Capable of full autonomy, we go inside the stealth destroyer USN Zumwalt

WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

Invisible, smart, deadly and loaded with AI – the new autonomous-capable USS Zumwalt.

 

The look of the new 600 foot, $4 Billion USN destroyer Zumwalt, official designation DDG-1000, is easy to explain. The ship is designed to be stealthy and all of its sharp angles are meant to deflect radar beams sent out by anyone trying to find it but while that’s one of the ships most noticeable features it’s the features on the inside that herald the next evolution in warfare.

 

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“The ship has a radar cross section one-fiftieth of its previous classes of destroyers,” said its captain, James Kirk.

Although, at a time when China has announced that they’ve managed to build the first Quantum Radar, if true, then all of the stealth technology that helps “hide” the $4 Billion destroyer would be rendered useless.

Fortunately the vessels composite armour hides other advances, especially in artificial intelligence, automation and command and control, all of which are perfectly augmented and complimented by America’s first fully autonomous warship, the Sea Hunter, which launched earlier this year and Americas next generation multi-role aircraft carriers.

 

The future USS Zumwalt departing Maine
 

At the moment the USS Zumwalt is on its way from Norfolk, Virginia up the Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore, where it will be commissioned as a “ship of the line” and, bristling with the latest tech, the 600 foot vessel is manned by just 147 sailors – less than half the normal number of crew needed to man conventional smaller vessels such as the Arleigh Burke Class destroyers. Or, alternatively, and perhaps a sign of just how far automation has already come, it’s just 10% of the crew needed to man the old World War II Cleveland destroyers.

“The previous class of destroyers have about 300 sailors, so we have about half the number of sailors running a ship that’s one and a half times the size,” says Kirk.

Among the new technologies are automated gun mounts whose gun barrels are hidden from sight and which can hurl a satellite guided shell more than 60 miles.

 

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The star of the show though, and the one that allows such a reduction in the amount of crew needed to man the ship, is the new state of the art Ships Mission Center (SMC) which replaces the previous Combat Information Center (CIC) design – a fixture for many decades on past US Navy ships.

The SMC looks like a miniature version of a war room at the Pentagon and works in a similar fashion to the bridge seen on Star Trek. Gone are the purpose built heavy consoles used in a ship’s dark and cramped CIC, such as those still found today aboard AEGIS combat system equipped cruisers and destroyers. In their place the new SMC is entirely re-configurable and features streamlined consoles and workstations running on an incredibly powerful array of custom-built software and advanced off the shelf hardware.

 

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The new SMC replaces the obsolete CIC format

 

Dozens of individual three screen work stations, called Common Display Stations (CDS) fill the majority of the SMC, and commanding officers have their CDS’ built right into their chairs – from which they can fire the ships guns, slew its sensors, launch missiles and change the ships ‘signature’ profile – and much, much more. The ship can even be steered from the SMC if need be.

As a result there will be no individual radio rooms, no gun control stations or other discreet control stations or interfaces squirreled around the ship that have for over a century been the standard for naval warfare. Even the Chief Engineer’s station will be located in the SMC during times of combat and intensive operations, not down in the engineering spaces as used to be the case. This is all part of the futuristic destroyer’s automated, and streamlined, functionality.
The SMC, and the whole ship for that matter, runs on the Linux based, Raytheon built, Total Shipboard Computing Environment (TSCE). This is a powerful software and hardware suite that features 16 large hardened, coffin-like IBM blade servers, called Electronic Modular Enclosures (EME), distributed around the ship. These modular super-computing units power the ship’s proprietary intranet, and because of their open architecture and cloud-like design, every CDS can be rapidly configured to display anything from weapons diagnostics to sensor pictures and everything in between.

 

Raytheon DDG 1000 Zumwalt Class capability reel
 

The CDS use regular USB interfaces so that they can be customized for the job at hand, with simpler tasks only needing the station’s touch screens, and more complex tasks using track balls, keyboards and styluses. And one day secure wireless devices could be introduced to give ship’s crew connectivity to the TSCE while they are doing individual tasks. Using such a concept, for example, the crewman responsible for the ship’s Vertical Launch System (VLS) could get paged by the TSCE when a malfunction occurs, and he’d already know what the problem was before he arrived. Even the tools and people needed to fix the issue could be communicated to the device so that he can page other crewman to grab the parts and equipment needed to apply a fix the problem as quickly as possible.

The DDG-1000, of which only three are planned – out of an original order for thirty two – will be capable of slinging Tomahawk missiles, chasing subs and shooting down aircraft. Because of this, and her unique ability to operate closer to enemy territory than her counterparts, as well as her enhanced survivability when operating as part of a larger flotilla she’ll see flag level officers deployed aboard her to direct an overall battle plan from the SMC. With this in mind, the ships designers included a Commanding and Flag Officer area perched high above and overlooking the multi-level SMC.

 

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Up on this VIP balcony of sorts, there’s a room for a flag officer to oversea the mission, along with their senior aides, as well as a conference room for rapid collective decision making in private. Large view screens mounted on the forward bulkhead of the SMC display the air, sea and land battle pictures and plans, or other general information, such as streaming video feeds from aerial assets, that commanders want to share to facilitate the crew’s collective objective.

The ships automation is not just limited to presenting sensor data and pinpointing mechanical issues. A degree of artificial intelligence can classify, prioritize and ask permission to attack or avoid enemy targets with what the computer thinks is the best possible combat plan. Certain tactical functions, like close-in air defense, can be put on automatic for instantaneous automated decision making in high-threat areas heavy with electronic warfare.

Since the ship can also sense the level of threat in its environment by listening for enemy radar and sonar emissions, as well as scanning the skies and seas for potential bad guys, it can figure out what tactics can be used to help evade those threats. This can including jamming, sitting still, or simply presenting a certain angle of the ship to the enemy’s most threatening sensors to make itself appear smaller or disappear from the enemy’s perspective totally. Alternatively, it can also rapidly come up with solutions to eliminate these enemy threats, turning on its sensors, speeding up and firing off its weapons rapidly in anger. And while today there is a human in the loop it’s all too clear that the Zumwalt is primed for a time when autonomous action becomes the status quo.

As if to back this up, apparently during the battle simulations used to test the ship’s software and hardware, the DDG-1000’s 16 million lines of code were so good at classifying and prioritizing threats in its environment, along the same lines as a recent USAF trial using an AI called “AlphaAI“, and making the right tactical decisions in real time based on those threats, that the whole system could be set to fully automatic with – worryingly, at least for those of you who who worry about a future dominated by skynet like systems, what the US Navy term “positive results”.

The overall idea behind the SMC and the TSCE is that its ergonomics, growth potential and ease of use will have a greater impact on the mission than the sum of its parts and the ease of which the DDG-1000’s systems can be upgraded is especially enticing for mission planners.

 

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In the past, huge hardware consoles would have to be ripped out of the CIC and replaced with new ones, not just for new capabilities, but for better interfaces with existing capabilities. Then the crew would have to be trained in how to use each individual console. With the TSCE capability upgrades can be done by plugging in a new system and simply upgrading the ship’s software.

Interface upgrades can be accomplished through plugging in a new USB device, or possibly in the future, just connecting that device wirelessly to the ship’s servers via routers distributed throughout the ship. In the future, if more computing power is needed, the ship’s coffin like hardened servers could be simply upgraded with new blade components or totally replaced without effecting the hundreds of common user interfaces around the ship.

Redundancy is another positive factor when it comes to the ships TSCE, seeing that any station can accomplish any function, if one is lost due to technical failure or damage, another station can instantly take its place. If the SMC is damaged during combat, common workstations on the bridge can take over tactical functions and visa-versa. Also, training is simplified because manipulation of the ship’s systems is all software based. In other words, you don’t need to train sailors to operate specific consoles and their associated hardware, instead you just train them how to use the new software or capability on the same consoles they have already grown accustomed to.

Probably the most forward-thinking aspect about the Zumwalt’s brains, user interfaces and innovative control center is that it should greatly increase situational awareness of the crew, and thus increase the effectiveness of the ship itself. By tearing down the hardware, software and space-planning barriers of past purpose-built and cramped CIC, the ships crew will be able to be more effective at their job via having a clearer picture of the battle space around them and being able to better communicate and collaborate among themselves.

Automation will allow for less ‘mental bandwidth’ to be used on simply operating the ship and more on how to make it as effective in combat as possible. This should result is smarter decisions being made and implemented faster, which is important considering that this ship is supposed to operate closer to the enemy’s capabilities than any other surface vessel.

 

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The Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, a class in itself, the USS Ford CVN-78, is also being built with the TCSE and there is a good chance that future surface combatants, or even those in need of deep upgrades, could receive a variation of the system. Lockheed also has a competing system based around its proven AEGIS combat systems called Aegis Open Architecture that it hopes to install on future Arleigh Burke Class destroyers.

The DDG-1000 Zumwalt Class truly represents one future vision of surface warfare for the US Navy and it packs a serious punch, especially when it comes to attacking an enemy’s shore-based assets and capabilities. Still, it is interesting to think that beyond the ship’s big rocket assisted projectile slinging 155mm guns, stealthy design, high-end sensors, long rows of vertical launch cells packed with missiles and its top-of-the-line aviation element, which one day could be combined with Lockheeds new automated drone launch capabilities, the DDG-1000’s biggest weapon is its brain and the way in which its human occupants will manipulate it.

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