Zumwalt: The U.S. Navy's Great Experiment

The new destroyer program looks better than the troubled Littoral Combat Ship.

'Tis a mystery. In November 2001, the U.S. Navy unveiled a family of three ship designs constituting its Future Surface Combatant Program. Of them, one, the CG(X) air- and ballistic-missile-defense cruiser, was canceled. The second, the small surface combatant later dubbed the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), has been subjected to withering scrutiny—including, on occasion, from your humble scribe. Yet the third, the DD(X) guided-missile destroyer (DDG)—subsequently redesignated the DDG-1000 Zumwalt class—has generated far less heat. To all appearances, the DDG-1000 marks as radical a break as does the LCS from traditional ship designs—maybe more so. Why, then, have the two programs fared so differently in the public eye?

Let's reason together about this. Sorting out the factors that mold perceptions could help navy leaders manage future shipbuilding programs' images more effectively.

First of all, a straightforward narrative explains the Zumwalts' purposes. For all its bizarre appearance—its low-slung profile, tapering "tumblehome" hull, and pyramid-like superstructure misled a friend into pronouncing it a "cool sub!"—the DDG-1000 remains a familiar ship type, meant to perform a familiar slate of missions. The U.S. Navy has operated DDGs since the advent of shipboard guided missiles in the 1950s. DDGs can be oriented more toward fleet air and ballistic-missile defense, like the workhorse DDG-51 Arleigh Burke class, or more toward shore fire support, like the Zumwalts. These are differences of emphasis, not of kind. Well-defined missions simplify naval officials' messaging and branding efforts.

Even the unearthly-looking Zumwalt, then, is more intelligible to key audiences than is the LCS. For instance, there's not one but two LCSs. Some years back, the navy ran a competition between two designs. Rather than "downselect"—ungainly bureaucrat-speak for picking a winner—to a single hull, the leadership picked both. Whatever the merits of that decision, the LCS is for all intents and purposes two separate ship classes. Moreover, each can be reconfigured with three different sensor and weapons "modules" to conduct surface warfare, mine countermeasures, or antisubmarine missions. The combinations evoke matrix algebra. Any ship that tempts an old math geek like myself to draw a matrix depicting its functions is tough enough to explain to experts, never mind to nonspecialists. Complexity clutters messaging about missions and widgets. Advantage: Zumwalt.

Second, another DDG debate has drowned out any quarreling over the Zumwalt. Rather than press ahead with large numbers of DDG-1000s, navy leaders decided to restart the production line for Arleigh Burke DDGs. They also decided to fit the DDG-51 hull with the latest and greatest seaborne radar, the Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR), to create a new "Flight III" configuration of the vessel. This set navy-watchers atwitter, and for good reason. The AMDR is a hefty piece of kit—verging on too hefty for the modestly sized DDG-51 hull. Much of the energy that might have gone into feuding over the pros and cons of DDG-1000 has instead centered on whether a downsized AMDR will perform adequately in Flight III Burkes. One anecdote to make the point: the DDG-1000 consumes under two pages of a recent fifty-four-page Congressional Research Service (CRS) report documenting the DDG-51 and DDG-1000 projects. The rest goes to DDG-51. (There's also a short appendix tracing the program's history.) The Zumwalt, in short, has largely avoided the limelight. No publicity is good publicity.

Third, timing has favored the DDG-1000 project while bedeviling the LCS. USS Freedom (LCS-1) made its maiden cruise over three years ago, long before the modules it needs to discharge its missions were ready for prime time. The lightly built LCS relies heavily upon offboard sensors and weaponry, particularly for anti-submarine and mine clearance operations. They let the vessel do its work from a safe distance. But this remote hardware is still undergoing testing and refinement even as the ships forward-deploy to theaters like the South China Sea. The surface-warfare and mine-warfare packages will reportedly reach initial operational capability (IOC)—the marginal degree of capability offered by equipment just entering service—late in fiscal year 2014. The anti-submarine module will follow, achieving IOC in FY 2016.