Navy’s New Zumwalt Stealth Destroyer Might Be Too Stealthy

610-Foot next-gen warship looks like a 50-foot fishing boat on radar.

Zumwalt Stealth Destroyer
AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

Yes, the DDG-1000 Zumwalt Class destroyer took longer than planned. Yes the costs ran so obscenely over budget that the Navy trimmed its order from 32 ships to three. However, the first of those three maritime weapons has nailed its unique selling proposition: stealth. It is so stealthy, in fact, that during sea trials in March the Navy discovered the first of its destroyers – christened the USS Zumwalt – will need radar reflectors to be more visible when it’s not in theater creeping up on nefarious types.

The next-gen guided-missile destroyer is 610 feet long, two feet longer than the 29,000-ton super-dreadnought USS Arizona World War I battleship sunk at Pearl Harbor. Yet unlike the Arizona, the 15,000-ton Zumwalt’s shows up on radar as the size of a 40- to 50-foot fishing boat. It does this with smooth surfaces and a wave-piercing, tumblehome hull shape that slopes inward as it leaves the water, the opposite of a traditional hull. Covertness against other methods of detection is enhanced with a composite deckhouse and an “integrated power system” that uses gas turbine engines to power the ship’s electrical grid. The engines aren’t connected to the propellers, they juice an electric motor that turns the propellers.

The marine reflectors look like metal cylinders, designed to increase visibility in situations like inclement weather, fog, or heavy ship traffic. Other warships use reflectors as well, but it’s possible the Zumwalt will need to use them more often; a Maine lobsterman told the Associated Press that the military’s deadliest catch did look like a small fishing boat on his radar, while being “pretty mammoth” to the eye. Good news for the Navy is that the Zumwalt and its two sisters might be even slipperier when they’re finished with sea trials and fully operational in 2018: already 50 times harder to detect than a traditional destroyer, they might present an even smaller radar signature once the test equipment is removed.