The biggest research and development effort in the U.S. Navy is hypersonic missiles — weapons with projectiles that move faster than the speed of sound.
It had been assumed that the Navy would outfit its cruise-missile submarines with hypersonic missiles before adding the new technology to other classes of vessels. However, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday has announced that the service will be placing the missiles on their Zumwalt-class destroyers first. He made the announcement at a Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments event.
The Navy calls the missile the Conventional Prompt Strike weapon. It uses the Common Hypersonic Glide Body which they are developing in conjunction with the U.S. Army. They completed a successful test flight of the body in March of 2020.
The hypersonic glide body carries the warhead. It launches with a conventional rocket booster. The booster is eventually discarded and the glide body continues to the target. While no longer able to accelerate, the body is steerable. That, more than their ability to fly at speeds greater than Mach 5, is what makes them so hard to defend against. Current defense systems are not capable of countering these missiles.
This has made hypersonic missiles a key point of competition between the U.S., Russia, and China.
The Zumwalt class of destroyers consists of just three ships: the USS Zumwalt, the USS Michael Monsoor, and the upcoming USS Lyndon B. Johnson.
The first of the Zumwalt-class destroyers, the DDG 1000 Zumwalt, was first delivered to the Navy in May 2016. It was commissioned in October 2016. The ships were designed by Northrop Grumman Ship Systems and Raytheon Systems Company served as the systems integrator. Bath Iron Works, Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems Land and Armament and Boeing all worked on the project as well.
Those ships are designed to operate in littoral waters, so the Navy is working to outfit them as blue-water surface warfare and naval-strike platforms. The primary weapon on the Zumwalt-class ships was to be the Advanced Gun System with its pair of 155mm guns using Long Range Land Attack Projectiles. Reducing the number of Zumwalt-class ships to three has raised the price per shell of ammunition to nearly $1 million per round, so the Navy has been forced to reconsider the original plans.
The main issues facing the Navy before they can implement the plan are that the missiles are not completely developed yet and the vertical-launch-system cells on the Zumwalt-class destroyers are not large enough to hold the new missiles.
In the middle of March, the Navy solicited defense industry partners for ways to reconfigure the Zumwalt-class ships so that they could handle the new missiles. In the solicitation, they requested an advanced payload module that could carry the missiles in a “three-pack configuration.”
Gilday also mentioned that the Navy is looking for ways to use the power-generating abilities of the Zumwalt-class vessels to use directed-energy weapons as a defense against emerging threats.
After outfitting the Zumwalt destroyers with the hypersonic missiles, the Navy is planning to add the missiles to their Virginia-class submarines.
The goal is to have the hypersonic missiles on the Zumwalt-class destroyers in 2025.