Interview: Zumwalt Commander Capt. James Kirk

April 11, 2014 9:34 AM


USNI News contributor Cmdr. Daniel Dolan, interviewed the commander of Zumwalt (DDG-1000), Capt. James Kirk, on 31 March. The ship—first in a class of three next-generation destroyers—is among the most expensive surface ships the U.S. Navy is building. The ship features a slew of new systems and the smallest crew yet for a ship her size. Dolan asked Kirk about the ship’s handling, the hull, some of the history of her namesake, and brought questions from members of the Naval War College staff ahead of the ship’s christening on Saturday at General Dynamics Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine.


Have you decided on ship’s motto yet?

Pax Proctor Vim (Peace Through Power) is the ship’s official motto. It harks to the powerful design of the ship, the weapons and even the electrical-power generation capability. It was also the motto of the USS Dewey (DLG-14), a ship built here in Bath [Maine], christened and commanded by then-Cmdr. Elmo Zumwalt. There is also an informal motto that was passed down by Zumwalt family members. The story goes that at a time when Adm. Zumwalt was CNO and was facing withering criticism for some of the reforms he was putting in place, he was once asked “How do you do it?” His response was “I just keep leaning forward!” I think this informal motto speaks to the mission that the Pre-Commissioning crew has to do here. We have a lot of work to do and when we ask ourselves how we are going to accomplish it our response is we’ll just keep leaning forward.

Adm. Zumwalt was a pioneer in many areas; one legacy that he is best known for is in implementing equal opportunity into the Navy. In what ways do you and the crew of the Zumwalt plan to continue this legacy?

If you look at the crew of Zumwalt you’ll see a crew that you would not have seen 40 years ago. It is reflective of us having moved the ball forward on being a more just institution and granting opportunity to everyone. We probably still have a ways to go as a nation, and as an institution. But our job here, for this generation of leaders, is to dedicate ourselves to those same ends that Adm. Zumwalt was committed to and to make sure we have a ship culture and climate that grants those same opportunities and reflects those values that Adm. Zumwalt first sought. His legacy of pushing forward with equal opportunity in the 1970s is included in our ship’s logo. The rope that outlines the crest contains 66 twists, which is a tribute to Z-Gram #66, the famous “Equal Opportunity” message to the Navy.

What are your personal reflections on the Navy’s progress toward implementing diversity?

It reminds me of a quotation that Dr. Martin Luther King made famous, but was first uttered by a prominent abolitionist [Pastor Theodore Parker, in 1857]: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” I think that is a good reflection of the changes that have taken place during my 24 years of service in the Navy, but there is still work to be done and that’s the job of this generation of leadership.

What are the challenges have you faced generating, vice joining, a crew?

The first thing is, as the crew members are assigned, making sure that we’ve done due diligence so that the folks reporting to the ship are up to the challenges. These challenges are different than other classes of ships in some ways because we only have a little more than 130 crew for a 16,000-ton ship. That is roughly half the crew size of an Arleigh Burke-class DDG. The ship’s design was to have a lot of automation and to accommodate that crew size, but the fact is it is a smaller group. So, when you talk about implementing new policies and programs, we don’t have a predecessor ship to borrow from. In many cases we have to create “whole cloth” and that is a challenge for a small crew. The second piece is no different from any other PRECOM—you’ve got to create a sense of mission and teamwork. We are doing that now to set the conditions to take delivery of the ship. As a crew we’ve got to be ready not just to accept delivery of the ship, but to take delivery of the ship when the industry partners are completed with their work.

A lot of skeptics have questioned the manning, comparing this ship concept with the LCS. What lessons have you captured from the LCS program?

In the broader Navy there have been some lessons captured and applied. For example, on LCS they figured out that while there are other people coming on board to conduct maintenance that does not mean that the crew does not have a work load to assist with the effort. The crew is responsible for making sure that the right contractor and the right maintenance is being conducted. But, I think overall, the lessons from LCS have applicability, but only so far, because of the complexity of this ship compared with LCS. We are going to learn more lessons as we go forward, but the ship has not gone to sea yet. We have to have a very serious and sober view over the next couple of years as we go from what the design was to what the ship actually is.

With only 130 people, how will you manage force protection?

The short answer is, “We are going to do it well.” There is still work to be done in order to determine the ultimate material solutions on the totality of force protection systems. It’s something we are very focused on and we are going to get it right. We want to make sure we have it right for both in port and at sea. We have an eye on this issue. In fact, we have already started some training with a local USMC reserve unit. Our philosophy is going to be akin to the Marines Corps’ philosophy that every Marine is a rifleman in that every sailor on board must be a force protection expert. They are also going to have to have a firm grasp of damage control, medical response, evacuation and care. If you get those three things in everybody’s “job jar,” then you have the bench you need in an emergency while still having sailors trained and ready to execute their in-rate skills at different conditions of readiness.

Some have questioned the sea handling characteristics of the Tumblehome hull design. What is your response to those skeptics?

I’ve been to the wave pool at Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock, Md., and seen some of the testing and for me, the bottom line is every ship has her own maneuvering characteristics. This is no different. The physics of the hull are such that there are particular seas and waves that you don’t want make certain maneuvers in, but in my view we are doing a good job in understanding what those are. From my vantage point, we are on track with providing the crew with a set of guidance that will allow us to safely maneuver the vessel in any seas we encounter.

Speaking of ship handling, what would you say to skeptics who question how a fixed pitch propeller will perform on an electric drive propulsion system?

A fixed pitch prop with electric drive has been in operation on the [U.K.] Royal Navy Type 45 destroyer for several years now. It is a little different in that we have a tandem motor on a new hull. We’ll have to figure some of that out during testing and sea trials. I am not overly concerned about it. Ship-handling-wise we are going to have to do what I call “shooting a little farther in front of the rabbit.” I think in some ways the ship handling process will have to go back to what it was with steam plants. With a steam plant when you wanted to go astern, you had to think of that a little ahead of where you had to with gas turbine ships with controllable reversible pitch propellers.

Are the advances brought about by DDG-1000 drastic enough to drive entirely new tactics and operating methods? In other words, will the sailors reporting aboard need to forget the lessons they learned from previous ships, and start from scratch?

No, I don’t think that’s the case at all. In most cases the traditional surface combatant tactics will still apply. We will have to develop new techniques and procedures based on some of the new systems, but from tactics perspective much of the existing guidance will suffice. One exception is the advanced gun system with the 63-nautical-mile range with the persistent volume and precision fire capability. That is an area of tactical development that needs to be done and is an ongoing effort. For example, the fire control measures in the airspace when this weapon is being employed are different than, for instance, when a Tomahawk is being employed. So for the most part the answer is no, but with a little more work on new systems such as the advanced gun.

Do you have a tactical manual, or will the crew be developing that as you go forward?

There is a draft tactical manual. The crew has begun digesting it. I expect, as we get closer to entering the Fleet its final development will follow the same process as the rest of the surface Navy. Most of the crew’s experience in the first six months since we arrived in Bath, Maine, has been classroom training. As we move forward, we will increasingly be on the ship learning the systems and space configurations so that we can apply what we know and understand, not simply have been exposed to on a PowerPoint slide. One of the things that Vice Adm. Copeman and the surface warfare community are doing now is standing up the Naval Surface Expeditionary Warfare Command. This organization is intended to be the surface community’s equivalent of NSAWC, so we will have an organization whose focus is upon the tactics, techniques and procedures to fight from surface combatants. We will certainly be engaging them to ensure we have DDG 1000 capabilities understood and integrated into their efforts.

Do you have a homeport assignment yet?

The planned homeport for the DDG-1000, all three of them, is San Diego. Like many things, until it is official, we are prepared to go wherever the Navy tasks us to go.

Naval War College Professor Jim Holmes and author of CNO-PRP book Red Star Over the Pacific asks, “What contingencies would justify risking a $4-billion-plus warship in battle?”

From what I see as the CO, should the need come to go into Phase-II operations, I think there would be a lot of benefits to having this platform with its capabilities in theater. I think once we had an opportunity to introduce her to the Fleet, she’ll be a good Phase-I deterrent asset and a good Phase-0 shaping asset also. I think her capabilities are such that if we get into a tussle, the combatant commanders and our numbered fleet commanders are going to want to have a DDG-1000 around with her capabilities.

Professor Toshi Yoshihara, noted author and expert on Asian affairs asks, “How does the DDG-1000 fit into the larger rebalance to Asia strategy?”


Our first job is to have the crew ready when the ship is ready. But, if I were advising one of our senior civilian or military leaders, I would say that this [moving the DDG-1000s to the Pacific] is a good way to show that we are doing what we have stated in policy. Getting the USS Zumwalt to the Pacific seems to be a tangible and powerful action demonstrating our commitment to rebalancing toward Asia.

To expand on that point, do you have any thoughts or concerns about the situation in Asia today?

I do. At the strategic level, territorial disputes and simmering enmity over historical offenses have and a sort of tidal-like effect on stability in the region. From week to week and month to month, there seems to be an ebb and flood of friction producing interactions between the regional powers. At the tactical and operational levels, technological advancements and proliferation are making the maritime domain increasingly competitive. As an officer who grew up in WESTPAC as the effects of the end of the Cold War were unfolding, in the 1990s, we appropriately assessed the maritime environment and divested of some sea control capabilities to optimize our power projection capabilities as we implemented the vision of the intellectual work expressed in From the Sea and later Forward, From the Sea. Over the past several years, I think we see the pendulum swinging back again with the need to go “back to the sea” in our thinking and, consequently, our investments.

I love the books Neptune’s Inferno, and Captain Hugh’s Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, because they demonstrate the need for and the way to gain sea control. I like to use a boxing analogy. Our air wings give us a great right hook, they have unmatched reach and pulse power with great potential value. With the submarine force we have a great uppercut that can get in close and hit you in the gut or chin before you even knew they were in the ring. But sea control also requires an ability to jab and parry. As a boxer, you have to be able to jab and parry. The parry blunts the incoming blow and the jab is what holds the enemy at risk . . . persistently. The surface Navy gives you that ability to persistently counter the adversary and hold the enemy at risk, particularly when the time and place of the commencement of hostilities or a single engagement is not up to us. If the enemy votes first, we must have capability to defend and immediately counter. When the shift from deterrence to seizing the initiative is not on our timeline, preventing successful attack and rapidly attacking the opposing force is, in my mind, essential. Where the risk to force is high but the need for persistent offensive action on, below, and above the sea is required, the surface Navy is uniquely capable to execute the mission. Persistent, agile defense and offense—below, on, and above the sea—are core competencies of the surface navy.

One final question, in terms of sea control, do you view yourself of more of a Mahanian or Corbettian? In other words is it sea supremacy everywhere all the time, or sea control when and where you need it?

I think it is where and when you need it. Sea supremacy seems to me wishful thinking. Having the ability to control seas at the time and place of our choosing and deny its use to an adversary also provides a means of controlling escalation. The better you are at sea control the more likely it is that you can limit the risk of vertical escalation in certain types of conflicts. To put it in Thucydides’ terms, it is one thing to defeat an opponent at sea and in so doing harming the honor, interests, and inducing fear; but it is another thing entirely to project power—to land ground forces, to attack critical infrastructure on land—onto the opponent’s shore where human beings live with the aim of coercing them to our will. If the outcome of a conflict between parties can be decided by devastating an enemy’s naval and air capability while limiting destruction on the enemy’s territory, I think that can serve as a very useful instrument of national power when faced with complex and dangerous geo-political situations. Sea control has immense strategic value in that regard. Having the means to win tactical engagements at sea, while maintaining defensive operational and strategic postures, seems to me to be a very useful way to be able to achieve limited political objectives while also limiting the risk of escalation. In a world with multiple states having the ability to destroy mankind and even more with the ability to unleash horrific damage should the alchemy of fear, honor, and interest compel them to take those steps, having superior sea control capabilities seems like a good insurance policy.




Cmdr. Daniel Dolan, USN (Retired)

Cmdr. Dolan teaches Strategy & War with the Naval War College’s Distance Education program, and history as an adjunct professor at the University of Maine. He is a former EP-3E/Special mission P-3 naval flight officer, and frequent contributor to USNI News and Proceedings. 

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