Stealth Zumwalt destroyers will be first US Navy warships armed with hypersonic missiles, top admiral says

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Stealth Zumwalt destroyers will be first US Navy warships armed with hypersonic missiles, top admiral says
Zumwalt-class guided-missile destroyer USS Michael Monsoor during US Pacific Fleet's Unmanned Systems Integrated Battle Problem 21, April 21U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Shannon Renfroe
  • The first Navy warships to carry hypersonic missiles will be the Zumwalt destroyers.
  • Initial expectations were the weapon's deployment would start with Virginia-class submarines.
  • The Navy is expected to start fielding it aboard its vessels in 2025, the Navy's top officer said.

The first US Navy warfighting vessels to be armed with hypersonic missiles will be the stealth Zumwalt-class destroyers, the service's top admiral said, according to USNI News.

While the Navy was expected to field hypersonic weaponry on its cruise-missile submarines first, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said at a Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments event Tuesday that the service intended to start with the Zumwalts.

"Our biggest R&D effort is in hypersonics - to deliver that capability in 2025 on a surface ship and then on Block V [Virginia-class] submarines," Gilday said, adding that fielding hypersonic weaponry aboard the Zumwalt-class destroyers would be an "important move" toward turning these ships into strike platforms.

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The Zumwalt-class destroyers were designed to fight in littoral waters, carrying out land-attack and naval-fire support missions. Their primary weapon was to be the Advanced Gun System, consisting of a pair of 155 mm guns.

But a reduction in the size of the class from a few dozen ships to just three caused the cost of the Long Range Land Attack Projectile to jump to almost $1 million a round, forcing the Navy to reevaluate its armaments and missions.

The Navy's three Zumwalt-class destroyers - the USS Zumwalt, USS Michael Monsoor, and the future USS Lyndon B. Johnson - are expected to be blue-water surface-warfare and naval-strike platforms instead.

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The hypersonic missile that the Navy is developing is the Conventional Prompt Strike weapon, which uses the Common Hypersonic Glide Body that the Army and Navy are working together to develop.

The military successfully flight-tested the glide body in March 2020.

Stealth Zumwalt destroyers will be first US Navy warships armed with hypersonic missiles, top admiral says
A common hypersonic glide body launches during a Department of Defense flight experiment at the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii March 19, 2020.US Navy

A hypersonic glide body is the part of a hypersonic weapon that carries the warhead. Launched using a conventional rocket booster, the glide body eventually separates from the rocket and continues on to the target.

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After separation, the glide body is no longer able to accelerate, but it retains the ability to maneuver.

While hypersonic weapons have the ability to fly at speeds of at least Mach 5, it is their maneuverability that makes them particularly dangerous. Modern air- and missile-defense systems are not designed to counter this type of threat.

Because these weapons are difficult to defeat, hypersonic missiles have become a key area of strategic competition between the US and its rivals China and Russia.

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Before the Navy can arm its Zumwalt-class destroyers with these weapons, it needs to not only finish developing the weapon but also figure out how to integrate it on the destroyers, which don't have vertical-launch-system cells large enough for them.

The Navy sent out a solicitation in mid-March asking industry partners for solutions on how the Zumwalts could be reconfigured to carry the larger hypersonic missiles. The sources-sought notice is looking at an advanced payload module capable of carrying hypersonic missiles in a "three-pack configuration."

Speaking Tuesday, Gilday also expressed interest in using the substantial power-generation capabilities of the Zumwalt-class destroyers to support directed-energy weaponry for defense against emerging threats.

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