Is the Navy’s new Zumwalt destroyer too stealthy for its own good?

The Navy’s new Zumwalt-class guided missile destroyer is so stealthy that the military branch has decided to outfit the ship with reflectors so it will be visible to other ships. The reflectors will be standard issue for the Zumwalt and its two sister ships, allowing them to be seen on radar in situations when being visible is important.

Last month, the Navy conducted sea trials to test Zumwalt’s radar signature both with the reflective panels and without them. Following that study, the military branch has decided to issue the reflectors to the Zumwalt and its sister ships for safety reasons. The reflective panels look like metal cylinders and are already in use on other warships. They are used during operations when being seen is important, such as when the vessel must travel in busy shipping lanes or during times of dense fog.

These reflectors will be important on a ship like the Zumwalt, which has stealth technology that minimizes its radar footprint, making it appear as a much smaller ship. In a recent encounter off the coast of Maine where the vessel is being tested, lobsterman Lawrence Pye reported that the ship appeared as a 40-foot fishing boat on his radar. As the naval ship approached, the fisherman was surprised to see the 610-foot ship pass by his lobster boat. “It’s pretty mammoth when it’s that close to you,” said Pye to The Associated Press.

The Zumwalt is stealthy from the ground up, featuring an angular radar-reducing shape and a wave-piercing “tumblehome” hull that is designed to slope inward above the waterline. This design reduces the radar footprint of the vessel, especially when compared to the traditional flare hulls that become wider above the waterline. Other cutting edge technologies on the Zumwalt include a composite deckhouse, a nearly silent electric propulsion system, and an advanced gun system with 155 mm guns, long range land attack projectiles, and the possible addition of a railgun.

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