What if the U.S. Navy had Zumwalt ‘stealth’ destroyers that could fire hypersonic missiles? This could become a reality if naval acquisition planners have their way. The Zumwalt-class stealth destroyer is in some ways a blank canvas. The U.S.S. Zumwalt guided-missile destroyer was delivered to the navy in early 2020 without a dialed-in weapons system. It had an amazing new weapon called the 155mm Advanced Gun System that could fire a projectile 83 nautical miles, but the rounds cost nearly a million dollars each. So, the navy put a halt to the program and the gun has no ammunition.
The navy will have only three Zumwalt-class destroyers. The third and final ship is the U.S.S. Lyndon B. Johnson, which just completed a sea trial. The second Zumwalt-class destroyer is the U.S.S. Michael Monsoor. The ships already have Mk-57 vertical launch tubes for surface-to-air missiles, cruise missiles, or anti-submarine missiles. That’s great, but the Zumwalt-class doesn’t really have a mission at this time. The Advanced Gun System was supposed to be used for over-the-horizon fires that would support a marine amphibious landing. That gun is not operational.
Zumwalt Stealth Destroyers: Enter the Hypersonic Missile Idea
To solve the armament problem on the Zumwalt-class, navy acquisition went to work. Early this year, the navy put out the call for ideas on how a hypersonic missile could deploy on the Zumwalt-class. This got some naval analysts excited. And in April, an admiral said the Zumwalt-class would be outfitted with hypersonics by 2025. With hypersonics, the Zumwalt-class could change the decision-making calculus in East Asia. This is going to be tricky though. Hypersonics would not fit on the existing vertical launch tubes. The navy would need a whole new system installed with the necessary software and other innovative technology. The hypersonics would replace the Advanced Gun System, and answer everyone’s main question about the Zumwalt-class, namely, what are we going to do with just three stealth ships?
What Do Hypersonics Mean for the Balance of Power?
A hypersonic on a stealth ship is an intriguing concept. This would make the Chinese take notice. The U.S. Navy uses a “Conventional Prompt Strike” boost-glide hypersonic missile. This will require new launch tubes, and that’s quite a technical hurdle, but you can see the possibilities with hypersonics. The Zumwalt-class could become strategic vessels. And theoretically, you could have one Zumwalt-class in the water at all times, if they were based out of say, Singapore.
Maybe that is what the navy is thinking. Instead of matching China ship-by-ship, perhaps the answer is matching China weapon-by-weapon. It could be a blessing that there are only three Zumwalt ships because the money saved can be used on hypersonic missiles.
The Chinese will know that the Zumwalt stealth destroyers, equipped with hypersonics, could in theory, threaten cities in the Mainland. This could be the makings of an important deterrence strategy, especially if the navy arms its various submarines with hypersonics too. The Chinese may resist making the first strike in any conflict or if China ever tried to invade Taiwan, the U.S. Navy could bring in the Zumwalts as a show of force, knowing that China would be afraid of a Mainland attack with a hypersonic missile.
1945’s new Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.