America’s Most Futuristic Warship Is Boldly Going Out To Sea

Literally commanded by Captain Kirk

Zumwalt At Night In Maine

131028-O-ZZ999-103 BATH, Maine (Oct. 28, 2013) The Zumwalt-class guided-missile destroyer DDG 1000 is floated out of dry dock at the General Dynamics Bath Iron Works shipyard. The ship, the first of three Zumwalt-class destroyers, will provide independent forward presence and deterrence, support special operations forces and operate as part of joint and combined expeditionary forces. The lead ship and class are named in honor of former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Elmo R. "Bud" Zumwalt Jr., who served as chief of naval operations from 1970-1974. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of General Dynamics/Released)U.S. Navy

The very shape of future American warships is in the hands of none other than Captain James Kirk. In development for years, the USS Zumwalt looks as much like a spaceship as an ocean-going vessel, with sharp angular sides and a body that looks upside down. The commanding officer does indeed share a name with fictional Star Trek captain James Kirk. No naval vessel is really complete without first proving that it can survive on the open seas, and now it's headed out for sea trials.

"We are absolutely fired up to see Zumwalt get underway," said Kirk, according to the Tampa Bay Times, "For the crew and all those involved in designing, building, and readying this fantastic ship, this is a huge milestone."

The Zumwalt is a strange ship. Classified as a destroyer, it's built to escort larger ships and protect them from small, deadly threats. The U.S. Navy currently has 62 Arleigh Burke class destroyers, with thirteen more in the works. The Zumwalt is the first of a three-ship trial program to see if the next generation of destroyers can improve on the original series. To get there, the Zumwalt is taking a radical approach: With enough automation to cut the crew size down from the Burke's crew of over 250 to just 154 sailors and officers on board. Additionally, the Zumwalt will generate so much power on board it can easily fire laser weapons or rail guns, once the Navy develops them.

If it works, the Navy will have a new class of ship, deadly enough to bombard inland targets or other enemies with powerful guns, small and stealth enough to avoid counter attacks, and crewed lightly enough to keep labor costs down (not everything about future warship design is exciting). But there's a chance it won't work at all. The Zumwalt’s weird body is what’s known as a “tumblehome” design, and while it’s great for stealth, it could pose some problems on the high seas.

Writing in 2007, Defense News reporter Christopher Cavas noted the troubled shape, saying:

Nothing like the Zumwalt has ever been built. The 14,500-ton ship’s flat, inward-sloping sides and superstructure rise in pyramidal fashion in a form called tumblehome. Its long, angular “wave-piercing” bow lacks the rising, flared profile of most ships, and is intended to slice through waves as much as ride over them. The ship’s topsides are streamlined and free of clutter, and even the two 155mm guns disappear into their own angular housings.

The shape was popular among French naval designers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and a number of French and Russian battleships — short and fat, without any wave-piercing characteristics — were put into service. But several Russian battleships sank after being damaged by gunfire from Japanese ships in 1904 at the Battle of Tsushima, and a French battleship sank in 90 seconds after hitting a mine in World War I. All sank with serious loss of life. Both the French and Russians eventually dropped the hull form.

With the problems known, hopefully the Navy and the shipbuilders have solved the problem of tumblehome ships surviving on the open water. If not, the ship may sadly go where countless boats have gone before.

This post originally misstated the name of the Arleigh Burke class destroyers. It has since been corrected.