Hypersonic missiles and lasers: US Navy reveals concept for next-gen warship

The DDG(X) will be developed with space reservations to support emerging weapon technologies, such as high-powered lasers and hypersonic weapons. 

 Concept for the The DDG(X) guided-missile destroyer (photo credit:  Defense Department's Program Executive Office Ships)
Concept for the The DDG(X) guided-missile destroyer
(photo credit: Defense Department's Program Executive Office Ships)

The next generation of guided-missile destroyers, designed to support the installation of high power directed energy weapons and planned hypersonic missiles, had their concept published by the Defense Department's Program Executive Office Ships on January 12.

The DDG(X), the designation of the program —'X' indicating that the precise design has not been finalized — will be developed with space reservations and modular capabilities for future upgrades to support emerging weapon technologies, such as high-powered lasers and hypersonic weapons. 

The new vessel concept will "integrate non-developmental systems into a new hull design that incorporates platform flexibility and the space, weight, power and cooling (SWAPC) to meet future combatant force capability system requirements that are not achievable without the new hull design," the US Navy wrote in their May 2021 Budget justifications. "The DDG(X) platform will have the flexibility to rapidly and affordably upgrade to future warfighting systems when they become available."

Laser weapons consume a great amount of energy. According to PEO ships and the Congressional Research Service, the integrated power system will provide more power flexibility than the systems of previous generation vessels, but according to US Naval Institute News, this electrical grid provides "75 megawatts of power, enough to light a small town." This will allow the vessels to maintain one 150 kilowatt laser and two 600 kilowatt lasers that "would be powerful enough to interdict hostile guided missiles." The laser weapons would be ten times more powerful than the US Navy's current in-service lasers.

The proposed vessel would have 32 vertically launched missile launchers as a baseline capability, but in the future, the plan is to install 12 large missile launcher cells. According to USNI, this means the DDG(X) would be fitted with "hypersonic weapons being developed for the Navy, Army and the Air Force."

A missile is launched during what state media report is a hypersonic missile test at an undisclosed location in North Korea, January 11, 2022, in this photo released January 12, 2022 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). (credit: KCNA VIA REUTERS/FILE PHOTO)A missile is launched during what state media report is a hypersonic missile test at an undisclosed location in North Korea, January 11, 2022, in this photo released January 12, 2022 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). (credit: KCNA VIA REUTERS/FILE PHOTO)

Hypersonic missiles are projectiles that travel faster than Mach-5. According to NPR, there are different variations of hypersonic weapons, including guided ballistic missiles, launched by hypersonic glide vehicles, and hypersonic cruise missiles. These weapons challenge modern missile defense systems with their speed and maneuverability. 

During January missile tests, North Korea tested hypersonic missiles, and in October it was alleged by the US military that China had successfully tested a hypersonic glide vehicle. The unveiling of the DDG(X) plans could represent a new weapons race.

The DDG(X) will be replacing the US Navy's older DDG 51 Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers, which began production in 1985. While PEO Ships anticipates that the older ships will remain technologically competitive in the near term and will continue to be used by the US Navy through the 2060s,  they are "limited in the ability to incorporate future upgrades that consume additional space, weight or power requirements." 

The US Navy hopes to procure the first DDG(X) in 2028, according to the CRS, although it acknowledges that the exact date could change, as it has for vessel procurements in the past. Purchases of the DDG-51s would cease as the new vessels are procured.

The US Navy hasn't specified how many of the new vessels it will procure. According to the CRS, 11 would provide an escort for each of the US's aircraft carriers. 22 would be needed to replace the Ticonderoga-class of guided-missile cruisers. About another 70 would be needed to replace the DDG-51s. It's expected that the first DDG(X) will cost around $3.5 billion to $4.0 billion. Subsequent vessel purchases may reduce cost to around $2.1 billion to $2.5 billion per vessel.

The new vessel concept has more weapon capacity than the DDG 51 destroyers and is conceived as being as larger than them but smaller than the Zumwalt-class. The new ship is anticipated to have 50% more range than its immediate predecessor and will have a 120% increase in service time.