The Bunker: A Hypersonic Sea Siren

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This week in The Bunker: A deep dive into why the Navy, eager to find a mission for its fleet of $8 billion destroyers, is scrapping a costly gun for an even costlier hypersonic missile.


How to “succeed” at the Pentagon without really trying

After years trying to give its fledgling three-ship fleet of Zumwalt-class destroyers a real mission, the Navy is moving full steam ahead to outfit them with hypersonic weapons. These Conventional Prompt Strike missiles are key, the Pentagon says, to taking out critical targets in the opening minutes of a war. Sure, the Navy could launch just-as-fast ballistic missiles, or slower-flying cruise missiles, against such command posts and air-defense networks. Or the Air Force could attack them with stand-off bombs or lob their own cruise missiles.

But that’s so 20th century.

No, the U.S. military insists, what’s needed is a 21st century solution — one that marries a 21st century ship to a 21st century weapon. Especially when that 21st century ship has been floating impotently around for years like a toy pistol that fires a flag saying “Bang!” when you pull the trigger. At $8 billion a pop — $24 billion(PDF) for the fleet of three — that’s a mighty costly banner.

The Navy took delivery of the first-in-class USS Zumwalt destroyer in May 2016. The service got the second ship, the USS Michael Monsoor, in 2018, and expects the final one, the USS Lyndon B. Johnson, next year. They’re still looking for work.

The Zumwalts were designed as land-attack warships, but the Navy shifted them to mid-ocean fighting in 2017, after its original Advanced Gun System (AGS) proved to be a dud. The AGS was designed to fire precision-guided Long-Range Land-Attack Projectiles (LRLAP) 100 nautical miles. Then 83. Then 63. The total rounds each ship could carry followed the same trajectory: 750, to 460, to 300. As the size of the troubled fleet collapsed from 32 to three, the cost per round — a shell only the AGS could fire — skyrocketed from $35,000 to close to $1 million.

So, the Navy mothballed the 100-ton guns. “The Advanced Gun Systems will remain on the ships, but in an inactive status for future use, when a gun round that can affordably meet the desired capability is developed and fielded,” the Navy said in 2018.

The Bunker detailed this sorry state of affairs in 2019.

But in 2021, the Navy erased its 2018 pledge and decided to junk the AGS for hypersonics. The guns will soon be removed from the decks.

On February 17, the Navy awarded Lockheed a $1.2 billion contract to deliver CPS missiles, including testing aboard the Zumwalt starting in 2025 (tellingly, while Lockheed doesn’t have a CPS webpage, it does have a CPS jobs webpage). Adding CPS missiles to the Zumwalts puts them back in the land-attack biz. Capable of traveling five times the speed of sound, the hypersonic CPS is designed to have a range of at least 1,700 miles.

The CPS is designed to fill a narrow Pentagon hankering to hit heavily defended, time sensitive targets pretty much anywhere in the world within 30 minutes. To get down to Pentagon brass tacks, maps published by the Congressional Budget Office show how much of China the Navy could strike from Guam, or how much of Russia the Army could hit from Germany, if equipped with hypersonics.

But the downside of such high-speed weaponry (assuming you have the intelligence to use it) is that it works only in the first moments of a war. Once the balloon goes up, more conventional weapons can easily do the job. And they’re not even the only way to begin a war. “Hypersonic weapons could be better than ballistic missiles at penetrating long-range missile defenses that operate outside the atmosphere,” the Congressional Budget Office said in a January report. “So far, however, no potential U.S. adversaries have succeeded in developing such defenses. Against shorter-range defenses, it is unclear whether hypersonic missiles would have an advantage over ballistic missiles with maneuverable warheads.” And “much cheaper” cruise missiles, the CBO added, could do the job if speed isn’t critical.

Lockheed also built the ill-fated AGS round, which you can see in action — in a 2009 Lockheed painting — here (and check out a Lockheed artist’s rendering of the CPS lifting off from the Zumwalt, here). That two-fer shouldn’t come as a surprise, given consolidation in the defense industry and Lockheed’s perch as the U.S. military’s #1 contractor (2021 Pentagon revenues: over $64 billion).

CPS is already raising Pentagon eyebrows. Tests “have not included operationally representative targets and consequently do not provide direct evidence of the weapon’s lethal effects against intended targets,” the Pentagon’s testing office said(PDF) in January. “The Navy could attain both lethality and effectiveness data by incorporating representative targets into the [flight] tests and/or ground tests, but currently does not intend to do so.”

It’s tough to get an apples-to-apples comparison when contrasting a weapon never bought to a weapon yet-to-be built. But the Pentagon does it all the time, so The Bunker will, too. CBO estimates the first CPS missile will cost $81 million; if 300 were bought, the price would drop to $41 million(PDF) each (the $9 billion R&D bill[PDF] not included). The cost of 300 ballistic missiles with maneuverable warheads is pegged at $26 million(PDF) each, 37% less than the hypersonic variant. Upgraded Standard missiles would cost $6 million each, 15% of the hypersonics’ price.

Translated, that suggests the cost of putting steel on target from Zumwalt destroyers has grown from $35,000 a pop to $41 million. But unlike the LRLAP barrages used to justify development of the warships, each Zumwalt will be able to carry no more than 12 CPS missiles(PDF). The ships will have to return to a safe port to reload, making it all but inevitable that they’d be a one-trick pony in wartime. Factoring the Zumwalts’, um, sunk cost into the equation, the price of launching each of the 36 CPS missiles soars to more than $700 million (assuming all three ships would be carrying their maximum CPS load). Sure, that’s a simple and crude calculation, but it’s the kind acrobatic arithmetic the Pentagon does every day.

Zumwalt gave us an opportunity to get [hypersonics] out faster,” Admiral Mike Gilday, chief of naval operations, said. “And, to be honest with you, I need a solid mission for Zumwalt.”

Apparently, you can succeed at the Pentagon without really trying, so long as you’re really buying. 


Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently

The Ukraine Foreign Legion

Matt Gallagher accompanies the foreigners fighting alongside Ukrainians against Russia February 23 in Esquire.

A Sisyphean task. Again.

The Biden administration says it is putting human rights above commerce for U.S. arms sales, Jaspreet Gill reported February 23 in Breaking Defense.


Two Boeing engineers set a world distance record of 290 feet for their hypersonically inspired paper airplane, the company reported February 22. Maybe they can compete with Lockheed.

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