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Zumwalt Destroyers: Three Next-Generation US Stealth Ships (That Kind of Look Like Ironclads)

Now and again a piece of military hardware emerges that sets a precedent for what is to come. Often controversial, usually fairly bizarre-looking, these machines are designed to push human warfare ever higher. The B-2, also known as the Stealth Bomber, was a perfect example of such a machine – sleek, deadly, futuristic – it was an aircraft that changed aviation. But why should the skies have all the fun? 

The three Zumwalt-Class ships in the United States Navy are as close to a maritime version of the stealth aircraft as you are going to get. With their slick, unobtrusive features, you might be mistaken in thinking that this ship was a little dull, but behind their stealthy exterior lies a fearsome vessel capable of delivering a chaotic barrage without you ever even knowing it was there. 

But like many forward-thinking military machines, the design process, construction and implementation of the Zumwalt destroyers has been far from smooth sailing. The initial number envisioned has been drastically reduced and in the last couple of years, the U.S Navy has been forced to adapt the Zumwalts for a different kind of mission profile than it was originally designed for. This may well be the next generation of warship, but it’s struggling to find a place in our time.  

The Zumwalt-Class

Before we dive into its background, let me start by telling you a little about this odd-looking ship – and odd is exactly the word you’d use to describe one of these if you saw it out at sea. The Zumwalt-Class ships, like the B-2 bombers, were designed in a way to reduce their radar cross-section (RCS) as much as possible – so much so that a Zumwalt destroyer looks more like a small fishing boat on a radar screen rather than a cutting-edge navy vessel. 

At 190 metres (610ft) in length, they are just slightly longer than the Washington Monument and have a beam of 24.6 metres (80.7 ft) and a draft of 8.4 metres (27.6 ft). The Zumwalts come with a wave-piercing tumblehome hull form, which means that the sides of the hull slope inwards above the waterline rather than outwards as is traditional, a feature that drastically reduces RCS.

These were primarily designed to be guided-missile destroyers that would focus on land attacks, although their role in the U.S Navy has since changed, which I’ll get to a little later in the video. 

They are destroyers that can carry a mighty punch when needed – although there is a massive issue with the guns, which again I’ll come to shortly – and there have long been murmurings that they might one day carry rail gun technology which would make these ships some of the most feared on the high seas – but I’m getting far too ahead of myself.  

Surface Combatant for the 21st century  

Donald J. Trump
Donald J. Trump by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC-BY-SA

To begin the Zumwalt-class story we need to go back to a different time. A seemingly more sedate era, before Covid, 9/11, the banking crisis and the Presidency of Donald J Trump. Perhaps I’m just gazing back with rose-tinted specs, but the 1990s seemed to be a little bit calmer. A time when our greatest U.S Presidential preoccupation was with what Bill Clinton was getting up to with his favourite cigars.

All seemed well. The U.S had emerged as the lone remaining global superpower, the stock market was up and the U.S Navy was beginning to look to the future, safe in the knowledge that the Defense Budget seemed to be a bottomless pit of staggering riches. What could possibly go wrong? 

This was also the time when the U.S government began tinkering with banking regulations that had been put in place after the Great Depression to muzzle greedy bankers and prevent another calamitous global recession. And I think we all know what came next so I’ll stop there with my sarcastic undertones.   

In 1994, the U.S Navy set out its SC-21 (Surface Combatant for the 21st century) research and development program to design a land-attack ship for the new millennium. After numerous designs, they settled on one – the DD-21 – a design which heavily resembles the Zumwalt Ships today, but was technically cancelled in 2001 as political manoeuvring got underway. One word is that the program had become heavily associated with the Clinton administration and the incoming Bush administration didn’t like that one little bit. Alternatively, the Navy had baulked at the rising costs and chose to go a different way. Either way, the SC-21 program was officially terminated in November 2001. 

Zumwalt Development

It probably says a lot about the comings and goings of government and the military that although a program to build a set of ships that looked remarkably similar to the Zumwalts was cancelled two months after 9/11, a few years later things were repackaged and once again the program to build a group of ships for the 21st Century appeared to be on. 

No doubt spurred on by the attacks on U.S soil, the U.S Navy made grand plans to build 32 Zumwalt Destroyers and in December 2005, the House and Senate both agreed on a spending bill to fund the construction of the first two ships. 

The stage was set for the ships that would forever alter the design of land-attack destroyers – but there were issues right from the get-go. Before work had even begun on the first Zumwalt, the Navy began edging away from the project much as you would if you came across a screaming toddler in a supermarket.

In 2008, the U.S Navy made the quite extraordinary announcement that in fact, they needed more Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, the Zumwalt’s predecessor, and no longer needed the next-generation ship that they had just spent 13 years and nearly $10 billion designing. The Zumwalt program had become a white elephant and with global stock markets tanking and the good old days of the 1990s now seeming a long way off, some difficult decisions needed to be made.  

By this point, the unit cost for a single Zumwalt had reached $5.964 billion which was 81% more than the Navy’s original estimate back in the 1990s. This resulted in a breach of the Nunn–McCurdy Amendment, which essentially meant the Navy had to either return to congress with a new proposal or cancel its production. They chose the latter.   

In 2009, a final decision was made, with a total of three Zumwalts then on the books, but that would be it. The plan that had envisioned a large fleet of 32 cutting-edge stealth destroyers had been torpedoed before it had even left port. Or rather before they had even had a chance to build it before it could leave port. But still, there would be three – eventually.  

Construction

The work was set to be shared, with Bath Iron Works in Maine constructing the first ship, with Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding slated to build the second. Work on the first Zumwalt-Class ship – named USS Zumwalt – did not begin until 2011 and was officially launched two years later on the 28th October 2013. 

The ship is named after Elmo Russell Zumwalt Jr, the youngest Chief of Naval Operations in the history of the Navy and the man responsible for the Z grams, a list of initiatives started in the 1970s aimed at reducing sexism and racism in the Navy, as well as allowing beards, sideburns, moustaches, longer groomed hair and perhaps most importantly of all, beer-dispensing machines in the barracks. It’s not difficult to see why he was such a popular figure.

The first captain of the USS Zumwalt brought plenty of press attention, not for anything he did, but simply because of his name – James Kirk. Star Trek fans will no doubt get a little buzz from that tidbit.

Work began on the second Zumwalt, the USS Michael Monsoor, in May 2013 and took almost exactly three years to complete before being launched on 21st June 2016. Michael Monsoor was a U.S Navy Seal who died in Iraq in 2006 after throwing himself onto a live grenade to save those around him. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by President Bush in 2008.   

The final Zumwalt Class ship is the USS Lyndon B Johnson, which was started in January 2017 and launched in December 2018. Over two years later, the ship is still being fitted out and has not officially been commissioned yet. And in case you might not know, Lyndon B Johnson was the 36th President of the United States. 

Design

OK, let’s dive in and take a closer look at the ships themselves. It’s worth starting with its stealth technology. As I mentioned, the Zumwalt-Class ships use a wave-piercing tumblehome hull form designed to reduce its RCS. But they don’t just stop there. 

The Zumwalts almost look like the old Ironclad ships of the 19th Century. Their decks, turrets and just about everything is a flat, uniform grey and carefully concealed. At first glance, the ship either looks like a futuristic maritime vessel, or the most boring ship to ever set sail – but looks can be deceiving. 

Everything on the Zumwalts is carefully constructed and mostly hidden to keep the RCS down. The integrated composite deckhouse looks like a bland 1970s Soviet tower block, but importantly has only six smooth, flat surfaces and incases the bridge, mast, radars, antennas, and other electronics – again intending to keep the RCS as low as possible. 

The fearsome battery of weapons is located in covert mounts at the front of the ship. What looks like two anonymous grey blocks can actually turn into two 155 mm (6.1 inches) naval guns in an instant. This advanced gun system was designed to use the Long Range Land Attack Projectile (LRLAP) weapon, a next-generation gun capable of firing with incredible accuracy perhaps as far as 185 km (115 miles) – although some sources say it’s less. Sounds great right? 

Well, actually no – and it is here that the awkward tale of the Zumwalts begins to get a little slapstick. The LRLAP program was cancelled in 2016 after costs for the shells reached close to $1 million each and even the U.S government found this to be excessive. So, we were left with two ships that have guns designed for something that no longer exists. As for the third Zumwalt, the USS Lyndon B Johnson, the plan was originally to use the Navy’s latest rail gun technology, but when it came to crunch time, the technology wasn’t even remotely ready. So they installed the 155mm guns instead – remember, the guns that can’t actually be used because the shells are being produced anymore. 

By the way, if you’re interested in the fascinating world of rail gun technology, we’ve already done a video on that so why not give it a watch after this.  

But that’s not to say these ships are completely defenceless, far from it. They all have the MK 57 Vertical Launching Systems, with a total of 80 launch cells, which can use the RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles, Tomahawk missiles and Vertical Launch Anti-Submarine Missile. There are also two auxiliary guns, using the 30 mm (1.2 in) Mk 46 Mod 2 Gun Weapon System. 

The ships also come with either the SH-60 LAMPS or MH-60R helicopter and also carry several unmanned autonomous helicopters. Again, with RCS in mind, these are all enclosed within a hanger at the back of the ship, where there is also a small flight deck.  

Power

One reason that the Navy gave some serious thought to using railguns was because of the unique way the Zumwalts get their power. The ships come with an Integrated Power System (IPS), which provides energy to everything on board and not just the motors. They use two Rolls-Royce MT-30 main turbine generators – basically an ocean version of what powers the Boeing 777. Each generator pumps out 34.5 megawatts of power, while the ship also has two Rolls Royce RR4500 auxiliary turbine generators capable of providing 3.9 megawatts each.

Now, this is a lot of energy. The 78 megawatts of electricity from the combined main generators is enough to power 50,700 average American homes and there’s certainly plenty left over for some energy-greedy experimental technology – if that technology was actually ready that is. The ships have a top speed of around 30 knots (56 km/h – 35 mph), roughly the same as the Arleigh Burke-class ship that came before and after it.  

Dead on Arrival

The sad thing about the Zumwalt-class Destroyers is that they are – or rather they could be – phenomenal ships, but they seem to have slipped through the cracks. How a program that has cost $23 billion so far can possibly fall through the cracks is quite a mystery.

When the Navy started planning the Zumwalts they were designed as land-attack ships that would carry the most modern weaponry on the planet. Unfortunately, things just haven’t worked out like that. The cost involved with the program has been staggering, with each ship working out to have cost $7.6 billion – which is half as expensive as a brand new aircraft carrier. Costs like that are simply unsustainable and remember the Navy initially hoped to have 32 of these ships. 

Then there is the issue of weaponry. The ships may have cost a bomb and have no doubt caused many a headache or two over their next-generation design, but at least they’re finished and ready. The weaponry that the Zumwalts were designed to carry either remains a long way off or is now unavailable because of huge costs. Railguns may well be the future, but it seems we still have some time before we see them permanently mounted on the side of a U.S Navy destroyer. As for the LRLAP guns, $1 million for a single shell is absurdly expensive and it’s not hard to see why the project was cancelled. These are ships that are well ahead of their time – but perhaps too far. 

But all is not lost for these Three Amigos. It appears that Zumwalts will now be used as ‘ship killers’ rather than land-attack ships. They will now primarily use the Maritime Strike Tomahawk (MST) that can hit targets up to 1,000 km (621 miles) away, while there is also talk of installing the Navy’s latest laser technology that can be used on smaller targets in the vicinity – but let’s not hold our breath on that one.  

Right at the start of the video, I talked about how certain pieces of military hardware push everything forward. Alas, the Zumwalts may have pushed a little too far forward. This is the kind of design that in 30 years we will look back at being revolutionary and it’s perfectly feasible that much of its technology will be used on a wide variety of ships in the future. 

But right now, they are three ships that have slipped through the cracks of time. Too advanced for their own good, with weapons that are too expensive to fire or simply not ready and a mission profile that has been hastily redrawn to try and justify the massive amount of money that has been spent on them. They are certainly the future – but they’ll just have to wait for the rest of us to catch up.    

Zumwalt-class destroyer – Wikipedia

U.S. Navy’s Zumwalt-class Destroyers Enter the 2020s – Naval News

USS Zumwalt Class Destroyers | Zumwalt Navy History, Parts (popularmechanics.com)

Here’s how the destroyer Zumwalt’s stealthy design handles stormy seas (defensenews.com)

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