The Zumwalt-class destroyers: The US Navy's biggest mistake.

The Zumwalt-class destroyers have been a monument to naval waste and misguided strategy: The US Navy’s refusal to innovate and rethink its long-held assumptions about what constitutes its power has been evident for decades since the end of the Cold War.

It was evident in the decision of Navy planners not only to continue building expensive aircraft carriers but also to build new models of aircraft carriers that were much more expensive than previous ones.

The Navy’s shortsightedness was evident when it opted to build only three (of a planned 30) of its Seawolf-class attack submarines. But nothing screams strategic ignorance and cultural decadence more than the Navy’s determination to build the Zumwalt-class destroyer.

The Zumwalt-class destroyer
Zumwalt-destroyer

The first American Zumwalt-class destroyer, the USS Zumwalt, was the most expensive destroyer ever built, far exceeding the cost of the magnificent Arleigh Burke-class destroyers that still protect US Navy carrier battle groups. Three units of the Zumwalt were built, undoubtedly a small class of warships.

They are also the largest destroyers in the world. Their characteristic hull design, which makes them look like something out of Babylon 5 and not so much like a US Navy warship, is because they are the world’s first truly stealthy warships.

The technology of these destroyers is so advanced that General Dynamics, the company that built the Zumwalt class, had to spend $40 million just to build a special facility for these next-generation warships.

The Zumwalt-class destroyers: The US Navy's biggest mistake.
The United States Navy’s newest warship, USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) passes the Coronado Bridge on its way to Naval Base San Diego. Zumwalt is the lead ship of a class of next-generation multi-mission destroyers, now homeported in San Diego. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Anthony N. Hilkowski/Released)

The Zumwalts were intended to be a complete break from the way the US Navy had been doing things. The warship has the same power as an aircraft carrier. It has 80 vertical launchers for various types of missiles. A key part of the Zumwalt’s mission was to be able to conduct long-range sea-to-land strikes. It must be remembered that the Zumwalts were designed when the United States was the undisputed unipolar power.

At that time, the United States was more concerned about rogue states, transnational terrorist groups, and the scourge of ethnic-religious sectarian conflicts abroad. The Navy was constantly trying to stay relevant at the time, and having a “multi-mission” stealth warship seemed like a worthwhile investment.

There was only one problem: the Zumwalt-class destroyer did not perform as advertised. It took years to build and was 50% more expensive than what defense contractors had sold to Congress. Initially, a fleet of 32 Zumwalts was planned, but today, the Navy only has three. And they constantly need repairs.

The weaponry alone is prohibitively expensive, in part because the supply chain was designed to provide cheaper weaponry once the Zumwalt fleet reached its goal of 32 units. Since that goal will now never be achieved, the costs of unique armament for these warships will continue to be exorbitant. In the era of limited budgets, it is not a worthwhile investment.

End the Zumwalt class madness now.

Additionally, it turns out that the Zumwalt’s main cannon is broken beyond repair. However, instead of reducing its losses, the Navy insists on trying to make the Zumwalt work. It is getting rid of the non-functioning 155-millimeter Advanced Gun Systems (with their $800,000-per-shell ammunition).

Instead, the Zumwalt will be equipped with the equally expensive and non-functional hypersonic weapons platform that the US Navy has been desperately trying to build. To be clear, investing in hypersonic weapons is a good decision.

Unfortunately, these systems are not ready for the show (while Russia’s, unfortunately, are, and China’s hypersonic weapons are just behind the Russians’). And the deployment of these gadgets – which, according to some assessments, are not as stealthy as intended – is an absurd waste.

However, the Zumwalt class is another example of the decay of the Department of Defense and Congress. These warships were designed and deployed at a time when the United States could afford to indulge its wildest strategic fantasies. It was still enjoying its victory in the Cold War, there were no serious challenges to American world primacy, and things at home were going well.

Those days are behind us.

With China on the rise, Russia pushing hard against US-backed NATO, Iran stirring up a major regional war against American allies in Israel and the Sunni Arab states, and North Korea poised to go nuclear at any moment, the last thing the Navy should do is to continue supporting the wasteful Zumwalt.

What could have been…

Imagine if, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, Navy planners had stuck to the basics. Instead of spending $22.4 billion on Zumwalt research and development, imagine what it would have been like if the Navy had invested in building its incredibly small fleet of Seawolf-class attack submarines.

Or if the Navy had invested in preparing its hypersonic weapons for deployment years before it started taking the concept seriously. This is not hindsight; many were skeptical, for example, that the investment in the Zumwalt class would pay off.

Now, the Navy has to face a sunk cost. It should cut its losses. Instead, the bet on failure seems to be doubling down.

BY: Brandon J. Weichert

FAQs 

Q: What is the Zumwalt-class destroyer?

A: The Zumwalt-class is a new type of guided missile destroyer developed for the United States Navy. It was intended to be a stealthy, multi-mission ship with advanced technology and capabilities.

Q: How many Zumwalt-class ships were built?

A: Originally, 32 ships were planned, but ultimately, only 3 Zumwalt-class destroyers were constructed – the USS Zumwalt, the USS Michael Monsoor, and the USS Lyndon B. Johnson.

Q: Why is the Zumwalt program considered a failure or waste?

A: The ships ended up costing far more than projected, had developmental issues, lacked key promised capabilities like the advanced gun system, and the tiny fleet size made them not cost-effective. The article argues that they wasted billions of dollars that would have been better spent elsewhere.

Q: What was the original rationale for the Zumwalt program?

A: They were conceived in the post-Cold War era when the U.S. was the sole superpower, envisioning operations against rogue states and non-state threats. The stealthy, long-range strike capabilities fit that strategic assumption.

Q: What are some of the technical issues with the Zumwalt ships?

A: Problems include the cancellation of the advanced gun system, challenges with implementing railguns/hypersonics, higher-than-expected costs, and doubts about the degree of stealthiness achieved.

Q: What alternatives does the article suggest the Navy should have pursued?

A: Investing more in proven systems like the Arleigh Burke destroyers Seawolf submarines and accelerating hypersonic weapon development earlier.

Q: How much did each Zumwalt destroyer end up costing?

A: The three ships had an estimated total cost of over $22 billion, making each destroyer around $7-8 billion, exponentially higher than the original estimates.

Q: What was innovative about the Zumwalt’s hull design?

A: The Zumwalt has a distinctive tumblehome hull design intended to make it more stealthy by reducing its radar cross-section. However, this came at the cost of stability issues.

Q: What capabilities were originally envisioned for the Zumwalt?

A: It was supposed to provide long-range fire support for ground forces, have advanced sensors and electronics, carry crews of just 150, and be able to operate autonomously for extended periods.

Q: Why was the advanced gun system on the Zumwalt canceled?

A: The 155mm advanced gun system proved too costly, with ammunition estimated at $800,000 per round. Technical issues with the gun also prevented it from reaching its intended range.

Q: What is the current status of the three Zumwalt ships?

A: They have been commissioned into service but with limited roles. The Navy is still attempting to install hypersonic missiles and enhance their capabilities.

Q: What does the article recommend the Navy do about the Zumwalt program?

A: It argues the Navy should cut its losses on the failed Zumwalt program, which is seen as an example of wasteful defense spending and strategic miscalculation.

Q: How was the Zumwalt meant to fit into the Navy’s future surface fleet?

A: It was intended to be the first of many new stealthy, multi-mission destroyers and part of shifting away from traditional destroyer roles supporting aircraft carriers.