Why the Navy’s USS Zumwalt Stealth Destroyer Failed to Live Up to Expectations

The USS Zumwalt program exceeded its budget by 50%, and the Pentagon decided to pull the plug with just three ships built out of 32 planned.
USS Zumwalt at-sea tests and trials

The USS Zumwalt destroyer is a next-generation warship that was designed to be the most advanced and powerful surface vessel in the world. Unfortunately, it has turned out to be a failed, costly project.

The USS Zumwalt was designed to be an A-10 Warthog of the seas. It was supposed to be a highly maneuverable, stealthy, and heavily armed warship that could operate in shallower waters than traditional destroyers.

However, the ship has been plagued by technical problems and cost overruns. As a result, it has become a symbol of everything that is wrong with military procurement.

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The extraordinary USS Zumwalt

USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) commissioning
USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) commissioning by Petty Officer 1st Class Nathan Laird. Public Domain

The USS Zumwalt is the flagship of the Zumwalt-class destroyers. It is the most powerful destroyer ever produced for the US Navy – and the largest destroyer in the entire world.

This warship is a guided-missile destroyer, making its primary role in supporting the US Navy’s fleet with anti-aircraft capabilities. It cost $4.4 billion, which is the US Navy’s most expensive destroyer ever built.

USS Zumwalt Arrives in Mayport
USS Zumwalt Arrives in Mayport by Petty Officer 2nd Class Timothy Schumaker. Public Domain

The USS Zumwalt new technology destroyer is the most innovative and technologically advanced warship in the Navy. The ship is equipped with top-notch weapons, sensors, and systems, making it a powerful asset for the Navy. 

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It is so innovative that its guns are hidden under covers and only taken out at the time of firing to keep a distinctive low radar signature, which is comparable to that of a small fishing boat.

But… the Zumwalt has been riddled with technical issues

USS Zumwalt Arrives At Pearl Harbor
USS Zumwalt Arrives At Pearl Harbor by Petty Officer 1st Class Holly Herline. Public Domain.

The biggest problem is that so much technology required such a large amount of money that the project was not really feasible.

Not long after its 2016 commissioning, the USS Zumwalt malfunctioned in the Panama Canal. The second ship of its class, the USS Michael Monsoor, also failed during sea trials.

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USS Zumwalt
USS Zumwalt by Elizabeth A Wolter. Public Domain

Then, the Zumwalt struggled with weapons failure, engine stalls, and underperforming stealth capabilities, among other weaknesses. Also, the Zumwalt Class ships are missing several key features, including anti-submarine torpedoes and anti-ship missiles.

In addition, the USS Zumwalt suffers from serious stability issues. These issues were so bad that the ship had to be docked for repairs just a few months after it was commissioned.

As a result, the destroyer has virtually stopped delivering on their originally envisioned role as multipurpose destroyers. Meanwhile, the escalating cost overruns bring into question the program’s feasibility.

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USS Zumwalt specs

Bath Maine
Bath Maine by James O’Keefe. Licensed under CC by 2.0

  • Namesake: In honor of Elmo Zumwalt
  • Awarded: 2008
  • Builder: Bath Iron Works
  • Cost: From $3.5 billion to 4.4 billion
  • Commissioned: 15 October 2016
  • Status: In active service
  • Class:  Zumwalt-class destroyer
  • Displacement: 14,798 tons
  • Length: 600 feet (182.9 meters)
  • Beam: 80.7 feet (24.6 meters)
  • Draft: 27.6 feet (8.4 meters)
  • Speed: 33.5 knots (62.0 km/h or 38.6 mph)
  • Aircraft carried: SH-60 LAMPS helicopters or MH-60R helicopter /  MQ-8 Fire Scout VTUAV

The entire Zumwalt class features an integrated power system, which will provide electricity to all systems and weapons on board, and advanced weaponry such as the Advanced Gun System (AGS) and Tactical Tomahawk cruise missile.

Additionally, the design incorporates stealth technology, reduced radar cross-section (RCS), and infrared signature reduction.

The USS Zumwalt is an example that more expensive is not necessarily better

The USS Zumwalt (and the Zumwalt class) was plagued by technical problems and had to be redesigned several times.

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As a result, it became the most expensive destroyer ever built… And that the future of these destroyers doesn’t seem to be the brightest as their production has already stopped.

Although their technology and all the mistakes made in this program will probably improve future warships’ engineering.


Featured image credit: USS Zumwalt at-sea tests and trials by U.S. Navy. Public Domain

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