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Interview: Capt. James Kirk and USS Zumwalt

Capt. James Kirk, former Zumwalt commanding officer, on May 13, 2016. USNI News Photo

Capt. James Kirk, former Zumwalt commanding officer, on May 13, 2016. USNI News Photo

On Tuesday Capt. James Kirk turned over command of the guided-missile destroyer USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000) to his executive officer and ended his tenure leading the crew of the Navy’s newest and most unique warship.

Last week Kirk spoke with USNI News on what life’s like for the crew of Zumwalt and the transit from Maine to the ship’s new San Diego homeport.

Following a May delivery to the service from General Dynamics Bath Iron Works, the ship had a brisk schedule before departing the Maine shipyard.

“We left Bath in a very short period of time in comparison to any ship and particularly first-in-class with this many new technologies,” Kirk said.
“We were there for 105 days from delivery to sail-away, and they went through every one of the certifications and training events that were required and did every one of those exceptionally well under challenging circumstances and proudly sailed the ship down the Kennebec on [Sept. 7].”

Before Zumwalt left for three-month transit, the ship had only been at sea for about 18 days. That time at sea gave the 147-member crew, along with about 30 contractors and sailors from the next ship in the class, Michael Monsoor (DDG-1001), a chance to test some of the systems – like the SPY-3 radar system aboard as well as the SQQ-90 dual-band sonar suite – while underway.

Between when Zumwalt slid down the Kennebec and its early December arrival in San Diego, Kirk and his crew of 147 sailors showed off the ship to thousands from Baltimore to Cartagena, Colombia.

But at 16,000 tons and almost 100 feet longer than an Arleigh Burke guided-missile destroyer, one thing stands out in visitors’ minds when they see Zumwalt for the first time.

USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000) steams in formation with USS Independence (LCS-2) on Dec. 8, 2016. US Navy Photo

USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000) steams in formation with USS Independence (LCS-2) on Dec. 8, 2016. US Navy Photo

“People are surprised by the size of the ship. The size takes them a back a bit,” Kirk said.
“They were not clear in their mind on how big this ship actually is.”

Despite its size, the crew is much smaller than an Arleigh Burke destroyer’s complement of about 320 sailors and officers, and crew members are required to have a higher degree of technical expertise to run the ship. In particular, those dealing with the complex power system need a strong technical background. Zumwalt’s integrated power system directs the output from its gas turbine engines to drive two large Advanced Induction Motors (AIMs) that route power to the rest of the ship. While underway, the ship’s crew had to live the technical challenge of maintaining that system that is so different from anything else in the fleet.

“We have a different type of power system – very different. There is no analogy in the U.S. Navy,” Kirk said.
“It’s very complex and so it puts a high demand on technical expertise and the toughness of the individual sailor on running that engineering plant.”

In order to keep the crew size down, many of the systems are automated and need to be monitored by the watch standers aboard.

Cables running to one of two Advanced Induction Motors on USS Zumwalt. USNI News Photo

Cables running to one of two Advanced Induction Motors on USS Zumwalt. USNI News Photo

“We have over 35,000 signals running around the ship from everything from fire and smoke to valve position, doors being open and closed, so that interface, that computing interface, the human-machine interface is dramatically different,“ Kirk said.
“That network has to be monitored and managed.”

Sailors also had to get used to running the ship with a smaller crew and needed to take on more responsibilities than on a typical ship.

“I talk about happily sharing the burdens with one another, every sailor from the captain on down, on little things and small things, we need to be willingly able to happily share the burdens with one another,” Kirks said.
“It’s a more spartan environment. The captain cleans his own head. … We don’t have food service attendants, so sailors in a duty-section basis or a watch-rotation basis help out in the scullery, make sure our messing and berthing areas are cleaned up, our common areas are cleaned up on the ship.”

While the crew was learning the ins and outs of the new ship, Zumwalt suffered several high-profile engineering failures that caused the ship to be sidelined at Naval Station Norfolk, Va. and in Panama. The Navy is still investigating the cause of the failures, which centered on the lube oil system that leaked seawater onto bearings connecting the AIMs to the ship’s shafts.

While Kirk didn’t address the engineering challenges directly, he praised the resilience of the crew for how well they dealt with problems with the first-in-class ship.

“This is not easy,” Kirk said.
“Shipbuilding is tough, it’s hard. With a new class of ship, when you put this many new things on one ship it requires great resilience and toughness to get through the challenges, come out the other end and have succeeded.”

Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, commander, Naval Surface Forces, Capt. James A. Kirk, outgoing commanding officer (CO) of guided-missile destroyer USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000), Capt. Scott A. Tait, in-coming CO of Zumwalt, and Capt. W. Kyle Fauntleroy, Force Chaplain, Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, salute the ensign during a change of command ceremony at Naval Base San Diego on Dec. 20, 2016. US Navy Photo

Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, commander, Naval Surface Forces, Capt. James A. Kirk, outgoing commanding officer (CO) of guided-missile destroyer USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000), Capt. Scott A. Tait, incoming CO of Zumwalt, and Capt. W. Kyle Fauntleroy, Force Chaplain, Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, salute the ensign during a change of command ceremony at Naval Base San Diego on Dec. 20, 2016. US Navy Photo

Now in San Diego, the ship is set to conduct a post-commissioning maintenance availability and then move into a combat activation period starting in 2018. As the availabilities continue, the Navy will determine how the ship will serve when it enters the fleet in earnest in late 2018.

“The baseline is that it’s a multi-mission warship, and as a multi-mission warship it can be employed in a fashion that’s customary to multi-mission warships – meaning it can operate with a carrier strike group, operate with an amphibious ready group or independent missions. There’s a unique aspect to the ship: its stealth, the combination of its offensive and defensive abilities that it has programmed today, and the opportunity (to grow) in the same places the surface force is leaning – distributed lethality, having an increased amount of investment in sea control and those capabilities,” Kirk said.
“If you ask where the ship is today? It’s a toddler, it’s a young ship that has to come through and grow up and go through its adolescences. Ten years from now we could have a great conversation, just like we’ve had for other classes of ship, the Spruance-class destroyers, the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates… But the first thing we have to do is get through the test program and integrate it with the fleet.”

  • Western

    Merry Christmas and fair seas, Zumwalt.

  • John Tomlin

    I can’t help saying this…CAPT Kirk looks like Mr. Rogers’ twin brother.

    • muzzleloader

      Or his son..

  • Leatherstocking

    Sam still relies on spellcheck too much (e.g. compliment is not complement). Zumwalt is a demonstrator for several new technologies. I just hope the power system is better than the LCS ships….

    • drjon4u2

      So far, it’s not!

  • James Bowen

    I don’t know why they call such a large ship a destroyer. It is more like a heavy cruiser.

    • kpb80

      Depends if you categorize the ship based on mission type, or displacement. By tonnage, it’s a heavy cruiser, by armament and mission, it’s a destroyer that can operate independently. It’s main job was not to sail with CBG like a Ticonderoga – hence why the Navy called it a destroyer. (Ironically, as the Ticos are retired and no CG-X was produced, the Navy will end up with Burke destroyers escorting the flattops)

  • drjon4u2

    With its main armament decreased to 30 miles from 60 miles, and an single 1/2 inch steel hull and exceptionally high price tag, is this ship to valuable to lose, too delicate, and has no use yet determined by the Navy? Additionally, it has no anti-air defense system and no ability to engage either surface ships or submarines.

    This craft is essentially a test platform with its only ability to stand off shore and shell coastal installations, from 30 miles. If we ever decide to invade Long Island, it will be a valuable asset.

    • It’s not an aluminum hulled ship. The deck house is a composite and the lower hull is steel.

      • drjon4u2

        Thanks, I was thinking Burke!

  • Samuel Clemens

    Got love the coincidence of names. 99 Red Balloons…

    But it is odd that advanced technology should get harder rather than easier to use. Something is wrong. Imagine if cellular networks were less convenient than old fashioned land lines? Or if cellphones as advanced as they are were harder to use than old school mainframes? Unless it addresses matters of direct interest to human attention, well done advanced technology simply “disappears”.

    Other than missile-bait or submarine target practice, does this thing have an actual mission or functionality beyond bloating budgets? Maybe it scares away Chinese aircraft carriers from the coast of California is some secret way…

    • kpb80

      I don’t quite follow your analogy. Cell phones are more difficult to use than say mature push-button home phones of the 90s. That is to say more training is needed to operate them (turn on screen, enter password, unlock screen, enter calling app, and then dial using virtual buttons… vs. home phones you pick up and dial). Likewise, early cellphones (early to mid 90s) were complex, clunky and unwieldy, but were also the harbingers of things to come.
      The Zumwalt class has a lot of interesting tech… I would dare to say it was a bridge too far. The Navy was hoping too many R&D efforts would pan out, and some of them not doing so has severely crippled the ship (i.e. rail guns not ready). Similarly it’s sad to see the Navy basically say they won’t support the class (other than as a tech demonstrator) after cutting the hull count to 3 and doing things like cutting the AGS (ship’s gun), AMDR SPY-6 radar, etc.
      If the Navy had any sense, they would take the lessons from Zumwalt, Burke, and LCS and use it towards the design of the next frigate/destroyer. Basically the LCS should have been a way-scaled down Zumwalt (i.e. 1/3-1/4 the size, very stealthy, electronic keel, marginally reduced crew compliment, Mk57 VLS, stealth housing for ~76mm gun, helo deck, scaled down AEGIS light, and leave room for multi-mission module for future development). Likewise, you could scrap the crazy requirements like 40+ kt speed, mandatory MCM pod, 1/2 crew size, etc.

      But yes, the Zumwalt as currently being proposed makes little sense and is basically a ship without a mission.

      • Samuel Clemens

        Admittedly, a poorly stated analogy. I must agree with you. A friend pointed out some time ago that the expression “as easy to use as your telephone” had become quite ironic.

        It should have better highlighted that the incredibly complex cellular network is easier to use overall than the one supporting the Plain Old Telephone system with land lines. To move phones was relatively hard. To move numbers much harder, in fact largely still not possible. The difference between “long distance” and local was a big deal. Most of the distinctions that once marked the wired network are gone in cellular. Including having to dial that stupid “1” at the start. Along similar lines, I had to go with VOIP even over physical cable to keep my telephone number. OTH, to be honest no network will likely ever again have the incredible reliability of the old fashion land lines.

        As for ships without reason, that is a more disturbing thing. The Space Shuttle was a marvel of technology. It also kept humans clinging to the planet earth for 30 more unnecessarily long years. Some experiments just get in the way of better things.

  • Geee! captain James Kirk? In the first instance I thought was a joke because of that very advanced and futuristic ship …but it’s not!