(CNN) — The US Navy’s most advanced surface warship is showing its stealthy profile in the western Pacific in a mission that may set the stage for the eventual deployment of US hypersonic missiles to the region.
The USS Zumwalt is the first in a class of three multimission guided-missile destroyers that the Navy says will “create a new level of complexity in the battlespace for potential adversaries.”
In the Pacific, one such potential adversary is obviously China, and the Zumwalt will certainly attract Beijing’s attention.
“The presence of a stealth warship will attract a lot of (Chinese) interest,” especially if the Zumwalt is equipped with hypersonic weapons, said analyst Carl Schuster, a former US Navy captain.
And that time may not be far away.
An August report from the US Naval Institute said the Zumwalt will be upgraded next year to accommodate the Pentagon’s Common Hypersonic Glide Corps (C-HGB), a weapons system that uses a booster rocket motor to fire missiles at hypersonic speed.
According to a May 2022 Congressional Research Service report, “C-HGB must be maneuverable, making it more difficult to detect and intercept and can travel at Mach 5 or more…at least five times as fast.” than the speed of sound or up to 13,000 miles (20,921 kilometers) per hour.
“The C-HGB is designed to be able to destroy targets by virtue of its speed alone,” the report says.
After making a port call in Guam last week, the Zumwalt arrived in Japan on Monday, US Navy 7th Fleet spokesman Lt. Mark Langford said.
A Navy statement said the warship has been assigned to Destroyer Squadron 15, the US Navy’s largest destroyer squadron headquartered outside the United States, which operates out of Yokosuka Naval Base, near Tokyo.
Zumwalt “plays an integral role in maintaining our competitive advantage and securing our allies and partners in the region,” said Lt. Katherine Serrano, a spokeswoman for Destroyer Squadron 15.
Zumwalt outshines other US destroyers
At 610 feet (185 meters) long and with a displacement of 16,000 metric tons, the Zumwalt is “the world’s largest and most technologically advanced surface combatant,” according to a Navy fact sheet.
By contrast, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, the backbone of the US Navy’s fleet, are about 100 feet (30 meters) shorter and have a displacement of less than 10,000 tons.
China’s largest surface combatant, the Type 055 destroyer, displaces between 12,000 and 13,000 tons.
But while the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy can’t match Zumwalt’s size, it can certainly win the battle on sheer numbers.
The US Navy will have just three Zumwalt-class ships, the others being the USS Michael Mansoor and the future USS Lyndon B. Johnson.
The Chinese Navy has six active Type 055s with more expected to arrive as part of a massive shipbuilding program that has seen the Chinese naval fleet overtake the US to become the world’s largest.
The USS Zumwalt is armed with 80 vertical launch cells for missiles that can engage land and sea targets, as well as anti-submarine rockets, but the Type 055 has 112 launch cells capable of the same tasks.
The US Navy says the Zumwalt boasts a variety of innovations, the most striking of which is its stealthy design.
“The wave-piercing RV hull design has facilitated a wide range of advancements. The composite superstructure significantly reduces radar cross section and other signatures, making the ship more difficult to detect by enemies at sea,” according to the Navy fact sheet.
a troublesome program
The Zumwalt class of destroyers has been a controversial and expensive program for the US Navy. With research and development costs factored in, the three ships in the class are priced at about $8 billion each, according to a 2018 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report to Congress.
That price per ship would have dropped considerably if the Navy had gone ahead with its original plan to build 32 of the huge destroyers, but that number was reduced to the current three after the service decided the Zumwalt-class would need a considerable amount of modifications to perform a ballistic missile defense mission, something the Arleigh Burkes-class could do more cheaply, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Ships have also been slow to come online. Zumwalt was commissioned in 2016, but it took four years for the Navy to accept final delivery from shipbuilder General Dynamics after all of its systems were verified.
While a warship’s movements are typically called deployments, the Navy does not use that term for Zumwalt’s current presence in the Pacific, a Navy official said.
“While the ship and crew are tasked as ships would normally be, their employment is part of the fleet integration process to introduce a class of ship into the operating environment and understand how it can best operate with other ships/platforms. ”, said the official.
Schuster, the Hawaii-based analyst, called Zumwalt’s moves “more political than military” until the Navy can get those hypersonic weapons on board.
“At more than $8 billion each, the Navy is struggling to find a mission for these currently lightly armed ships,” he said.
Still, he said, it will give the Chinese Navy something to think about.