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The Navy's Newest Destroyer Is a Drone

The USS Zumwalt, a destroyer

Courtesy General Dynamics Photo/US Navy

The USS Zumwalt, a destroyer

When the U.S. Navy christens the first of its newest class of destroyers this month, it will launch the first ship with a brain of its own.

Among the high-tech features included on the USS Zumwalt—cannons that fire rocket-propelled, GPS-guided rounds and stealth design that gives the 610-foot ship the radar signature of a small fishing vessel—there’s also a computer intelligence capable of preparing the ship for battle and engaging enemy targets on its own. Think of it as a gigantic floating drone: “Most UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] are a few million dollars,” says Wade Knudson, who heads the Zumwalt project for Raytheon (RTN), which made most of the ship’s computer systems. “This is a $5 billion UAV.”

Unlike aerial drones, however, the Zumwalt will still have a human crew and it will know how to anticipate their needs. If the ship’s smoke alarms and cameras detect a fire, the ship will turn on the sprinklers and seal off the area. When the fire is out, the ship knows to drain the water so the crew can investigate. All of this automation means the ship will carry a crew of just over 150—half of what would normally be required on a ship of this size. In a pinch, it can be manned by a crew of 40.

The Zumwalt also boasts what Raytheon calls a Total Ship Computing Environment, which allows it to be controlled from any of a couple dozen consoles around the ship. If the captain happens to be on the bow or the stern rather than up on the bridge when there’s an emergency, he can still take control of the ship. “He’s got that capability right where he’s at; he doesn’t have to run 600 feet and up multiple levels to get up to where he has to be,” says Knudson. The captain just signs in to the nearest console and enters a password, as if he’s doing some online banking.

In an age of rampant hacking and password pilfering, you don’t have to be clinically paranoid to find something worrying in the prospect of a highly automated warship that can be controlled by anyone who has the right login information. Asked how the ship will be guarded against hackers, Knudson replies: “It’s the same ways that we protect information in classified networks, through having processes and procedures to make sure the password is sophisticated. It’s incumbent on the captain not to share it with anybody. Everyone’s got to protect their password, and it can’t be ‘password.’” Even if an impostor did succeed in tricking the ship into thinking he was the captain, it’s unlikely a hacker could fire the weapons—that process involves more than one person. Of course, not all hackers work alone.

Perhaps the greatest comfort for those who fear the idea of an agile, 15,000-ton naval drone with stealth technology and missiles is that there won’t be too many of them. The original plan was for 32 Zumwalt-style ships, but escalating research and development costs drew congressional ire. After repeated pruning, the Navy will now have only three of its next-generation destroyers.

Bennett is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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