The US Navy has at least three options for fire support ashore, and should move out smartly with more than one.
As James Holmes of the Naval War College wrote on The National Interest last month, “the US Navy has an image problem.” Perhaps, as Steven Wills of Ohio University (aka. Lazarus) argued in the comments, it’s merely that ships like the Zumwalt-class destroyers “are just popular bad news sources for defense journalists to sell magazines and get clicks for their web pages.” This week, however, the Navy produced its own clickbait, in announcing its intention to avoid buying cannon shells for its biggest cannons. This is more than an image problem; it’s a deadly serious problem that was eminently avoidable. Fortunately, there are at least three ways out of this mess now, and at least two should be pursued in parallel.
Since the very successful Arleigh Burke-class destroyers were designed in the mid-1980s, almost every new class of ship bought by the US Navy has had significant developmental problems. In some ways, the best news so far about the Zumwalt-class destroyers has been the 155 mm “Advanced Gun System” from BAE Systems; these six-inchers have basically passed their tests as advertised. Lockheed Martin’s associated 155 mm Long-Range Land-Attack Projectile (LRLAP) has also passed its developmental tests. The Navy had laid plans last year to buy one hundred and fifty rounds and some associated items for operational testing in 2018. So all should be well, right?
The Navy’s issue is with the price: $113 million, or about $800,000 per round. Shocked by that sticker, the department is proposing to terminate the program, and to hold a competition for new rounds in the future. This would leave the Zumwalts for some time, to paraphrase Defense News’s headline, as “new ships with big guns but no bullets.” The problem, it seems, is volume. The Navy originally intended to buy thirty-two Zumwalts; with a fleet of now only three, and just two guns per ship, Lockheed could never achieve the economies of scale needed for a reasonable price. As an unnamed naval official told Christopher Cavas, “quantities of ships killed the affordable round.”
Not everyone has been immediately satisfied with that answer. Kyle Mizokami (@KyleMizokami) of Popular Mechanics asked on Twitter “is this a joke? How long have they known they were only getting three destroyers?” I can answer that: since Defense Secretary Robert Gates truncated the Zumwalt program in April 2009. The Navy has had over six years in which to have figured this out, but has done little. As such, it’s possible that this move is just a “Washington Monument strategy,” an occasional ploy in the US Navy’s budgeting, in which the service declines to fund something so obvious that the Congress will reflexively find the money elsewhere. Or maybe someone in the admiralty finally said enough is enough with crazy spending plans. Either way, the headlines were sure to be embarrassing.
The Navy should forthwith figure up a strategy for those big guns, but if it will only have six big guns, it ought to reconsider alternatives as well. After the technical failures of Raytheon’s Extended Range Guided Munition (ERGM) and Alliant Techsystems’s Ballistic Trajectory Extended Range Munition (BTERM) programs, the service reasonably cut back on advanced munitions in five-inch (127 mm). But the Navy has been talking again about buying guided sub-caliber rounds for the many five-inchers on those cruisers and destroyers, as at least one contractor seems to have succeeded recently. Leonardo is currently (if slowly) producing 127 mm sub-caliber Vulcano rounds for GPS/INS-guided shore bombardment at up to 100 kilometers, and attacking ships with infrared guidance at up to 80 kilometers. That doesn’t deliver nearly as much blast effect as a full-caliber 155 mm round, but it’s available now.
But what of those six AGSs? Presumably the service isn’t yet countenancing removing the guns in favor of refurbished five-inchers. Raytheon would also like the chance to adapt its 155 mm Excalibur precision-guided howitzer round for naval use. The loading mechanisms and the barrel velocities are completely different, so the engineering problem is not trivial. Any naval Excaliburs would thus would come later, but the howitzer round does have an excellent combat record from Iraq and Afghanistan. Leonardo similarly produces a 155 mm Vulcano round for howitzers, and so might be interested in such a project too. If either company could credibly offer a naval version, Lockheed would at least need to rethink its approach and price. If a lower price isn’t attainable by any of these prospective suppliers, then a wholly different weapon might be appropriate.
Note also that the LRLAPs have only GPS and inertial guidance, so they are only intended to strike fixed targets. The Navy never articulated a “requirement” to sink ships with them, as useful as that might have been. Any radar or infrared seeker would have required shock-hardening for launch from a gun barrel, but Lockheed and its subcontractors did achieve that with the GPS receiver and the solid-state inertial. The lack of foresight by military professionals in this case is also not singular. The Army hadn’t thought since at least 1950 that it needed to sink ships, but some stern congressmen and defense officials recently said otherwise. As I wrote about last week, Will Roper and his Strategic Capabilities Office are now working to get the artillery branch some Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS) modified to kill ships underway.
From export data, an ATACMS seems to cost slightly more than $1 million, or somewhat more than a single LRLAP round. One alternative to the LRLAP, tested back in 1997, was Raytheon’s RGM-165 (SM-4) Land Attack Standard Missile (LASM), which was basically an SM-2MR Block III missile with GPS/INS guidance in place of the radar seeker. Back then, the anti-aircraft version of the SM-2MR Block III cost about $680,000, so the simpler GPS/INS version should have cost a bit less. The Navy figured on buying eight hundred LASMs for supporting Marine landings. Perhaps $544 million seems like a lot of money for fire support, but it would have been a lot less than the Zumwalts, which are projected to cost almost $4 billion, even after development costs, and which now concentrate the long-range fire support potential in just three ships. However, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld cancelled the LASM program in 2002, as the missiles had no capability against moving targets, and little ability to penetrate hardened ones. That’s a lot to expect from five-inch guns too, but skip that for the moment.
Instead, just ask whether this decision should now be reconsidered. When Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced the anti-ship ATACMS at the CSIS’s Third Offset conference last week, he noted that the SCO expected that this new seeker could also guide the ATACMS and its 500-pound blast-fragmentation warhead onto moving targets ashore. The LASM would have delivered a 300-pound Mark 125 blast-fragmentation warhead—still a lot of impact, and available from the vertical launchers on any Navy destroyer or cruiser. With a guidance system like the one the SCO is funding, could the LASM not do for the Navy and the Marines what the Anti-Ship ATACMS should do for the Army?
Very possibly. All of this is challenging engineering work, but none of it should be difficult programmatically, and all of it should be obvious strategically. Over the past 20 years, the Navy has had plenty of opportunities to choose missiles or guns, full-caliber or sub-caliber, and Burkes or Zumwalts. Each time, the decision has foundered on technical challenges or budget problems. As important as fire support may be to troops ashore, it’s high time for the Navy to pursue more than one path.
James Hasik is a senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.