Seoul, South Korea
The US Navy’s most advanced surface warfare ship shows its stealthy profile in the Western Pacific on a mission that could set the stage for the eventual deployment of US hypersonic missiles in the region.
The USS Zumwalt is the first of a class of three multi-mission guided-missile destroyers that the Navy says will “create a new level of battlespace complexity for potential adversaries.”
In the Pacific, one such potential adversary is obviously China, and the Zumwalt will certainly get Beijing’s attention.
“The presence of a stealth warship will generate a lot of (Chinese) interest,” especially if the Zumwalt is equipped with hypersonic weapons, said analyst Carl Schuster, a former US Navy captain.
And that time may not be far away.
An August report from the US Naval Institute indicates that the Zumwalt will be upgraded next year to accommodate the Pentagon’s Common Hypersonic Glide Body (C-HGB), a weapons system that uses a rocket engine. to fire missiles at hypersonic speed.
According to a May 2022 Congressional Research Service report, “C-HGB must be maneuverable, making it harder to detect and intercept and can travel at Mach 5 or more…at least five times faster than the speed sound or up to 13,000 miles (20,921 kilometers) per hour.
“C-HGB is intended to be capable of destroying targets due to its speed alone,” the report states.
After calling at Guam last week, the Zumwalt arrived in Japan on Monday, US Navy 7th Fleet spokesman Lt. Mark Langford said.
A navy statement said the warship was assigned to Destroyer Squadron 15, the largest US Navy destroyer squadron based outside the United States, operating from Yokosuka Naval Base near Tokyo. .
Zumwalt “plays a critical role in maintaining our competitive advantage and securing our allies and partners in the region,” said Lt. Katherine Serrano, spokeswoman for Destroyer Squadron 15.
At 610 feet (185 meters) long and displacing 16,000 metric tons, the Zumwalt is “the largest and most technologically advanced surface combatant in the world,” according to a Navy fact sheet.
In contrast, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, the backbone of the US Navy’s fleet, are about 100 feet (30 meters) shorter with a displacement of less than 10,000 tons.
China’s largest surface combatant, the Type 055 destroyer, displaces around 12,000-13,000 tons.
But if the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy cannot match Zumwalt’s size, it can certainly win the battle for quantity.
The US Navy will only have three Zumwalt-class ships, the others being the USS Michael Mansoor and the future USS Lyndon B. Johnson.
The PLA Navy has six active Type 055s with more expected to arrive as part of a massive shipbuilding program that has seen China’s naval fleet overtake the United States to become the largest in the world.
The USS Zumwalt is armed with 80 vertical launch cells for missiles capable of hitting land and sea targets as well as anti-submarine rockets, but the Type 055 has 112 launch cells capable of the same tasks.
The US Navy says the Zumwalt has an array of innovations, the most striking of which is its stealth design.
“The wave-piercing tumbling house hull design has facilitated a wide range of advancements. The composite superstructure significantly reduces radar cross-section and other signatures, making the ship more difficult to detect by enemies at sea,” according to the Navy fact sheet.
The Zumwalt class of destroyers has been a controversial and expensive program for the United States Navy. With research and development costs factored in, the three ships in the class have a price tag of about $8 billion each, according to a 2018 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report to Congress.
That price per ship would have been significantly reduced had the navy continued with its original plan to build 32 of the massive destroyers, but that number was reduced to the current three after the service decided the Zumwalt class would need substantial modifications to perform. a ballistic missile defense mission, which the Arleigh Burkes could do cheaply, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Ships have also been slow to come into service. Zumwalt was commissioned in 2016, but it took the Navy four years to accept final delivery from shipbuilder General Dynamics after all of its systems were verified.
While a warship’s movements are normally referred to as deployments, the Navy does not use that term to refer to the Zumwalt’s current presence in the Pacific, a Navy official said.
“While the ship and crew are loaded as ships normally would be, their employment is part of the fleet integration process of introducing a class of ship into the operating environment and understanding how it can function in the better with other ships/platforms,” the official said. said.
Schuster, the Hawaii-based analyst, called the Zumwalt’s moves “more political than military” until the Navy can board these hypersonic weapons.
“At over $8 billion each, the Navy is struggling to find a mission for these currently lightly armed ships,” he said.
Still, he said, it will give the PLA Navy pause.