Zumwalt: Was the US Navy’s Stealth Destroyer Experiment a Failure?

 In Sea, Forces & Capabilities

The Last of The Navy’s Troubled Zumwalt-class Ships Has Set Sail: The US Navy hoped the class would be revolutionary. Instead, they build a paltry three hulls.

The last of the U.S. Navy’s Zumwalt-class sailed away from the dock at General Dynamic’s Bath Iron Works, marking the end of an era.

“The sail away of the third and final Zumwalt-class destroyer marks an important milestone,” said Dirk Lesko, president of General Dynamics Bath Iron Works, said in a company press release.

“The completion of our work on the most sophisticated surface combatant ever built is the culmination of more than two decades of dedicated effort by thousands of employees. Our Bath-built-best-built tradition will now fully focus on DDG 51s to support the mission of the Navy.”

In their statement, Bath explained, “last November, the Navy formally accepted completion of production and test activity from BIW for DDG 1002. The Navy’s acceptance of Hull, Mechanical and Electrical (HM&E) completion followed extensive tests, trials, and demonstrations of the ship’s systems both at the pier and during sea trials last summer.”

The ship, named after former President Lyndon B. Johnson, is currently in the Atlantic after navigating the Kennebec River and is en route to Ingalls Shipbuilding in Mississippi, where the shipbuilder will activate the ship’s combat system.

Zumwalt: High Hopes Dashed

The Navy’s hopes for the unique, albeit diminutive, class of ships had been high. The Zumwalt-class was very advanced, featuring an innovative Tumblehome hull design meant to reduce the ship’s radar cross-section and dual 155mm guns meant to support disembarked troops.

Though the Zumwalt’s hull proved to be a success – and despite criticism that it would prove prone to capsizing in rough sea conditions – the 155mm Advanced Gun System was an unmitigated disaster. Though the guns were installed on the Zumwalts, they were never given ammunition thanks to the incredibly high cost per shot, estimated at around $1,000,000.

Zumwalt: What Future Utility?

Given the uselessness of the ship’s dual 155mm guns, the Navy instead armed the Zumwalts with a Peripheral Vertical Launch System, essentially Vertical Launching System modules around the edges of the ship, preserving the Zumwalt’s internal central space.

Still, the Zumwalts may see some use yet. The Navy would like to use them as the first platform to host hypersonic weapons, likely by removing the class’ 155mm guns. Advanced Payload Modules – essentially enlarged VLS pods – could be installed in their place and host the Conventional Prompt Strike missile.

What Happens Now to the Zumwalt-class? 

With all Zumwalts now gone, Bath Iron Works frees up valuable shipyard space for building Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. The statement from the shipyard explains that seven Arleigh Burkes are under construction – and though the original design is from the 1970s, the class will sail until the 2030s, easily outliving the short-lived Zumwalts.

Caleb Larson is a multimedia journalist and defense writer based in Europe. A graduate of UCLA, he also holds a Master of Public Policy and lives in Berlin. He covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, focusing on American foreign policy, European security, and German society for both print and radio. Follow him on Twitter @calebmlarson

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