Stealthy USS Zumwalt Destroyer to fire new missiles, laser weapons

The U.S. Navy’s stealthy new first-of-its-kind destroyer will incinerate targets with lasers, fire advanced weapons to destroy moving targets at sea and use upgraded interceptor missiles to track and knock-out approaching enemy fire -- all as part of a broader strategic shift to prepare the high-tech ship for massive, “blue-water” maritime warfare on the open seas.

The USS Zumwalt, now going through combat and weapons activation in anticipation of its first deployment, will receive new Maritime Tomahawk missiles able to track and explode moving targets at sea, SM-6 IA interceptors, long-range precision guns and -- quite likely in the very near future - laser weapons, according to the DDG 1000-USS Zumwalt Program Manager, Naval Sea Systems Command, Capt. Kevin Smith.

“We are no longer what is called a land attack that operates in the littorals. We are now an offensive surface strike platform for blue water The Navy made a decision

to go that way - for good reason,” Smith said, speaking at the Navy League’s Annual Sea Air Space Symposium.

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The Zumwalt, he said, is specifically engineered with space, weight and power configurations able to accommodate a new generation of weapons. “The inherent capability of the ship, with respect to its signatures and capacity as far space, weight, power and cooling...means there is huge margin here to do a lot of things in the future,” Smith said.

Regarded as the most advanced warship ever built, the Zumwalt uses an electric drive with an Integrated Power System engineered to more quietly and efficiently propel the ship as well as generate enormous volumes of onboard electrical power for computing, maintenance and weapons. Power “surge” capacity, is exactly what is needed to fire laser weapons, Smith said.

“For directed energy weapons you need a surge. There is a technology we are looking at right now to assess how the ship can have the energy storage that would facilitate that surge capacity. That is something we looked at with the rail gun a few years ago with a feasibility study and I think with directed energy we will do the same thing.

Explaining it as “really just capacitors,” Smith said the process would likely begin with a 150kw laser -- like that which is now being installed on a Navy amphib -- the LPD 27.

The Zumwalt’s electric drive and Integrated Power System, generating 78 megawatts of power, may provide a technological infrastructure sufficient to offer a kind of “bridge” to future weapons and war, according to a 2010 Naval War College essay called “The ZUMWALT-Class Destroyer: A Technology ?Bridge? Shaping the Navy after Next.”

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“The Integrated Power System allows such weapons as high-powered lasers and electromagnetic rail guns to be used without significantly impacting the ship’s electronic surveillance and weapons control systems or speed, a critical operational factor, given the high electrical demands of these on-the-horizon weapons,” the essay states. (George V. Galdorisi and Scott C. Truver)

By pointing to the Zumwalt as a “bridge” or transition to the future of war, given its collection of emerging, yet promising technologies, the essay refers to the DDG 1000 as “the ship that will help pull these technologies out of various laboratories and ground test sites and get them deployed to sea, where they could revolutionize warfare at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels.”

At its inception, the Zumwalt was thought of primarily as a land-attack platform. While that mission has not fully disappeared, the ship’s development has been progressively shifting toward this broader combat scope. Thus - the integration of the new weapons. Given this scenario, the Zumwalt weapons adjustments are intended to align with the strategic shift toward open water, major offensive warfare for the destroyer, in development since 2017 since the Chief of Naval Operations conducted a requirements board.

Along with its current focus on the Maritime Strike Tomahawk and SM-6 block IA, the Navy is also preparing an SM-2 and Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile for the ship. The weapons, Smith said, will be integrated through a new “networked tactical common data link.”

“Some of these will be available before the ship’s first deployment,” Smith said.

The USS Zumwalt

The USS Zumwalt (U.S. Navy)

Much of the preparation is taking place on board an unmanned, remotely controlled Self-Defense Ship at which the Navy can fire weapons to test ship defenses, perform fire-control integration and prepare the hardware for weapons systems before they are fired from the ship itself. In early May of this year, the Navy fired its first ever Evolved Sea Sparrow from the test ship, a sea-skimming defensive interceptor missile designed to track and take out approaching enemy anti-ship missiles and other threats.

The Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile Block II, or ESSM, is a new version of an existing Sea Sparrow weapons system currently protecting aircraft carriers, destroyers, cruisers, amphibious assault ships and other vessels against anti-ship missiles and other surface and airborne short-range threats to ships such as drones, enemy aircraft and helicopters.The ESSM is the kind of weapon well-suited for the kind of “blue water” warfare envisioned for the Zumwalt.

The latest emerging variant of the ESSM, Block II, is engineered with what’s called an active guidance system, meaning the missile itself can achieve improved flight or guidance to its target by both receiving and actively sending electromagnetic signals, Raytheon weapons developers told Warrior in a previous interview. The ESSM uses radar technology to locate and then intercept a fast-approaching target while in flight; the use of what’s called an “illuminator” is a big part of this capability, Raytheon officials said. The current ESSM missiles use what’s called a semi-active guidance system, meaning the missile itself can receive electromagnetic signals bounced off the target by an illuminator; the ESSM Block II’s “active” guidance includes illuminator technology built onto the missile itself such that it can both receive and send important electromagnetic signals, Navy and Raytheon officials explained. Block II relieves the missile from the requirement of having to use a lot of illuminator guidance from the ship as a short-range self-defense, senior Navy officials have said.

As for deck-mounted precision guns for the Zumwalt, the weapon and its ammunition are in the early phases of development.

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“We are waiting for that new bullet to come and give us the longest range possible for land attack strike and surface warfare,” Smith said.

It also makes sense that the Navy is planning a Maritime Tomahawk for the Zumwalt’s Vertical Launch Systems, as it will be much better prepared for longer-range open water moving targets at sea. Unlike a typical Tomahawk missile which, over the years, has been used to successfully target and destroy "fixed" targets such as enemy bunkers, static troop locations, command-and-control as well as key infrastructure - the new Maritime Strike Tomahawk is specifically engineered with a next-generation ability to track and destroy moving targets at sea, Navy and Raytheon developers say.

The Maritime Strike Tomahawk hinges on new seeker technology and faster computer processing speeds to engineer several modes wherein the Tomahawk can be re-targeted in flight to destroy moving targets in the event of unforeseen contingencies.

Navy program managers have told Warrior that the weapon incorporates an all-weather seeker, coupled with mid-course in-flight target updates. While weapons developers explain that many of the particular details of the new seeker technology are not available for discussion for security reasons, officials do say it is designed to integrate with and function alongside existing Tomahawk targeting and navigation technologies such as infrared guidance, radio frequency targeting and GPS systems.

Smith said that the Zumwalt program is now acquiring existing Tomahawks while preparing to integrate the new Maritime variant. The Navy is also upgrading its Tactical Tomahawk Weapons Control System to reduce its hardware footprint, streamline weapons functions and integrate new, updated software able to increase cybersecurity through a simplified user interface, service officials said. Multiple systems can now be accessed from a single workstation and other systems were condensed, freeing up space in control rooms, a Navy statement said.

Tomahawks have been upgraded several times over their years of service. The Block IV Tomahawk, in service since 2004, includes a two-way data link for in-flight retargeting, terrain navigation, digital scene-matching cameras and a high-grade inertial navigation system. The current Tomahawk is built with a “loiter” ability allowing it to hover near a target until there is an optimal time to strike. As part of this technology, the missile uses a two-way data link and camera to send back images of a target to a command center before it strikes. The weapon is also capable of performing battle damage assessment missions by relaying images through a data link as well, Raytheon said.

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The Navy has been wrapping up the procurement cycle for the Block IV Tactical Tomahawk missile. This year, the Navy is conducting a recertification and modernization program for the missiles reaching the end of their initial 15-year service period, which will upgrade or replace internal components. The upgraded weapons will then be returned to the fleet for the second 15 years of their 30-year planned service life.

Handling the rough seas of major maritime combat is, of course, an indispensable element of the kind of Naval warfare anticipated for the Zumwalt. The ship’s cutting edge Tumblehome, wave-piercing hull can present a bit of a paradox; in one sense the next-generation hull brings improved maneuverability, speed and wave-cutting technology, it has led to questions as to just how stable the ship would be in the event of extremely rough seas. The Navy itself, Smith said, has some questions and been wanting to assess and validate the ship’s ocean stability. Recent calm and heavy weather trials, Smith said, have added new levels of confidence regarding the ship’s combat ocean properties.

“What I will tell you is all the engineers and scientists of the world are excited about how this is going. We were not sure with the dynamic stability,” Smith said. Smith said the ship was able to demonstrate combat stability up to the low end of Sea State 6 -- a World Meteorological Organization standard specifying 13 - to - 20ft waves and “very rough” seas

“The Navy is very interested in this platform and they are excited to have it in the Pacific,” Smith said.

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