NAVAL STATION NORFOLK, VA. — The future USS Zumwalt immediately stands out from the older vessels docked here: It looks as if someone has taken a hedge-trimmer to every surface on the destroyer and cut back guns, masts and even the ship's bridge.
What's left is a gray slab jutting out of the water — a striking design aimed at making the huge ship difficult for enemies to find.
The Navy's newest and largest destroyer is scheduled to slide into Baltimore on Friday evening — a few days earlier than planned so it can avoid Hurricane Matthew charging up the East Coast. The ship is to be commissioned next weekend during a ceremony in Locust Point as part of Fleet Week.
The commissioning, when the vessel receives the designation United States Ship and officially joins the Navy's fleet, is a major step for the $4.4 billion ship —but there are still more steps ahead before it sees service on missions.
The journey so far has been arduous. High hopes for the next-generation warship ran into ballooning costs; the planned class of 32 destroyers has been slashed to three. Analysts blame all the new technology the Navy wanted to cram into the vessel.
Capt. James A. Kirk, the Bethesda man and Naval Academy graduate who commands the Zumwalt, says he doesn't expect the ship to begin predeployment testing until 2018.
Kirk acknowledged the challenges with the ship's development. But he said it's already showing its value to the Navy.
"The way I look at this is that only the United States of America had this vision to pursue this technology and advance the ball on naval warship design and building," he said aboard the 610-foot vessel this week. "That's a marvelous thing that we have done, and we will learn from it.
"This ship is bought, we built this ship, and we have combat capability that's coming in this ship that's going to help the fleet as soon as the test program is completed."
Outside, workers were applying a fresh coat of gray paint ahead of the commissioning ceremony.
After its stop in Baltimore, the Zumwalt is scheduled to head out to its home port of San Diego, where it is to undergo more industrial work before being put through its paces at sea.
Ultimately, the Navy hopes the Zumwalt — named for Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., the naval chief credited with modernizing the service in the 1970s — will be able to fulfill a range of roles. Sometimes it will travel with a carrier battle group, helping project American power around the globe. Other times it will sneak off by itself or as part of a small group to launch special operations missions.
The ship is also likely to have a role in the development of new weapons, including lasers and electromagnetically powered railguns, which fire metal slugs at devastating velocities.
Eric Wertheim, author of the Naval Institute's Guide to Combat Fleets of the World, said the Zumwalt is an answer to the proliferation of Russian and Chinese designed anti-ship missiles, which threaten to block American naval forces from operating safely close to coastlines.
"They built this class to be very, very stealthy," Wertheim said. He sees the Navy using the ship in concert with the Marine Corps' new F-35B stealth jets: "It can get really close to provide that support."
The Zumwalt is the largest destroyer the Navy has ever built — in an earlier era, it could have been classed as a heavy cruiser. The vessel displaces 15,600 tons, almost twice as much as an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer.
But despite its size, nearly everything about the ship is designed to make it harder to spot on radar.
Its smooth surfaces and unusual shape deflect radio waves at odd angles. The superstructure is made of a material more difficult to pick up than metal. Smaller boats that could one day be used by Navy SEALs are hidden away inside.
And where on a traditional ship, crew on the bridge would be able to look out of windows or step outside to see the surroundings, the Zumwalt's officers will rely on a suite of cameras that project images onto television screens.
The result, Kirk said, is that the ship looks on a radar screen just one-fiftieth of the size of an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer — one of which will also be in Baltimore for Fleet Week — despite actually being far larger.
The ship is designed to be quiet, too, making it hard to listen out for.
The Zumwalt isn't invisible to the naked eye, of course, but Kirk has an answer for that: "It's an awful big ocean."
While the ship's stealthy exterior is its most arresting feature, it has been designed to implement many other new naval technologies. One of the first sights a visitor to the ship sees is an MQ-8C Fire Scout — a drone helicopter — sitting in a hangar.
Up at the front of the ship, its two main guns can lob GPS-guided, rocket-propelled shells about 70 miles to lay down supporting fire to forces on the shore.
A computer system serves as the ship's nervous system, automating many functions and dramatically cutting the crew from 329 sailors on the older destroyers to 147.
A special power system allows the crew to direct energy where it's needed, whether that's driving the ship forward at more than 30 knots or cooking meals for the crew. This capability makes the Zumwalt a good candidate for testing high-energy lasers — weapons that could combat the threat of missiles launched from batteries on the shore.
Yet packing all that new gear into a single vessel has not been without problems. Dakota Wood, a military analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the Zumwalt has suffered from what he described as a common problem with major defense programs: Officials, politicians and contractors get caught up in hyping new technology that proves difficult to bring to fruition.
"Everyone involved has vested interest in believing, or at least accepting, the rosiest forecasts: world-class products incorporating the latest, and sometimes not yet invented, technological advances, delivered on time and at 'affordable' prices," Wood wrote in an email.
Wood said the Zumwalt does promise some major advances. But instead of being a game-changing new kind of ship that moves naval warfare a generation forward, he said, it's more likely to represent merely an important step forward.
"The Navy needs to get the ships into the fleet, work with them, and see how they and their designs, capabilities, technologies can be put to use, then take insights from that and apply it to other ships, future designs, and evolution of operational concepts," he said.
Latest Baltimore City