The most expensive destroyer ever built for the U.S. Navy — so costly that the price tag for each projectile for its high-tech guns is more than $1 million — has arrived in Canada for its first foreign port visit.
USS Zumwalt, estimated to cost around US$4.4 billion ($5.6 billion), docked in Victoria, B.C., on Monday and will remain on Canada’s west coast for about a week, although details about when it will leave remain secret.
The destroyer, with its stealth design, has faced a series of problems including skyrocketing costs and mechanical issues. Shortly after being commissioned in late 2016 it broke down in the Panama Canal and had to be towed to port.
The U.S. Navy originally wanted up to 32 stealth destroyers but kept reducing that number over the years even as it pumped in $10 billion to develop the ships. No longer able to take advantage of economies of scale, the price tag of the destroyers ballooned and the navy eventually only accepted three vessels.
The same scenario happened with the rocket-assisted ammunition the Zumwalt’s high-tech guns were supposed to fire. The projectiles, originally to cost in the tens of thousands of dollars per round, ended up costing US$1 million each. USS Zumwalt was supposed to have a stockpile of 600 such projectiles, but the U.S. Navy cut that back to 90.
Capt. Andrew Carlson, commander of the USS Zumwalt, acknowledged the ship is expensive but he also pointed out that it contains advanced technologies that help Canadians and Americans alike. “We recognize to support our partners like Canada and our mission in the best way possible we must continue to innovate and to advance our surface force,” he explained to journalists. “Zumwalt is an example of the United States’ commitment to our partners and to our nation.”
The 186-metre Zumwalt has an electric propulsion system, advanced computer technology and a shape that is designed to minimize how it appears on enemy radars. The outside of destroyer also has radar absorbing material, the ship’s crew pointed out.
Zumwalt currently has 145 sailors on board and while that is expected to increase, the numbers will still be about half the size of crews on older warships. Helicopters will also operate from its rear deck although the ship is not yet certified for that.
Zumwalt, based in San Diego, was originally designed to operate close to shore and support troops on the ground. That was the reason behind its high-tech gun system which was supposed to be able to shell targets in-land with pinpoint accuracy. The projectiles, guided by information from the satellite-based Global Positioning System, could travel as far as 63 nautical miles (116 kilometres). But with the increasing price tag the cost of each shell came close to that of a cruise missile, which has 15 times the range.
Carlson said there are no problems with the guns themselves and those have been tested. The weapons are hidden in two large housings near the front of the ship.
But the use of that weaponry is on hold for now. “The navy made a decision to hold development on those guns based on some cost trade-offs, especially with the ammunition for the guns,” he explained.
The U.S. Navy is now trying to determine what to do with the gun system and there have been some suggestions they may be replaced.
In the meantime, USS Zumwalt has 80 “launch cells” which can carry a variety of missiles, including Tomahawk cruise missiles.
But even as future missions for the ships remain undecided, U.S. sailors appear convinced that the Zumwalt and its two sister vessels are setting the stage for a more modern naval force.
“We’re shaping what the future vessels will look like for the U.S. Navy,” explained Zumwalt officer Lt. Briana Wildemann.