The US Navy is about to pack a dozen hypersonic missiles apiece into its new stealth destroyers

The US Navy plans to install its new hypersonic land-attack missiles on the first warship to receive the missiles – the stealthy destroyer USS Zumwalt– in 2025.

And in the years that followed, the Navy was able to arm up to 23 ships – all three Zumwalts as well as 20 late block Virginia-class attack submarines – using the conventional Prompt Strike missile.

The eight-ton, three-foot diameter CPS rocket can travel more than 1,700 miles at five times the speed of sound or faster. Exact specifications are classified.

The missile’s speed and range make it a key weapon for the Navy as the service prepares for a possible war with Chinese forces in the western Pacific.

After decades of relentless modernization, the People’s Liberation Army of China is now capable of threatening enemy warships up to 3,000 miles from mainland China and outposts on the islands. US Navy commanders know they need more and better long-range missiles to reduce, if not eliminate, the risk posed by China own long-range missiles.

Of course, superior range without superior aiming is debatable.

The U.S. Department of Defense has been developing hypersonic missiles — maneuverable missiles capable of performing at least Mach 5 — since the early 2000s. The CPS and its land-based cousin, the U.S. Army’s long-range hypersonic weapon, are on track to be the first operational munitions , resulting from these two decades of effort. “Extremely accurate, ultra-fast, maneuverable and survivable, hypersonic can strike anywhere in the world in minutes,” crowed the Army.

For 2023, the Pentagon is asking lawmakers for $4.7 billion to develop hypersonic weapons — up from $3.8 billion last year. In late October, the Navy fired two hypersonic missiles at its test range in New Mexico. Although the sounding rockets are not as wide as the CPS rocket, they contain some of the same electronics. Testing the sounding rockets is a step in testing the full CPS system.

The CPS ammunition includes three stages: two rocket boosters and above them a so-called Common Hypersonic Glide Body. The wedge-shaped CHGB separates from the boosters mid-flight and, as the name suggests, glides toward its target at Mach 5 or faster. The Pentagon is vague as to what type of guidance and payload the slider will entail.

From the start, the Navy planned to equip some of its nearly 60 attack and guided missile submarines with hypersonic missiles. That Zumwalts are a more recent addition to the project. The Navy originally designed the 600-foot destroyers as specialists in land-attack operations near the coast.

But a few years ago, fleet leaders decided they couldn’t afford the million-dollar shell cost of shells for the Zumwalts’ custom-built 155mm guns. With no ammunition for their cannons, the $5 billion destroyers were ships without a mission. Then, in 2017, the Navy decided to change headquarters in San Diego Zumwalts on deep sea emissions.

Armed with SM-6 multi-purpose missiles, the destroyers would hunt down enemy ships. The addition of tubes for CPS missiles would also give the giant surface fighters long-range land attack capability.

It took years for the removal of that Zumwalts’ twin gun mounts and replaced them with four vertical rocket tubes, each 87 inches in diameter.

The plan at the moment is to cut in Zumwalt‘s deck starting in 2025. “We’ve got to put these large diameter tubes in there and then finish the integration work into the combat system,” Vice Admiral Johnny Wolfe, the Navy’s manager of strategic systems programs, told reporters at a symposium in early November.

sister ships USS Michael Monsur and the future USS Lyndon B Johnson would be modified afterwards Zumwalt. Around the same time, the first of the 10 new Block V Virginias should be put into operation. The Block Vs and each of Block VI and Block VII’s five contracted or planned boats will fire CPS missiles from their own 87-inch tubes: four tubes and 12 missiles per boat.

If all goes well, the Navy could field a dozen ships with a total of 144 CPS missiles by 2030, and another 11 ships with an additional 132 CPS missiles another five years later.

Sailing from San Diego, Hawaii, Guam and Japan, the hypersonic missile gunners sailed along the outer edge of the PLA Rocket Force’s Sea Denial Zone, firing Mach-5 missiles at Chinese command posts, air force bases, ports, missile launchers and supply dumps.

A dozen missiles per ship isn’t much, so the gunners – those Zumwalts and Virginias – would have to return to port to reload. Sail, shoot, return to port, repeat. The need for frequent reloads is a possible weakness of the hypersonic strike complex the Navy is building.

The range could be another weakness. The Navy won’t say exactly how far a CPS missile can reach, but it appears to be well short of the estimated 3,000-mile maximum range of the PLARF’s top anti-ship ballistic missile, the DF-26B.

It’s not an issue for them Virginias, of course. The submarines will fire their CPSs underwater. But for them Zumwalts the discrepancy between their hypersonic missiles and the PLARF anti-ship missiles poses a dilemma. Even with their new, super-fast, long-range missiles, the Zumwalts must get within range of Chinese missiles before they can attack.

Of course, a missile – be it a Chinese anti-ship missile or an American hypersonic land-attack missile – is only as good as its assisting target acquisition. Just because a DF-26B has a range of 3,000 miles doesn’t mean it can reliably hit a moving ship at that extreme range.

For the same reason, the high speed and long range of a CPS mean very little when the crew of a Zumwalt or Virginia can’t aim. The US Navy and China’s missile force are in a race to develop longer-range missiles. But the real winner might be the service with better intelligence.