Navy’s Stealth Destroyer May Be On Its First Operational Deployment

The U.S. Navy’s USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000) stealthy guided-missile destroyer recently departed Guam after making a brief port call starting on September 19. A corresponding announcement released by the Navy that same day explained that this is the first time the USS Zumwalt has pulled into Guam and that the vessel will now “continue operations in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific region.” Based on this announcement, it appears that the highly advanced destroyer may be marking its first operational deployment, although we are awaiting confirmation from the Navy, which did not answer the question directly in their response to The War Zone’s initial inquiry.

Editor’s note: see the update at the bottom of the article for the Navy’s response.

“USS Zumwalt is conducting operations in the U.S. 7th Fleet,” Lt. Mark Langford, U.S. Navy spokesperson, said in a statement to The War Zone. “Integrating Zumwalt into fleet operations, as well as with allies and partners, is an important step for the DDG 1000 class and for the Navy. Zumwalt class destroyers maximize stealth, size, power, and computing capacity – fielding an array of weapons systems and cutting-edge technologies to fight forces in the air, on and under the sea, and on land.”

The War Zone has reached back out to the Navy to try and confirm that this is officially USS Zumwalt’s first operational deployment, but has yet to hear back. 

The controversial USS Zumwalt, which was commissioned six years ago, is currently assigned to Task Force 71/Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 15, which is the Navy’s largest forward-deployed DESRON and the Japan-based U.S. 7th Fleet’s principal surface force. This fact further supports the possibility that its current deployment is operational in nature.

USS Zumwalt is the first of three DDG-1000 class destroyers and has been somewhat regularly transiting to and from its home port of Naval Base San Diego and areas of the Pacific as far out as Hawaii and Alaska since it first took to the water. However, none of those trips have been officially identified as operational deployments.

The lead ship of the U.S. Navy’s newest class of guided-missile destroyers, USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000), arrives in Pearl Harbor on April 2 during a scheduled port visit. Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Corwin M. Colbert

As mentioned, The War Zone has yet to receive a clear confirmation that USS Zumwalt’s trip to the western Pacific was the destroyer’s first operational deployment, but the statement provided by Lt. Langford paired with what 7th Fleet has provided certainly implies something to that effect. Langford specifically stated that integrating USS Zumwalt into fleet operations is an important step for the DDG-1000 class, which suggests that its time with Task Force 71/DESRON 15 and the 7th Fleet could be the beginning of its frontline career.

The Navy announcement went on to add that port calls, such as the one completed by USS Zumwalt in Guam, are an aspect of the Navy’s routine operations, and this one was scheduled in conjunction with Naval Base Guam’s own Morale, Welfare, Recreation (MWR) program. According to the Navy, the sailors used their free time to visit Guam’s local restaurants, gyms, and beaches in an effort to decompress from the demanding nature of life at sea, thereby enhancing the ship’s overall mission readiness. Now that USS Zumwalt has departed Guam, the Navy says it will be continuing unspecified operations in the region.

Lt. Cmdr. Joshua Roaf, from Bennington, Vermont, leads Sailors assigned to Joint Region Marianas through a tour of guided-missile destroyer USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) pier side at Naval Base Guam, Sept. 14. Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jaimar Carson Bondurant

What exactly that will entail, though, isn’t immediately clear either. Task Force 71/DESRON 15’s duties are described by the Navy as consisting of operations that exercise tactical control of assigned surface ships to better plan, direct, and monitor presence operations, standing theater security missions, and multilateral operations and exercises with regional allies. While broad, the mission statement does add a semblance of context in terms of the role that USS Zumwalt may play as it patrols the Pacific.

USS Zumwalt along, with its sibling the USS Michael Monsoor (DDG-1001), are assigned to Surface Development Squadron One (SURFDEVRON). The third and final ship in this class, the future USS Lyndon B. Johnson (DDG 1002), is expected to be assigned to this unit after its commissioning sometime next year. SURFDEVRON is an experimental Navy unit established in 2019 to which other unmanned surface vessels are assigned as well. One of SURFDEVRON’s predominant missions is to evaluate where the Zumwalt class will fit best among the fleet so that the highly advanced destroyer can make the most of its capabilities. 

The Zumwalt-class guided-missile destroyer USS Michael Monsoor (DDG 1001). Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Aleksandr Freutel

The Navy has flip-flopped on what exactly it wants those capabilities to be as each vessel in the class nears reaching initial operational capability, but the service’s latest decision has placed the Zumwalt class primarily in a surface strike role. The Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS) program has selected the Zumwalt class as the initial platform to fire the program’s future intermediate-range hypersonic weapons

However, the ships’ present Mk 57 Vertical Launch System (VLS) arrays are too small to house the CPS missile, so new Large Missile Vertical Launch Systems will have to be installed to better handle the munition. It remains somewhat unclear exactly how the new launch systems will be integrated onto the three Zumwalt class destroyers, but official renderings that have been released so far make it clear that they will replace at least one of the two 155mm Advanced Gun Systems currently installed on each ship.

The guided-missile destroyer USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000) fires an SM-2 Block IIIAZ surface-to-air missile from one of its Mk 57 VLS arrays during an exercise at the Point Mugu Test Range in the Pacific Ocean. Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Lt. j.g. Mary Kierstead
An artist’s rendering released in 2022 shows the USS Zumwalt with its forward 155m Advanced Gun System replaced by four large vertical launch cells for the new Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS) hypersonic missile. Lockheed Martin

Regardless, even if without its full slate of planned weaponry and capabilities, it’s promising to see that the Navy’s $9 billion next-generation destroyer is now on the move at least in some forward operating capacity. If the 7th Fleet gets back to us with the specifics, The War Zone will be sure to provide an update. 

Update 9/21 8:14 PST —

A U.S. Navy official has responded to The War Zone‘s inquiries with the following statement:

“Your assertion is correct; however, the Navy is not using the term ‘deployment’ for USS Zumwalt’s current employment across the Indo-Pacific. While the ship and crew are being tasked as ships normally would be, their employment is part of the fleet integration process of introducing a class of ship into the operational environment and understanding how it can best operate with other ships/platforms. We are also learning about the maintenance and sustainability of the DDG 1000 class as well, and that will help inform future deployments.”

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