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 "Land Attack Destroyers" based on a new naval artillery system. The program will give rise to thea Zumwalt class, a ship 190 meters long for a load displacement of almost 16.000 tons, with great stealth and a particularly low line on the water to reduce its vulnerability to anti-ship missiles.

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, and as was often the case with many major post-Cold War American programs, the Zumwalt class and the AGS system came to an end, the first when its development costs exploded to the point that the fleet of 32 destroyers was reduced to 3 ships at a cost of $21 billion, the price of two Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, as well as by the abandonment the second, although already mounted on the Zumwalt, while the price of each LRAP shell exceeded half a million $, very far from the objectives initially targeted by the US Navy.

1950: missiles begin to replace naval artillery

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 turrets of 127 mm and 10 twin-tube anti-aircraft guns of 57 mm, the destroyers having succeeded it, in France as everywhere in the world, favored the implementation 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 mountings 127mm.

The phenomenon increased 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 fields such as anti-aircraft, anti-ship and anti-submarine warfare, as in new ones such as anti-ballistic interception and land strike using cruise or ballistic missiles. in the years to come.

naval artillery was central to the design of the Zumwalt-class destroyers
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 130 mm, as well as some small-caliber parts intended for close-range self-protection.

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 low or medium intensity situations.

Recent advances in land artillery

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.

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