Missile Threat Helped Drive DDG Cut
Zumwalt Class Could Not Down Chinese Weapons
By christopher p. cavas
Published: 4 August 2008
The threat posed by a super-secret new Chinese ballistic missile is among the factors driving the U.S. Navy's decision to "truncate" the planned seven-ship DDG 1000 Zumwalt class of advanced destroyers and build more DDG 51-class ships.
After years of planning, U.S. Navy leaders have announced plans to end the Zumwalt class at two ships.
Navy officials say the primary advantage of DDG 51 Arleigh Burke-class ships equipped with the Lockheed Martin Aegis combat system is that they can shoot down ballistic missiles - a capability the Navy never asked for in its high-technology and high-priced Zumwalts and its new Raytheon-developed combat system.
A program to upgrade 15 existing DDG 51 destroyers, along with three Aegis cruisers, will be complete by year's end. But the new missile threat is causing combatant commanders - the "cocoms" who lead regional commands such as U.S. Pacific Command and European Command - to demand more ships that can handle ballistic missile defense (BMD). The Navy's solution is to drastically reduce the number of Zumwalts to two ships that critics say will be simply technology demonstrators.
"The DDG 1000 … is incapable of conducting ballistic missile defense," Vice Adm. Barry McCullough, deputy chief of naval operations for Integration of Resources and Capabilities, told Congress July 31 during a hearing called to address the destroyer issue.
McCullough, in his written testimony, also revealed that the DDG 1000 cannot perform area air defense - the ability to shoot down enemy planes and missiles over a wide region. The Zumwalts, McCullough said, "cannot successfully employ the Standard Missile-2 (SM-2), SM-3 or SM-6."
The SM-2 is the Navy's primary air defense missile, and Raytheon is developing the SM-6 replacement. The SM-3 is a BMD missile.
A Navy source said the ships could carry and launch Standard missiles, but the DDG 1000 combat system can't guide those missiles onward to a target.
The new information contrasts with a DDG 1000 briefing provided this spring by the Naval Sea Systems Command, which listed Standard missiles as among the Zumwalt's weapons, and with well-known sources such as Jane's Fighting Ships, which lists the new ships as carrying the SM-2 missile.
BMD Issue Grew
The BMD issue gained prominence with Navy planners over the winter as intelligence assessments described the new threat. McCullough, in response to a question at the hearing by the House Seapower subcommittee, said work to rejigger the destroyer program began "four and a half to five months" ago, making it late February or early March.
Although a "secret, classified" threat was discussed during the hearing, neither Navy officials nor lawmakers would reveal any details.
One source familiar with the classified briefing said that while anti-ship cruise missiles and other threats were known to exist, "those aren't the worst." The new threat, which "didn't exist a couple years ago," is a "land-launched ballistic missile that converts to a cruise missile."
Other sources confirmed that a new, classified missile threat is being briefed at very high levels. One admiral, said another source, was told his ships should simply "stay away. There are no options."
Information on the new threat remains closely held.
"There's really little unclassified information about this stuff," said Paul Giarra, a defense consultant in McLean, Va., "except for the considerable amount of information that's appeared in unclassified Chinese sources."
Several experts on Chinese missiles contacted for this story said they weren't sure which specific threat drove the Navy to change its destroyer plans. One source speculated it might be "Threat D, a cruise missile that separates to a supersonic missile." A Chinese ballistic missile with terminal radar-homing capabilities - "a carrier killer" - is another possibility.
Retired Rear Adm. Eric Vadon, a consultant on East Asian defense affairs, thought the weapon sounded like a Dong Feng 21 (DF-21) missile, also known by its western designation CSS-5. Although the basic missile has been in service since the 1970s, the Chinese are known to be working to turn it into a homing ballistic missile.
"There's a possibility that what we're seeing is that somebody is calling this thing a cruise missile because it has some of those characteristics," Vadon said. "It maneuvers and it homes in. But a cruise missile breathes air."
The Chinese targetable ballistic missile threat has long worried U.S. Navy planners and military professionals.
"We're pretty certain the Chinese have been working on this for some time," said Bernard Cole, a professor at National Defense University in Washington and an expert on the Chinese military. "It would pose a threat. I don't know how you would counter that missile."
But Cole said the description of a ballistic missile turning into a cruise missile is new: "I've never heard this described this way."
Sources in the Pentagon said the U.S. Navy has not yet moved to add the BMD upgrade to any more existing Aegis ships. But a senior defense official confirmed the Navy is embracing BMD as a mission for Aegis surface combatants - and that all the new DDG 51s the Navy is asking for will be BMD-capable.
McCullough also said that the destroyer modernization program, which will start in 2011 with the oldest ships, will include signal processors "with inherent ballistic missile defense capability." Those electronics will make the ships more easily upgradeable should the service choose to add the BMD upgrade.
Even if the Pentagon and Congress approve the request to build more DDG 51s, the new ships won't start to come on line until at last 2015, estimated Eric Labs of the Congressional Budget Office, who also testified at the July 31 hearing.
A Controversial Move
Navy leaders received permission July 22 to ask the Pentagon to build only two DDG 1000s and instead ask for at least nine more DDG 51s. While observers have known for months that support for the DDG 1000 program inside the Navy was weak, the move nevertheless surprised Raytheon, which is developing the combat system and numerous subsystems for the Zumwalts, and a number of lawmakers who support the DDG 1000 program.
"Wow. We're turning on a dime," Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., a former Navy vice admiral, said July 31 about the Navy's decision to halt DDG 1000 construction. "Where's the analysis, the strategic thought, the studies, and the cost studies that will show: is this really the way to go, or is there a different change or a better approach? I don't think we've seen those."
Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., ranking member of the Seapower subcommittee and a former chairman, noted that he supported the Zumwalt program when the understanding was that the design's new tumblehome hull would be used in the follow-on CG(X) cruiser. Now, although the Navy has not revealed any details of an analysis of alternatives being conducted for the CG(X), Bartlett said the new ship will likely not have the new hull.
"I feel a little bit 'had' now when I'm told that the hull will probably not be used in CG(X)," Bartlett said.
Navy officials have been reluctant to explain the program shift publicly. Although senior Navy leaders began briefing Congress July 22, no press conferences have been held and no official statements released. And while McCullough and Allison Stiller, the deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for ship programs, appeared at the July 31 hearing, they declined to speak with the media afterward, instead hurrying to a waiting van which sped off before the doors closed. ■