Navy to 'live fire' missiles from its USS Zumwalt stealth destroyer

The Navy's stealthy USS Zumwalt destroy is preparing to fire its first missile as part of an effort to prepare the ships radar, weapons and tracking system as the service the new, high-tech attack ship for operational service and deployment.

Navy materials from the recent Surface Navy Association Symposium, briefed by Zumwalt program manager Capt. Kevin Smith explained that live-fire missile tests will fire from a specially configured Self Defense Test Ship; this is a vessel constructed for the specific purpose of testing sensors, weapons and other ship systems. The entire ship-integrated weapons system is called the Zumwalt Combat System.

So far, the test ship has already conducted several "tracking" exercises against threat-representative targets, Capt. Smith explained at SNA.

Combat preparation for the Zumwalt is taking place as the Navy commissions its second Zumwalt-class stealthy new destroyer, the USS Michael Monsoor. At the same time, the service is expanding the strategic scope for the Zumwalt-class attack vessels and engineering the ships for new weapons, improved sensors and advanced applications of Artificial Intelligence and cloud technologies.

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Beneath the highly visible shadow of its first-in-class stealthy USS Zumwalt destroyer, the Navy has been quietly making rapid progress with its second Zumwalt-class destroyer – the now commissioned USS Michael Monsoor. The Monsoor was commissioned last month.

Much like the lead Zumwalt-class ship, the 2nd is envisioned as a stealthy, multi-mission land and blue-water attack platform armed with long-range precision fires, a wide range of offensive and defensive missiles, faster computer processing speed and an electric drive Integrated Propulsion System with 78-megawatts of onboard electrical power.

“DDG 1001 (USS Monsoor) employs an Integrated Power System (IPS), distributing 1000 volts of direct current across the ship. The IPS' architectural capabilities include the ability to allocate all 78 megawatts of installed power to propulsion, ship's service, and combat system loads from the same gas turbine prime movers based on operational requirements,” a statement from Naval Sea Systems Command said.

The ship, called DDG 1001, has now been commissioned following extensive tests, trials and demonstrations of the ship's HM&E systems (Hull, Mechanical & Electrical) including the boat handling, anchor and mooring systems as well as major demonstrations of the damage control, ballasting, navigation and communications systems, a statement from Naval Sea Systems Command said.

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The HM&E delivery follows Navy reports of successful acceptance trials for DDG 1001 during which the ship tested power propulsion systems and high-speed turns while also assessing the HM&E engineering systems, according to a statement from General Dynamics Bath Iron Works.

Using the same technical baseline, ship specs and weapons system as the first Zumwalt, the Monsoor is engineered with a computer system specifically designed to accommodate software upgrades as new technologies emerge, Raytheon and Navy developers describe.

The ship computer, called Total Ship Computing Environment, integrates many of the ship’s systems such as its radar, weapons and propulsion apparatus. Software upgrades impacting radar, fire control and some weapons areas represent some potential margins of difference making the ships more advanced. Raytheon is the primary ship integrator of the onboard computers and other Zumwalt-class technologies.

“We are continually looking to further optimize the total ship computing environment through technology refresh. This could eventually include AI and/or cloud-based solutions,” Wade Knudson, Raytheon’s Senior Director of Total Ship Integrated Systems, told Warrior Maven.

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AI or cloud integration, should that happen in the near future, brings several new dimensions to maritime attack. One initial advantage, simply, is that increased virtualization enabled by cloud migration can greatly reduce the hardware footprint. Fewer “boxes” or servers will be required on board as greater elements of the technical infrastructure become multi-function. Fewer numbers of sensors and data storage technologies allow for better integration and free up what’s called “size, weight and power” opportunities on board the ship.

Data access is another defining element of cloud migration, meaning sensors, weapons systems and things like navigational data can be accessed in a faster, more consolidated fashion. When greater automation or AI are added to the equation, sensor, targeting and weapons information can even be organized autonomously for human decision makers to consider.

AI integration could automate sensor and weapon integration - by comparing new information against vast volumes of data to analyze and organize combat-relevant data; this will give commanders a much improved sensor-to-shooter time with which to destroy fast-approaching targets.

Meanwhile, the third-in-class Zumwalt, the future USS Lyndon B. Johnson, has also been under construction and is nearing completion. The 3rd Zumwalt’s deck house, which unlike the first two ships built with composites, is made out of steel.

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According to Navy information released following the Surface Naval Association, Smith said the USS Lyndon. B. Johnson is now 82-percent complete with fabrication. Hull integration was completed in April of last year, and a "float off" took place just this last December, Smith indicated, according to NAVSEA information.

The three-ship Zumwalt fleet is likely to be in great demand in coming years as new threats emerge which present a need for its unique technologies. Given its stealthy configuration, it seems plausible that a Zumwalt class ship could lead an assault or help launch a broader attack by virtue of an ability to strike while avoiding detection.

Also, in a manner quite similar to the current fleet of DDG 51 destroyers, a Zumwalt will almost certainly help protect a carrier strike group. Drawing upon its stealthy configuration, a Zumwalt destroyer might be well positioned to test or penetrate blue-water enemy defenses without necessarily surrendering the location of a carrier group.

Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer recently mentioned the larger role of the Zumwalt-class, saying "This ship will provide independent forward presence and deterrence for decades to come,” according to a written statement from Naval Sea Systems Command.

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If radar, aerial ISR or onboard MH-60Rs and Fire Scout drone assets detect long-range threats or areas of incoming enemy fire, the Zumwalt could very well be called upon as a launching point for a counterattack.

Navy officials explain that, compared to previous destroyers, the Zumwalt-class fields a larger flight deck and has capacity for two MH-60R and multiple drones.

With its long-range precision gunfire technology, a Zumwalt could perhaps be successful in attacking more fortified enemy land targets without itself being as susceptible to land-based sensors and anti-ship missiles.

Navy developers also say that the USS Michael Monsoor's Vertical Launch System features cells physically larger than similar cells on today's ships, allowing this class to fire larger and more advanced land and anti-ship missiles in the future.

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Furthermore, given its low radar signature, it might not seem like too much of a mission stretch to envision a Zumwalt-class destroyer as an element of an amphibious assault. Advanced onboard sensors could connect with drones and other ISR assets to help orient an approaching Amphibious Ready Group as to the best methods or locations of attack.

The 610 foot, wave-piercing tumblehome ship design provides a wide array of advancements. The shape of the superstructure and the arrangement of its antennas significantly reduce radar cross-section, making the ship less visible to enemy radars, a Navy statement writes.

A Zumwalt’s shallow draft, littoral mission abilities and long-range precision fires could, in tandem with air power, help soften land targets in preparation for an amphibious landing. In a manner not entirely unlike an LCS, a Zumwalt could access shallow water ports and other coastal areas currently inaccessible to deeper draft vessels; this changes the combat calculus in that brings substantially enhanced surface firepower to littoral operations.

At the same time, it is undoubtedly relevant to point out that, at least for the moment, will only be three Zumwalt class destroyers – a circumstance likely to limit a more ubiquitous global reach. As a result, it takes little imagination to observe how the Zumwalt-class is likely to function as an inspiration or model for other new ships and innovations, to emerge in the future, which may emulate or build upon some of its technologies.

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The question of rail guns and lasers weapons, without surprise, is something which tends to generate much attention in the minds of innovators, threat assessment analysts and future planners; this is a key reason why many point to the Zumwalt’s Integrated Power System as an impactful mobile power source which, as it continues to evolve, provides the technical foundation for the integration of laser weapons.

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The larger the amount of exportable, ruggedized mobile power technology, the stronger the laser. Ship-based laser weapons, it is widely discussed, are now operational. The challenge moving forward is to succeed in increasing their strength and range while accelerating its integration with radar, sensors and fire control technologies.

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