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This article first appeared in Aviation Week & Space Technology.
Gulf of Mexico residents see all types of ships and barges go by Mississippi's Little Biloxi River Bridge. The region, after all, is a womb for warships and a transit artery for maritime goods of all types.
But recently one barge slipped past the bridge crowned by a cargo never witnessed in these parts, or any other in the world: a specially constructed composites deckhouse that made the vessel look more like a massive prop for the next "Star Trek" movie than anything on the seas.
Weighing 900 tons and measuring longer than 50 yd., the deckhouse is the top half of the U.S. Navy's newest and most modern warship, the DDG-1000 Zumwalt destroyer.
The structure packs the ship's bridge, radars, antennas and intake/exhaust systems into architecture designed to provide a significantly smaller radar cross-section than that of any other warship.
Made at a special composites facility owned and operated by Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII) of Gulfport, Miss., the deckhouse's biggest panels can take more than 24 hr. to infuse with resin and cure.
After shipment to Bath (Maine) Iron Works, the Zumwalt's superstructure will be mated to and integrated with eight of nine "ultra units" making up the DDG-1000. Steel base plates bolted to the composite structure will be welded to the steel hull.
Shortly thereafter, program proponents say, the power will come on, the engines will rev up and the Navy will have proof that its $3 billion-plus investment is not only worth all of the trouble of recent years, but is representative of a template for ship design and program management for fleets of vessels to come.
Zumwalt detractors -- and there are many -- say the Navy will wind up with an overpriced science experiment that will never be a safe and effective warship. They note that this ship has existed only on paper and in computers starting in the mid-1990s.
Navy and contractor officials, though, say those opposing the Zumwalt are stuck in the past of building and operating Navy ships and fail to appreciate the benefits of more automation, composite construction and a new propulsion system.
They note that while there is no DDG-1000 in the water yet, the ship's systems have gone through more simulation and actual tests than any other vessel.
Since being truncated by more than half to a three-ship fleet at the end of the previous decade, the Zumwalt class has remained within budget and on schedule. The deckhouse delivery represents one of the biggest program milestones to date.
"A lot of the senior Navy leadership has gone up and walked the deckplates and seen the spaces and started to understand the automation that is put into the ship," says Bill Marcley, DDG-1000 program manager and vice president of Total Ship Mission Systems for Raytheon Integrated Systems, one of the Zumwalt's prime contractors.
"These ships are remarkable accomplishments of modern shipbuilding," says a recent blog praising the progress of the Zumwalt program posted by Rear Adm. Thomas Rowden, director of the Surface Warfare Div. He notes that the first Zumwalt is more than 70% complete, and christening and commissioning are set for fiscal 2013 and 2015. Initial operational capability is slated for fiscal 2016.
DDG-1001, the second Zumwalt ship, which will be named Michael Monsoor, is more than 30% complete with a "sail away" set for fiscal 2017. Fabrication of DDG-1002, the Lyndon B. Johnson, began on April 4.
The all-electric integrated power system, Rowden says, "provides resilient combat power and extra margin for future capability growth within the ship, a critical attribute to help the Navy modernize elements of the ship's combat capability and adapt to changing fiscal, technological or threat conditions."
The Zumwalt class is also the first combatant with a low-voltage power system that has a highly survivable integrated fight-through power system, which relies on new-to-the-Navy solid-state power conversion modules to achieve specific power demands.
That is what the Navy expects to happen when deckhouse, ship and systems are joined in one hull and power goes on.
Credit: U.S. Navy