The US Navy’s latest destroyer, USS Zumwalt, was in the news again last week. After a long and expensive development process she’s finally left Bath Iron Works for good and headed off to begin her life as a US Navy warship. Things now look on track for her commissioning date this October, and at that point the Navy will be the proud operator of the most radical destroyer on the planet.
Zumwalt is a technological marvel; there’s no doubt about that. From her stealth design to the 155mm Advanced Gun System and damage-resistant peripheral missile launchers, a lot of thought has gone into creating a survivable and capable ship. There are controversial aspects, of course, and some of them can’t be corrected in a mid-life refit. The potentially dangerous “tumblehome” hull design (where the sides slope in above the waterline) was rightly consigned to the warship dustbin around the time HMS Dreadnought was launched in 1906, for example. Conventional hull shapes help stabilize a ship. As the ship heels to one side a larger volume of hull – and the air trapped inside it – is forced below the surface on that side. This creates extra buoyancy, which tries to force the lower side back up again. On a ship with tumblehome that doesn’t happen. In fact as it heels, the volume of hull on the lower side decreases. The result is that the more it heels over, the more likely it becomes to heel even more. Three Russian battleships capsized after fairly minor flooding at the battle of Tsushima, and their heavy tumblehome was blamed; that killed the design until Zumwalt was ordered. It’s worth noting that no advanced US warship design since Zumwalt has gone with this hull shape, suggesting that the stability worries are still there.
There’s a bigger worry with Zumwalt design, though, and ironically it’s to do with her advanced automation systems. Because so many ship functions, including firefighting and damage control, have been automated the ship will operate with a crew of only 147 officers and sailors. To find a US Navy destroyer with a smaller crew you’d have to go back to the Clemson class, 156 of which were built between 1918 and 1922.
A Clemson-class destroyer had a crew of eight officers, eight petty officers and 106 men. It weighed 1,308 tons at full load and was armed with four 4-inch guns, a 3-inch AA gun and four triple torpedo mounts; it also had fittings for two depth charge racks on the stern and a single thrower on the foredeck. With a top speed of 35.3 knots it was a fast and versatile ship by the standard of the day, able to attack either surface ships or submarines and to defend itself against air attack fairly well. It was also, of course, a small ship – just 319 feet long, with a slender, knifelike hull form.
The Zumwalt-class is anything but small. At 14,798 tons and 610 feet long, it’s by far the largest destroyer ever built. In fact it’s the same length as a WWII heavy cruiser like HMS Belfast, and 4,000 tons heavier. The US Navy’s Nevada-class battleship, the largest warship in the fleet when the first Clemson was launched, was 35 feet shorter than the Zumwalt. The battleship did weigh 13,000 tons more, but 10,000 tons of that was armor plate. The space-age destroyer (and no jokes about how its first commander is Captain James Kirk) doesn’t have any significant armor.
And that’s where the problem comes in. The crew of the Nevada class increased steadily through the ships’ long life – from 864 when they were launched, to 1,400 in the 1920s when anti-aircraft guns started to appear, and finally to 2,200 as battleships sprouted forests of light automatic weapons in WWII. Most of these men were on board to operate the main armament, man defensive weapons, keep the engines turning or serve the food, but most of them had a secondary role as part of a damage control party. When she went into action everyone on board, except those needed to fight the ship, would be assembled at a damage control point. Because no matter how stealthy and well defended they are, warships can get hit.
The enemy are shooting at you and might not play by your rules; if the defenses are impregnable to a class of weapons they’ll try something else. That’s what happened to the battleships. When their armor improved to the point where nothing could hurt them except the guns of an even bigger battleship, unsporting people like Billy Mitchell suggested dropping bombs on their thinner decks instead. When the Germans sheltered the super-battleship Tirpitz in a fjord that protected her from bombing, the British used a midget submarine to drop a two-ton mine under her and caved in her bottom. She was repaired, moved to a new location safe from midget submarines, then sunk by a six-ton armor piercing bomb that sliced through her decks and blew her guts out.
So if the Zumwalt ever goes to war people are going to be doing their imaginative best to hit her with things, and she’ll be in trouble if they succeed. All the firefighting and damage control functions are there, but they’re heavily automated. That’s great as long as the damage control systems aren’t damaged themselves, but the sort of things that cause fire and flooding on a warship also tend to break sensors, slice cables and damage computers. What happens to an automated ship if major sections of her hull lose all power? What if a lucky hit takes out the generators? Then the crew are on their own.
I really don’t envy a destroyer-sized crew fighting to save this battleship-sized hull. Unfortunately the DoD seem to be prioritizing manpower savings over survivability, something politicians do quite a lot. They look at it from an economic point of view, and decide that military units are overmanned to an absurd degree. Yes, they are, for a very good reason – people die, and there need to be other people around to step up and take over their jobs. That might be inefficient from a business point of view, but the Navy isn’t a business.
In some future war, when the handful of sailors who can be spared from their posts are struggling through flooding, smoke-filled passageways to keep their high-tech hulk afloat, I doubt they’ll be thinking happy thoughts about the Pentagon’s latest payroll efficiency drive.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.