The U.S. Navy's Zumwalt-Class Won't Be the 'Battleship' of the Future

Zumwalt-Class Destroyer U.S. Navy
April 12, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: U.S. NavyNavyMilitaryDefenseZumwalt-ClassZumwaltStealth

The U.S. Navy's Zumwalt-Class Won't Be the 'Battleship' of the Future

The Zumwalt-class destroyer once envisioned as the future backbone of the U.S. Navy, faced significant setbacks that curtailed its production after only three ships.

Summary: The Zumwalt-class destroyer, once envisioned as the future backbone of the U.S. Navy, faced significant setbacks that curtailed its production after only three ships. Originally planned as a 32-vessel class to replace the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, the Zumwalt's development was plagued by budget overruns and performance issues. Despite its advanced stealth capabilities, designed to reduce its radar cross-section dramatically, the practical utility of such features in close-to-shore operations where visual detection is possible proved limited. Consequently, the Navy shifted its preference back to the more traditional and cost-effective Arleigh Burke-class. The costly endeavor of the Zumwalt-class highlights challenges within defense procurement systems, leading to reevaluation of the ship's strategic utility and cost-effectiveness.

Stealth, Costs, and Combat: The Troubled Journey of the Zumwalt-Class Destroyers

The Zumwalt-class destroyer was billed as the future of the U.S. Navy. Built with a low radar cross section and displaying an impressive array of futuristic weaponry, the Zumwalt was supposed to replace the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer that has been in service since the 1980s.

The Navy intended to purchase 32 Zumwalts. But when the project went way over budget and performed below expectations, the Navy dropped its support. The service even asked Congress to stop delivering new Zumwalts and instead to deliver more Arleigh Burkes. 

Just three Zumwalts entered service before production ceased and the once-future vessel of the Navy became a mistake of the past.

Zumwalt-Class: The Ship of the Future

Perhaps the Zumwalt’s most important design feature is its incorporation of stealth technology. Despite being 40% bigger than the Arleigh Burke, the Zumwalt’s radar cross section is no larger than that of a fishing boat.

To reduce the Zumwalt’s radar cross section so drastically, the vessel was built with a tumblehome-style hull, which narrows above the waterline. The tumblehome is distinct today, but the hull shape is hardly new. Wooden warships of old often featured the design. Late 19th-century warships also floated on tumblehome hulls, now made from steel. But the design quickly fell out of fashion after three of four Russian tumblehome-style battleships were sunk during the Russo-Japanese War. Only now, with modern navies seeking to gain a stealth advantage, is the tumblehome hull, with its low radar cross section, being revived from obscurity.

The hull is not the only thing bolstering the Zumwalt’s stealth. A composite deckhouse encases the ship’s sensory and electronic equipment within hard-to-detect materials. Between the hull and the composites, the Zumwalt is about 50 times harder to locate on radar than preceding destroyers.


The Zumwalt is also an uncommonly quiet vessel. Its acoustic signature is closer to that of the Los Angeles-class submarine than to the Arleigh Burke. 

Still, questions lingered about the application of the Zumwalt’s stealth. The ship was supposed to provide fire support against land-based targets, meaning it would operate in crowded and close-to-shore environments. In such circumstances, a low radar cross section is not very useful – an enemy can find the thing in their binoculars. Plus, as soon as the Zumwalt begins firing its impressive weapons systems, as it was designed to do regularly, the ship’s stealth features will be compromised.

The Ship of the Past

The total cost of developing three Zumwalt destroyers was $24.5 billion – about $8 billion per ship. That’s a bad investment. Lawmakers naturally started to ask whether the surface vessel cost too much for the capabilities it provides.

Mike Fredenburg, writing for the National Review, said that the Zumwalt was “emblematic of a defense procurement system that is rapidly losing its ability to meet our national security needs,” adding that it was an “unmitigated disaster,” and a “ship without a mission.”

About the Author: Harrison Kass 

Harrison Kass is a defense and national security writer with over 1,000 total pieces on issues involving global affairs. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, Harrison joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. Harrison listens to Dokken.