US Navy ready to launch radical, hi-tech destroyer

Built at a cost of US$3.5b each, the giant, super-hi-tech US vessel is seen as bridge between the past and the future of networked warfare

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 October, 2013, 10:13pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 October, 2013, 11:52am


After embarrassing troubles with its latest class of surface warships, the US Navy is hoping for a winner from a new destroyer that is ready to hit the water.

So far, construction of the Zumwalt, the largest US Navy destroyer built, was on time and on budget, something of a rarity in defence programmes, officials said. And the navy believes the ship's big gun, stealthy silhouette and advanced features will make it a formidable package.

The christening of the ship bearing the name of the late admiral Elmo "Bud" Zumwalt was cancelled a week ago because of the US government shutdown.

Without fanfare, the big ship will be moved to dry dock and floated in the coming days.

Meanwhile, the public christening ceremony featuring Zumwalt's two daughters will be rescheduled for next year.

Zumwalt, an admiral, served in destroyers during the second world war, winning a Bronze Star for valour at the battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines.

As the nation's youngest chief of naval operations, appointed at the age of 49 by then-president Richard Nixon, he fought to end racial discrimination and allowed women to serve on ships for the first time.

Like its namesake, the ship is innovative.

It is so big that builders Bath Iron Works, a General Dynamics subsidiary, had to create 32-metre-tall buildings at a cost of US$40 million to accommodate its large hull segments.

The ship is 30 metres longer than the existing class of destroyers. It features an unusual wave-piercing hull, electric drive propulsion, advanced sonar and guided missiles, and a gun that fires rocket-propelled warheads as far as 160 kilometres.

Unlike warships with towering antenna-laden superstructures, the Zumwalt will ride low to the water to minimise detection, making it stealthier than other warships.

Originally envisioned for shore bombardment, the ship's size and an engine that can produce 78 megawatts of electricity - enough to power 78,000 homes - make it a potential platform for weapons such as the electromagnetic rail gun, which uses a magnetic field and electric current to fire a projectile at seven times the speed of sound.

There are so many computers and so much automation that the ship needs just 158 crew, about half the complement aboard existing destroyers.

"The concept of the Zumwalt is sort of a bridge between the traditions of the past and the new world of networked warfare and precision guided munitions," Loren Thompson, defence analyst at the Lexington Institute, said.

"It's not so much a radical concept as it is an attempt to pull off a full range of missions with a ship that has one foot in the present and one foot in the future."

The navy once envisioned building more than 20 of the ships, but it has so many sophisticated features and the cost grew so high that senior officials tried to kill the programme.

Instead, it was cut to just three ships, the first of which is the Zumwalt.

The vessel would cost more than US$3.5 billion - about three times the price of current destroyers - but the programme had not been beset by big cost overruns or delays, officials said.

The fact that construction has gone smoothly is a relief for the navy, which has dealt with embarrassing troubles on its new class of speedy warship.

Those smaller ships, designed to operate in coastal waters, have been plagued by escalating costs, production delays and mechanical problems and some critical equipment for actions is not yet ready for use even though the first vessels have been commissioned.

"That ship is a total disaster," said Norman Polmar, a naval historian, analyst and author.

Against that backdrop, shipbuilders at Bath Iron Works have been toiling away on the Zumwalt.

Dan Dowling, president of a union which represents 3,200 shipbuilders, said it was a challenging project with a new hull and new technology.

"It is a radical departure from what we've known," he said.. "Whether the navy is satisfied with the design of the ship is up to them. We can only build what they asked for. I hope they'll be pleased with it. We'd like to build as many of them as we can."