Fully unloaded: US Navy’s pricey stealth ship ammo too expensive to fire

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 November, 2016, 10:54am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 November, 2016, 10:04pm

Modern warfare is not cheap. But even among the priciest and most cutting-edge battle machines, the USS Zumwalt is in a class of its own. The warship is the most expensive destroyer in the history of the navy, costing about US$4.4 billion.

Along with the hefty price tag comes a marvel of nautical engineering. During its October commissioning ceremony in Baltimore, Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the United States Pacific Command, described the Zumwalt as the warship Batman would own.

But even a billionaire playboy like Bruce Wayne would struggle to finance the ship’s guns, reported to fire ammunition costing US$800,000 a round.

The ship is 186 metres long but has the radar signature of a fishing vessel a twelfth of its size, thanks to a unique angular hull that obscures its guns, radar systems and sensors from detection. It treads quietly through the water. “The composite superstructure significantly reduces cross section and acoustic output making the ship harder to detect by enemies at sea,” according to the navy’s description.

“As long as our president and you the American people have an insatiable appetite for security ... I have an insatiable appetite for the stuff to underwrite that security,” Admiral Harris said.

Zumwalt-class ships were also meant to carry advanced, high energy weapons. Specifically, the USS Zumwalt was designed to bear two guns that fired Long Range Land Attack Projectiles, or LRLAP. The advanced gun system was built to rapidly and precisely strike targets more than 110km away, as a cost-effective alternative to cruise missiles.

As developer Lockheed Martin described the system on its website: “The 155mm LRLAP is both the most accurate and longest-range guided projectile in US Navy history, with a maximum range in excess of 63 nautical miles. It’s [sic] precision and near vertical angle of fall enables the Warfighter to defeat targets in the urban canyons of coastal cities with minimal collateral damage ... The LRLAP system provides high-volume fire support at a rate of 10 rounds per minute through the depth of the magazine.”

The tests of the weapon showed promise. But, just a few weeks after the Zumwalt’s commissioning ceremony, it became apparent there was a problem with LRLAP: the US$800,000 price tag on a single shot of the GPS-guided, rocket-propelled ammunition.

“We were going to buy thousands of these rounds,” said an unnamed navy official to Defence News on Sunday. “But quantities of ships killed the affordable round.” Fully stocked, the ship would carry 600 rounds of LRLAP ammunition.

Lockheed Martin initially estimated that the projectiles would cost about $50,000 each. As Ars Technica noted, the current US$800,000 price tag is closer to that of a $1 million-per-shot Tomahawk cruise missile, which is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and travelling more than 1,600km. The LRLAP costs an order of magnitude more than other GPS- or laser-guided rounds, and far more than the shells fired by standard five-inch artillery guns.

The navy was unable to immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post. A naval representative told Defence News via email that the navy was “evaluating industry projectile solutions” that “could potentially be used as an alternative to LRLAP.”

The navy’s initial plan, when it began developing the warships, was to build 32 of the Zumwalt-class vessels. But as the cost ballooned, the programme shrunk from 24 ships to seven and, ultimately, the current plan of three ships. Of these, the USS Zumwalt is the only one finished.

It is unclear what will happen to the weapon system, or whether other proposed systems, such as the navy’s high-tech rail gun, would be installed on the USS Zumwalt.