Navy’s Ammo-less Destroyer Should be Equipped With This Proven Rocket System

The Zumwalt class stealth destroyer has become a floating example of just how miserably bastardized major defense acquisition programs can get. Now that the news has broke that the ship’s twin Advanced Gun Systems (AGS) won’t even have any ammunition to fire, because each shell costs nearly a million dollars, the Navy should quickly take another, highly proven route to replace the AGS mission set, and even expand it in the process.

One of the shining technological stars of recent military operations abroad is the Army’s and the Marine’s High Mobility Mobile Rocket Artillery System, better known as HiMARS. The system is really a pint-sized, quickly deployable version of the M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System which is capable of slinging various rockets over long distances with extreme accuracy. Both HiMARS and the M270 are capable of carrying pods filled with a six-pack of 277mm rockets or a single 655mm Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS). The M270 carries two of these weapons pods while HiMARS carries one. 

What is so attractive about migrating this adaptive design over to the Zumwalt class is that multiple types of rockets were built to be launched from these common multi-celled pods. Such a system could likely be adapted into vertical launch cells taking up the area where the AGS is fitted aboard the Zumwalt. Doing so could actually reduce the ship’s radar cross-section. Four rockets that are already adapted to use this fairly simple launch systems, three of which are already fielded operationally in large quantities, would be of interest for DDG-1000. 

 Visitors tour the Zumwalt's foredeck, with the rear AGS seen in its low observable cupola., USN

The first two are the M30 and M31 Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System rockets. These missiles can reach out to 50 miles and are precision guided using inertial navigation with embedded GPS. They are highly accurate and hard to defend against. Additionally, the M30 carries 404 submunitions and can affect a large area, while the M31 has a 200lb high explosive unitary warhead, better suited for taking out pinpoint targets such as structures and vehicles ,or for providing very close support for ground troops.  

The M30 and M31 rockets. , US Army

The GMLRS+ has been in development and features the same capabilities of the M31, but can fly out even farther, to around 70 miles, and can be equipped with a laser seeker to strike moving targets designated by a third party. This could be a done by a ship, a tactical aircraft, or a special operations team in the area that the missile is intended to impact.

The third is the much larger, much longer-ranged M39 ATACMS ballistic missile. The 3,700lb missile can fly out to nearly 200 miles, and packs a 500lb unitary warhead or various submunitions. It can take out a field of enemy personnel and material, or it can obliterate a building. ATACMS is also GPS/INS guided and has high accuracy. A new version is in the process of being fielded that includes a seeker that will allow the missile to hit moving targets.

The idea of modifying ATACMS to hit moving targets has sparked the imagination of the US Army, who is interested in using the missile as a coastal defense anti-ship ballistic missile. Anti-ship duties have long been the purview of the US Navy, but with the Pacific Pivot underway, real anti-access/area denial threats growing, and the Navy pushing its own “distributed lethality” concept, it is hard to argue against such an application or the Army’s interest in it.

ATACMS being fired. , US Army

Although ATACMS is out of production, thousands still are in stock and are being upgraded, and a replacement is on the way. The great thing is that this replacement will likely be able to use the same launch system as that used on HiMARS and the M270 MLRS, and will feature increased capabilities. This missile will likely have a 310 mile range and will have a smaller diameter than the 30 year old ATACMS design, allowing two to be carried in each MLRS pod, as opposed to one. Additionally, it may also be networked and will most likely feature a multi-mode seeker for engaging all types of targets, including ships, in all weather situations. 

Raytheon's entry into the Long Range Precision Fires program will feature a missile with 300+ mile range that can fit two to a single MLRS pod. , Raytheon

What the Navy would get by removing the Zumwalt’s Advanced Gun System and replacing it with adapted MLRS launchers is an off-the-shelf, high production volume, very flexible weapon system that will in most ways totally surpass the capabilities that the AGS was supposed to provide. With it, DDG-1000 will be able to not only provide rapid precision fires over many dozens of miles, but it will be able to also do so over hundreds of miles. Not just that, but it will be able to do both using unitary or area munitions, something the AGS could never do. And those area munitions could be especially handy when providing naval gunfire support for Marines as they prepare for a beach landing. Sub-munition laden M30 and ATACMS rockets can clear the beach of enemy personnel and lightly armored vehicles, while M31 and ATACMS rockets can go after heavily armored vehicles and fortified bunkers. 

The original DDG-1000 concept is shattered in many ways, the fact that its guns won't even have ammo is maybe the most glaring. 

More than anything else, the Navy would be investing in a very mature weapons concept that has already achieved production efficiency, and one that is constantly evolving with new rocket upgrades and capabilities. By adding US Navy dollars to the program it will only get stronger, and the USMC already fields the system. Cost-wise there is no comparison to an M30/31 rocket and a ACS shell. The rocket costs around $100,000 and the AGS shell costs at least eight times that, and likely more. The ATACMS cost far more, at around $875,000 per missile, but it’s hard hitting capabilities and long range fall somewhere between the less expensive M30/31 and the more expensive Tomahawk cruise missile.

The nice thing also about the system is that for now large amounts of MLRS prds, each capable of carrying a single ATACMS or six M30/31s, can take up the space where the Zumwalt’s guns are today, leaving massive areas below deck vacant. This is where the AGS’s complex ammo handling systems are today. In the future, say half of these MLRS cells can are removed for the installation of an electromagnetic railgun, while the other half can still remain. 

USS Zumwalt underway. , USN

Roughly each six round container takes up one and a half Mark 41 vertical launch cells. Even if an installation the size of the Mark 41 VLS magazine on the bow of a Ticonderoga class cruiser (61 cells) were installed on DDG-1000 ships, this would mean that a total of 40 MLRS pods could be fitted in the same surface area. This would equal 240 M30/31 rockets, or a mix of say 10 ATACMS and 180 M30/31. This is a lot of firepower, and the configuration offers far more capability than what a single AGS could provide. This is especially true considering that ATACMS is now likely to get an anti-ship capability, and regardless of that, it would give the DDG-1000 an intermediate range land-attack weapon. In the future, two replacement missiles will be able to fit into a single pod and offer far greater range.

If the Zumwalt class were to pave the way with integrating a VLS version of the MLRS, other candidate hosts could follow suit. Most notably, the San Antonio class of Amphibious Transport Docks that were designed with a space for a 16 cell Mark 41 vertical launch system. Hosting a navalized MLRS on these ships would make perfect sense considering their role is to support, or even unilaterally conduct, amphibious operations and low-intensity warfare missions, just like USS San Antonio is executing right now off the coast of Libya.

USS San Antonio LPD-17., USN

Converting this space over to MLRS capability would also allow the ship to directly support raids by Marines deep into enemy territory without the need of keeping organic air assets overhead. It would also be able to help prepare the beach for a landing via providing direct artillery support from far over the horizon. Roughly ten MLRS six-celled systems could be installed in the space, which would offer 60 M30/31 rockets to be at the disposal of Marine commanders. 

In the end, the Navy should at the very least investigate what it would take to adapt the MLRS for its uses, and the loss of a dedicated round for the Zumwalt class’s Advanced Gun Systems could be turned from a huge loss into a substantial gain. One that could be had at comparatively minimal cost. Not only that, but the Navy and Marines could finally have an answer for their lack of naval gunfire support that evaporated the day the last Iowa class battleship was retired. 

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