Why is America’s revolutionary and utterly stealthy Zumwalt program finding itself in troubled waters?

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The third and final of the US Zumwalt-class (DDG-1000) stealth destroyers, the Lyndon B. Johnson, has completed its “builder trials” (or port trials as it is called in India) at General Dynamics Bath Iron Works in Maine this week.

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It will finally enter service in mid-2024, after a complete delay of two years. The very troubled project saw cost overruns, delays and technical issues ultimately leading to the dilution of many of its functionality.

The F-22 of warships, the Zumwalt is revolutionary in many ways, being primarily the world’s stealth warship, whose radar cross-section (RCS) is as small as a small fishing trawler. It achieves this through a combination of radar reflective surfaces, paint, and electromagnetic emissions.

A high-tech ship

The 16,000-ton vessel will see the finalization of its basic hull, mechanical and electrical systems before heading to Huntington Ingalls Shipbuilding in Mississippi. This is a change from how the Zumwalt and USS Michael Monsoor were completed, where the full installation and testing of the ship’s air search radar, vertical launch missile cells, combat system and commissioning took place in Bath.

This will make room for the ongoing modernization of the existing US Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, which are being upgraded to the Flight III version of the Aegis combat system.

The stealthy USS Zumwalt

Its signature Integrated Power System (IPS) generates electricity from rotating turbines and distributes it through the vessel not with mechanical linkages, but electric motors.

Producing 78 megawatts, it can power 10,000 average American homes. It is hoped in the future to power energy-intensive Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs), such as incredibly powerful electromagnetic lasers or rail cannons.

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Its distinct wave-piercing hull in the shape of what is called a “tumblehome” design makes it look like a warship straight out of a sci-fi movie. The sides are sloped inward, rather than the outward shape of even current warships that are still launched. Its two devastating Advanced Gun System (AGS) units are capable of firing a variety of GPS-guided and rocket-assisted cartridges.

The 155mm gun systems hold 304 rounds in a magazine, capable of firing 10 rounds per minute. The Zumwalt was intended to introduce naval artillery / naval artillery fire support – a practice that disappeared with the withdrawal of the Iowa-class battleships – for coastal or amphibious operations of special forces deployed through small boats.

Cost overruns and delays

But the Zumwalt program has given the US Navy and the Department of Defense (DoD) enough reason to regret, and it’s not just the $ 4 billion price tag or the $ 10 billion in development costs.

On the one hand, its trademark, the “tumblehome” hull is to be feared to be unstable with the possibility of tipping if a wave hits the ship in the right sea conditions, the right angle and the right speed.

It turned out that the first IPS of its kind had serious problems with its software, causing several operational issues. The radar avoidance structure – stealthy no doubt – has always been found to be vulnerable to low-frequency S-band radars, ironically.

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If not an old fashioned radar system, technologically savvy military with sufficiently networked resources, battlefield management systems, sensor fusion, and data sharing can possibly find a detour and complicated tricks to detect stealth.

Russia and China also have advanced systems and technologies and will not be completely vulnerable to such platforms. In November 2016, the US Navy announced that it would not spend an astronomical amount of $ 800,000 per round on AGS, leaving both units dead weight. In other words, his guns simply won’t have ammo to shoot!

Lyndon B Johnson-Zumwalt
USS Lyndon B. Johnson, a Zumwalt class destroyer. (via Twitter)

Most surprisingly, the ship does not have a Close-range Weapons System (CIWS), which cannot protect it from bursts of anti-ship missiles. Even the 57mm Mark-110 guns that were originally planned on the Zumwalt had only limited CIWS capability, without the reliability of the 20mm Phalanx Gatling gun or the Rolling Airframe Missile and SeaRAM point missile defense systems.

The guns were removed from the base design of the Zumwalt in 2014 so as not to add to its radar signature!

As it does not have Aegis radar and fire control systems, it will also not have “layered air defense” systems capable of firing advanced surface-to-air missiles of the Standard Missile 2/3 / series. 6, which are even anti-satellite and ballistic. Missile Defense Capability (BMD)! All it has is the RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow missile, which cannot fly more than 30 miles.

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Ironically, Zumwalt’s program was intended to operate in a “high threat” environment to support ground bombardment, which cannot be achieved without being inherently capable of air defense. Worse yet, even its intended radar system was downgraded to reduce costs, where the smaller SPY-3 radar was installed without the SPY-4.

This led to the simple update of SPY-3 with new software to perform both surveillance and tracking roles.

In April of this year, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday said the USN planned to deploy hypersonic missiles to the Zumwalt-class destroyers “as a major step forward to make them a platform for hit”.

It even marked the basic doctrinal direction of the ship, moving from a support vessel for coastal and amphibious operations to an attack platform capable of reaching blue waters.



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