At over 15,000 tons the Zumwalt Class are large by destroyer standards. Although there is plenty of wriggle room on the definitions between destroyer and cruiser, the new weapons move the ships even further away from what is accepted as a ‘destroyer’ today. Whether they will be redesignated as a cruiser will be seen.
Ordered at a time when the U.S. Navy was reevaluating it’s needs, and becoming more littoral, the Zumwalt class have received a fair amount of criticism. They are certainly expensive, and problems with their advanced gun system have mean that they have not been as well armed as expected.
The upgrade will arm them with Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS) hypersonic missile.
Conventional Deterrence, Enabling Battlefield Dominance
The Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS) is a non-nuclear strategic hypersonic weapon system. It’s long range (hundreds, possibly thousands of miles), incredible speed (Mach 5+, likely much faster) and high agility offer new capabilities to US planners. It will be able to make precision strikes on time-sensitive targets with little chance of interception.
The missile will leverage the Common Hypersonic Glide Body warhead. There are distinct but closely related weapons which will be carried by the U.S. Navy’s surface ships and submarines. And a land based version will also be fielded by the U.S. Army.
Sources suggest that it is still undecided how many CPS missiles will be carried by the Zumwalt class. And whether the existing 155mm gun mounts will be retained. Indications are that 2 CPS can be carried without affecting the gun mounts, or 6-8 if both gun mounts are removed. A Lockheed Martin visualization suggests 4 Missiles and one of the two gun mounts retained.
There are interesting parallels to plans to equip warships with large ballistic missiles in the past. In the 1950s the U.S. Navy planned to equip surface vessels with the then-new intercontinental ballistic missiles. The famous nuclear-powered cruiser, USS Long Beach, was designed with this in mind. But the Italians went as far as actually installing the tubes on one of their cruisers.
In 1957-61 Italian Navy cruiser Giuseppe Garibaldi was rebuilt with four UGM-27 Polaris missile tubes. Political changes meant that the US missiles were never supplied. Although there was a program to built an Italian alternative, the Alfa, this too faltered. Ultimately remained empty.
The success of submarine launched ballistic missiles was one of the nails in the coffin for the Cold War ballistic missile cruisers. And submarine platforms, not least the U.S. Navy’s Block V Virginia class, remain a focus.
But the three Zumwalts will provide a powerful and more overt capability. Their visually striking form may add to their ability to influence decision makers. In a return to battleship diplomacy of a century ago, their aesthetics may influence adversaries long before any missiles are thrown.
China Already Has Ballistic Missiles On Cruisers
The Zumwalt class will not be alone in having ballistic missiles. The Chinese Navy already has YJ-21 missiles aboard its latest Type-055 Renhai Class cruisers.
Specifications of both the American and Chinese missiles remain elusive. Yet some observations can be made. The U.S. missile is larger, in particular in terms of diameter. This means that fewer missiles can be carried by the American ships.
The Chinese YJ-21 missile fits inside the universal VLS (vertical launch system) carried by the Renhai class. It is larger in diameter and length than anything which can be fitted into the American Mk.41 or Mk.57 VLS.
A significant difference is that the YJ-21 is seen primarily as an anti-ship weapon. ASBMs (anti-ship ballistic missiles) have been a focus of the Chinese military, a response to the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carrier advantage. But it is possible that the YJ—21 will have some land attack capability.