The Navy’s Stealth Destroyers Are Getting a Serious Upgrade: 12 Hypersonic Missiles Each

By Kyle Mizokami,
Published by Popular Mechanics, 1 December 2022

Through a series of enhancements, the stealthy (but controversial) Zumwalts will get a new lease on life.

  • The U.S. Navy is eyeing a series of upgrades for its Zumwalt-class destroyers.
  • While the upgrades would be mostly under the hood, they would vastly improve the ships’ abilities to operate with the rest of the fleet.
  • Each of the three ships are also set to receive up to a dozen hypersonic missiles.

The U.S. Navy is planning to modernize three of its newest warships even further, giving them new capabilities that will enhance their ability to interoperate with other ships and planes and further protect themselves from attack. Specifically, the three Zumwalt-class destroyers, built with stealth in mind, could receive upgrades allowing them to take in share-and-receive data from the rest of the fleet, disable drones, and hunt submarines.

In a November 17 post on the U.S. government’s System Award Management website, the Navy is asking industry players for ideas about how to update the electronics on its Zumwalt-class destroyers. The upgrades, titled Zumwalt Enterprise Upgrade Solution, or ZEUS, will “improve supportability and interoperability of the Zumwalt destroyers by replacing Zumwalt-unique components and systems with analogous systems, which are common with other U.S. Navy surface combatants,” per the post.

Stealthy (But Controversial)

The future USS Michael Monsoor from Bath Iron Works docks in Portland Harbor as part of its sea trials, January 2018. Monsoor has since been commissioned into the U.S. Navy.Portland Press Herald//Getty Images

USS Zumwalt, USS Michael Monsoor, and USS Lyndon B. Johnson—the three Zumwalt-class destroyers—are controversial ships. The original design for the Zumwalts was a stealthy destroyer, armed with two rapid-fire Advanced Gun Systems, that could creep close to an enemy coastline and bombard targets far inland with precision-guided weapons. The end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Navy meant the U.S. Navy and its allies were the undisputed masters of the sea. Left without an enemy navy to fight, the U.S. Navy felt it could secure funding for destroyers with a land warfare mission, supporting post-9/11 land conflicts in coastal countries like Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Iraq.

Originally, the Navy wanted 32 Zumwalt-class destroyers, but funding was repeatedly cut and the number of ships dwindled. Gradually, 32 ships became three, and this created a major problem: The shells became unaffordable even by U.S. Navy standards. As the number of precision-guided artillery shells the service wanted plummeted as the numbers of ships dropped, it boosted the price for artillery from less than $50,000 each to up to $800,000 each. Ultimately, the ships were commissioned and continue to serve without ammunition for their guns.

A New Lease on Life

The Zumwalt class destroyers reportedly have the radar signature of a small fishing boat. Mark Wilson//Getty Images

However, the rise of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy has given the U.S. Navy a new enemy to prepare for, and has given the Zumwalts a new lease on life. Now, the destroyers have a new mission: surface strike, which includes anti-ship and land-attack missions.

Starting in 2025, the ships will have their Advanced Gun System mounts removed and replaced with a dozen hypersonic missiles each. But this also means that the Zumwalts, once meant to operate alone in stealthy missions against land targets, will also spend more time with other ships in assembled surface and carrier task forces. In other words, they need to become better team players.

Upgrades Galore

USS Lyndon B. Johnson under construction at Bath Iron Works, Maine, 2018. The ship’s tumblehome hull is clearly visible.
U.S. Navy photo courtesy of General Dynamics-Bath Iron Works

The ZEUS upgrades are mainly in the electronics, both hardware and software. One proposed upgrade is the removal of the AN/SPY-3 radar system in favor of the new AN/SPY-6 Air and Missile Defense Radar in its place. The AN/SPY-3 is more of a ship self-defense radar, especially against low-flying anti-ship cruise missiles, befitting a ship that must defend itself from land-based missiles. The AN/SPY-6, on the other hand, would allow the Zumwalts to search for a wider variety of threats across a broader area, potentially defending several warships at once.

Another proposed upgrade, Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC), would allow the Zumwalts to share radar and other data with the fleet. CEC consists of a processor unit and a data distribution system. Units equipped with it, including ships and aircraft, can access sensor data from others in the network. CEC would enable a unit of Marines on a remote island, for example, to have the same radar picture as ships hundreds of miles away. CEC makes the enemy’s job of jamming friendly radars more difficult by effectively distributing radars over a wider area.

ZEUS could also include the AN/SQQ-89(V) Surface Ship Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Combat System, which allows a surface ship to detect, track, and engage enemy submarines. This would replace the Zumwalt class’s existing AN/SQQ-90 system. The AN/SQQ-89(V) is generally a more capable system and would mean greater commonality with other surface ships.

Also on the list is the Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program (SEWIP). SEWIP is a ship self-defense system, a passive electronic sensor used to “detect and identify hostile radars and missiles.” The Zumwalts boast a relatively new version, SEWIP Block 2, but Block 3 is just around the corner. According to a 2021 report from U.S. Naval Institute News, Block 3 “will include improvements for the electronic attack by providing integrated countermeasures against radio frequency-guided threats and extending frequency range coverage.” This is likely the ability to jam drones, which the U.S. Navy has repeatedly encountered both in the Persian Gulf and, mysteriously, off the coast of Southern California.

Another upgrade is the installation of internal electronics to support the Mk. 41 vertical launch system (VLS). The Mk. 41 is an armored silo capable of housing anti-ship, anti-aircraft, anti-submarine, and even anti-satellite missiles. The Zumwalt class is currently equipped with 20 Mk. 57 VLS, each with four missile tubes, for a total of 80 missile tubes. That’s a little on the light side for a destroyer-sized ship, as the most recent Arleigh Burke-class destroyers are built with 96 Mk. 41 missile tubes. This suggests the Navy might be interested in adding more Mk. 41s in the future, perhaps in empty spaces around the 12 hypersonic missile tubes.

The Bottom Line

Pivoting the ship’s mission is proving expensive and time-consuming, but the alternative is to mothball the $7 billion ships at a time when the U.S. Navy claims it is trying to grow the fleet. Ships are expensive, and these days, seem to be very hard to actually build. As China continues to build frigates, destroyers, and cruiser-sized ships apace, every hull counts.

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