NavWeek: Ballad of the Traveling Gun

Capt. James “T” Kirk of the U.S. Navy warship Zumwalt slid his business card across the table like a Mississippi gambler revealing a winning hand for the biggest pot of the night.


On the front, the card features the usual fare: name, title, phone numbers with a small obligatory reproduction of the DDG 1000 Zumwalt’s coat of arms in the upper left-hard corner.

But it’s the back of the card that catches the eye. There’s a black knight chess piece printed there with the words: HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL.

The inscription is meant as an ode of sorts to the futuristic destroyer’s namesake –- Adm. Elmo Zumwalt –- and the two massive BAE 155mm gun systems that will blast targets up to about 70 mi. away with the long-range land-attack projectile to give Marines, Seals and other special operators the kind of accurate fire support they’ve been dreaming about.

“I was told that ADM Zumwalt had it on the back of his business cards while CNO,” Kirk says. “And since we have those two big, beautiful guns on DDG 1000, I thought it was an appropriate way to echo his legacy.”

Of course, “Have Gun, Will Travel” also was the name of a top-rated Western TV show that ran in the late 1950s and early 1960s about a hired gun, and there’s something particularly appropriate about such a saying being emblazoned on the back of a the business card of the commanding officer of the biggest and baddest pair of guns in the Navy’s destroyer fleet.

After all, this ship is meant to roam the West too –- the Western Pacific, that is, to add some muscle to the mindset of the Asia-Pacific pivot of U.S. forces to the region, backed up with its mighty 155mm shooters.

“They built the ship around that gun system,” says Randy Hershberger, the BAE Advanced Gun System on-site rep. “GPS guided, 10 rounds per minute.”

But the Zumwalt boasts more than just those guns. The ship also features the next-generation Mk. 57 peripheral vertical launch system –- 80 cells to fire Standard Missiles, vertically launched antisubmarine rockets (Asroc), ESSM and Tomahawk land-attack missiles, encased in a 4-in. steel plate to withstand the exhaust of the hotter-burning missiles. The Mk. 57’s modular electronics design makes it easier to integrate new missiles without requiring modification of the launcher-control software.

Then there are the new weapons the Navy plans to introduce to the fleet, like lasers and the railgun. The Zumwalt and the two other ships of the class will have the capacity and available power like none other currently in the fleet.

One of the reasons why the Zumwalt will generate so much power rests in its integrated power system (IPS), an advanced power plant that revs up to 78 megawatts of electricity –- enough to power about 47,000 U.S. homes.

All of this is protected by a specially modified Spy-3 radar. Initially, the ship was supposed to have the dual-band radar (DBR), which is installed on the next-generation aircraft carrier CVN 78 USS Gerald R. Ford, but the Navy went with the Spy-3 to keep down costs. Still, the highly accurate Spy-3, with its narrow-beam width and wide-frequency bandwidth, can detect anti-ship cruise missiles and periscopes in very challenging environments while discriminating and illuminating low-altitude targets for the SM-2 and Evolved Sea Sparrow missiles.

The offensive powerhouse will be able to pierce waves, Navy officials say, in a stealthy manner, thanks to its “tumblehome” design – in which the hull narrows the higher it gets above the waterline – and will be operated by a crew of only 130.

All of this sounds too good to be true to many defense analysts, who question the ship’s ability to perform as planned.

Take the Mk. 57 launch system, for example. The location of the missiles, they say, like a set of firecrackers strung around the sides of the ship, not only will make for a juicy target but also will be ultra-vulnerable to attacks on the hull.

The power plant expectations? None of that has been proven at sea. They’ll be adding more crew members, detractors say, just like they did on the Littoral Combat Ship. And that tumblehome design? Another disaster waiting to happen for a warship, they say.

The Navy and Zumwalt contractors have their own counter-arguments, of course. When it comes to the launcher system, Jeff Chicoine, the Navy Supervisor of Shipbuilding (Supship) DDG 1000 hull manager, points out the steel protecting the ship and crew from the missile space is stronger than that on the rest of the ship.

“It’s got a higher tensile strength,” he told Aviation Week during a private tour of the ship at the yard in Bath. “Some of the steel is 4 inches thick. This is longitudinal backing bulkhead in the wall between the cells. The skin of the ship is weaker. There’s been a lot of [testing]… if we take any kind of hit the blast goes outward, not inward. For the skin, we have those ballistic plants on to protect the missiles [from attack]. At the end of the day, the naysayers will change their minds when they see how this all works.”

Kirk also likes the missiles’ location, which disperses the weapons instead of grouping them in all one spot on the ship. “If you have a detonation in a centrally located launcher,” he says, “you could have a catastrophic even on the ship. That is a vulnerability.”

Kirk also touts progress on the integrated power system, or IPS, which has been tested vigorously in Philadelphia. “From everything I’ve seen in Philly, that integrated power system has had a fair amount of run time and it’s understood fairly well,” he says. “If we were to give it all we had, the motor will draw around 35 megawatts, which is a lot of power. What’s really nice about this ship [is] we can drive about 70 megawatts right into those motors to really give it a go, but slow down to a cruising speed and have a lot of megawatts of power at our fingertips.”

He explains “You’ve got four generators. You’ve got four switchboards; that’s easy-ish. Then you have all of this all of this power conversion; it’s very complex. And then this electric plant is run by one person, the electric plant operator. You have a very complex set of software running all of this.”

And it’s up the crew to understand and appreciate the software-controlled principles of the ship because of the very small amount of people the Navy plans to put on the vessel.

On the current destroyer, notes Pat O’Kane, Raytheon Zumwalt test director, the bridge team will number seven or eight. “This ship is designed to run with three.”

What makes that possible, he says, are the cameras, sensors and other equipment netted throughout the ship.

“We have the ability to look at anything on the ship,” he says. “There are eight large-screen displays, HD cameras positioned around the ship. That provides situational awareness. There’s also a microphone system. [The bridge team can] hear sound on speaker on the quadrant it comes from to allow them to perform the functions normally done by a lookout.”

Chicoine says, “Having faith in all those electronic systems allows us [to design and build a ship with] no bridge wings.”

O’Kane says, “You get a pretty good view at the whole length of this ship.”

The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS 2) USS Independence-class ships also were designed and built without bridge wings, but then the Navy decided to redesign the ships with the wings. Capt. Kirk says he does not think that will be the case on Zumwalt. After being a bit skeptical about operating a ship without the bridge-wing view, he’s now comfortable the DDG 1000 can be operated safely and efficiently without them.

With the sensor systems and reduced manning, ship designers made more changes. Combat systems and control systems are co-located in the ship’s mission center. The traditional combat information center (CIC) has been eliminated. The ship has a web of redundant systems, including a secondary mission center, and the ability to log into other stations throughout the vessel and control it.

With a smaller crew, the ship relies on remote, motor-operated valves for the ship’s arteries and veins that move seawater, fuel and other necessities. “There are about 1,400 of them, Chicoine says. “It certainly is a challenge to get them all piped up and tested.”

O’Kane says, “We’re going to run all the engineering plant on this 15,000-ton ship with one person. We’ve had ships designed to be unmanned, but this ship is manned to be unmanned.”

However many crewmembers man the ship, many defense analysts still wonder how safe the vessel will be with the tumblehome hull. Kirk says he’s fine with the design.

“The last tumblehomes were built by France for Russia,” he says. “And three of four sunk and they stopped building them. Watertight integrity might have been the issue, not the hull form.”

While the flight deck also is large, especially for a destroyer, the designers have built in angles and other features to keep the radar cross section low. Other improvements will enable the helicopter pilots to note their glide scope and angles to the ship.

“We have a big flight deck up off the water,” Chicoine says. “Helo guys like that.”

Another LCS-like feature on the ship, from the LCS 1 USS Freedom class, are stern doors that open in the back to launch and recover rigid-hull inflatable boats (RHIBs). The Zumwalt will be able to accommodate two 11-meter RHIBs, Chicoine says.

And again, the doors are also angled to cut down further on a radar cross section.

But the RHIBs, helicopters and other assets are side dishes. The main course is still the gun system. The main question there, though, is what the Navy will wind up firing from the ship.

“It’s Lrlap [Long Range Land Attack Projectile] right now,” BAE’s Hershberger says. “The Navy is testing other things. The gun will shoot whatever you want, as long as you give it a profile. We got the hard one done. It’s easier from there.”

The contractor and Navy will be doing some light testing this summer, he says, but there’s no date yet for a structural test fire.

“The ship’s raison d’etre is the guns,” Capt. Kirk says. “But it’s easy to see that piece of it. It’s a 63-nautical mile, 155mm round with very precise, volume fires. A 5-inch gun doesn’t have the range, doesn’t have the accuracy. We will have Tomahawks on this ship. But you can only carry so many. With [the guns] we’ve got a significantly higher amount of volume to apply when you need to.”

But, he says, the Zumwalt can do so much more. “It can do ASW [antisubmarine warfare], strike, land attack, air defense —  it will carry the same type of ordnance as our other cruisers and destroyers will carry,” he says. “The sonar suite on this ship is designed to be very capable. The multifunctional is designed to be a very capable radar. It has been designed to long-range search functions that the volume-search radar (VSR), which was deleted from the 1000 class for cost reasons, would have performed. The multi-functional radar is now configured to also do volume search, though with some reduction in capability that the VSR would have given us. We’ll have Standard Missile, Evolved Sea Sparrow, Vertical launch. She’s a multimission platform, particularly well-suited to do [the] strike naval surface fire support mission.”

The ship is most certainly lethal, he says, and survivable. The reduced radar signature will make it harder to find, he contends. And it can take a hit and keep on fighting if it does.

“The two main drivers are survivability and reduced manpower,” he says. “Some of the complexity and automation are elements of the survivability.  I’m an engineer and when I look at it, I say, ‘That’s a very survivable ship.’”

Still, he acknowledges, doubts will linger until the ship goes to sea. “The best thing about this ship will be when we get her to sea and put her through her paces and she performs as we expect her to perform,” he says. “It has to prove itself. The crew and technology together have yet to go and prove it will perform as intended.”

He remains certain the ship will do just that -– and take its traveling guns to the Pacific, where he predicts Navy commanders will welcome the vessel. “The movement of this ship to the Pacific represents a tangible commitment to rebalancing,” he says. “The 1000 and her sister ships will go out there and be able to support our operational commanders.”