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The all-electric destroyer is here

Posting in Aerospace

It's nigh. The USS Zumwalt is pioneering so many advanced technologies that some decision makers have criticized the program for trying to do too much, too soon. IEEE Spectrum reports.

Two decades ago, the U.S. Navy began designing what it then called its “21st-century destroyers”... In 2001, though, the Navy canceled that program and replaced it with a less costly alternative. It took another dozen years, but the first destroyer of that new generation is now nearing completion.

The total cost of the program, including R&D -- which will result in three of these high-tech warships -- is estimated to be $22 billion. It’s too soon to know if Zumwalt’s cutting edge tech is battle ready, but it’s not too soon to consider how these designs will affect future naval warfare.

Some notable departures from current warship designs. (Pardon my unfamiliarity with ship terms.)

  1. Shape. The Zumwalt has a tumblehome hull, which means the main body narrows rather than widens with height above the waterline. And the rake of the bow is inverted (or, the front of the ship slopes inward). The inward-angled hull won’t reflect radar energy straight back to an adversary’s antennas.
  2. Deckhouse. The Zumwalt has a cabin that rises above the level of the main deck. This deckhouse has sides that slope inward and houses the bridge, exhaust stacks, and various radar antennas. It reduces the ship’s radar profile. And unlike the steel hull, the upper part of the deckhouse is made of balsawood-cored carbon-composite panels: reducing weight up top to improve stability, resisting corrosion, and adding stealthiness.
  3. Missile arrangement. Its vertical missile-launcher tubes are arrayed around its exterior -- along the flanks, positioned between inner and outer hulls. Other ships put them in the middle of the ship, where they’re best protected from enemy fire. Putting them on the periphery makes them more vulnerable to enemy fire, but if they were hit, the resulting blast would explode outward, leaving the watertight inner hull intact.
  4. Power system. Rather than being directly attached to combustion engines, the propellers and shafts are turned by electric motors. The electric-drive systems is flexible enough to propel the ship, fire railguns or directed-energy weapons, or both at the same time. The 78 megawatts from its four gas-turbine generators can be directed through the ship’s power-distribution network wherever it’s needed. (The tightly integrated power-generation and distribution system has led some to call it the U.S. Navy’s first “all-electric ship.”)

Despite its cutting-edge technologies, the Zumwalt class was passed over for the Navy’s most technologically challenging missions of all: sea-based ballistic-missile defense. The main task envisioned for this ship: cruising in coastal waters while supporting military operations on nearby lands.

[IEEE Spectrum]

Image: John MacNeill (for larger view, PDF)

— By on August 5, 2013, 8:17 AM PST

Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure