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The Navy’s Ultimate Weapon: Stealth Destroyers Armed with Hypersonic Missiles

210421-N-FC670-1062 PACIFIC OCEAN (April 21, 2021) Zumwalt-class guided-missile destroyer USS Michael Monsoor (DDG 1001) participates in U.S. Pacific Fleet's Unmanned Systems Integrated Battle Problem (UxS IBP) 21, April 21. UxS IBP 21 integrates manned and unmanned capabilities into challenging operational scenarios to generate warfighting advantages. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Shannon Renfroe)

The U.S. Navy will soon deploy hypersonic missile weapons at sea onboard Zumwalt-class guided-missile destroyers, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael M. Gilday stated during testimony given in a recent webinar. His comments, given to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, or CSBA, outlined the Navy’s thinking regarding a range of tactical weapons as well as the Navy’s longterm strategic vision, and represented a shift in Naval planning.

Instead of entering service with guided-missile submarines, Adm. Gliday explained that the Navy now plans on introducing hypersonic weapons on the Zumwalts.

“But I think we’re on the right path there, at least I’m optimistic that we are. We sure are putting plenty of heat on it,” Adm. Gilday stated, referring to the Navy’s technologically sophisticated but numerically minuscule Zumwalt-class. “In terms of weapons, in terms of maritime strike Tomahawk, in terms of other – in terms of by 2025 fielding hypersonics in the Zumwalt-class destroyers will be an important move forward, to turn that into a strike platform.”

Zumwalt-class: A Chance Now for Relevance? 

The Zumwalt-class has proven to be a resounding disappointment, at least according to many U.S. naval watchers. Referred to by some as a “titanium tin can,” the design incorporated a number of advanced features including a specially contoured tumblehome hull that reduced the class’ radar cross-section, as well as a never-installed long-range naval gun. Furthermore, the Zumwalts incorporated a modular design that should have allowed them to serve in a number of different roles, including anti-aircraft defense and surface warfare in addition to the class’ main naval gunfire support role. 

Though the Navy ordered several dozen Zumwalts, the class’ extremely high price tag (astonishingly, a single Zumwalt costs more than a nuclear-powered Virginia-class fast-attack submarine) triggered a congressionally-mandated defense spending provision that ultimately resulted in the building of only a paltry three Zumwalt hulls.

By introducing hypersonic weapons to the Zumwalts, their original mission profile — operations around littoral areas and in support of on-shore forces — would be amended into a long-range, blue water fast strike platform.

Though Adm. Gilday did not explicitly stated the exact kind of hypersonic weapon that would arm the Zumwalts, it is possible that the Navy envisions the Common Hypersonic Glide Body as the go-to hypersonic weapon. The missile is a multi-service effort and would allow the United States to hit targets around the globe with an extremely low response time.

In addition to hypersonic weapons, the U.S. Navy has already made great strides with other advanced weapon systems, most recently by prototyping laser weapons on an Arleigh Burke class destroyer for sea trials.

“If you think about the fact that a Ford-class carrier generates three times the electrical power of a Nimitz-class, or that we’ve got excess power generation in Zumwalt-class destroyers,” Adm. Gilday expalined. “And we could have that same capability on an unmanned vessel, whether it’s medium or large. And that – and that vessel, traveling along with a, whether it’s a strike group or a surface action group, is allowed to provide a high degree of defense and depth coverage against an incoming threat.”

So despite the Zumwalt’s trouble — and expensive — history, the three hulls may now have a new lease on life.

Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer based in Europe. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.

Written By

Caleb Larson, a defense journalist based in Europe and holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics and culture.

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