ship that relies on automated damage control. (The very idea of automated firefighting and flooding control, and sparsely populated fire parties, sits poorly with this former fire marshal.) In any event, time will tell whether the naval architects got it right.

Even if problems do come to light, Zumwalt would be far from the first fighting ship to undergo modifications to remedy problems baked into her design. The flattop USS Midway, for example, underwent repeated change over her long life — including to correct such maladies. Plus ça change.

Zumwalt‘s secondary armament has made headlines as well. The navy recently opted to substitute lesser-caliber 30-mm guns for the 57-mm guns originally envisioned to empower the ship to duel small boats and light surface combatants. The smaller mount evidently meets performance parameters for close-in engagements that its bigger counterpart misses. This too is a controversy that, in all likelihood, will be settled once sea trials put the ship through her paces. Tempest, meet teapot.

Such controversies obscure matters that are more elemental and consequential than hullforms or selecting a secondary gun. The truly important DDG-1000 question is a question of purpose. Navies exist first and foremost to win command of the sea, overcoming foes’ efforts to deny it this goal or exercise command themselves. Zumwalt, by contrast, is almost exclusively a shore-bombardment platform, designed to rain projectiles on targets far inland. That means she will either rely on other ships to hold enemy defenses at bay, or perform her mission under near-constant enemy fire. The hard fact confronting mariners is that shore-based defenses — tactical aircraft, anti-ship and anti-air missiles — now outrange the U.S. Navy fleet, while even lesser navies boast an array of submarines and patrol craft able to make trouble for outsiders. Projecting power ashore must await victory in the fight for command. Delay can cost you.

The new combatant, then, is in effect a “flotilla” vessel, to borrow Sir Julian Corbett’s taxonomy of naval fleets. Such ships neither fight for command of the sea — that mission falls to the battle fleet — nor join the “cruiser” contingent to police seas largely scoured of enemies. They do their rather humdrum jobs once others have borne the brunt of combat. In a sense, consequently, the U.S. Navy’s priciest, sexiest warships are now auxiliaries rather than capital ships — the ships that, in Alfred Thayer Mahan’s parlance, dish out and take heavy punishment in action against enemy main forces.

That could be a tough sell for taxpayers, who presumably expect their hard-earned cash to fund platforms that accomplish the navy’s chief purpose. So the navy leadership has a salesmanship challenge ahead of it.

Tactical challenges lie ahead as well. How will commanders employ DDG-1000s? The possibilities are few and unattractive. Zumwalt may become a “high-value unit” like a carrier or amphibious assault ship, escorted into combat zones by a retinue of picket ships. The escorts can attempt to fend off attack while DDG-1000 pummels land targets, much as carrier strike groups close within reach of the air wing while striving to defend themselves. Or, Zumwalt can await the results of battle before taking station within reach of her land-attack cruise missiles or advanced precision gunnery. Or, she can venture inshore alone, trusting to stealth to mask her presence. Her builders boast that the cruiser-sized vessel looks like a small craft on adversaries’ radar sets. Passive measures such as reducing her radar cross-section will doubtless help.

But none of these methods appeal. A concentric formation centered on a high-value unit is bound to attract unwanted attention. Waiting for safe seas and skies means postponing the main event, namely projecting force ashore. And relying entirely on stealth — on a big ship’s capacity to elude detection — is a hazardous business. Once Zumwalt starts firing guns and missiles, someone’s eventually going to detect her using what seafarers ruefully call the “Mark I, Mod 0 Eyeball.” Once the ship is sighted visually, her minimal ability to ward off surface, subsurface, air, or missile attack could prove fatal.

In short, DDG-1000 appears to be a man-of-war built for the halycon 1990s, when no one contested American command of the commons. The good news is that, with only three ships of the class forthcoming, the navy can treat Zumwalt as a fleet experiment, learning what works in her design and what doesn’t, trying out various tactics, and feeding that insight into future ship classes. In the meantime, upgrading the main guns for action against enemy surface ships is a must, as is hastening the development and deployment of new anti-ship cruise missiles. These are defects we already know about and must act on. If DDG-1000 is a surface-combat platform, let’s equip her to do more than fire into a continent.

Faster, please.