The Navy Won’t Buy Ammo For Its Dumbed Down Stealth Destroyer’s Big Guns

Just when you thought the Navy’s handling of the DDG-1000 program couldn't get worse, we find that the ship has no ammunition to fire out of its 155mm deck guns.

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The War Zone went into great detail describing how DDG-1000 went from the most promising surface combatant program in decades to a dim shadow of its original self. Now the Navy has axed the ammunition specially developed for Zumwalt class’s twin 155mm Advanced Gun Systems. Yes, you are reading that right: Not only is the ship lacking its original radar suite, has only one intermediate range air defense missile, is not capable of ballistic missile defense—or even area air defense for that matter—has no close-in weapon system, and has had its stealth design continuously compromised. And these are just some of its issues.

Now, the ship’s guns literally have no ammunition to fire.

Time to face it, the DDG-1000 concept is shattered.

Make sure to read my previous feature "The Navy’s New Stealth Destroyer Has Watered Down Capabilities, Questionable Future" that exposes all of DDG-1000's faults and how they came to be, in order to gain full content for this article. 

Although the media, including countless defense oriented sites, may fawn over USS Zumwalt due to its Star Wars looks, the truth is that the design has been grotesquely compromised over the years. Now, with only three ships being built in the class, and not even to the same standard for that matter, whether this tiny fleet will really be operationally effective or even fiscally sustainable is highly questionable. In fact, there is a real chance that these ships will become test platforms as much as anything else, or mothballed altogether after a drastically curtailed service life. 

More evidence pointing to this exact scenario has came to light as it was discovered that the Navy has dropped all funding for the Zumwalt class’s Long-Range Land Attack Projectile (LRLAP) round specifically designed for the ship’s 155mm Advanced Gun Systems. This is not hearsay: the Navy has admitted to it and there is no funding in future defense budgets for buying LRLAP shells.

The LRLAP and 155mm AGS combo are massive features of the Zumwalt class design, both figuratively and literally speaking. The Advanced Gun Systems and its automated magazines, each storing roughly 300 rounds, take up the vast majority of the ship forward of its deckhouse. The LRLAP round itself is a rocket-assisted and GPS/INS guided shell that weighs 230 pounds. It can fly up to around 75 miles from the ship and strike with pinpoint precision, even attacking at near vertical angles in dense urban and mountainous terrain. The gun’s cooled barrel is capable of firing a shell every ten seconds, allowing for a large amount of projectiles to impact a specific target area. 

There is no doubt about it, the AGS/LRLAP combo is a flexible and deadly force to be reckoned with.

This capability was intended to allow the Zumwalt class to quickly destroy targets of opportunity over intermediate ranges and to rapidly provide fire support to special operations forces dozens of miles inland without the use of aircraft. In some instances the Zumwalt could even theoretically accomplish this while staying outside the range of enemy detection. Yet above all else, the AGS/LRLAP pair was touted as the long awaited return of naval gunfire support for the Marine Corps. This capability was lost 25 years ago with the retirement of the Iowa class battleships and has been a highly controversial sticking point between the Navy and the Marines, as well as on Capitol Hill, ever since. 

With the Navy’s decision to not buy any more LRLAP rounds, not only does the Zumwalt lose yet another promised capability, but no other ammo has been developed for the ship, not even “dumb” shells. As a result, those massive guns are going to turn into dead weight as only 150 LRLAP rounds were bought for testing purposes. After USS Zumwalt fires through those rounds during its pre-operational testing period, Zumwalt, and its two sister ships, will have nothing left to fire.  

Lockheed

The extremely expensive LRLAP. 

The Navy’s reasoning behind the cancellation of the LRLAP round is that it is hideously expensive. Each one costs a jaw dropping $800,000, and that is the most generous figure. That is a lot of money even as guided munitions go, as the latest Tomahawk land attack cruise missile variants cost around $1 to $1.4 million each depending on who you ask. But considering the high-tench, miniaturized components inside a LRLAP round, and forces that these components have to endure during firing, these things were never going to be dirt-cheap. But still, that is an abhorrent price tag, and other extended-range guided artillery rounds have been delivered for around $50,000, although they are less capable. In fact, the LRLAP originally was quoted to cost around $50,000 in 2001 dollars, or about $68,000 today

Let’s put this in perspective: Roughly 300 LRLAP rounds can be loaded into each of the Zumwalt class’s guns. Another 150 rounds that can be stored on the ship. So just arming each DDG-1000 class vessel with a full load of LRLAP shells would cost as much as buying an entire squadron of new F/A-18E Super Hornets. 

The truth is that the LRLAP program has performed well, as has the Advanced Gun System. The main problem is that when the decision was made to chop the planned DDG-1000 fleet size from 28 vessels down to just three, the Navy ended up buying just a fraction of the rounds that they originally planned on over a decade ago. As such, no real economies of scale can be realized when it comes to LRLAP, or with anything else DDG-1000 related for that matter.

Just like the ships they were destined for, LRLAP shells have become oddities. The same can be said for many of the Zumwalt’s unique systems, sensors and software, putting the whole future of the tiny fleet in doubt.

AGS fired during testing. 

Now the Navy says that it may look for another round to replace the LRLAP sometime in the future. This could include migrating another munition that is currently being eyed for the smaller five inch deck guns found on the Navy’s existing destroyers and cruisers, such as the hypersonic projectile or the Excalibur N5,. But these rounds will not have the same capabilities of the custom-made LRLAP, nor will they likely take advantage of the AGS’s larger caliber barrel. Not only that but adapting them to fit the AGS’s ammo handling system will be a project onto itself as the LRLAP is 88 inches tall.

Either a sabot type casing will have to made for the smaller, less capable rounds to be fired out of the AGS, or the technology found on an existing guided round will have to integrated into a larger shell made to the AGS’s unique requirements. In this case, the Navy may find itself in a similar albeit likely less severe fiscal conundrum as they are now with ghastly expensive LRLAP round. 

A round that utilizes common components from an existing guided round that is already in production or that is planned on being fielded across the Navy’s fleet of existing destroyers and cruisers may end up costing less, but built in small numbers it will likely continue to be comparatively expensive. All the while it will provide less capability than what was originally envisioned for the AGS and the DDG-1000 as a weapon system overall.

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USS Zumwalt has been commissioned under a wave of glowing press, but a less than ideal reality lays beneath the ship's futuristic skin.

There is the possibility that the Navy may just eventually decide to rip out the Zumwalt class’s guns altogether, replacing them with more vertical launch cells for increase missile storage. Although doing this would compromise the periphery launch cell design that supposedly makes the ship more survivable. The Navy could also just leave the space, or the gun systems for that matter, dormant in hopes that they can fit an electromagnetic railgun in there sometime in the future. Then again the best compromise may be to modify the AGS to handle “dumb” 155mm rounds, or build a dumb round specifically for it, with the possibility of adapting a guided round for the gun system sometime in the future. 

Although going from the incredible promise of LRLAP to dumb 155mm rounds is ridiculously unfortunate, at least the guns would have something to fire and the ships could still be used for naval gunfire support in certain situations. The only problem is that when operating that close to shore, within maybe 15 miles or so, even the stealthy Zumwalt class is vulnerable to anti-ship missile attacks and they lack a close in weapon system capable of providing a last line of defense against an anti-ship missile barrage. Parking an Aegis equipped Arleigh Burke class destroyer or Ticonderoga class cruiser nearby, both of which have far better air defense capabilities than the Zumwalt class, is not really a good solution as they represent an even larger target than the DDG-1000 and totally take away the advantage of having a stealthy ship in the first place. As such, putting DDG-1000 to work in the shore bombardment role in higher-threat scenarios would be problematic. 

Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

The U.S. Navy's new stealth destroyer, the USS Zumwalt, passes Portland Head Light on its way to Portland Harbor 

What is most appalling about this situation is that the Navy seems to have kept this under wraps for some time, as the decision not to procure LRLAP rounds was likely made some time ago. They probably avoided disclosing the fact that those big guns that were so heavily touted to the media leading up to USS Zumwalt’s commissioning on October 15th were really nothing more than very elaborate and very expensive hood ornaments. 

With the confusing cancellation of LRLAP round the media will likely begin to dig a little deeper into DDG-1000’s true capabilities and will start to discover just how badly the Navy has bungled the program over the last decade. In the meantime expect the Navy brass to brush the situation off and to play the capabilities shell game, promising unfunded additions to the ship “sometime in the future” that will be “so much better” than LRLAP could have been. Better translated: they will talk about how cool railguns will be… Someday.

Bottom line: After nearly $23 billion spent, the Navy has just three drastically watered down destroyers to show for it, ones that won’t even have a deck gun that can go boom.  

Contact the author Tyler@thedrive.com