When the Navy retired its last aged battleship in 1992, it pledged to the Marine Corps that it would continue fulfilling one of the warships’ missions: naval gunfire support for troops ashore. More than a quarter of a century later, and after more than a billion dollars spent, the service’s intended replacements — rocket-assisted GPS-guided shells — have yet to materialize.
The effort has been marked by a string of technological disappointments. Rocket motors failed to ignite. Guidance fins wouldn’t pop out. Antennas couldn’t acquire satellite signals before shells smashed to the ground. In decades of testing, the Navy has been unable to build replacement weapons that reliably worked, much less at an affordable price. This research-and-development failure has resulted in 36 new warships with advanced deck guns, but not the specialized munitions they were designed to fire. The Navy intends to commission 13 more ships the same way and has no immediate plan or clear option for fulfilling its promise to the corps.
Officials at the Marine Corps’ Combat Development Command in Quantico, Va., where the service sets its weapons requirements, said the Navy’s current gunfire shortfalls pose a “significant risk” to amphibious attacks, which at one time required artillery that can reach an adversary’s shore from 40 nautical miles away to support invading forces. The Navy’s current deck guns can only fire as far as 13 nautical miles.
The Government Accountability Office has periodically raised questions about why the Navy has not fulfilled its commitment. A 2006 G.A.O. report pointed to the Navy and Marine Corps’ inability to agree on what their naval surface fire support requirements should be for more than a decade, and to the Navy setting unrealistically low cost estimates for its proposed rocket-assisted guided shells. Additionally, defense analysts point to the Navy’s prioritization and funding of newer technologies — notably precision-guided munitions from aircraft — over naval gunfire. “Priorities in one space can have a chain effect and drive up costs in another program,” making it untenable, said P.W. Singer, a strategist and senior fellow at the New America Foundation. “The Navy would say it takes naval gunfire seriously, and the Marines would say, ‘Not seriously enough,’ and the two will never agree.”
The effort to develop a modern replacement has had multiple phases, each an expensive disappointment. Battleships, huge armored ships from a bygone era, were once the Pentagon’s most capable gunfire support ship. They carried turrets with 16-inch-diameter guns that fired 2,000-pound shells as far as 21 nautical miles. In the 1990s, the Navy sought to replace all that bulk and hardware with lighter and more precise shells that could fire from comparatively diminutive five-inch-diameter deck guns on Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. Those guns fired unguided shells that didn’t reach the distances the Marines required for supporting amphibious assaults. The Navy proposed a conceptual change: a gun firing rocket-boosted GPS-guided shells, dubbed Extended Range Guided Munitions, with warheads initially designed to carry and distribute cluster munitions as far as 50 miles away.
When the program started in 1996, the Navy’s contractor, Raytheon, was to deliver the new shells for ships by 2010. In anticipation, the Navy installed updated guns in 2001 that could fire both the older unguided rounds and the Extended Range Guided Munitions. But after 12 years of development and approximately $350 million spent, the contract failed to produce a reliable shell at an affordable cost — even after the Navy changed the warhead to a simpler high-explosive design. The service shut down the program in 2008. During the same period, the Navy was also experimenting with a similarly designed shell called the Ballistic Trajectory Extended Range Munition, made by Alliant Techsystems. After spending $70 million, the program was canceled in 2007.
As the development of new projectiles foundered, the Navy was simultaneously pursuing another concept: a ship with a gun of intermediate size that would fire rocket-boosted shells at targets on land. In the 1990s, it planned to build 32 new destroyers, at the cost of about $1 billion per ship, each armed with two 155-millimeter deck guns. These ships, named for Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, were designed for “land attack,” and their deck guns were to fire heavier shells at farther distances than their predecessors’ five-inch guns.
With the ships in production, the Navy then spent $700 million to have BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin develop the Long Range Land Attack Projectile for the Zumwalt deck gun. It also came to nothing. The Navy originally intended to build 32 Zumwalt-class destroyers — a number that dwindled over time. In 2016, the Navy cut the number of land-attack ships to just three. Sharply unfavorable economies of scale drove the purchase price for the shells above $1 million per shot, rivaling the cost of the Tomahawk cruise missile, which has a 1,000-mile range. The shells became too expensive to buy, and the ammunition program for the Zumwalt-class destroyers was soon canceled. In December 2017, the Navy announced that its “land-attack” ships were “surface-strike” ships that would engage other vessels at sea instead of targets ashore.
All three of the failed projectile programs had similar design features and shared a fundamental conceptual problem. “When you try to make a rocket-boosted projectile that can steer itself to a target, you basically have built a guided missile,” said Tony DiGiulian, a retired engineer who has studied all these weapons and runs NavWeaps, a website on the subject of naval weapons and technology. One problem with gun-fired guided shells, he said, was that, when fired, sensitive electronics inside the projectile were exposed to exponentially more stress than if they were launched in a traditional missile. Protecting those electronics, DiGiulian said, added to the shells’ cost. “So why not just build missiles in the first place?” he said. “That’s what you’ll end up with anyway.”
Navy officials said they are evaluating a new shell, called the “hypervelocity projectile,” that is lighter and narrower and could potentially be fired from the upgraded five-inch guns at targets 40 miles away. The program is experimental and in its early stages, and it is unlikely to produce a viable weapon soon. With a gap in fire support now running beyond a quarter of a century, the Marine Corps said it “encourages continued study” of yet another idea: installing vertically launched missiles on San Antonio-class amphibious ships, a type of ship much larger than a cruiser or destroyer that is meant to launch Marines ashore in landing craft and helicopters and is not typically outfitted with offensive weaponry itself. The Marine Corps did not specify which kinds of missiles could be used for that role.
The Navy was even less forthcoming with details about what might come next. In a written statement, Rear Adm. Ronald Boxall, who leads the Navy’s surface warfare division, said the service continues “to monitor developing technologies and adapt to changing requirements, from gun-based systems and advanced projectiles to land attack missiles. We take this partnership seriously and are committed to providing the Marines with the naval fire support they need to fight and win.”
The Navy fired its last major naval gunfire missions during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, when the battleships U.S.S. Missouri and U.S.S. Wisconsin blasted more than 1,100 rounds at a variety of targets in the campaign to drive Iraq’s military out of Kuwait. In what appears to be the sole fire mission ashore since then, the U.S.S. Chafee, a destroyer, shot its single five-inch gun at Somalia in 2007 to support Special Operations forces, according to a speech by Adm. Harry Harris, who commanded the United States Pacific Command until he retired earlier this year.
Beyond that mission, little has changed since the Government Accountability Office examined the state of naval gunfire in 1997 and reported that “the Navy admits that it currently has no credible surface fire capabilities to support forced entry from the sea.”
Orignially published in NYT.