I’ve been avoiding writing about this because my supply of expletives needed to regenerate. And, frankly, I’m a bit baffled by the topic – whenever I try to think about this, I wind up with my jaw hanging, scratching my butt, and going, “can there possibly be more to this story that I simply do not understand?”
I’m talking, of course, about the 2 main guns on the USS Zumwalt.
As I’ve described elsewhere, range is the definition of a battlefield. A battlefield is nothing but a place full of things that impact the time and distance between combatants. In warfare, they’re connected beautifully and mysteriously – the amount of time it takes your opponent to come to within striking range of you, and you to them, is not quite everything, but damn near.
The Zumwalt is the platinum-coated US Navy ship intended to represent the next generation of frigate. It’s inanely expensive, and has had tons of problems with its propulsion system, is behind schedule and hugely overbudget. But that’s all sort of par for the course – the 32 Zumwalt class ships that the navy asked for were going to cost $43 billion, according to the 1999 program plan, but now the navy has capped production at 3 ships, costing $7 billion each. To give you some perspective: that’s more than a nuclear aircraft carrier cost. Even if you adjust for inflation. In “Pay More, Get Less” I described how military boondoggles’ prices are concealed by changing the purchase size: this is the granddady of all Pay More Get Less scams. If any of you are interested in gambling, I’m prepared to take bets that the Zumwalt is going to be the only ship of the class that ever gets built, and the entire budgeted $43 billion is going to stealthily disappear into that boat-shaped hole in the water.
What I wanted to boggle about, today, is the gun. The Zumwalt has 2 guns in addition to its compliment of missiles. Missiles she has a’plenty: 80, in various configurations ranging from Tomahawk cruise missiles (Range: 700+ miles) to RIM 66 standard missiles (range: 70-90 miles) and RIM 162 Sea Sparrow missiles (range: 40+ miles) It also has 2 guns. The guns are the Advanced Gun System, which does sound very nice. But…
It really does sound like a very fine gun indeed. Then the problems begin. It fires a special kind of round. The round is a base-bleed round* which has built-in terminal guidance – i.e.: little rudders that deploy from the shell to direct it towards it target. Spiffy! A marketing genius somewhere called it the “Excalibur” round, not remembering the history of temporary success its namesake experienced.
The “Excalibur” is only $250,000 per shot.
That’s a huge improvement over the original shell the advanced gun system was going to fire, which was $800,000 to $1,000,000 a shot. The LRLAP round was so expensive the navy actually balked at the price, because it was getting embarrassing.
Here’s where I start to boggle: it’s a 155mm round. That’s a “typical heavy artillery” round, not the sort of ship-killer that the battleships of yore fired at eachother. The Iowa-class 16″ guns would go through small mountains (literally!) like they were cheese. Of course the navy realized that they don’t need those anymore, since nobody else has a battleship (and the US doesn’t, really, any more either).
Here’s where my mind goes into full boggle mode: missiles. Nobody has battleships anymore because of missiles. Anyone with a brain looks at a ship like the Zumwalt or an Arleigh Burke-class Aegis missile boat and goes “that’d sink a battleship in about the time it’d take for a salvo of cruise missiles to reach it.”
And, indeed, they’d be right! That’s why I listed the range(s) of the various missile options a Zumwalt carries: the guns on a Zumwalt, even with the $1,000,000 base bleed shell, have a range of 80 miles. The tomahawks the Zumwalt can carry have 12 times the range. And the basic missiles it carries have about the same range as the gun.
What’s the gun for?!! It sure as hell isn’t for coastal artillery support, not at $250,000 a shot, and certainly not at $1,000,000 a shot!!
I can only conclude that the Zumwalt has guns because, you know, naval ships have guns. It’s what they do.
The damn thing’s missiles out-range its own guns, yet they’re breaking the piggy bank to be able to fire these wee little high-tech 155mm rounds that cost so much you’d never fire one at a mere insurgent. They cost so much you’d wait until you had a ship to fire them at, except you won’t because your missiles will have sunk any ships before you get into engagement range.
Range is the definition of a battlefield. So you can’t just think about your weapons’ range – you need to look at a possible enemy’s range, as well. For example, the Chinese ship-killer DF-26 missile has a range of 2,000 miles. That’s not a typo. If a Zumwalt was farting around the coast of China, it would be within the Chinese missile envelope for several days before it was within its own range and could attempt to sink part of the asian land-mass or whatever silly thing the navy thinks a Zumwalt is going to do with a super-clever 155mm round with a 40 mile range.
When Musashi went into his sword-fight with Sasaki Kojiro, who used an extra-long blade, he used a longer weapon, a wooden oar. Musashi understood range. The Zumwalt has pretty reasonable-ranged weapons for naval use – a decent long-sword, but is spending money like crazy on its pocket-knife. It’s weird. The only conclusion I can reach is that the Zumwalt is designed to sail up and down the coast of 3rd world countries, firing missiles and an occasional 155mm round at hospitals and cities with insurgents somewhere in them. And, if it’s going to do that, they’d better get the engines to work, first.
There’s another whole angle to this story. The navy has been talking for some time about putting an electromagnetic cannon – a railgun – on the Zumwalt. I consider this to be largely fictional/aspirational. A kinetic kill-weapon would be even less useful for Zumwalt’s “scare the natives” mission than a 155mm popgun. Worse, railgun rounds are unguided and a fast-moving target might be able to evade beyond-visual-range shots. But mostly, railgun rounds will also be expensive: you need to make them out of fancy stuff to keep them from coming apart under their own velocity, or melting from the friction of cutting through the air.
The whole Zumwalt story is a deep, rich, vein of military WTF. The same navy that is wrestling with the Littoral Combat Ship and Zumwalt is also experimenting with autonomous swarming light craft – basically motorboats that could carry a small missile, torpedo, or bomb, and navigate onto a target collectively using mesh networks to coordinate amongst themselves. So the navy is building these expensive floating boondoggle targets, while also building stuff designed specifically to sink them. An insurgent with a boat full of explosives, attacking a ship while it’s docked, is the most likely threat the Zumwalts will face. But they may be too expensive and unreliable to put in harm’s way in the first place.
(* Base bleed artillery is cool stuff. You have a recessed region in the back of the shell that contains a gas-producing chemical propellant, which burns as the shell pursues its trajectory. The gas produced by the propellant fills the vacuum that the shell would leave as it tears through the sky, removing the vacuum-drag and giving it much greater range and stability. This technique was invented by rogue Canadian artillery guru Gerald Bull, who produced and marketed the first base bleed shells, which suddenly gave the South African mobile artillery “kalahari ferrari” 10 miles better range than anything else on the field, making it more or less invincible thanks to its stand-off range. Bull was shot to death by the Mossad, for talking to Saddam Hussein about making a gun that could reach Tel Aviv from Iraq. He’s a fascinating character: a textbook example of “real smart but real dumb.”)
National Review: How the Navy’s Zumwalt-Class Destroyers Ran Aground
National Interest: The Chinese DF-26 Missile – What Does the Pentagon Really Think?
Popular Mechanics: The Zumwalt Can’t Fire its Guns Because Ammo is Too Expensive
Popular Mechanics: The Zumwalt Destroyer is Here Now What About The Railgun?
US Naval Institute News: Raytheon Excalibur Round Set to Replace LRLAP Rounds on Zumwalts
PS – US Navy to taxpayers: “What did you want, single payer medicare? LOL!”