America’s Cool New Destroyer, Coming Soon

The first in a new class of destroyers is almost ready to leave drydock, but doubts remain.

The United States Navy’s coolest and most controversial new surface combatant is just months away from leaving drydock at the General Dynamics Bath Iron Works in Maine, according to Navy officials, despite delays caused by the recent government shutdown.

The USS Zumwalt, the first of the new DDG-1000 class of destroyer, is expected to put to sea for tests and shakedown in the first few months of 2014, moved back from the original October 19 launch date.

At a little more than 15,000 tons at full displacement, the Zumwalt will be one of the biggest non-aircraft carrying surface combat ships to be produced by the United States since the Second World War. The class features a new “tumblehome” design, which will improve upon ship stability by allowing new destroyers to pierce and pass through waves rather than cresting them, as well as extremely advanced electronic warfare systems that might be adapted to carry new types of weaponry developed in the future.

In design terms, much more of the Zumwalt‘s weighted hull falls beneath the water’s surface than is usual in a kind of compromise between surface and submarine designs. The result of this is a lower radar crosssection, making the boat much stealthier than similar ships, and a look that is as different from contemporary vessels as were ironclads and dreadnoughts from their predecessors. The broad surface of the destroyer will not rise far above the surface while the deckhouse, sporting advanced sensor packages built into the hull and with a shape reminiscent of the USS Merrimack (renamed the CSS Virginia), remains elevated.

The Zumwalt and her sisters will sport a variety of new systems designed both to improve the Navy’s ability to provide surface fire support to military forces operated in coastal areas and to support future innovations. In terms of the former role, the new destroyers sport eighty vertical launch system modules for cruise missiles and twin 155lb guns that can, in theory, land shells accurately at a range of 83 nautical miles. Such capacity means that the Zumwalt, much more so than contemporary destroyer classes, will join the Navy’s limited number of cruise missile submarines as a platform capable of projecting significant kinetic power from offshore.

To support systems developed in years to come, the Zumwalt will be put to sea with new turbine generators that produce an unprecedented and immensely disproportionate electrical load. This energy producing capacity will work hand in hand with the distributed and reconfigurable onboard power grid to ensure that power can adaptably be made available to new technologies. Likely introductions — based on reported rumors and the scope of current DARPA research programs — include rail guns, directed energy weapons and improved communications systems.

In spite of the promise of the Navy’s innovative new ship, however, a variety of controversies have surrounded its design and procurement.

Attempts to incorporate the latest in gun and missile launch systems have variously led public officials and military officers to question the ability of the new class to provide an appropriate amount of fire support to amphibious and other forces engaged in onshore missions. Experimental ammunition that would have allowed the Zumwalt to fire guided shells from its 5-inch guns was abandoned and the Navy actively maintains that it might modify the design of the 155mm main guns if launch systems fail to meet class requirements.

There is also concern about the inability of the ship, at least at launch, to act in a ballistic missile defense role that might substitute as older Arleigh Burke class destroyers are rotated out of service. Although such systems will be added to the small number of Zumwalts that are expected to be in service in years to come, limited magazine capacity speaks to the need to keep older platforms in commission for years beyond their original proscribe “expiration” date.

Finally, significant controversy remains on the subject of both the cost and structural stability of the Zumwalt. Congress originally awarded the new destroyer development program $9.6 billion for research and design to be spread across a class of thirty vessels. Rising program costs, notably related to the perfecting of the tumblehome design which many fear disadvantages the ship in its ability to right itself in rough waters, saw the reduction of planned vessel numbers to only three, leaving unit cost north of $2 billion after the lead ship.

And so, while the Navy’s new destroyer certainly promises to advance the science of ship design and systems development, the question remains as to whether the Zumwalt will prove to be a viable direction for packaging power projecting capabilities into surface combatants in the future. Will it end up being another F-22, expensive and capable but with expensive and debilitating flaws? Or will it prove to be a viable model for the future development of American combat vessels after all?