U.S. Navy's Lethal New Stealth Destroyer Is No 'Battleship'

Stealthy, ultra high-tech, a fit subject for sci-fi—but why call it a battleship?

Over the years it’s become commonplace for writers to sex up their descriptions of guided-missile destroyer (DDG) Zumwalt, the U.S. Navy’s newest surface combatant. Commentators of such leanings depict the ultra-high-tech DDG-1000 as a battleship. Better yet, it’s a “stealth battleship”—a fit subject for sci-fi!

Not so. And getting the nomenclature right matters: calling a man-of-war a battleship conjures up images in the popular mind of thickly armored dreadnoughts bristling with big guns blazing away at one another on the high seas, pummeling shore targets in Normandy or Kuwait, or belching smoke and flame after Nagumo’s warplanes struck at Pearl Harbor.

Such images mislead. Battleships were multi-mission warships capable of engaging enemy surface navies, fighting off swarms of propeller-driven aircraft, or pounding hostile beaches with gunfire. The DDG-1000 is a gee-whiz but modestly armed surface combatant optimized for one mission: shore bombardment. The shoe just doesn’t fit.

Now, there’s no problem affixing the label stealth to Zumwalt, which at present is undergoing its first round of sea trials off the New England coast. Shipbuilders went to elaborate lengths to disguise the ship from radar detection. Radar emits electromagnetic energy to search out, track and target ships and aircraft. It shouts, then listens for an echo from hulls or airframes—much as sightseers shout and listen when visiting the Grand Canyon.

Quieting the echo is the trick. This 15,000-ton behemoth displaces half-again as much as a Ticonderoga-class cruiser yet reportedly has just one-fiftieth the radar cross-section of the fleet’s workhorse Arleigh Burke-class DDGs. While not entirely undetectable, DDG-1000 will look like a fishing vessel or other small craft on enemy radar scopes—if it’s picked up at all. Blending into surface traffic is no mean feat for an outsized destroyer.

How did shipwrights pull this off? For one thing, the geometry of the DDG-1000’s hull, superstructure, and armaments deflects rather than reflects electromagnetic energy. Right angles and surfaces perpendicular to the axis of EM radiation bounce back energy—boosting an object’s radar signature. Accordingly, the DDG-1000 design includes few right angles. Everything slopes. And while radar antennae, smokestacks, and other fittings clutter the decks of conventional warships, such items are mostly concealed within Zumwalt’s hull or deckhouse. That accounts for the vessel’s clean, otherworldly look.

For another, radar-absorbent coatings slathered on the ship’s external surfaces muffle such radar returns as do occur. While hardly invisible to the naked eye, this big ship will prove hard to detect—let alone track or target—while cruising over the horizon.

If stealth is an accurate adjective, though, dubbing Zumwalt a battleship conveys false impressions. First of all, there’s the matter of linguistic hygiene. It’s all too common among laymen to use battleship as a generic term for any ship of war. Indeed, I got my start as a columnist in 2000 precisely because reporters took to labeling the destroyer USS Cole a battleship. An explosives-laden small craft struck that unfortunate vessel in Aden, blowing a massive hole in her side. How could that happen if Cole was a battleship? Battlewagons are ruggedly built, with vulnerable spaces sheathed in a foot or more of armor. They were built on the assumption that they would take a punch in a slugfest with enemy battleships.

Destroyers aren’t built on that assumption. Describing Cole as a battleship obscured a basic fact about modern warships. U.S. mariners try to bring down the “archer,” namely a hostile ship or warbird, before he lets fly his “arrow,” a torpedo or anti-ship missile. That’s because few ships are built to withstand battle damage. Crewmen call them “tin cans” for a reason: it’s easy to pierce an American ship’s sides should an enemy round evade the ship’s defenses. So it should have come as no surprise that a small craft packed with shaped-charge explosives could land a crushing blow against one of the U.S. Navy’s premier combatants. Again: calling things by their proper names constitutes the beginning of wisdom.

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