NavWeek: Future Lock


This month has been a U.S. Navy futurist’s dream.

The Navy not only detailed major milestones for its electromagnetic railgun and the Laser Weapon System (LaWS), but christened its most technologically advanced – as well as controversial – destroyer in the fleet: the DDG-1000 Zumwalt.

The U.S. Navy says it is still on course to conduct the first railgun tests at sea on board a Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV) in fiscal 2016.

The railgun uses electromagnetic force to rapidly accelerate and launch a projectile at such high velocities that it can go much furhter than when fired by conventional guns, maintaining enough kinetic energy that it doesn't require any kind of high explosive payload to damage or destroy just about any target it hits.

The Navy expects to use the railgun against enemy warships, small boats, aircraft, missiles and land-based targets. Rear Adm. Matt Klunder, the chief of naval research, calls railguns, and other “energetic” weapons “the future of naval combat.”

Another potential game-changer weapon is the LaWS, which Klunder calls “a revolutionary capability" that “is going to change the way we fight."

U.S. Navy engineers are making final adjustments to the laser weapon prototype to deploy aboard a ship for tests scheduled this summer, when LaWS  will be installed on Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB-I) USS Ponce for at-sea testing in the Persian Gulf.

High-energy lasers offer an affordable and safe way to target these threats at the speed of light with extreme precision and an unlimited magazine. The Navy estimates it will spend only $1 per shot of a directed-energy fire.

There is essentially no debate about the importance and need of developing these technologies and weapons for the U.S. fleet. That’s not the case for the Zumwalt, whose tumblehome design, integrated power system, peripheral vertical launch system and other new technologies have made it a target of ridicule and derision among naval purists. The trash talk on the ship started to pile up as unit costs rose.

Here’s the thing – the unit costs rose because the proposed fleet size has shrunk to a mere three, a cut of more than half from the previous seven, which was only about a third of what the Navy had said it wanted early on.

With most of the funding for those ships front-loaded with research-and-development (R&D), any cut in the fleet size is going to increase per-hull costs.

We’ve heard about R&D vessels before – the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) lead hulls. But whereas nearly all of the problems associated with those ships has been excused away as first-of-class-R&D-ship-learning lessons, that’s not the plan for the Zumwalts.

Capt. Jim Downey, the DDG-1000 program manager, is very clear: his job is to deliver operationally ready warships. That first Zumwalt will go to sea in the Pacific as a major surface combatant, not as a proof-of-concept vessel.

Zumwalt’s hull and composite deckhouse – a marvel of engineering and know-how – mated perfectly. Ship systems, which have been lab-tested more vigorously than any other, have fired up on or before schedule.

Take away the fleet-number disruptions, and the Zumwalt has been one of the few successful shipbuilding programs for cost and schedule over the past few years. And with all of the new technologies featured for the ship, that’s saying something.

Given the track record with some other new-class ships, it says a lot.

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