WASHINGTON — Barely two weeks after the US Navy commissioned its newest and most futuristic warship, armed with two huge guns that can hit targets 80 miles away, the service is moving to cancel the projectiles for the guns, citing excessive costs that run up to $800,000 per round or more.
The Long Range Land-Attack Projectile (LRLAP) is a guided precision munition that is key to the DDG 1000 Zumwalt-class's mission as a land-attack destroyer, able to hit targets with such accuracy that, in the words of manufacturer Lockheed Martin, can "defeat targets in the urban canyons of coastal cities with minimal collateral damage."
The LRLAP is the only munition designed to be fired from the DDG 1000's Advanced Gun System (AGS), a 155mm/62-caliber gun with an automated magazine and handling system. Each of the three Zumwalts will carry two of the guns – the largest weapons to be designed for and fitted on a warship since World War II.
But the LRLAP's unit price has jumped steadily as the numbers of Zumwalt-class destroyers were cut. From a total of 28 ships, to seven, and finally to three, the class shrank and costs did not.
"We were going to buy thousands of these rounds," said a Navy official familiar with the program. "But quantities of ships killed the affordable round."
Ironically, both the LRLAP and the AGS have had good reputations among the ten major technology development areas that make up the DDG 1000.
The Navy official noted there were no significant performance issues with the systems.
"Not that I've ever heard. Everything seems to have been performing correctly. I never saw any test results that showed we had problems," the official said. "We don't have an issue with the gun, and no issue with that ship carrying the gun. We have an issue on the price point.
"There is no blame on any individual," the official added. "The round was working, the way forward was logical. It's just that the cost with a three-ship buy became a very high cost."
Even at $800,000 a copy, the LRLAP's price could go higher. "That's probably low," the Navy official said. "That's what the acquisition community wanted to get it down to." The official added that there was no sense the contractor was "overcharging or anything."
The decision to accept the LRLAP cancellation is part of the Program Objective Memorandum 2018 (POM18) effort, the Pentagon's annual budget process. Although the Navy made a presentation to the Office of the Secretary of Defense on Nov. 2, the decision has yet to be signed off on.
For the record, the Navy would not comment directly on the effort to kill LRLAP.
"The Navy continuously monitors the gun and ammunition industry capability and capacities," Capt. Thurraya Kent, spokesperson for the service's acquisition directorate, said Nov. 4 in an e-mail. "To address evolving threats and mission requirements, the Navy is evaluating industry projectile solutions (including conventional and hyper-velocity projectiles) that can also meet the DDG 1000 deployment schedule and could potentially be used as an alternative to LRLAP for DDG 1000."
Officials at Lockheed Martin could not be reached in time to comment for this story.
While LRLAP may be cancelled, the Navy intends to find another munition for the gun system.
"We are looking at multiple different rounds for that gun," the Navy official said, adding that "three or four different rounds" have been looked at, including the Army's Excalibur munition from Raytheon, and the Hyper Velocity Projectile (HVP), a project under development by the Office of Naval Research and BAE Systems.
"There are multiple companies that have looked at alternatives to get the cost down and use that delivery system," the Navy official said.
But the likelihood is that there will be no LRLAP replacement before the Zumwalt enters operational service. While the ship was commissioned Oct. 15 in Baltimore, Maryland, another 18 months of shipyard work lies ahead in San Diego to complete installation of the ship's combat system. After that, the Navy will run an extensive series of Combat Systems Ship Qualifications Trials (CSSQT) in 2018 to fully prove out the ship's sensors and weapons.
Current plans call for the guns to be fired during CSSQT and, the Navy official said, "the intention is to shoot the guns." The 2015 budget provided $113 million to buy 150 LRLAP rounds and associated items, and those rounds will be used for the tests.
No funds for LRLAP acquisition were included in the 2016 or 2017 budgets. The latter included $51 million in 2018 for the program, but it's not clear whether or not that money will be requested.
While software changes will certainly be needed to incorporate other munitions into the AGS, adapting the handling system for a different round could be complex. The automated magazines, designed to hold 300 LRLAPs, are sized for that particular weapon and it's unlikely another munition would have exactly the same dimensions.
Other rounds under development for the 127mm guns arming all other US destroyers and cruisers could be adapted to the AGS, but would likely need a sabot arrangement to adapt the smaller shell to the 155mm weapon.
While the Navy is stressing that high costs are directly behind the decision to eliminate LRLAP, it is not clear if there are deeper issues at play. The AGS/LRLAP combination was originally developed to provide Marines with a "persistent, precision fire support" capability, able to strike targets far inland with a high degree of accuracy.
But as the Zumwalt moved from shipyard to sea and to the fleet, the Navy has notably downplayed that attribute, and while the technical achievement of the cutting-edge DDG 1000 has been widely trumpeted this year, its ability to directly support Marines ashore has not.
There was no requirement for the AGS to strike seagoing targets, and the system does not have the programming to do so. But the big guns could be adapted to target ships if necessary, the Navy official said.
"We would have to do the software modifications to make that work."