BATH — A crowd of thousands gathered at Bath Iron Works on Saturday afternoon to watch the christening of the USS Zumwalt, the largest and most technologically advanced destroyer in Navy history.
Relatives of the ship’s namesake, Adm. Elmo R. “Bud” Zumwalt Jr., former chief of naval operations, as well as top Navy brass and Maine elected leaders celebrated the near-completion of a $3.3 billion ship that is the first of a new class of high-tech destroyers.
With the sudsy “thwack” of two champagne bottles near the ship’s bow, Ann Zumwalt and Mouzetta Zumwalt-Weathers christened the 610-foot-long ship in their father’s name as several thousand BIW employees, veterans and local residents cheered.
The two-hour ceremony was as much a celebration of the new destroyer and the shipyard that built it as it was for the late Zumwalt, who is credited with tearing down racial and gender barriers in the service.
“She is, in the truest sense of the word, the first of her class. So too was Admiral Zumwalt,” Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus told the crowd.
With more than 5,400 workers, General Dynamics-owned BIW is one of Maine’s largest private employers. The slogan “Bath-built is best-built” was uttered repeatedly during the ceremonies held inside a sprawling, high-security complex where at least four destroyers are at various stages of construction.
The centerpiece of Saturday’s show, however, was the unusual-looking warship floating dockside in the Kennebec River. Roughly 90 percent complete, the USS Zumwalt is expected to undergo at-sea trials next spring.
The first of three Zumwalt-class destroyers planned by the Navy, the DDG-1000 is a multiplatform ship able to fight on open water or operate close to shore to support land-based attacks. But it is the ship’s unique “stealth” design, size and high-tech equipment that make it different from previous destroyers — as well as more than twice as costly to build.
Every aspect of the Zumwalt’s exterior was designed to make the ship harder to detect on radar despite its size. Antennas, radar dishes and communications equipment are either hidden or enclosed in a 900-ton “superstructure” that sits atop the ship like a massive gray fortress.
The Zumwalt’s hull is designed to slice through waves with less wake, and Navy officials say the ship will have a fraction of the radar profile of the smaller Arleigh Burke-class DDG 51 destroyers also built at BIW.
“You will see her on the horizon long before you detect her on the radar,” said Sean Stackley, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition.
The Zumwalt is the largest destroyer ever built for the U.S. Navy, with a displacement of 15,000 tons that is nearly twice the size of the Arleigh Burke destroyers. However, the Zumwalt can hit speeds of up to 30 knots, can operate in shallower waters and has more precise weapons than the Arleigh Burkes.
Mabus called the ship “a modern marvel” that will lead to technological advancements on other ships even though only three Zumwalts are planned. It will also enable the Navy to be “in the right place all of the time” rather than “in the right place at the right time,” he said.
“We don’t have single-mission ships anymore and this one can do an amazing variety of things,” Mabus told reporters before the ceremonies. “It can also do it with a much smaller crew, and it gives us that technological edge.”
The ship is the first destroyer to have a “total ship computing” network enabling commanders to monitor and control all major functions from various locations within the ship. In terms of armaments, the Zumwalt will be equipped with long-range guided missiles as well as a first-of-its-kind 155 mm gun shooting GPS-guided ammunition at targets more than 60 miles away.
The ship’s high-tech systems will allow the Zumwalt to operate with a crew of just 130 sailors and 28 crew members supporting the aviation detachment, which is roughly half the size of the crew of Arleigh Burke destroyers.
Many of those future Zumwalt crew members — including Capt. James Kirk — were on hand Saturday and received a standing ovation from the crowd. Ann Zumwalt pointed out that the crew includes a single mom who fought in Afghanistan and an enlistee who will become a U.S. citizen at about the same time as his stint on the Zumwalt begins.
She said her late father “would delight to see the crew members of this ship reflect a Navy that he envisioned in the 1970s.”
“He strove for a Navy that was supportive, encouraging and compassionate towards all sailors, especially for minorities and women, a Navy that not only fought wars but also fought discrimination within its ranks,” Ann Zumwalt said.
There was no shortage of puns from speakers about the similarities between the names of the Zumwalt’s first captain and that of fictional James T. Kirk, captain of the USS Enterprise on “Star Trek.”
But retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. James Zumwalt praised Kirk’s 20-plus years of experience and, turning to him on Saturday, said, “You do have a lot of my father in you.”
With a $3.3 billion price tag to date, the USS Zumwalt costs more than twice as much as the Arleigh Burke destroyers currently under construction at BIW and its competitor shipyard, Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Miss.
Those costs are a key reason why the number of proposed Zumwalts dropped from more than 30 to three. Members of Maine’s congressional delegation, past and present, have fought to secure funding for the three Zumwalts and additional DDG-51 destroyers to be built at BIW.
“Today, BIW continues to set the standard for producing the best ships for the Navy at the best value,” said U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
The Zumwalt was originally slated to be christened last October, but that ceremony was postponed because of the government shutdown caused by a congressional stalemate over the budget. While Navy officials and the Obama administration have proposed an aggressive shipbuilding plan for the next decade, those plans are far from guaranteed amid the perennial fiscal uncertainty in Washington.
So it was no surprise when the crowd of shipbuilders and residents of Bath — known as the “City of Ships” — applauded heartily when Mabus said: “We are building more ships. We need more still.”
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:[email protected]