Inside the Navy's next-generation destroyer

Road Trip 2010: CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman stops in on Raytheon's Integrated Defense Systems facility in Rhode Island and got the low-down on the DDG 1000, the U.S. Navy's most advanced destroyer ever.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
10 min read

The next-generation Zumwalt-class destroyer, known as DDG 1000, will be the most advanced such vessel the U.S. Navy has ever had. It will feature a server-based computer system that will allow any crew member to do any role at any station. Daniel Terdiman/CNET via Raytheon

PORTSMOUTH, R.I.--As someone interested in the cutting edge, one of the best things about Road Trip 2010 has been getting a rare look at the U.S. Navy's next-generation aircraft carrier and the world's most advanced submarine.

But that wasn't enough for me. I also had to see where the Navy is going with destroyers, and that's why my visit to Raytheon's Seapower Capability Center here was such a good investment of time: I got a chance for a lengthy discussion on the next-generation, Zumwalt-class guided-missile destroyer, which the Navy expects to be a standard bearer for the next 50 years.

In part, getting a briefing on the DDG 1000, as the new ship is known, was a perfect closing of two Road Trip circles. First, because its radar system, as well as some others it is using, will be the same as that of the Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier, which I had seen being built at Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding in Newport News, Va.

Click here for a full gallery on the U.S. Navy's next-generation destroyer, the Zumwalt-class DDG 1000.

The Navy's next-generation destroyer (photos)

See all photos

At the same time, when I visited NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va., I was escorted past a training site being used to school Naval personnel on the DDG 1000's dual band radar. I didn't even know then that the DDG would end up playing a more substantial role in Road Trip.

While the Zumwalt-class destroyer has been in the works for several years, its development comes at an opportune time, suggested my host for the day, Tom Laliberty, a director of integrated combat systems for Raytheon, which is leading the development of the technical systems of the vessel. That's because, he said, President Obama has announced a shift from land-based ballistic missile defense to sea-based systems, largely as a result of the difficulties of coordinating with partner nations.

The DDG 1000 is currently being built at the Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine, and is expected to be deployed in 2015. And while it is much larger than the current-generation destroyer, it is also expected to be able to be operated and staffed by a much smaller force, allowing the Navy to conduct high function missions with an efficient headcount.

As a result, a ship that can get U.S. missiles close to potential adversaries is high on the Navy's list of priorities, and the Zumwalt class is designed for just such missions: its stealth capabilities make it ideal for sneaking close to an enemy, at least those that aren't landlocked.

The DDG 1000, then, is specially designed to "dominate the littoral environment." That means, Laliberty explained, that if the ship can get close to shore, it can be the U.S. military's best weapon, and can be a leader in any expeditionary strike force.

In part, that's because it can provide deep strike precision and heavy volume fire in support of land-based forces, as well as support Marines in need of sea-based help. Laliberty said it can deliver ground support artillery with GPS accuracy from as far away as 75 miles. The current top range is 12 miles, he said.

At the same time, the DDG 1000 is being outfitted with state-of-the-art air defense technology, and undersea capabilities that Raytheon says will make it among the fiercest surface ships on the planet at fighting submarines.

The most visible element of the DDG 1000 is its superstructure, a huge gray tower that actually would appear to any nearby radar as something much, much smaller due to the composite materials it is made from, and its carbon outside walls. Yet it is also light, with a balsa wood interior structure, Laliberty said, which means that the huge superstructure--featuring the ship's signature dual-band radar--doesn't throw off the destroyer's center of gravity.

The dual-band radar features both an S-band volume search radar and an X-band multifunction radar. As well, the ship has two bow sonar arrays--ideal for scanning close to shore for mines or submarines--and a multi-function towed array designed to scan the ship's surroundings when far out of port. Finally, it has what is called an EO/IR system that provides visual situational awareness for pointing the DDG 1000's big guns in case it has to take out small boats in the area. And finally, it has an electro-surveillance system that is still being developed and which will be integrated into the vessel's design in a couple of years, Laliberty said.

At the same time, the DDG 1000 is designed to throw off radar that would try to find it in a number of ways, including its composite materials. Another design is its wave-piercing tumblehome--or hull. Most Navy ships have flared hulls, Laliberty said, but the DDG 1000 was meant to be stealthy, and its tumblehome is angled in such a way that, "if you see it on radar," Laliberty said, "it comes across as a 45-foot trawler. It doesn't look like a 680-foot warship."

And because the Navy sees the threat of small boat raids and mines in places like the Middle East as being among the most dangerous ships like the DDG 1000 will face in the future, the destroyer is outfitted with undersea systems designed to counter any such dangers. It is quiet--so as to be able to sneak up on unsuspecting enemies. New mine-detecting capabilities--when tied to its navigation technologies--should allow the Zumwalt to be among the best in the world at avoiding mines.

The stats
Clearly, the Zumwalt-class destroyers are going to be big. The DDG 1000 will be 610 feet long, compared with 509 feet for the current-generation destroyer. Yet, the Zumwalts will carry a crew of just 148, compared with 382 currently. And that's largely because of the advanced electronic systems the new boat will feature, allowing the much-smaller crew to get much more out of their ride.

The DDG will have an arsenal featuring Tomahawk missiles, Evolved Sea Sparrow missiles for self-defense against attack from the air, ASROC torpedoes, and an advanced gun system that can fire 155mm rounds up to 75 miles.

One main advantage, Laliberty said, of the ship's stealthy design is that it is expected to be able to confuse any incoming aircraft intent on attacking it. Essentially, because the DDG's own radar is so powerful ("the best maritime radar in the world," Laliberty boasted), and because it has cutting-edge stealth design, it should be able to see almost any attacker before the plane can see it, allowing the destroyer to shoot down its adversary before even being spotted. "If you can see it," he said, "you can fire at it before it launches at you. Because of the low radar signature, he can't find you before you hit him."

At the same time, if the DDG 1000 is being called on to deliver artillery, it is designed to do so with what might be the most fearsome barrage ever to come from a destroyer: a system that can launch a substantial number of shells simultaneously, all on different trajectories, and that will all detonate at the same time.

The DDG 1000 can fire multiple projectiles simultaneously, on different trajectories. Daniel Terdiman/CNET via Raytheon

Human-centric design
One of the DDG 1000's elements that Raytheon is clearly proud of is what it calls the "human-centric" design. This means, Laliberty said, that Raytheon brought in countless Naval personnel in for hundreds of events--from commanders and executive officers to others in the fleet--to go through mock usage of the ship in order to try to figure out how best to lay out the many parts of the vessel.

Among the things that Raytheon and the Navy were trying to figure out was the question of whether the destroyer could be designed in such a way that the smaller crew could handle the tasks of a wartime deployment. As a result of this testing, he said, the whole staffing system of a Naval destroyer was able to successfully be redesigned.

At its Portsmouth facility, Raytheon has laid out a mock-up of the DDG 1000's mission control center in a bid to give visitors the best sense of what they will encounter when on the ship. On the destroyer itself, the mission control center is where command and control is run and where the crew runs the fighting and combat systems, as well as the boat's engineering plant. "Everything is controlled from this primary node," explained Matt McCoy, a Raytheon specialist working on the program.

Yet because the command center is largely modular, the commander of the ship can decide on the actual configuration, and can change that layout depending on the mission.

As for the computing systems, everything is server-based, and that means that any crew member can perform their role from any station, meaning that capabilities can be moved around, station to station.

The key takeaway, said Laliberty, is that the DDG 1000 is a "multicapability" ship, and the destroyer will be the Navy's first-ever that is reconfigurable in this way.

Further, its computing systems are designed so that individual elements can be swapped out as Moore's Law kicks in. That means that the Navy won't have to toss old systems wholesale. Rather, it can just upgrade existing systems with new software. This will be a major cost-cutter for the Navy, and it is expected that once this type of system is tried out on the DDG 1000, it will be rolled out across the Navy's fleet.

In addition, the computing systems have been designed for a future crew that is still in high school today, people who grew up with computers and gaming systems with heavy graphics capabilities, and complex joysticks being a part of their lives. As such, the computer systems on the DDG 1000 will be graphics-heavy, illustrating activity for the crew in real-time, and allowing a few crew members to do what would have taken many more sailors in the past using more analog systems.

Of course, that means the crew on board the DDG 1000 will be required to have higher-level IT skills than in the past, and so the Navy will likely have to recruit for a smarter, more educated sailor to man the destroyer than it would have previously.

Hostile aircraft
For my last stop, McCoy and Laliberty demonstrated an exercise to showcase how the digital command center works.

To begin, an "attack" on the DDG 1000 was initiated, essentially an enemy aircraft coming in intending to hit it. Before me, on the screens, I saw the computer system automatically identify the aircraft and put it into a "contacts of interest" queue. Then, that data was matched with the radar track for a surface-to-air missile. The missile was fired, and on the screen, we watched it head towards the airplane.

Next, the system detected a coastal defense cruise missile that was fired at the destroyer, once again recognizing the threat and adding it to the queue. In this case, in order to counter the attack, a crew member would have to manually agree or disagree with the system's recommendation to engage. But generally, that wouldn't be necessary, as the system can be set up on full auto.

66 percent
As noted above, the DDG 1000 is expected to be deployed in 2015. As of today, Laliberty said, Raytheon has completed 66 percent of the 2,100 different items it has promised the Navy, and the so-called Total Ship Computing Environment (TSCE) that I discussed above is among those that are close to complete.

A part of the environment is what is known as the Electronic Modular Enclosures, or EMEs. These are packed with IBM blade servers running Cisco Systems network gear that are mounted on shock absorbers--something that is necessary to run and host delicate electronics in a naval environment. The ship has 16 EMEs distributed throughout, each with a different purpose, be it data center capabilities for command and control, or to run sonar equipment, or for external communications.

At the same time, the TSCE, with 6 million lines of new code, is built on top of 10 million lines of existing Navy code. This open architecture is one more element allowing the Navy to streamline the process of getting the DDG 1000 to sea.

For now, there are three Zumwalts in the pipeline. After the DDG 1000 is deployed, another one will come 18 months later, and then the third 18 months after that. In total, the U.S. government has appropriated $11 billion for the program.

For a ship to be five years from deployment might seem like a long time. But for those at Raytheon, the project has already been in the works for years, and as such, you can tell when visiting that the excitement level is higher than ever.

For me, getting a lengthy briefing on the DDG 1000 wasn't the same as, say, getting to watch it getting built. At the same time, being able to hear five years before deployment about what could still be cutting-edge design in 2015 made my visit here well worth my time.

For the next week, Geek Gestalt will be on Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last four years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more throughout the American Northeast. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. In the meantime, you can follow my progress on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip and find the project on Facebook. And you can also test your knowledge of the U.S. and try to win a prize in the Road Trip Picture of the Day challenge.