Should we reconsider the potential of naval artillery for combatant surface ships?

In the early 2000s, the US Navy began designing a new class of heavy destroyers, the DD-21 program, designated as "Landward Attack Destroyers". The program will give birth to the Zumwalt class, a ship 190 meters long for a laden displacement of almost 16.000 tons, with great stealth and a particularly low line on the water to reduce vulnerability to missiles. anti-shipping. In addition to the 20 Mk47 vertical launch systems of 4 silos each hosting 4 short and medium range anti-aircraft missiles ESSM or a Tomahawk cruise missile, the main armament of the ship was based on 2 new 155 mm guns designated Advanced Gun System, an artillery system supposed to fire about ten shells per minute, and a range of nearly 150 km with the new guided shell Long Range Land Attack Projectile, or LRAP. However, as was often the case with many major post-Cold War American programs, the Zumwalt class and the AGS system fizzled out, the former as its development costs soared to the point that the fleet of 32 destroyers was reduced to 3 ships at a cost of $21 billion, i.e. the price of 2 Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, as well as the abandonment of the second, although already mounted on the Zumwalts, when the price of each LRAP shell exceeded half a million dollars, very far from the objectives initially targeted by the US Navy.

Apart from this failed initiative, the naval artillery lost, from the end of the 50s, its central role in terms of arming surface combat units, frigates, destroyers and cruisers. Thus, where the cruiser Colbert, armed in 1957 and the last ship of this type designed in Europe, carried at its launch 8 double 127 mm turrets and 10 twin-tube 57 mm anti-aircraft guns, the destroyers having succeeded it, in France, like everywhere in the world, favored the use of missiles, whether anti-aircraft, anti-ship or anti-submarine, to the detriment of naval artillery which was most often reduced to one or two 127 mm mounts. The phenomenon amplified over the decades, and today, the firepower of a ship is most often reduced to its missile carrying capacity alone, in particular since the arrival of vertical launch systems and new missiles extending the capabilities of these ships, both in traditional areas such as anti-aircraft, anti-ship and anti-submarine warfare, and in new ones such as anti-ballistic interception and land strike at using cruise or ballistic missiles in the years to come.

The Zumwalt-class destroyers were to implement two 155mm guns of the AGS system with a range of 150 km

In fact, today, even the most imposing and powerfully armed ships, such as the Chinese Type 055, the South Korean Sejong le Grand or the American Arleigh Burke Flight III, use only a single 127 or 130mm, as well as some small caliber parts intended for self-protection at close range. And with the exception of certain countries such as Italy, which is particularly dynamic in the field of guided added range shells such as the Leonardo Vulcano, naval artillery has become a secondary armament used essentially for force gradation and possibly tactical support. in a low or medium intensity situation. Paradoxically, at the same time, significant advances were made in the field of land artillery, with new guns and new shells capable not only of hitting targets 2 times further away than they could, at the same caliber, in the early 50s, but also with a precision close to that achieved by missiles, for considerably lower costs. Highlighted by the war in Ukraine, can the new performance of tactical land artillery lead to a reconsideration of the role of naval artillery on surface combat ships?

The rest of this article is for subscribers only -

Full-access articles are available in the “ Free Items“. Flash Articles are accessible in full version for 48 hours. Subscribers have access to the full Analyses, News and Synthesis articles. Articles in Archives (more than 2 years old) are reserved for Premium subscribers.

The purchase of subscriptions is only accessible from the website – Subscriptions and Tools section

More information