The New $3B USS Zumwalt Is a Stealthy Oddity That May Already Be a Relic
At first glance, the long-awaited USS Zumwalt looks more like brutalist Soviet architecture than a destroyer in the United States Navy. But despite appearances, this trapezoidal hunk of gray steel was built at Bath Iron Works in Maine, not plucked from a Bulgarian mountaintop.
The Zumwalt completed its first at-sea tests this week, and its captain, who really is named James Kirk, couldn’t be happier. “For the crew and all those involved in designing, building, and readying this fantastic ship, this is a huge milestone,” he says. Bath Iron Works employee Kelley Campana, with tears in her eyes, told the The Telegraph, “It looks like the future.”
Maybe so. But the Zumwalt, named for Navy Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, may already be a relic.
The Zumwalt-class destroyer program started in the early 1990s and has been a problem child ever since. At first, the Navy planned to purchase 32 of the stealth vessels. Then it said it would buy seven. Then three. Now, it may buy just two. After decades and billions of dollars spent, the DoD may instead choose an updated version of the Arleigh-Burke DDG-51 destroyer, a model that entered service in 1991.
What drew the Navy to a design it may well scrap? The Zumwalt’s got a lot going for it. It’s made for cruising coastal waters and firing on hostile land targets, filling a role the Navy lost when it retired the Iowa-class battleships in the early 1990s. It’s bigger, stronger, and angrier than the stalwart DDG-51, which is primarily a defense vessel. According to National Defense magazine, the Zumwalt’s “advanced gun system” can hit targets 72 miles away. They can continue firing as more ammunition is brought aboard, a feature the Navy calls an “infinite magazine.”
That’s right. Infinite magazine. The Zumwalt requires a smaller crew compared to other destroyers, which makes it cheaper to run. The most powerful destroyer in the Navy’s history, it produces 78 megawatts of energy, enough to power about 10,000 homes. Some of that power goes to weapons like the electromagnetic railgun, which uses electricity to launch projectiles at 4,500 mph.
So why not build a few dozen of these monsters? Two big reasons. The first, not surprisingly, is cost. Zumwalt-class destroyers cost about $3 billion a pop—compared to $2 billion for a DDG-51. The second is more alarming: There are serious doubts about the ships’ seaworthiness. “On the DDG-1000 [Zumwalt-class], with the waves coming at you from behind, when a ship pitches down, it can lose transverse stability as the stern comes out of the water—and basically roll over,” Ken Brower, a civilian architect with decades of naval experience, said in 2007.
That concern stems from the shape of the ship, which looks more like Minsk’s Belarusian State Polytechnic Institute than a warship. It features what’s called a tumblehome hull, with flat, inward sloping sides that narrow above the waterline. The more traditional flared hull is broad at the bottom, narrower in the middle, then wider again at the top. The tumblehome’s bow slices through waves and minimizes the wake. More importantly, the hull’s sharp angles confuse radar systems into thinking they’re looking at a much smaller boat.
That stealth may come at the cost of safety, though: Eight current and former Navy officers have publicly doubted the ship’s stability, according to Defense News. And a 2007 report, “Dynamic Stability of Flared and Tumblehome Hull Forms in Waves”, presented at the 9th International Ship Stability Workshop in Germany, concluded that “Increasing wave heights … lead to drastic reductions in the stability of the tumblehome topside hull form.” Meanwhile, “even in steep waves, with large initial heel angles and roll rates, the flared topside had very few instance of capsize.”
The Navy has always defended the Zumwault-class design, noting that any new technology is subject to intense scrutiny, especially by an old institution like the US military. It’s promised all sorts of stability tests. And despite the military’s reputation for overspending on unnecessary gear, spending that kind of money on what may well be flawed design is something even conspiracy theorists couldn’t explain.
But even the Navy has its doubts. In 2010, Admiral Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations, told the House Armed Services Committee that based on a “radar/hull study,” the Navy decided to integrate a new radar system into the older DDG-52 ships, not the Zumwalt-class, because it would be cheaper. Shortly after that 2009 radar/hull study was published, the Navy cut its Zumwalt order to three ships.
The evidence against continuing the Zumwalt program would seem unimpeachable, except for the fact that the Government Accountability Office has impeached the credibility of a key indictment of the program. “The Radar/Hull Study may not provide a sufficient analytical basis for a decision of this magnitude,” it said in 2012.
Dr. Ben Freeman, a senior national security adviser for the Third Way think tank, has said the Navy’s 2009 report was manipulated. He points to an article in Aviation Week in which a “former high-ranking Navy officer” familiar with the classified Radar/Hull study said, “Some pieces of it got hijacked. People who had an agenda drove the study for a solution.”
The battle amongst special interests in the military is its own story entirely, as that Aviation Week piece makes clear. But the end result of decades of insults against an unprecedented class of destroyers may well mean just two of them enter service. And no matter your position on the seaworthiness of the Zumwalt, the final calculus would seem to rule out its sustainability a long-term program—even if it is suited to future wartime needs.
Just last month, the Congressional Research Service said the Navy could buy more DDG-51s for the same amount of money. It also said the Navy had decided by 2008 or 2009 against using the Zumwalt as the basis for a new class of CG(X) cruisers. “If the Navy had remained committed to that idea, it might have served as a reason for continuing [Zumwalt] procurement.”
At this point, it seems the DDG-51 will win the day, and that chorus of critics—whatever their motivations—has helped usher in the demise of this sneaky behemoth. In the meantime, the one Zumwalt we do have in service will cruise the seas. Let’s just hope it stays upright.