The Surface Fleet, ASW and Defeating Hyper-Sonic Cruise Missiles: The Case of the Zumwalt Class


By Ed Timperlake

The US Navy and the surface fleet is very much engaged in our strategic and tactical thinking about how to defend against the emerging Hyper-Sonic Cruise Missile threat. 

Of course, the best way to stop a HSCM is to sink the enemy sub before it has a chance to fire.  

A new player which could play a key role in a kill web approach could be the new Zumwalt class destroyer.  There are three ships in this class, but rethinking the key role it could play in a kill web approach to the HSCM and other threats might lead to a rethink. 

I have had a lifelong experience with the US Navy first as a “Navy Junior” because my father was career subs and an early participant in the Nuc Sub Navy serving on the USS Triton (SRN-586).

After graduating from Annapolis, I entered the Marines and became a Carrier qualified Naval Aviator so have had a lifetime of experience with the learning cycle for the sea services. 

My key take away is that the Navy has proven to be absolutely ruthless in dealing with technology. 

The Navy leadership in my personal experience  has always been unrelenting on making the very hard choices on giving the best platforms and weapons to their sailors, after having the most open mind of any military in the world on pushing R&D efforts. 

Of course, ugly politics often intrude beyond their control in the form of Congressional and OSD meddling. As always in our Constitutional process, one has to respect that civilian control. 

But left to their own devices the Navy most often gets it right. 

In an article which I published in The Washington Times a decade ago, I addressed how the Zumwalt can address the ASW challenge effectively.

On March 8, five Chinese ships converged on the USNS Impeccable, which was operating in international waters in the South China Sea. The dramatic confrontation was diffused but could have easily turned ugly.

At the time of the incident, the Impeccable was gathering intelligence about 70 miles south of Hainan Island, home to China’s newest and most sophisticated submarine base. China is in the process of creating its most lethal and stealthy fleet of submarines. Through an accelerated construction program and by purchasing ultra-quiet Russian subs, the Chinese are working toward a massive naval expansion, which is expected to top 200 attack and ballistic missile subs.

When China went after the Impeccable last month, the Chinese navy (or more accurately their Coast Guard), sent a powerful and very public signal from the waters off Hainan Island that they are worried about the U.S. Navy’s antisubmarine capabilities.

Chinese subs leaving port to hide in deep water must be identified and followed as they sortie out from the shallow waters. Now a significant capability of the Zumwalt-class destroyer becomes essential – the ability to defend itself with a significant punch while locating, tracking and identifying Chinese submarines in the cluttered littoral waters off Hainan Island and elsewhere.

Official Navy testimony delivered July 31 pointed out that the Zumwalt-class destroyer is “superior in littoral ASW” to the Burke-class, which has better “blue water” ASW. It the equivalent of a football coach saying the linebacker is superior at the line of scrimmage but the safety is better for deep coverage; both ship classes on the same team are hugely complementary.

Both the Burkes and Zumwalts will have the range and endurance well beyond the capability of the smaller Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). If both are combined in an ASW task force or going together in harm’s way as part of a carrier battle group, they will be mutually supporting and deadly.

Should a Chinese ballistic submarine make a run for open water in times of a building crisis, a future Zumwalt destroyer can tag it in shallow water, follow it to blue water and pass that intelligence along to a Burke destroyer and American attack submarines. This not only keeps America safer, it also keeps American sailors safer.

People can have honest disagreements over which of these two ships to support. But as China expands its submarine capabilities, there’s no doubt which American destroyer Chinese sub commanders would rather see scrapped. With superior littoral ASW capabilities designed to detect the quietest electric-powered stealth subs, the Zumwalt-class destroyer is a far greater threat to China’s growing submarine fleet.

If one goes back to my article of 10 years ago and if you simply substitute the Russian sub threat for the Peoples Liberation Army Navy sub threat highlighted in my analysis, the potential role of the Zumwalt is quite clear. 

Now with the Russian “gremlin” again on our doorstep, the shallow water ASW capabilities of the Zumwalts  might be of considerable value providing a key element in the Atlantic Sea Frontier. 

This is the sixth piece in our series on the response to Putin’s escalatory rhetoric and force structure planning with regard to threatening the US with sub strikes using high speed hypersonic missile