According to the 2019 DOT&E Annual Report (1), the Zumwalt is experiencing severe problems with the ship’s self-defense system – severe enough to render the system nearly useless.
The Navy has discovered severe problems during the DDG 1000 SDTS [ed. Self Defense Test Ship] events that will adversely affect the operational effectiveness of the combat system if not corrected. Consequently, the Navy has put the test program on hold and is currently working to identify the root cause of these problems. (1)
The report does not identify the specific problem(s), presumably for security reasons. However, the magnitude of the problems can be gleaned from the status of the self-defense testing program,
The Navy conducted 4 of the 10 DDG 1000 tests planned for the Self-Defense Test Ship (SDTS) (3 of 6 planned developmental tests, and 1 of 4 planned integrated developmental and operational tests). The Navy canceled one integrated test event and one developmental test event because of unacceptably low performance predictions. (1)
The fact that testing could not proceed even by the Navy’s demonstrably lax standards is incredibly damning. We also know that Navy performance predictions are always excessively exaggerated so if their own predictions were too low to justify continued testing, they must have been truly horrible. We’ve seen the Navy routinely push poor performing systems along in order to avoid jeopardizing funding so, again, the fact that the Navy would cancel tests suggests staggeringly bad performance and very serious problems.
As I said, the report does not specify the problems so we are left to speculate. Just for fun, let’s try to reason out the problem, shall we?
As the report describes, the system consists of several components (1):
- Total Ship Computing Environment (TSCE) – The command and control architecture unique to Zumwalt.
- Multi-Function Radar (SPY-3) – The new X-band radar going on DDG 1000-class guided-missile destroyers and the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78).
- Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) – The tracker and sensor data fusion and distribution system.
- Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program (SEWIP) Block 2 (SLQ-32B(V)6) – The passive electronic sensor used to detect and identify hostile radars.
- Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) Block 1 with Joint Universal Weapon Link (JUWL) – The short-range missile interceptor used to defeat air threats at close-in ranges, and the system used for radar-missile communication and support. Within the U.S. Navy, only the DDG 1000-class ships and the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) use ESSM with JUWL.
- Standard Missile 2 (SM-2 Block IIIAZ) with JUWL – The unique Zumwalt variant of SM-2 used to defeat air threats at longer ranges.
- MK 57 Vertical Launch System (VLS) - The DDG 1000-only vertical missile launcher variant.
So, presumably the problem lies with one or more of the components on that list. Let’s consider the likelihood of each component being the problem (or part of it).
Total Ship Computing Environment (TSCE) – This is just the ship’s internal network and it’s been installed on various ships/classes for some time and has functioned without notable problems. This seems very unlikely to be the problem.
Multi-Function Radar (MFR/SPY-3) – The radar is untested.
Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) – This has been around for many years and has been installed on many platforms. It is very unlikely to be the problem.
Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program (SEWIP) Block 2 (SLQ-32B(V)6) – This has been a separate developmental effort and has been reported to have some typical developmental problems but nothing all that severe. The system has been in development for some time and its issues are well known and would not likely trigger surprise cancellation of the Zumwalt self-defense program. In addition, it is independent of the active defenses. This is almost certainly not the problem.
Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) Block 1 with Joint Universal Weapon Link (JUWL) – ESSM has been around for some time, has been extensively test, by Navy standards, and has reportedly performed well. It is highly unlikely that the missile, itself, is the problem. However, the guidance data link appears to be brand new and untested.
Standard Missile 2 (SM-2 Block IIIAZ) with JUWL – SM-2 variants have been around for some time and have been extensively tested, at least by Navy standards. It is unlikely that the SM-2 is the problem. However, the guidance data link appears to be brand new and untested.
MK 57 Vertical Launch System (VLS) - The VLS has not been extensively tested but, other than failure to launch, would be unlikely to cause severe problems and a systematic failure to launch issue would, undoubtedly, have been noted and reported before now since it would be too big and obvious a problem not to be publicly noted and reported. Further, a launch failure does not fall into the category of predictable performance problems which the report refers to. Therefore, this is not the problem.
So, what did that little analysis leave us with? The only candidates for problems are the SPY-3 radar and the JUWL guidance link. Either could be a likely source of predictable failure.
As you may recall, the Zumwalt was originally supposed to have the Dual Band Radar (DBR) which consists of the SPY-4 (S band) volume search radar and the SPY-3 (X band) horizon search radar. The SPY-4 was deleted from the Zumwalt design as a cost saving measure. As a result, the SPY-3 was to be reprogrammed to selectively perform volume search or (and?) its intended horizon search function. The functionality was to be operator selectable.
It seems quite plausible that the intended modifications to perform volume search have proven to be problematic. The volume search was not intended, not designed into the SPY-3, and has had an extremely abbreviated development and testing schedule. It is reasonable to believe that now that Zumwalt is undergoing actual combat system tests, the previously untested radar is demonstrating poor performance.
The other problem candidate, the Joint Universal Weapon Link, is also a plausible trouble source. Again, it is unique and untested. However, weapon guidance links are relatively straightforward communication technologies and relatively easy to correct, one would think. So, this is certainly a possible problem point but seems much less likely than the SPY-3.
The other potentially problematic aspect to the JUWL is the mechanism of transmission. Assuming the SPY-3 is being used to transmit the JUWL guidance commands, it is possible that the demands of the simultaneous dual guidance/tracking functions are not working together correctly. If so, this again leads us back to a flawed SPY-3.
Therefore, the logical conclusion is that the Zumwalt is experiencing severe problems with the SPY-3 radar.
Ominously, the SPY-3 is also installed on the Ford which has not yet tested its combat systems. More problems to come for the Ford?
If all of the above speculation is correct, there is even worse news. The Navy has been testing the SPY-3 on the Self Defense Test Ship (SDTS) but is planning to remove the SPY-3. From the DOT&E report,
The Navy plans to remove the SPY-3 radar and TSCE computer equipment on the SDTS at the end of 2QFY20. (1)
Whatever problems the SPY-3 has, the Navy’s best hope of solving them lies with exercising the SDTS with the SPY-3 installed. Removing it may greatly hinder or totally prevent diagnosis and correction of the problem(s). Removing the SPY-3 does not seem prudent or wise but when has the Navy ever been accused of wisdom?
The poor Zumwalt program can’t seem to catch a break, can it? Aside from the complete failure of its main weapon system, it’s had problems with power generation/distribution (which was supposed to be a strength of the design), ship handling concerns in certain seas, and now its self-defense system is useless. Think about it, though – is it really bad breaks or is it just a very bad design concept showing its inherent and utterly predictable problems and failures?
We’ll be keeping an eye on this one.
(1)Director, Operational Test & Evaluation, “FY2019 Annual Report”, 20-Dec-2019, p.159-60