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

November 7, 2013 Topic: Security Region: United States Tags: ZumwaltUSS ZumwaltU.S. NavyDefenseNavy

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.

But even if those schedules hold up, the LCS's capabilities against surface ships will remain anemic for some time to come. Why? Because the missile earmarked as its chief surface-warfare armament was canceled in 2010 owing to cost overruns. That compelled the navy to substitute an antiship missile, the Griffin, with a range of only 3.5 miles. That's next to nothing in sea combat. As a result, many opponents now outrange the LCS. Adversaries armed with longer-range missiles can cut loose with impunity, pummeling the LCS until it gets close enough to reply—if it ever does. Acknowledging this, the navy and defense manufacturers plan to develop an extended-range successor starting next year. In the meantime these vessels will cruise the seas without a main battery adequate for dueling with surface craft. The shortfall in offensive firepower fuels skepticism about the LCS’s longevity in battle.

To be sure, some DDG-1000 technologies also have yet to prove themselves. In March, in fact, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that eight of eleven "critical technologies ... will not be demonstrated in a realistic environment until after ship installation". But this may be less ominous than it sounds. The ship packs two decent-caliber (155 mm) guns, each with a range of around 63 nautical miles. It takes advanced technology to provide a wallop at such distances. Guns are guns, however. Newfangled peripheral vertical launchers are arrayed along the sides of the ship rather than clumped amidships as on older combatants. Thus arranged, the cells supply an extra buffer against gun or missile hits, even while toting air-defense and land-attack missiles. But vertical launch, like naval gunnery, is nothing new. While innovative, the DDG-1000's main battery appears more evolutionary than revolutionary. The associated risks are smaller.

For now, the Zumwalt remains a black box to outsiders. It has yet to undergo sea trials, an unsparing arbiter of a ship’s performance. Should travails reminiscent of the Littoral Combat Ship's befall the destroyer, it too may become a target of controversy. Yet the DDG-1000's hull, engineering systems (including electric drive), sensors and armament appear to be maturing in parallel. If so, it will not be an orphan like the LCS, plying the sea while awaiting hardware it needs to do its job.

But fourth, any failures may not elicit the same vitriol that greeted the LCS program. In a sense, the DDG-1000 is a beneficiary of its own eye-popping price tag. As the CRS reports, total procurement costs for the three-ship flotilla comes to $11.6 billion, including R&D costs. The U.S. Navy first envisaged a fleet of thirty-two next-generation destroyers. As costs spiraled upward, the leadership cut the tally to somewhere between sixteen and twenty-four hulls, then to seven, and finally to three. With such sparse numbers, the DDG-1000 has come to resemble what it probably should have been from the start: a fleet experiment.

That is, when launching ambitious new projects—especially undertakings as complex as high-tech warships—it makes sense to build a few units, send them to sea to test their mettle, and then evaluate the results. The process lets designers, builders and crews keep the best and discard the worst, using hard-won lessons to improve subsequent craft. Far better to play around with a few hulls, holding down technical risk, than to order a whole class of ships packed with untried systems. Rather than plan to field fifty-plus LCSs or thirty-two DDGs before sea service vindicates their design, why not experiment, learn, and come up with a stable design before commencing mass production?

And that's the last major reason I see why the Zumwalt is relatively uncontroversial. No one expects perfection from a fleet experiment. Indeed, its reason for being is to be imperfect. Such testbeds vet new concepts, exposing flaws in ideas that look great on paper but may not work in practice. There's precedent, furthermore, for constructing an expensive three-ship class and feeding the lessons learned into successors that are potent but don't break the bank. Built two decades ago, the SSN-21 Seawolf submarines helped give rise to the Virginia-class attack boats, the newest mainstay of the silent service. Like the Zumwalts, the SSN-21s saw their numbers curtailed for cost reasons. Despite the brouhaha over their expense, however, they performed admirably as test platforms for new technologies and operational practices. And by all accounts, they render yeoman service as combat vessels to this day.

That's not a bad paradigm. If the DDG-1000s meet the Seawolf standard—informing the design of future surface combatants through their successes and setbacks, while supplying the fleet with much-needed firepower in coastal zones—they will have justified their expense. Simple, straightforward and clean: now there's a convincing message.

James Holmes is professor of strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific. The views voiced here are his alone.