WASHINGTON – The U.S. Navy is exploring a major ship alteration for its three stealth destroyers that would further drive up the cost of the platform but could deliver a radical new hypersonic capability in the ongoing naval competition with China in the western Pacific.

In a solicitation posted March 18, the Navy asked industry for ideas on how to reconfigure the Zumwalt class to host larger hypersonic missiles of a size that would not fit in the vertical launch system tubes currently installed on the ships. The service also wants that business to provide the missiles and supporting software and technology to support the missiles.

Specifically, the Navy is looking for ideas about installing an “advanced payload module” that can support the Navy’s conventional prompt strike missiles “in a three-pack configuration,” according to the notice.

Two sources familiar with discussions around the future of the Zumwalt class said it would be possible to replace the idle Advanced Gun System – the original raison d’être of the class designed to support Marine landings with gunfire support from well over the horizon – with the desired payload module supporting hypersonic missiles. Experts said that doing so would transform the DDG-1000s from ships in search of a mission into powerful conventional deterrent in the Indo-Pacific region.

Unlike with a submarine, having conventional prompt strike on a surface ship puts the capability on a platform that can be more easily tracked. The Chinese will know the U.S. has a threating capability in theater, potentially complicating any hopes for a fast and painless victory, said Bryan Clark, a retired submarine officer who is now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

“If we think of it kind of like a conventional [ballistic missile submarine], that model works,” Clark said.

The reason the idea works is that the Navy would have ships in theater that could fire missiles with a predetermined target list. Those missiles could be fired quickly and would have a high probability of hitting the targets inside Chinese territory. And while a submarine can also accomplish that, the fact that Zumwalt is a surface ship and more easily tracked makes it a more powerful conventional deterrent since a similarly equipped submarine is likely to be out of sight and out of mind, Clark said.

“It’s much lower on the escalation ladder – somewhere below where the SSBN would be – because it’s able to be tracked,” he said. “It’s got more transparency, so you can have that ability to signal that you wouldn’t have to the same degree with a [ballistic or guided missile submarine].

“You might keep one in the Western Pacific to do various other operations and then if you want to signal you mean business, or you’re trying to escalate things slightly, you send it to the South China Sea. Now it’s actually a threat to deep inland targets on the Chinese mainland.”

The Zumwalt was originally designed to creep up on an enemy shoreline, evading detection with its low radar cross-section design, and bombard the coast with a projectile that could fly more than 80 nautical miles to support a Marine landing.

But it became clear as the program went on that the intended mission was unlikely to materialize and the high cost of the platform ultimately pushed the Navy to truncate the purchase from 28 ships, to seven, and finally to three.

In 2016, the Navy canceled the AGS’s Long Range Land-Attack Projectile because the reduced Zumwalt plan pushed the cost per round up to more than $800,000.

And in 2018, the Navy said that even with the high cost of the round, the system was also failing to achieve the range the Navy was seeking, Vice Adm. Bill Merz, then the Navy’s top requirements officer, told lawmakers.

“Even at the high cost, we still weren’t really getting what we had asked for,” he said. “So, what we’ve elected to do is to separate the gun effort from the ship effort because we really got to the point where now we’re holding up the ship.”

The idea then evolved into using Zumwalt as a surface ship killer, which has now evolved again into adding a module with conventional prompt strike hypersonic missiles to the hull. The after-market payload module is necessary because the conventional prompt strike missiles are at least 30 inches in diameter, and the current 80-cell VLS launcher on the DDG-1000 design, while larger than the standard Mark 41 VLS on the cruisers and destroyers, maxes out at missiles that are 28 inches in diameter.

‘Something really special’

With three ships, the Navy could conceivably keep one on patrol, one working up for patrol, and one in maintenance at all times. That means the Navy could maintain a semi-permanent Zumwalt presence in the region.

Bryan McGrath, a retired destroyer skipper who runs the defense consultancy The FerryBridge Group, said the Navy needs to use the hulls to build a formidable conventional deterrent that is always on patrol in the South China Sea.

“We ought to spend the money and take the time to turn it into something really special,” McGrath said.

Calling his idea a “maritime dominance destroyer,” McGrath called for the Navy to strip the Zumwalt of the original combat system, replace it with the surface combatant fleet standard Aegis Combat System and turn it into the “mac daddy command and control ship for the South China Sea.”

In McGrath’s concept, the Zumwalts would be used not only to threaten targets deep inside Chinese territory, they would also function as a command and control hub for unmanned systems. On Monday, USNI News reported that a Zumwalt-class destroyer would be used to control unmanned systems in an upcoming exercise.

The ship should also operate with its own medium-altitude, long-endurance aerial drones for surveillance and targeting, McGrath said.

“Three of them forward-deployed in the Western Pacific, relieving each other on station, an embarked [admiral and] staff, organic medium-altitude, long endurance UAVs, conventional prompt strike and the Aegis Weapons System.

“That would be a serious a serious statement of intent that we are in the Western Pacific to stay and we are there to deter,” he said. “We will have this this platform that is as obvious or as stealthy as we wish it to be. And this, to me, is the future of the DDG-1000.”

The tradeoff, according to Clark, will be that the ship used this way will not and cannot be used like the current class of workhorse Arleigh Burke destroyers.

“You just have to buy into the fact that it’s not a Surface Warfare platform,” Clark said. “It can do a freedom-of-navigation operation, I guess, but it’s not going to be able to do anti-submarine warfare really. It’s not going to do [boardings and] maritime security.”

If the Navy has a comprehensive idea of how it wants to use the platform, Clark said, Congress will likely appropriate the extra money for the ship alterations.

“What Congress is looking for is a is a clear description of a mission that makes sense for the ship,” he said. “The original idea behind this ship sort of fell apart with the advent of anti-access, area denial technology and the Navy’s never had a really good story for how they intend to use it. So, what Congress wants now is: ‘Hey, give us a mission, give us a strong argument for what you would use this ship for.’”

With conventional prompt strike missiles, the Navy may just have found that argument.

David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.

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