Interview: Commanding the Futuristic Destroyer USS Zumwalt

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[By Dmitry Filipoff]

CIMSEC had the opportunity to discuss commanding the USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000) stealth destroyer with commanding officer Captain Andrew Carlson. 

In this wide-ranging discussion Capt. Carlson describes the goals of this unique warship, what it is like to experiment and field advanced new capability, and what the legacy of the ship may be for preparing for great power competition. 

What would you say are the unique challenges of leading this ship and crew compared to most other ships?

Certainly, managing the maturation process in automation, integrating advanced technologies with legacy programs of record, and the minimal manning model all come to mind. However, none of those challenges are especially unique to Zumwalt.

The truly unique set of challenges for Zumwalt has really been orchestrating the path toward reaching an initial operational capability (IOC). Not only because of in-stride adjustments and acquisition decisions for certain systems but mainly navigating the dual-delivery approach prescribed in the Acquisition Decision Memorandum signed December 22, 2007 by the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics.

DDG 1000-class ships undergo a two-phased activation approach, separating hull, mechanical, and electrical delivery (encompassing propulsion and support systems for safe navigation) from combat systems activation. DDG 1000 was originally delivered from the shipbuilder, Bath Iron Works, in May 2016. Since our arrival in San Diego in late 2016, the crew has coordinated with Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) for completing systems installation, activation, and testing, while subordinate to operational direction from the U.S. Third Fleet, and operating under the manning, training, and equipping functions of Commander, Naval Surface Forces, U.S. Pacific Fleet. This blending of delivery timelines and program milestones with fleet certification requirements and operational schedules presented a complex command and control relationship with shifting phases of supported and supporting efforts between the numbered fleet commander, the type commander, and NAVSEA.

Despite the challenges inherent in this approach, the benefits realized include an ability to achieve progress in each of the support roles to the different chains of command. Provided the ship systems met readiness levels, and the crew maintained training certifications under surface force guidance, Zumwalt was able to conduct operations at sea necessary for initial operational test and evaluation milestones as well as meet crew training and proficiency requirements while satisfying Third Fleet operational tasking. The best example of this was a Spring patrol in early 2019 after Zumwalt completed critical tier-1 certification requirements and eventually sailed over 9000 nautical miles, conducting first-in-class trials in Alaska, supporting engagement and security cooperation events with our Canadian partners in Esquimalt, British Columbia, and completed a transit to Pearl Harbor, all while conducting combat systems activation events and crew training sustainment.

Split delivery, though a necessary decision at the time, has been a challenging framework to operate in, though in retrospect, I am encouraged that the coordination between the fleet and NAVSEA has resulted in a meticulously managed progress toward achieving IOC, while providing opportunity for the crew to gain competence and confidence in operating Zumwalt and meeting operational tasking for the Pacific Fleet.

The Navy established a Surface Development Squadron that includes the Zumwalt. What is it like to lead a ship whose focus is experimentation, rather than, say, preparing for a traditional deployment?

I would adjust the framing of the question a bit to address the opportunity to experiment more explicitly, in addition to preparing for a deployment. The main focus of the ship is completion of developmental and integrated at-sea testing and achievement of initial operational capability. Along the way, because of first-in-class privilege, the crew also has the opportunity and even the obligation to experiment with the ship. The newer technologies in computing architecture, hull form, electric drive, and increased automation present incredible opportunity to experiment not only with technology and newer systems but in basic ship operations and tactical development applied to the class, and perhaps the fleet of the future.

The Surface Development Squadron establishment (created in May 2019 and now up and running today) and alignment of the Zumwalt hulls under one immediate superior in command furthers the opportunity DDG 1000 already enjoyed as a lead ship by positioning each ship under a commander charged with, among normal command duties, the rapid experimentation and developmental operations for technology and procedures. At the root of our training, maintenance, and operations, we are always looking for proficiency and the application of basic-through-advanced surface warfare disciplines in order to be ready for deployment.

Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (Apr. 2, 2019) Sailors aboard guided-missile destroyer USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) man the rails as the ship pulls into Pearl Harbor. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communications Specialist 2nd Class Jonathan Jiang)

The privilege of leading a first-in-class ship that gets to experiment was already a great job. Under a boss who supports, enables, and encourages experimentation, I have even more license and support to push the envelope in all facets of surface warfare. And this is all framed under a mindset of “preparing for a deployment” as it also includes developing the concepts of employment, adjusting and refining the training and certification models for this ship class, and proving out the best methods for integration with fleet and joint operations.

For a ship that will probably not experience a traditional deployment or reach its full capability soon, what keeps the crew interested and motivated?

Zumwalt Sailors have a long view. They have a problem-solving tenacity undeterred by ambiguity. And they understand that deploying is not synonymous with operating. We are able to operate, and need to operate, for testing, development, and validation so that subsequent ships and fleet units are ready when we do deploy. That is motivation enough to stay on top of readiness, training certifications, and maintaining proficiency in the very perishable skills of doing routine things in the maritime environment that, though dangerous, need not be unsafe.

The crew stays interested as well through first-in-class moments. We have the opportunity as the lead ship to live in the grey area and determine the way ahead for the ship class. Among our grading criteria is this path we pave for follow-on work. For example, the Zumwalt-class destroyer Michael Monsoor (DDG-1001) should meet or exceed many of our production, activation, testing, and qualification metrics. We absolutely measure our effectiveness more so by their successes rather than our own. Additionally, what we learn and experience has value to the current operating fleet as well as the ongoing research and development for future ship classes.

Finally, we focus on our team, our culture. Onboard Zumwalt we value civility, humility, teamwork, honesty, and integrity. We necessarily do this because those are characteristics of high-performing professional organizations, but we also make them a priority because they solidify our own crew as a team ready to lean in to the challenges involved in bringing a new ship class to life, and ushering in a new capability to the fleet. We are interested and motivated in each other, and that surpasses the challenge of succumbing to hard or wicked problems, and also counters dealing with the tedious nature of some of the more mundane things we do.

How would you describe the progress and process of the combat systems integration?

Challenging and rewarding, often simultaneously. In addition to ushering in advanced technology inherent in the Zumwalt design, we are poised at the intersection of legacy programs of record and new systems functionality that requires extensive testing beyond simple installation and testing on other hulls that have already passed through the crucible of being a part of a new ship class. Our situation has led to fascinating discussions and discoveries between design teams, engineers, industry leads, and fleet Sailors as we install, test, repair, modify, and operate various equipment and systems of systems onboard.

Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (April 2, 2019) Capt. Andrew Carlson, center, commanding officer of the guided-missile destroyer USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000), speaks to Rear Adm. Kristen Fabry, left, director of logistics, fleet supply and ordnance, for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, and Rear Adm. Jim Waters, director of Maritime Headquarters at the U.S. Pacific Fleet, during a tour of the ship. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jonathan Jiang/Released)

It is necessarily detailed and deliberate, and certainly tests one’s patience when testing identifies a flaw or corrective action, but each time the collective team of government civilians, industry leads, and Sailors punches through to a successful test or validation of system integration there is a tremendous sense of accomplishment and increased motivation to move forward. In some cases, our in-situ feedback can be turned around into rapid changes that affect not just the Zumwalt ship class but other fielding efforts across the fleet. We are also well-positioned to inform discussions on future ship classes with operator perspectives to aid acquisition deliberations.

What can this ship teach the Navy about preparing for great power conflict?

Logistics and self-sufficiency are not only critical enablers for prompt and sustained combat operations at sea, but need to be factored into requirements definitions, and design and acquisition decisions. We have spent many hours reviewing and modifying our ability to conduct repairs and improve self-sufficiency within the lifelines of the ship. Adequate repair parts storage, critically evaluated parts allowances, and onboard repair capabilities should always be part of ship design. This includes not only traditional hull, mechanical and electrical repair capability, but with the continuing shift of key components in systems and the networking of engineering control on par with sensor and weapon control, the reliance on network health and security, fiber optic repair, electronic redundancies, and computer architectures will require increased reliability and failsafes to ensure our ships and their systems can remain available in a sustained fight.

Including margin in space, weight, power, and cooling in our ship systems aids longevity of design and permits agility in our procurement to adjust to a dynamic strategic and operational landscape. Patience and prudent decision-making along the way are key components of a steady strain to deliver capability to the fleet that has not existed and will be game-changing in great power conflict. Investment in time, fiscal resources, intellectual capital, and deliberate maturation of critical technologies are key to the long view in procurement.

Significant advancements in maritime warfare capabilities like automation, stealth, and high power systems are expensive and require clear articulation of cost and risk balances. Once we have determined that these advancements are necessary to tip the scales in favor of our national interests, we have to be disciplined and principled to effectively follow through. But this is not a call to blind loyalty or to obstinate determination in the face of invalidated assumptions, or changing fiscal, strategic, or operational realities.

When we need improved and advanced capabilities, including ones the Zumwalt class brings, we will find that those capabilities are not something we can quickly surge if they do not already exist in the fleet. We will be glad that we committed in advance to gaining the advantages Zumwalt brings, especially in technologies and tactics that usher in new capability across the fleet. There’s a great quote from the movie Spy Game from Robert Redford’s character, Nathan Muir. His assistant, Gladys, (brilliantly played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste) muses whether or not he is being paranoid as she watches him prepare for foreseen challenges he expects to face. Muir’s response as a seasoned intelligence operative resonates with me: “When did Noah build the ark, Gladys? Before the rain…before the rain.”

Closer to my wheelhouse, I believe the more I sail and operate with an advanced warship like Zumwalt, the more I am convinced that technical competence and system expertise, procedural compliance built on a foundational knowledge of basic principles, and tenacity in solving hard problems remain timeless requirements of service at sea.

What do you think the legacy of the Zumwalt class will be?

Power, stealth, and people. More explicitly, power generation, redundancy, and smart power distribution regimes will become the norm across the future force. We will continue to see increased demand for high voltage systems, integrated power, and balanced distribution of power across a variety of inductive loads that include sensors and weapons, and even propulsion systems of the future.

Regarding stealth, the nature of our ship and her inherent stealth design has thrust forward into our tactical development an emphasis on signature control and emissions discipline that is not only supremely effective in the employment of this ship class, but is immediately exportable to other ship classes. A crew that can appreciate the use of the electromagnetic and acoustic spectra in the routine doesn’t need to be on a stealth destroyer to realize the advantages therein. Put another way, one doesn’t have to be invisible if you don’t let people see you to begin with.

I would hope for a stealth destroyer legacy that engenders a renaissance of basic warfighting disciplines in emissions control, operational deception, anti-submarine tactics, and an application of offensive capability distributed across the battlespace to not only decrease our detect-to-engage sequence timelines, but also complicates and reduces the decision space of an enemy.

Eastern Pacific Ocean (Apr. 28, 2019) The guided-missile destroyer USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) underway off the coast of California. (Internal U.S. Navy photo)

Finally, the privilege of leading a concentrated grouping of talented, mature, and resilient Sailors reinforces continued appreciation for the maxim that Sailors mean more than systems onboard a warship. John Paul Jones had it right when rating the capability of a ship.

Any final thoughts to share?

Facing similar challenges to those faced by today’s Navy, our ship’s namesake entered office as the 19th Chief of Naval Operations. With defense spending declining and a steadily aging fleet, Admiral Elmo “Bud” Zumwalt saw it as his job to ensure the Navy remained capable of meeting the current and future threats. Zumwalt’s embrace of innovation resulted in a number of new programs, such as the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate, the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine, and the F-14 Tomcat, all of which had lasting impacts on the Navy’s warfighting readiness. We are similarly poised with advanced capability requirements, but constrained resources, and we need to fearlessly apply a pioneering mindset while critically evaluating the effectiveness and integration of new capabilities.

More important than fleet capability development, Admiral Zumwalt knew the primary force-multiplier of the Navy continued to be Sailors and, as a social reformer, began quality of life improvements for the fleet and the institutionalization of equality for minorities and women in the Navy. There is still much work left in both the modernization of our naval capabilities and making actionable progress in the area of equality. We are privileged onboard Zumwalt to uphold a legacy of ushering in new naval capability, but more so, to reinforce ideals the admiral voiced in Z-gram 66, that “there is no place in our Navy for insensitivity. We are determined that we shall do better…ours must be a Navy family that recognizes no artificial barriers of race, color, or religion. There is no black Navy, no white navy, —just one Navy—the United States Navy.”

Captain Carlson is a 1995 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. He previously commanded the legacy destroyer USS Higgins (DDG 76), the U.S. Aegis Ashore Missile Defense System in Romania, and a trio of coastal minehunters. He holds Navy subspecialties in space systems engineering and national security. The views here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Navy or the U.S. Department of Defense. 

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content.  

This article appears courtesy of CIMSEC and may be found in its original form here

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