On Dec. 7, 1941, a Japanese surprise attack on the U.S. Navy anchorage in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, killed 2,403 Americans and sank or damaged eight battleships — the backbone of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
Seventy-four years later on Dec. 7 this year, a new generation of American warship — a kind of 21st-century battleship — had its ocean debut. The future USS Zumwalt, first of her class, sailed from the Bath Iron Works shipyard in Maine down the Kennebec River into the Atlantic Ocean for her first trials.
“No ship is more interesting in the way that it links the past with the questions that surround the future of naval war. It is both a throwback and a breakthrough,” says P.W. Singer, an analyst and author of the recent novel Ghost Fleet, one star of which is a fictionalized version of Zumwalt.
“It is the size of a World War I battleship, originally designed for gunfire shore bombardment, a role many are not sure we even need anymore, but utterly revolutionary in other ways,” Singer continues. “Stealthy in design, powered by over four million lines of software code, highly automated so that it needs a crew only 1/10th the size of comparable ships, and the only ship in the fleet to be able to carry the next generation of electromagnetic rail guns.”
Zumwalt is on schedule to commission into the Navy in 2016. Two sister vessels are under construction. The survivors of an ambitious plan in the 1990s to build as many as 32 radar-evading “stealth” destroyers for land-attack missions, the Zumwalts are unusual compared to the Navy’s mainstay Arleigh Burke-class vessels.
For starters, they’re huge. Six hundred feet long, they displace 14,500 tons of water — half again as much as a Burke. But thanks to automated systems, the new destroyers’ crews total just 140 sailors, half as many as crew a Burke. The Zumwalts’ superstructures are streamlined to minimize detectability by enemy sensors.
The vessels pack their 80 missile cells along the edges of their unique, downward-sloping hulls rather than in packs on the centerline — the idea being that the missile cells can act as a kind of armor to absorb attacks. The Zumwalts’ main armament is a pair of high-tech 155-millimeter guns firing guided shells as far as 83 miles.
But all those features come at a cost. Counting development, each Zumwalt costs more than $7 billion, three times as much as a single new Burke. Their high price is the main reason for the Pentagon’s decision to truncate the class. But the Zumwalts are still impressive and important vessels.
“The Zumwalt class is an excellent example of a small class of warships that are providing the Navy an opportunity for experimentation and innovation into the future,” says Eric Wertheim, author of the definitive reference guide Combat Fleets of the World. “This small class of three destroyers will also help the nation maintain a balanced fleet by providing important niche capabilities.”
U.S. Navy photos
Besides assigning the Zumwalts to shore bombardment — a traditional task for battleships — the Navy is also eyeing the new destroyers for Special Operations Forces support. With ample living space and a hangar for two helicopters, the Zumwalts could function as floating bases, launching and retrieving commandos on risky missions and supporting them with gun and missile fire. While the Zumwalts lack the weapons and radar capabilities required for complex air-defense missions, they can at least defend themselves from aerial attack with their Sea Sparrow missiles.
Then there’s the new destroyers’ power supply — a whopping 78 megawatts, sufficient for a whole host of new technologies potentially including the aforementioned electromagnetic rail guns, which can fire highly-destructive non-explosive projectiles at targets hundreds of miles away.
“The class will carry a good mix of weapons once the ships enter service,” Wertheim explains, “but more importantly, the propulsion system fitted on the Zumwalt class allows for many types of new technologies to be fitted and tested for the future, likely paving the way for naval combat and operations into the 22nd century.”