Navy's Stealth Destroyers Now Part Of Experimental Squadron Alongside Drone Ships

The Navy has struggled to find a place for the tiny fleet of just three Zumwalt class ships, but this change could also lead to the class's demise.

USS Zumwalt Arrives At Pearl Harbor
Navy Public Affairs Support Elem—Public Domain

It's official, the Navy has stood up Surface Development Squadron 1, abbreviated SURFDEVRON, in the place of the already existing Zumwalt Squadron 1 that had been established to operate the Navy three Zumwalt class stealth destroyers. This new experimental unit will not only be responsible for the Zumwalt class ships, it is also tasked with ushering in a new era of unmanned surface warfare and more.

USNI News' Megan Eckstein has put out a great report on the establishment of the outfit, a move that will have far-ranging impacts and could significantly influence the U.S. Navy's future force structure and battle doctrine.

The new unit will first focus on figuring out how the Zumwalt class destroyers' unique capabilities and technologies can be leveraged by the fleet. This is especially important as the ship's identity has changed drastically in recent months following the revelation that its Advanced Gun Systems (AGS) that take up the better part of the front third of the huge destroyers are now considered dead weight as there is no round that can affordably make use of them. 

The Navy has since separated the AGS issue from the class's larger mission, deciding to move ahead with getting the ships in operational shape regardless of missing a key reason why they were built. The Zumwalt class will now be focused on surface strike. This could one day include ripping out the guns altogether and replacing them with something else—possibly more vertical launch cells—if the service thinks it's worth spending even more money on the ships that already cost an ungodly amount to develop and procure—roughly $23 billion for just three hulls.  

Other major changes from this new organizational structure include:

  • Pairing the Zumwalts with unmanned ships. The first of these vessels will be two Sea Hunter experimental drone ships—one of which has been operating for years and has been incredibly successful—a main reason why the Navy is now betting big on unmanned surface warfare. The other will be delivered in 2020.
  • The medium and large drone ships the Navy has set out to procure this year will follow those efforts, working with the Zumwalt class ships experimentally to build a list of key recommendations that will drive everything from future procurement to tactics and procedures for the fleet.
  • Between 2020 and 2023 SURFDEVRON will have all three Zumwalt class destroyers operating alongside the two Sea Hunter experimental unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) for experimentation.
  • By 2024, medium and large USVs will begin joining the squadron.
  • Around that same time, the first four Littoral Combat Ships built, which are now relegated to testing and training, will join SURFDEVRON, as well. This will integrate work they are doing with small USVs, leaving seamless continuity of unmanned surface vehicle experimentation and operation.
  • The unit will not just experiment with unmanned assets and the Zumwalt and Littoral Combat Ships themselves, but all types of new mechanical systems, sensors, communications, tactics, procedures, weapons, and more. Overall, the unit is seen as an accelerator of sorts to get new ideas and capabilities to the fleet faster.
USN

Sea Hunter at rest.

What's most interesting in Eckstein's report is that we finally have some details as to how the Zumwalts will actually deploy operationally beyond just functioning in an experimental capacity. 

Eckstein explains it as follows and quotes Vice Admiral Richard Brown, commander of Naval Surface Forces and Naval Surface Force Pacific for further clarification:

As for the Zumwalt destroyers, they will continue with plans to operate as part of a carrier strike group eventually. Under the Optimized Fleet Response Plan, they will go through training and then deploy with the rest of the assigned strike group, but during the sustainment phase – when the CSG would be maintaining its peak readiness at home and being on call for tasking as needed – the DDG-1000s would peel off and conduct experiments instead.

“It is such a unique and capable class of ship. We want to be able to quickly experiment with it,” Brown said. “So the Zumwalt class will be assigned to a carrier strike group, they will do the whole basic, advanced phase of training, integrated training, go deploy, they’ll be in the same under the OFRP, much like a cruiser or destroyer – but the capability that those ships bring is so unique that we really believe they belong in the SURFDEVRON so we can continually and rapidly experiment with them when they’re not on deployment.”

USN

USS Lyndon B. Johnson under construction at Bath Iron Works in Maine. 

All this sounds intriguing and it seems like a great way to really figure out what the Navy wants in its future fleet, but it is also an expensive and resource-heavy endeavor that may foreshadow exactly what The War Zone has warned of for so long—that the Zumwalt class destroyers could end up only being experimental test ships. 

Due to their unique design that features many one-off components, if these ships aren't out on the front lines, justifying the existence of three of them may become very challenging. As a result, it is possible that one or two of the three ships could end up being cannibalized to keep the remaining hull or hulls functioning. This is especially true if sequester returns or budgets shrink due to changing political winds, a faltering economy, and/or the specter of the ballooning national debt. 

In fact, according to the latest GAO report on the DDG-1000 program, this is already happening:

To limit further delays to DDG 1000 and DDG 1001 construction, the Navy has authorized its shipbuilder to take parts from DDG 1002—the third and final ship of the class, which is under construction. The Navy does not yet know the full extent to which these actions will delay DDG 1002’s construction schedule, but stated that these parts typically can be borrowed and replaced without causing a delay. The Navy has scheduled the ship’s HM&E delivery in March 2020 followed by final delivery in September 2022.

Just replacing the guns is a good example of how hard it is to justify investing more money into such a small fleet and one that has already been woefully watered down in terms of capabilities time and again over the years. In fact, just the change in focus from land attack to surface strike will cost a huge sum of money according to the GAO:

In a January 2018 decision memorandum, the Navy changed DDG 1000’s primary mission from land attack to offensive surface strike. Navy officials are in the process of determining the operational concept for the ship within its new mission. The Navy has yet to establish testing plans to evaluate these future mission sets. According to Navy officials, the Navy’s planned modifications to support the new mission will cost about $1 billion, from non-acquisition accounts.

Time will tell if the Zumwalt class becomes the white elephant many of us have warned it could become or if its tiny cadre of three ships will stay whole and deploy operationally in a reliable manner while also being tasked with experimentation on a grand level. But in the meantime, at least they will be helping the Navy turbocharge its efforts to modernize its forces and get a leg up on the growing peer state threats abroad. 

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com