US' new stealth destroyer may finally have affordable ammo

The USS Zumwalt could use artillery rounds instead of its custom shells.

PO2 Timothy Schumaker/AFP/Getty Images

To put it mildly, the US screwed up when it decided to carry on with its Zumwalt-class stealth destroyers when they depended on smart ammo the Navy couldn't afford. However, it might have a clever workaround. Officials speaking to USNI News say the Navy is looking at Raytheon's Excalibur, a GPS-guided artillery round, as a substitute for the custom LRLAP (Long Range Land Attack Projectile) shells the Zumwalt's main guns were designed to use. Excalibur has roughly half the range at about 30 miles, but it costs much less -- about a quarter of the $800,000-plus cost per round of LRLAP. It can also hit moving targets where LRLAP couldn't.

Whether or not the Navy goes ahead with it depends highly on the costs of modifying the Zumwalt-class' guns to fire the new shells. Both the ammo loading system and the barrel were designed around LRLAP. Excalibur isn't exactly a drop-in replacement, then, and estimates have a retrofit costing upward of $250 million. Still, that's far less expensive than loading the three destroyers with their originally intended ammo.

About the only major risk comes from that range limitation. The vessel would have to get considerably closer to the shore to hit targets deep inland, increasing its exposure to anti-ship missiles and other coastal defenses that might otherwise be too far away. Of course, that's where the stealth comes into play. The ship will ideally go unnoticed until it's within firing range, and might not be spotted until it's already headed back out to sea.