The U.S. Navy’s newest warship looks like a throw-back to the Civil War, is named after a Vietnam-era admiral, contains some of the Navy’s most advanced technology, and Captain James Kirk is at its command.
The USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000) — named after the late Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, the Chief of Naval Operations who led the Navy out of the dark days of Vietnam — is the Navy’s newest and largest destroyer and the most advanced warship in the world.
Launched in October 2013, the Zumwalt incorporates the latest in naval stealth, sensor, and weapons technology. At 610 feet long and displacing nearly 16,000 tons, it is the largest destroyer in the Navy, yet thanks to advanced automation the ship’s crew is less than half that of the smaller Arleigh Burke-class destroyer currently in service.
Perhaps befitting the Navy’s most advanced warship, Captain James Kirk serves as its first skipper. No, not James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, but James A. Kirk, a 1990 Naval Academy graduate and Maryland native whose entire Navy career echoes with jokes about his name.
“I don’t take any offense,” Kirk told the Associated Press when he took command. “If it’s a helpful moniker that brings attention to help us to do what we need to do to get the ships into the fleet and into combat operations, than that’s fine.”
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The Next Generation in Ships
The Zumwalt class started life in the 1990s as the DDG-21 new concept destroyer. Later referred to as the DDG-X destroyer, the Navy intended for the new generation of destroyers to replace the Burke-class destroyers with a fleet of more than 30 Zumwalt-class ships.
Though conceptualized as a multi-mission platform capable of operating in a number of naval warfare scenarios, the main mission of the new ship class is littoral warfare. The ship will operate in coastal waters as shallow as 30-feet, providing protection to amphibious forces and bombarding targets far inland with both guided missiles and advanced naval gunfire.
In order to survive in missile-infested littoral waters, designers incorporated stealth technology in the Zumwalt’s design. The Zumwalt features a low freeboard and a smooth, slanting deckhouse hiding an array of communications and sensor antennae, and cannon hidden in similarly canted turrets. This gives the Zumwalt a radar signature that is 50 percent smaller than the Arleigh Burke’s, making the ship difficult for enemy anti-ship missiles to detect and lock onto as a target.
To make the ship quieter as it moves through the ocean, naval architects resorted to two shipbuilding concepts that haven’t been used since the early 20th century. Zumwalt’s hull incorporates a tumblehome design, meaning the hull curves inward as it rises from the sea so the width of the main deck is narrower than the hull at the waterline. This hull form dates back to the early days of sailing ships.
Instead of the standard inwardly raked bow seen on most modern ships, the Zumwalt sports a “ram bow” with a prow that extends forward as it slopes to the waterline, similar to the old Dreadnaughts of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Together the tumblehome and ram bow allow the ship to slice through the sea with less noise than a conventional hull shape.
Ironically, however, all of these design concepts give the Zumwalt a shape reminiscent of an ironclad from the American Civil War.
Starship Command and Control
Despite its size, advanced automation in cargo-handling, weapons-handling and firefighting allows the Zumwalt to operate with a complement of only 148 sailors compared to the 350 sailors needed by the Burke-class destroyer. Instead of placing lookouts outside the ship on the bridge wings, watch standers will monitor an array of video and sensor monitors inside the bridge and in the Ships Mission Control compartment below decks.
The eyes and ears of the Zumwalt include a SPY-3 multi-function radar for air and surface search, high and medium frequency sonars mounted on the ram bow, a multi-function towed sonar array, and electro-optical and infrared optical sensors. The ship also has a landing deck and hangers for two MH-60 helicopters.
Zumwalt Weapons Package
But it is the Zumwalt’s weapons package that gives the ship its sting. When the crew identifies a target or threat, the ship can respond with a wide array of offensive and defensive weapons. Lining the edges of Zumwalt’s main deck are 80 Advanced Vertical Launch System cells for firing Tomahawk land attack missiles, Standard anti-ship missiles, and Sea Sparrow air defense missiles, as well as rocket-launched anti-submarine torpedoes. For last-ditch air defense, the ship carries two rapid fire 30mm Close in Gun Systems.
For inshore artillery support, the Zumwalt mounts two 155mm Advanced Gun Systems capable of delivering 300-pound Long Range Land Attack Projectiles up to 63 miles away — three times farther than current destroyer weapons — with pin-point accuracy.
In the not too distant future, the Zumwalt-class ships may be the first ship to mount the Navy’s most futuristic cannon —the so-called “rail gun.” Instead of using explosives to hurl shells as conventional cannon do, rail guns will use electromagnetic energy to hurl shells more than a hundred miles inland.
Zumwalt is just the ship to provide the energy needed to hurl explosives so far inland. The ship is a sea-going power plant. Below decks the ship’s two main and two auxiliary generators can provide up to 78 megawatts of energy, enough for the ship’s advanced electric motors to push the ship through the sea at up to 30 knots, power all of the sensors and automation, and power the electro-magnetic rail gun.
Troubled Seas Encountered
As promising as the Zumwalt-class destroyer sounds, it encountered critics early in the program. The Navy has a long history of stonewalling change, and it was no different with this class of ship.
Critics questioned the need for a “gun ship” in a modern guided missile navy. Ironically, many naval strategists made this same argument in the years following WWII. As a result, when the need for offshore gunnery support arose during the Vietnam War, the Navy had no ships suited to the mission. The U.S. Coast Guard stepped in to fulfill the mission.
The cost of the vessel also raised eyebrows. The Government Accountability Office, Congressional Research Service, and Congressional Budget Office all predicted the DDG-1000 would cost upwards to $5 billion each. With contract changes, shipbuilder Bath Iron Works was able to build the Zumwalt for about $3.5 billion. The Navy expects follow-on ships to cost $2.5 billion, still substantially more than the $1.8 billion cost of the Burke-class destroyer.
The most troubling doubts, however, concerned the stability of the ship in open seas. As early as 2007, Defense News reported that many in the industry feared the Zumwalt could founder in a heavy sea.
“At least eight current and former officers, naval engineers and architects and naval analysts interviewed for this article expressed concerns about the ship’s stability,” Defense News reported. “Ken Brower, a civilian naval architect with decades of naval experience was even more blunt: ‘It will capsize in a following sea at the wrong speed if a wave at an appropriate wavelength hits it at an appropriate angle’…”
According to Brower, the archaic tumblehome hull form and ram bow do not provide the ship the ability to right itself from a roll the way a conventionally flared hull does. The Navy, however, countered that basin testing with 30-foot and 150-foot models showed the Zumwalt hull design was stable up to and including Sea State 9, equal to a Force 5 hurricane.
Nevertheless, the Navy decided to reverse its plans for a fleet of more than 30 DDG-1000 destroyers. In 2009, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced the DDG-1000 program would end with just three ships of its class. Instead, the Navy opted to continue construction of Burke-class destroyers.
The Navy announced plans to name the next ship in the Zumwalt-class the USS Michael Monsoor in honor of a Navy SEAL commando who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions in Iraq. The third and final ship in the line will honor President Lyndon B. Johnson, who served in the Pacific Theater with the Navy in WWII.
Zumwalt: Limited Numbers, Long-term Impact
Though the number of ships limits the operational impact of the Zumwalt-class destroyers, their influence on naval warfare may offer a long-term impact. Besides normal operations, the three DDG-1000s will serve as technology demonstrators for advanced technology and operational concepts that could affect future naval operations for the next 50 to 100 years.