The destroyer USS Zumwalt, commissioned into Navy service on Oct. 15, boasts two high-tech, 155-millimeter-diameter cannons that the sailing branch designed to fire GPS-guided shells at targets as far as 80 miles away.
But in early November 2016, the Navy confirmed what observers of Zumwalt’s protracted development had long suspected: The so-called Long-Range Land-Attack Projectile, manufactured by Lockheed Martin, is simply too expensive.
That left Zumwalt and her two sister ships, together costing $22 billion to design and build, without ammo for their guns. And without much reason for existing.
Now the Navy reportedly has figured out a fix. But it’s a veritable Band-Aid on a $22-billion wound. The new shell travels less than half as far as the old one does.
To be clear, the original Long-Range Land-Attack Projectile is a technological marvel. It packs a rocket booster, a powerful high-explosive, and a precision seeker into a casing tough enough to survive the intense shock of firing from a cannon.
The LRLAP and the gun that fires it both performed flawlessly in tests. “We don’t have an issue with the gun, and no issue with that ship carrying the gun,” an unnamed Pentagon official told Defense News, a trade publication. “We have an issue on the price point.”
Each LRLAP round costs as much as $1 million. Arming all three planned Zumwalt-class ships with 300 shells apiece plus another 1,100 back-ups would have set the U.S. government back up to $2 billion—nearly enough to buy a whole extra Arleigh Burke-class destroyer.
On Nov. 7, 2016, the Navy announced it would stop buying LRLAP rounds after Lockheed had finished producing an initial 150 shells for testing. For more than a month following that announcement, Zumwalt was in a kind of ammunition limbo. She possessed powerful cannons—and nothing to fire from them.
The Navy hoped that these Advanced Gun Systems, as the cannons are officially designated, would help to fill a firepower gap that has existed since the Navy finally decommissioned its increasingly hard-to-maintain World War II-vintage battleships back in 1992.
The four Iowa-class battleships with their huge, 406-millimeter-diameter main guns—nine on each ship—were ideal for bombarding enemy shores to soften up defenses before U.S. troops stormed ashore, a role they played devastating effect during World War II.
All other major U.S. Navy warships have guns. But with a diameter of 107 millimeters, they’re smaller than the Zumwalt’s AGS are and can fire their shells a maximum distance of just 13 miles. In 2007 the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Chaffee reportedly fired more than a dozen shells at Islamic militants in northern Somalia, apparently covering for American Special Operations Forces that had landed nearby.
With more and more countries buying sophisticated anti-ship missiles—some of them even winding up in the hands of insurgents and terror groups—the Navy has become more reluctant to sail its expensive warships close to shore.
The Marine Corps has argued that Navy ships should approach to within 25 miles of the shore before launching landing craft and helicopters full of Marines for a beach assault. Navy leaders are more comfortable with a 50-mile buffer that puts ships and crew farther from danger—even if that means a riskier ride for the Marines.
Zumwalt, with her Advanced Gun Systems and Long-Range Land-Attack Projectiles, was supposed to fit neatly within the Navy’s conservative approach to beach assault. Bobbing 80 miles from shore, Zumwalt and her sister ships would be able to lob their GPS-guided munitions at enemy forces with relative impunity, helping to keep enemy defenders’ heads down as the Marines traversed the 50-mile gap from ship to shore.
But at a million dollars a pop, that kind of long-range bombardment is beyond the Navy’s means.
To replace the LRLAP, the Navy has reportedly selected the Excalibur GPS-guided shell that Raytheon builds for the U.S. Army and Marine Corps’ land-based artillery batteries. The news website of the U.S. Naval Institute reported the selection on Dec. 13. The Navy declined to confirm the report. “The Navy is evaluating industry projectile solutions,” Capt. Thurraya Kent, a Navy spokesperson, told The Daily Beast.
The Excalibur munition is roughly the same size as the LRLAP shell but is less sophisticated—and has a much shorter maximum range than the LRLAP does. Current versions can travel no farther than 25 miles or so—less than half the distance the LRLAP can reach.
There was some speculation in the defense trade press that Excalibur might not be compatible with the bespoke AGS cannons. USNI News reported that modifying the Zumwalts’ guns to shoot Excaliburs could cost $250 million.
But Lorenzo Cortes, a Raytheon spokesperson, told The Daily Beast that the company’s shells “can be loaded and fired from the AGS.”
Excalibur is comparatively cheap—$250,000 per round, including R&D costs. The Navy could, in theory, buy 2,0000 Exaliburs for a quarter of the cost of a similar number of LRLAPs.
With Excalibur, the Navy is trading cost for risk. It will be cheaper to load up Zumwalt’s magazines. But she’ll have to move closer to shore to fire the less-expensive shells. If Zumwalt can only shoot at targets 25 miles away, then she must sail right up to the edge of what even the famously fearless Marines consider the danger zone in seaborne invasion scenarios.
If in some future war, the Navy decides that it can’t risk sending its ships to within 25 miles of the enemy’s coast, it might discover that it spent $22 billion building Zumwalt-class destroyers that can’t shoot far enough to actually play any role in the fighting.