The future USS Lyndon B. Johnson, the third and last of the futuristic Zumwalt-class destroyers, launched Sunday at General Dynamics Bath Iron Works. Delivery is set for 2020.
The Zumwalt’s design dates to the early 2000s, and it was intended to be a great leap forward for naval technology and firepower. However, its cost reduced the Zumwalt’s attractiveness, and the program was gradually cut from 32 planned vessels down to three. The total program cost for the class is roughly $22 billion, including R&D, for a total distributed cost of $7.5 billion per vessel. The Lyndon B. Johnson will be somewhat less expensive than her sister ships because she has a steel deckhouse rather than a specially-fabricated composite structure.
The Zumwalt class was envisioned as a stealthy platform for shore bombardment, and to fulfill this mission, two Advanced Gun System (AGS) cannons occupy the deck forward of the house. While sophisticated, these units are inoperable due to the cost of their specially-designed ammunition. As the program was scaled back to three ships, the price per shell (including production tooling and engineering costs) rose to about $1 million per unit, beyond the U.S. Navy’s means. The 155mm AGS cannons cannot accept standard 155mm artillery rounds, and the Navy has not yet identified an alternative form of ammunition. In a recent hearing before the Senate Armed Services Seapower subcommittee, top Navy requirements officer Vice Adm. William Merz raised the possibility that the service may remove the AGS gun system altogether in future years.
Instead, the Navy is downgrading the Zumwalt’s ground attack mission and improving its abilities in a surface-to-surface role. It is equipping the class with the new long-range SM-6 missile, which is capable of both surface-to-air and surface-to-surface attack, along with the anti-ship version of the venerable Tomahawk cruise missile.
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