SAS12: Approach of the Gray Elephant

Block by block, deck by deck, DDG 1000 is becoming a full ship, but it'll be years more before it hits the fleet.

After years as a diagram, talking point and PowerPoint slide, the Navy’s new USS Zumwalt is set to become a no-kidding, honest-to-goodness ship this year.

Program manager Capt. Jim Downey said Monday that the ship will get its composite deckhouse; helicopter hangar; and the rest of its hull by the end of this fiscal year. But that still won’t mean it’s going to become a fleet asset any time soon — it’s due for several more years of testing and fitting out and won’t have its “initial operational capability” until 2016.

Downey said the Navy is setting aside about a year to test the Zumwalt’s wham-o-dyne new sensors and combat system, and it’s reserving that same amount of time for the following two ships. If everything goes well, engineers might not need to use all that time on DDG 1001 and 1002, but as for now they’re keeping it in the schedule.

The Zumwalt will take the Navy’s 21st century emphasis on technology and automation to its limits: This 15,000-ton, 610-foot “destroyer” — which displaces about as much as seven World War II-era destroyers — will field a core crew of 120 sailors. Add an aviation detachment of 28 and that gives a total ship’s complement of 148, plus two MH-60 Seahawk helicopters. The Navy continues to struggle with its crews of 75 aboard its 3,000-ton littoral combat ships. Can it manage with a behemoth like the Zumwalt?

Downey said engineers have been studying the crew size intently — “We keep going back to, is that 120 number right?” he said. Naval Sea Systems Command thinks it is; it has studied individual crew members’ work days down to six-minute increments, and the fleet also expects to rely on contract maintenance as it has with LCS. How well has that worked today? The jury is still out.

But this program is already in motion and the Navy wants it to keep moving. It’s counting on the Zumwalt’s integrated power system to show the way forward to tomorrow’s high energy sea weapons. Most warships have a set of engines to provide ship’s power — including hotel services for the crew and juice for sensors and weapons — and a separate set to push through the water. Zumwalt’s four gas turbines will generate electricity the crew can direct however it wants, enabling it to dial up speed, or dial up radar energy, etc.

Downey said Zumwalt will generate a total of 78 megawatts; at 20 knots, it’ll still have 58 megawatts available for use by the ship’s systems. So it’ll be able to make speed and have juice left over for its X-Band radars and 120mm Advanced Gun Systems, and then for the theoretical laser weapons that are always five years down the line.

As for missiles, Zumwalt will carry 80 peripheral vertical launch system tubes, and be able to handle the Evolved Sea Sparrow; the vertical-launched Anti-Submarine Rocket; Tomahawk cruise missiles; and the SM-2 surface-to-air missile. This weapons breakdown is significant — when the Navy first made its argument to kill or truncate DDG 1000, it said the ship couldn’t handle the Standard Missile family, even though SM-builder Raytheon was also building the ship’s combat system and much of the rest of its equipment. The Zumwalt’s actual capabilities have never really been clear since.

Two more things are clear now, however: Downey said the ship will not have any onboard torpedo tubes and it does not have a requirement for ballistic missile defense. Although Zumwalt will go to sea with an integrated suite of undersea sensors and a multi-function towed array, it’ll have to rely on its helicopters, like LCS, if its captain wants to drop on an enemy submarine.

As for BMD, Downey said DDG 1000’s PVLS tubes will be wide enough and long enough to accommodate potential future interceptors, and Raytheon company officials have said they’re confident the ship could join with BMD club with a few modifications. But as for now, Zumwalt is focused on “littoral dominance and land attack,” Downey said.

As it dominates and attacks, DDG 1000 will do a trick that none of today’s surface combatants can do — ballast down to reduce its profile above the surface, which is why the Navy used to list a “battle displacement” separate from its normal one. Downey cautioned that this was as much to help with stability for its guns as to reduce its radar cross section, but he said the ship’s waterline would go up by as much as a meter when it was crouching.

UPDATE: The Navy announced Monday that DDG 1002 will be the USS Lyndon B. Johnson.