Could the U.S. Navy’s Last Battleship Beat Its New Stealth Destroyer?
It would be the ultimate ‘battleship’ duel
by ROBERT FARLEY
What would happen if the U.S. Navy’s newest destroyer, the USS Zumwalt fought against the Navy’s last battleship, the USS Wisconsin?
The stealthy destroyer — aka DDG-1000 — is going to win this battle in almost any conceivable scenario. This is not surprising as Zumwalt will enter service over 70 years after Wisconsin.
But if we start the fight with different assumptions — without Zumwalt’s long range munitions or the Tomahawk Block IV missile — then things look rather better for the battleship. The destroyer probably still inflicts serious damage and escapes.
So what would happen during this hypothetical fight? In short, fireworks.
Let us not tarry on the question of how the 2020 edition of Zumwalt would encounter and engage the 1991 version of USS Wisconsin. We will assume that neither ship is receiving external support.
Although the Navy designed both to operate as part of a system, each will fight this battle alone. We’ll also assume that each is operating in a configuration — including weapon load — optimized for ship-to-ship combat.
Finally, we’ll assume that the technologies key to the DDG-1000-class are both functional and available.
The missile volley
The battle between the two ships will begin with missiles. Since we’re assuming that neither ship has outside assistance, the beginning of the encounter depends on how each ship identifies and targets its opponent.
Since the warships have roughly comparable helicopters — and drones — we’ll assume for the ease of calculation that they identify each other at roughly the same time, at a range of about 200 nautical miles.
Zumwalt has a lot of missiles to throw at Wisconsin. It carries 80 vertical launch system cells, or VLS. While Tomahawk missiles will not fill all of these cells — the destroyer needs to defend itself with Evolved Sea Sparrow surface-to-air missiles, fired from the same launchers — we can assume that the cruise missiles occupy no fewer than half of the arsenal.
Zumwalt will carry modern Block IV Tomahawk missiles that its crew can re-targeted in flight toward moving ships at sea. This gives the stealth ship a huge advantage, especially as Wisconsin lacks sufficient anti-aircraft weapons to knock down its opponent’s helicopters or drones.
The battleship would reply in kind. The Navy retired the BGM-109B Tomahawk Anti-Ship Missile — aka TASM — in the early 1990s, but Wisconsin could have carried 32 of those missiles in any kind of anti-shipping configuration. The upgraded World War II-era ship also carried 16 Harpoon anti-ship missiles. The TASMs could reach a range of 300 miles, while the Harpoons were limited to about 70.
The problem would be targeting. The Navy cut the TASM in part because its range exceeded that of available sensors, meaning that the missile needed to use internal radars to discern between targets at the end of its flight.
Assuming a TASM finds its way to the general vicinity of Zumwalt — likely even if the destroyer managed to shoot down loitering helicopters or drones — it might struggle to find and target the ship’s low-radar cross section. The advanced vessel’s active defenses would have provided an even bigger problem.
Recalling our assumption that Zumwalt would devote 40 VLS cells to Evolved Sea Sparrows, it can allocate four missiles to destroying every incoming Tomahawk. And there would still be a few left over for contingencies.
What happens then? If a TASM manages to hit Zumwalt, nothing good.
Despite its large size, the DDG-1000 design is not intended to survive hits from cruise missiles. Even a single hit has the potential to sink or, more likely, disable the warship.
It is possible that the Zumwalt could continue the fight, but very hard to predict what would happen after taking extensive battle damage.
We have somewhat better sense of what would happen to Wisconsin. The Tomahawk is not an ideal weapon for killing battleships.
The weapon lacks the size, warhead and especially the supersonic speed of the world’s more deadly anti-ship missiles. Its subsonic speed also makes it a better target for Wisconsin’s air defenses — although good luck hitting a Tomahawk with 5-inch gun.
Still, the battleship will likely take more than 20 hits, doing very serious damage to the unarmored parts of the ship, including the bow, stern and superstructure. Wisconsin will find her sensor and communications capabilities hampered and her speed reduced.
To the guns!
Assuming that both ships remain afloat and interested in the duel after the missile exchange, the next step would be to draw within gun range for the kill. Zumwalt’s crew might use this opportunity to escape — especially with the battering that Wisconsin took — but it’s not obvious that the captain would make that decision.
In order to hurt the the destroyer, the larger battleship would need to close within visual striking distance. At such ranges, Wisconsin’s nine 16-inch guns would quickly disable and destroy the Zumwalt.
It would not take long and it would not be pleasant for the stealthy warship. But odds are that the older vessel never reaches that ideal firing position.
With its two 155-millimeter gun turrets, Zumwalt can begin hitting Wisconsin at a range of around 80 nautical miles with the Long Range Land Attack Projectile — as we’re assuming that the destroyer is fitted out for naval combat, these will constitute the entire armory. This weapon reputedly has a circular error probability of around 50 meters, meaning that we can expect roughly 125 to 150 of the 700 or so shells the stealth ship fires over the course of half an hour will hit the battleship.
No one has ever hit an Iowa class battleship with 150 6-inch shells over the course of 30 minutes. However, World War II still offers some relevant experience.
The German battleship Bismarck underwent an even more vicious storm of fire and steel and the Japanese battleship Hiei suffered something similar. Both ships survived the initial onslaught, but ended up disabled and later sank.
Undoubtedly, Wisconsin’s armor would provide a great deal of protection from 6-inch shells with fragmentation rather than armor piercing warheads. The battleship is armored against 16-inch rounds, which are much heavier and have much greater penetrating power than the incoming 155-millimeter munitions.
Nevertheless, the sheer number of hits would leave Wisconsin’s lightly armored ends and unarmored upper works devastated and in flames. Even assuming Wisconsin hadn’t started sinking at this point, it is unlikely that she would be able to continue combat with her superstructure and decks in flames and her bow and stern riddled with holes.
The onslaught would almost certainly destroy her advanced sensors and communications equipment, as well as the shorter-range Harpoon missile launchers. This would leave the battleship blind, deaf and slow, making any effort to close with its stealthy enemy almost completely hopeless.
In the end, Zumwalt would clearly come out ahead. It is nevertheless remarkable to imagine that Wisconsin could possibly survive the fight, even in battered condition.