USS Zumwalt, ‘a slab-sided techno-iceberg’ of a ship, has Chicago-area captain

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Capt. Andrew Carlson is piped aboard, assuming command of the Zumwalt-class destroyer, the USS Zumwalt | U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Spencer Roberts

Everyone can name a cool car: Ferraris and Porsches race into mind, or even the Tesla S, with those sleek door handles flush to the body.

And cool planes? That’s easy. There’s the B-2 Stealth Bomber, the Harrier Jump Jet and my favorite, the Granville Gee Bee Super Sportster, with its stubby wings and knob of a tail.

But a cool ship?

What would that even look like?


Meet the USS Zumwalt, the Navy’s futuristic $7.5 billion stealth-guided missile destroyer. Commissioned two years ago to general wonderment (one military writer called it “a slab-sided techno-iceberg from the future”) at the end of November it received a new captain, Andrew Carlson, the pride of Romeoville, making this a good moment to introduce you to both, starting with the ship, of course.

“She’s an amazing ship to drive,” said Carlson, over the phone from San Diego. “She’s super sleek, likes to go fast and go straight, with the tumblehome bow, cuts through the water very cleanly.”

“Tumblehome bow” — a new term for you, right? It was for me. Patience. We’ll get there.

First we have to meet Captain Carlson.

He was a straight-A student at Romeoville High School, where his father was principal. He was first in a class of 408, a three-team athlete who also sang in “Camelot.” Carlson graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1995. His wife Heidi and four kids now live in San Diego, but he has a younger sister in Hyde Park, and his wife has family in Evanston and Glenview.

Back to the ship, the first of what will be three “Zumwalt-class” ships. Those two pods on the fore deck are actually 155 mm guns: the housing swings away in action for the guns to fire. It has 80 guided missile pods and has a top speed of 33 knots. The uncluttered design is intended to make it hard to detect by radar. It is said to have the profile of a small fishing boat, though like everything in the Navy, that too is controversial. There is no shortage of experts who say the ship is as easy to spot as a battleship, which leads to the hotly debated “tumblehome hull.”

A tumblehome hull means the sides slop inward from the waterline. Not a new design, the ship, instead of being a V sitting in the ocean, looks like a pyramid. Some claim that the right kind of wave will flip the ship over.

“This thing is dangerous,” one naval consultant told the Defense News. The Zumwalt is “inherently unstable,” said another.

Carlson, who has been an officer aboard the ship for two years, disagrees.

The guided-missile destroyer USS Zumwalt has a smooth profile designed to thwart electronic detection.| U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Ace Rheaume

The guided-missile destroyer USS Zumwalt has a smooth profile designed to thwart electronic detection.| U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Ace Rheaume

“We’ve seen she’s very stable,” he said, noting that oilers and supply ships replenishing the Zumwalt at sea notice “we don’t pitch and roll as much as other customers.” As for storms, he said, “I would feel comfortable taking the Zumwalt out in any sea.”

One of the most modern aspects of the ships is its crew: half of that required for a less advanced ship of similar size.

Which brings up the subject of Captain Carlson’s leadership style.

“Rather than have a certain philosophy, what I’ve encouraged the crew to adapt,” he said. “We’re civilized. We’re kind. We share credit. We take opportunities to celebrate each other. We have an emphasis on communications and teamwork, realizing that all of us together are going to be smarter and better than any one of of us operating independently. We emphasize honesty and integrity, being able to discern between missteps and malice. We learn and correct. That’s important with a small crew. We have to be able to band together and help people out. With 150 people on a 17,000-ton ship, we have to cross train to learn each other’s jobs so we can back each other up.”

Right now the Zumwalt is still finishing its calm water trials. “Like track day for a car,” said Carlson, “you do a bunch of donuts and see how she handles.” Later, she will be joining the Pacific Fleet.

Like so much with the military, the Zumwalt is the sort of thing the public never thinks about until the moment it becomes the only thing they think about. I figured, before that time comes, a little background couldn’t hurt. Here’s wishing smooth sailing to the ship, her crew and her new captain.

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