BATH, Maine – After embarrassing troubles with its latest class of surface warships, the Navy is hoping for a winner from a new destroyer that’s ready to go into the water.
So far, construction of the first-in-class Zumwalt, the largest U.S. Navy destroyer ever built, is on time and on budget, something that’s a rarity in new defense programs, officials said. And the Navy believes the ship’s big gun, stealthy silhouette and advance features will make it a formidable package.
The christening of the ship bearing the name of the late Adm. Elmo “Bud” Zumwalt was canceled a week ago because of the federal 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 the spring.
Adm. Zumwalt served in destroyers during World War II and was awarded a Bronze Star for valor at the Battle of Leyte Gulf. As the nation’s youngest chief of naval operations, appointed at age 49 by 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 Bath Iron Works, a General Dynamics subsidiary, built a 106-foot-tall, $40 million “Ultra Hall” to accommodate its large hull segments. The ship is 100 feet longer than the existing class of destroyers.
It features an unusual wave-piercing hull, electric drive propulsion, advanced sonar and guided missiles, and a new gun that fires rocket-propelled warheads as far as 100 miles. Unlike warships with towering radar- and antenna-laden superstructures, the Zumwalt will ride low to the water to minimize its radar signature, making it stealthier than others.
Originally envisioned for shore bombardment, the ship’s size and power plant that can produce 78 megawatts of electricity — enough to power 78,000 homes — make it a potential platform for futuristic weapons like 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 it’ll need fewer sailors, operating with a crew of 158, nearly half the complement aboard the current generation of 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,” said Loren Thompson, defense analyst at the Lexington Institute. “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 the ship has so many sophisticated features and its cost grew so high that senior Navy officials tried to kill the program. Instead, it was truncated to just three ships, the first being Zumwalt.
The Zumwalt will cost more than $3.5 billion — about three times that of current destroyers — but the program has 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, dubbed the “littoral combat ship.”
Those smaller ships, designed to operate close to shore in littoral waters, have been plagued by escalating costs, production delays and mechanical problems. Mission modules that give them the flexibility to perform roles including anti-submarine warfare and minesweeping are not ready, even though the first ships 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, the first entirely new ship built on the banks of the Kennebec River since the original Arleigh Burke was christened more than 20 years ago.
Dan Dowling, president of Local S6, which represents 3,200 shipbuilders, said it’s been a challenging project with a new hull design, composite materials and new technology.
“It is a radical departure from what we’ve known. Whether the Navy is satisfied with the design of the ship is up to them. We can only build what they asked for,” he said, adding, “I hope they’ll be pleased with it. We’d like to build as many of them as we can.”