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The Navy’s new destroyer may be too stealthy for its own good

When you spend just shy of $4 billion on a stealth warship, you expect it to be really stealthy. The US Navy may be getting more than it bargained for with the new Zumwalt-class destroyers, which are currently undergoing sea trials. Its radar profile is so small that other vessels might inadvertently risk collision with the destroyer.

The Zumwalt destroyers have a totally different look compared to the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer it will be replacing. Gone are the protruding signal towers and exposed gun turrets. The Zumwalt is uses the tumblehome hull form with radar scattering panels. It’s armed with dozens of missiles and a so-called “Advanced Gun System” that can hit a target 72 miles away.

All that power is packed into a hull that’s 610 feet long, about 20% larger than the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. Despite that, it appears on radar as a mere 40-50 feet long — no more than a fishing boat or ferry. That’s exactly what you want in a war zone, but when cruising around friendly waters that can actually be a hazard as it’s entirely up to the crew of the destroyer to watch for potential collisions with smaller ships that will never see the warship coming on their radar.

The Navy believes the radar profile of the Zumwalt destroyers could be minimized to an even greater degree when the test equipment is removed for active service. Because of this, the Navy is experimenting with deployable radar reflectors that would give the ship a more accurate radar profile in the name of safety. When the time came for stealth, the reflectors could be stowed and the ship would again look like an unassuming fishing boat on radar.

Two Zumwalt-class destroyers are currently under construction in addition to the one already in testing. The Navy hopes to build 32 of these vessels, the first entering active service in 2018.

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