How the Zumwalt Class Destroyer Works

By: William Harris  | 
The Zumwalt class destroyer will be the most sophisticated warship in naval history. See our collection of submarine pictures.
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Federal Government

In the vast expanse of modern naval warfare, one name stands out as a symbol of cutting-edge technology and unparalleled capability: Zumwalt. The Zumwalt class destroyer, a marvel of naval engineering, represents a formidable leap forward in naval prowess and strategy. Its unique design and innovative systems have captured the imaginations of military enthusiasts and strategic thinkers alike. In this article, we'll delve into the inner workings of this naval juggernaut, uncovering the secrets that make the Zumwalt class destroyer a true marvel of the modern naval fleet.


What Is the Zumwalt Class Destroyer?

The Zumwalt class destroyer is a key part of the U.S. Navy's 21st Century Surface Combatant (SC-21) Program, initiated by Navy planners in 1991, to conceive of warships capable of delivering next-generation functionality. The SC-21 Program describes a family of ships designed to fight more effectively in littoral operations, which are those conducted close to the shore. At the same time, SC-21 ships will need to function equally well out in the open ocean. The key is versatility, with ships in the SC-21 family able to handle virtually any mission, from wartime missions in land attack and undersea warfare to noncombatant evacuations to presence, escort and diplomatic missions.

The SC-21 family includes a destroyer class and a cruiser class of ships. The destroyer class was originally designated DD 21, and to bring the first ships in the class to life, the Navy introduced a four-phase development process. Two competing teams oversaw the first two phases, which involved system concept design and initial systems design. Bath Iron Works, with Lockheed Martin Corporation as the systems integrator, led the first team. Northrop Grumman Ingalls, with Raytheon Systems Co. as the system integrator, led the other.


Northrop Grumman won the contract to move forward in phase-three design and development, anchoring what would be known as the DD(X) National Team. Raytheon became the National Team's prime mission systems integrator for all electronic and combat systems. Other major subcontractors included Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, Boeing and General Dynamics Bath Iron Works.

In November 2005, the DD(X) program received funding approval to enter the fourth and final phase: construction of eight ships. Five months later, the Navy announced that the class and lead ship would carry the designation and hull number DDG 1000 Zumwalt.

Originally, the U.S. Navy planned to build 32 destroyers but that number was quickly reduced to 24 and then to eight due to costs. In the end, the Navy only built three Zumwalt class destroyers including the USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000), USS Michael Monsoor (DDG 1001), and USS Lyndon B. Johnson (DDG 1002).


Construction of the Zumwalt Class Destroyers

The USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) began construction in February 2009, was commissioned on October 15, 2016, and officially delivered to the Navy on April 24, 2020. It joined the U.S. Pacific Fleet and participated in at-sea testing and fleet exercises. In August 2022, DDG 1000 initiated its first operational deployment and will continue testing before installing Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS) capabilities in October 2023.

The USS Michael Monsoor (DDG 1001), named in honor of a Navy SEAL awarded the Medal of Honor, was delivered to the Navy on April 26, 2018, and commissioned on January 26, 2019. It completed Combat System Availability in March 2020 and underwent various tests and activities throughout 2022. Currently, DDG 1001 is in the Post Shakedown Availability phase, set to continue until May 2023.


The USS Lyndon B. Johnson (DDG 1002) was christened in April 2019, with production and test activity completed in November 2021. DDG 1002 is now at Huntington Ingalls Industries' shipyard for combat systems installation and activation, with a single delivery approach planned upon a successful acceptance trial. The Navy is gearing up to equip Zumwalt Class destroyers with Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS) capabilities, set to be integrated during a planned FY2024 availability, including the removal of the two 155 mm Advanced Gun System (AGS) mounts.

Design Requirements of the Zumwalt Class Destroyer

Zumwalt will need to reduce their electromagnetic energy so they don't show up on surface search radar displays like this one.
Photo courtesy of Clipper

The DDG 1000 has been designed specifically to participate in both traditional military engagements, as well as those that might arise as part of the global war on terrorism. Like destroyers in the Arleigh-Burke class, the DDG 1000 will be multi-mission, capable of providing forward deterrence and presence, and an integral part of joint and combined expeditionary forces. But unlike today's destroyers, the primary mission of the DDG 1000 will be land attack support for ground forces. In fact, one of its most important requirements didn't come from the U.S. Navy, but from the Marine Corps, which, in 2002, requested that the Navy provide 24/7, all-weather, long-range missile-firing capabilities in support of USMC amphibious operations. That means the DDG 1000 will need to operate efficiently in shallow coastal waters - not in quick, hit-and-run missions, but in engagements that may last days or weeks.

Having a persistent presence in littoral areas is one of the most important design requirements of the Zumwalt class destroyers. Now let's look at some of the ship's other requirements, as outlined by Navy planners:



While cruising in hostile waters near an enemy's coastline, the DDG 1000 can expect attacks from cruise missiles and small boats. Clearly, it will need to effectively defend against these threats, as well as those from submarines and surface mines. It will also need to have systems in place to minimize damage caused by missile strikes.


It may seem impossible to make a 600-foot long ship invisible to the enemy, but that's one of the DDG 1000's most important requirements. That means the ship will need to dampen engine noise and reduce the amount of electromagnetic energy (radar and infrared, for example) that it reflects to enemy detectors.


From the beginning, Navy planners envisioned the DDG 1000 as an all-electric ship to meet ever-increasing power demands. Approximately 80 megawatts of electricity - nearly 10 times the power available on today's Arleigh-Burke class destroyers - will power all of the major systems of the ship, including gun turrets. The electric motor designed to power the propellers will be one of the most advanced in the world, capable of maintaining a top speed of 30 knots.


More Design Requirements of the Zumwalt

Beyond the need to survive, stay invisible to the enemy and run on electric power alone, the Zumwalt class destroyers have other requirements that will make it one of the deadliest, and scariest, destroyers on the planet.

Fully Integrated

The DDG 1000 will feature an open IT architecture, making it easier to use off-the-shelf software and to promote interoperability. Contractors who help the Navy develop the various systems of the ship will work within this single IT framework to make sure all hardware and software is fully integrated.



The DDG 1000 will cost a great deal to build, but it will be one of the most efficient ships to operate. Many of its critical systems will be fully automated, requiring a smaller crew to keep the ship operational. Its fuel-efficient power system will also reduce fuel costs and provide potentially significant energy savings.


In many ways, the Zumwalt class destroyer will be a working prototype for all ships to be built as part of the Navy's 21st Century Fleet. Its advanced technologies will be tested and proven in real-world situations and will then be incorporated in ships, such as the DD(X) Cruiser and the Littoral Combat Ship, being planned for the near future. It's also hoped that the DDG 1000 will influence ship design for the remainder of the century, giving rise to even newer, more advanced capabilities.


Critical Technologies of the Zumwalt Class Destroyer

The DD(X) is a future class of U.S. Navy destroyer, designed as a multi-mission ship with a focus on land attack.
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy

To make sure the requirements outlined in the previous two sections are met, the DDG 1000 will feature numerous innovations never before seen on a warship. Here are some of the most critical technologies being built into the Zumwalt class destroyer:

The low, angular deckhouse gives the Zumwalt class destroyer a sleek, modern look quite unlike any warship that has come before it. This distinctive appearance is only enhanced by the DDG 1000's hull, which slopes inward from above the waterline. Known as a "tumblehome" hull, this feature allows the ship to slice cleanly through waves, optimizing speed and maneuverability while decreasing acoustic and infrared signatures.



The firepower of the DDG 1000 will be formidable. At the heart of the ship's weapons systems is something called the Advanced Gun System, or AGS, a pair of 155-mm guns capable of firing Long Range Land Attack Projectiles (LRAPs). An LRAP is a GPS-guided shell that can provide a precision strike on a target located as far as 100 miles away. Six hundred LRAPs can be fired from Zumwalt class destroyers in 30 minutes, giving the ship true rapid-fire capabilities that exceed those provided by the twelve 155-mm howitzers present on Arleigh-Burke class destroyers.

In addition to the AGS, the DDG 1000 also features 80 vertical missile launchers staggered around the ship's perimeter. Each launching system comes with modular electronic architecture, making it easy to accommodate both existing and future missiles for land attack, anti-ship, anti-submarine and anti-air warfare. Each system is also self-contained and fully armored to limit and isolate battle damage.

Finally, two 57-millimeter close-range guns fire 220 rounds per minute from the bow of the ship. Both guns fold down and tuck away for stealth.

Originally, there were plans to include an electromagnetic rail gun, a weapon that uses a magnetic field powered by electricity to accelerate a projectile up to 52,493 feet (16,000 meters) per second. However, in 2021, the U.S. Navy funding for the railgun development came to a halt with no plans to continue the project. Instead, in 2023, the gun mounts will be removed and replaced with hypersonic missiles. This is projected to be complete in 2025 and will arm the Zumwalt with the Common Hypersonic Glide Body (C-HGB), which was developed for the Army, Air Force, and Navy. The conventional prompt strike (CPS) will extend a long-range strike capability for the U.S.


The dual-band radar of the DDG 1000 integrates S-band and X-band radar capabilities in a single system. X-band radar operates on a wavelength of 2.5-4 cm and a frequency of 8-12 GHz. Because of its smaller wavelength, X-band radar is more sensitive and can detect smaller objects. S-band radar operates on a longer wavelength, about 8-15 cm and a frequency of 2-4 GHz. This higher frequency radar will improve the ability of the destroyer to track aircraft and missiles and to counterattack shore-based guns or missile batteries that attempt to strike the ship.


Look at a typical battleship, and you'll see an array of spinning dishes and antennas sitting atop a high-profile mast. Unfortunately, this design, which provides a greater area to reflect energy, makes the ship much easier to detect on enemy radar. To overcome this problem, the DDG 1000 will integrate its communications hardware directly in the deckhouse "skin," which will be made with rugged, lightweight composites.


Critical Technologies of the Zumwalt Continued

A gas turbine engine
Photo courtesy of NASA


Two types of sonar arrays are gathered together in a single solution known as the Integrated Undersea Warfare system. High-frequency sonar is able to detect underwater minefields, while medium-frequency sonar sniffs out submarines and torpedoes. The dual-band sonar array is located in the bow of the ship, in a bulbous compartment that provides complete 360-degree coverage of the underwater environment.


Most warships today use a traditional mechanical-drive propulsion system with two separate sets of turbines - one for propulsion, the other for generating electricity for shipboard use. The drawback to this type of propulsion system is an inability to shift power to where it's needed most on the ship. Weapons, for example, can't borrow power from the propellers during battle. The Zumwalt class destroyer will overcome this problem with an Integrated Power System, or IPS.


Here's how the IPS works. The ship's engines will no longer be connected to the propellers. Instead, the engines - four marine gas turbines that Rolls-Royce describes as the most powerful gas turbines available today - will power generators that produce a total of 80 megawatts of electricity. That electrical power will then be distributed to most of the ship's systems and the electric motors that will drive the propellers. Because the power is centralized, it can be distributed as necessary to high-demand systems.

Safety and Damage Control

Ship designers have included an advanced damage-control system in the DDG 1000 to increase response time to ship-threatening events. The system combines sensors, cameras and automated firefighting capabilities and will improve survivability while reducing the number of crew members needed for damage control.

Aircraft Support

The stern deck of the DDG 1000 serves as a landing pad for helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles or other aircraft.


A Spruance-class destroyer requires a crew of 330. An Oliver Hazard Perry frigate requires 200 personnel. Because so many of its systems are automated, the DDG 1000's crew will number 140. This reduces the ship's operational costs, but it also has benefits for crew members, who will enjoy larger rooms and improved living conditions.


From Design to Destroyer

Northrop Grumman's Ingalis Shipyard in Pascagoula, MS where one Zumwalt is being built.

The journey from design to the commissioning of the Zumwalt-class destroyers has been a remarkable one, marked by innovation and unprecedented costs. The first of these revolutionary ships, the USS Zumwalt, set a new standard with a price tag of $4.4 billion, earning it the title of the Navy's costliest destroyer at the time. This exceptional vessel commenced its construction in October 2008 and made waves when it was launched in October 2013, ultimately joining the ranks of the US Navy's fleet in October 2016.

The sheer magnitude of the Zumwalt-class destroyers comes at a considerable cost, nearly twice as much as some of the Navy's most formidable ships, such as the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. With three Zumwalt-class destroyers in existence, including the USS Michael Monsoor and the USS Lyndon B. Johnson, the Navy invested approximately $22.4 billion in research and development, emphasizing the significance of these vessels in modern naval warfare. General Dynamics, the owner of Bath Iron Works shipyard responsible for constructing the USS Zumwalt, went to great lengths by investing $40 million in a specialized facility to accommodate the construction of these massive ships. The USS Zumwalt now stands as one of the largest surface combatants in the world.


The Zumwalt-class destroyers represent a triumph of engineering and technology, pushing the boundaries of naval capabilities. While the cost and development period were substantial, these ships symbolize the Navy's dedication to staying at the forefront of maritime innovation. From their initial designs to their active service, the Zumwalt-class destroyers are a testament to the continuous pursuit of excellence within the United States Navy.

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.


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  • The DDG 1000 on the Program Executive Office Ships Web site:
  • "DDG 1000 Zumwalt Class -- Multimission Destroyer: Advanced Technology Surface Combatants USA." Naval Technology Web site.
  • The DD(X) National Team Web site:
  • "Dead Aim, or Dead End? The USA's DDG-1000 Zumwalt Class Program." Defense Industry Daily. -usas-ddg1000-zumwalt-class-program/index.php.
  • The Federation of American Scientists.
  • "The Invisible Warship," by Gregory Mone. Popular Science, November 2006. ac21051610e3e010vgnvcm100004eecbccdrcrd.html?s_prop16=RSS:how2
  • "Navy Designates Next-Generation Zumwalt Destroyer," April 7, 2006.
  • Raytheon's DDG 1000 Zumwalt Destroyer Web site.
  • The U.S. Navy Web site.