Meet the Zumwalt: Can a massive surface destroyer, armed with Tomahawk missiles, deck-mounted guns, sensors, antennas and heat-generating onboard electrical power, truly be considered stealthy?
Surely, tall, vertical masts, hull-mounted sensors, and protruding antenna could never be a low-observable ship, yet performing these missions comprises the technical starting point from which engineers launched into building a first-of-its-kind stealth warship.
Zumwalt: Stealth Surface Destroyer
The sleek-looking Zumwalt destroyers have been engineered with a suite of cutting edge, next-generation technologies to include massive, ship-wide high speed computing, smooth, rounded stealthy configurations, wave-piercing Tumblehome hulls and an electric drive, among other things.
Perhaps most of all, the cutting-edge Zumwalts will also be receiving hypersonic weapons in 2025, a potentially paradigm-changing development able to position the shift for massive, open water maritime warfare.
The Zumwalt fleet of destroyers, although cut to an order of only three Zumwalts due primarily to cost, are engineered to appear as a small fishing boat to enemy radar. The Zumwalt has a smooth and rounded hull configuration with few sharp edges or angles likely to generate a return signal.
The absence of vertical structures and protruding shapes such as large deck-mounted guns, means there are fewer possible shapes likely to generate a return “ping” or signal from enemy radar. This is survivability enhancing.
While a destroyer as large as the Zumwalt would be very unlikely to generate “no” return signal to enemy radar or sonar, its configuration seems designed to produce a rendering quite different than what it actually is – confusing enemies. This is, in concept, fully aligned with the intended effect of Air Force fighter jets and stealth bombers; they are designed to appear like a “bird” or “insect” in the air to enemy radar.
Taking a look at the external shape of the Zumwalt, the ship lends itself to a discussion of some of these fundamentals regarding stealth properties. First and foremost, when compared to other surface ships, its shape is, of course, entirely different.
There are fewer edges, a conspicuous absence of protruding structures or varied contours and a flat side, seamlessly attached to the upper deck of the ship, on a straight, yet slightly angled flat linear surface.
Instead of multiple sharp, intertwined steel panels and structures, supporting an outward-facing radar system, the Zumwalt’s front exterior shows only a few rounded edges to achieve its requisite shape. Its much-discussed, wave-cutting Tumblehome hull is more narrowly built than existing destroyers, making it less detectable to enemy sonar.
Differently-shaped, external structures, with sharp angles, pointy edges and extending vertical designs naturally offer many more areas off which radar pings can bounce. Low observability, by extension, happens when radar has fewer return electromagnetic pings with which to create a rendering of the object.
Since electromagnetic pings travel at the speed of light – a known entity – and time of travel can be determined, a computer algorithm can determine the shape, size and distance of an enemy object – if there are enough return signals.
Acoustic pings operate within the same conceptual framework, simply using sound instead of electricity. Accordingly, Zumwalt engineers sought to build a ship able to elude radar and sonar detection.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.