“I have a long list of friends and a long list of enemies, and I am proud of both,” Admiral Elmo R. “Bud” Zumwalt once told me. He was in a reflective mood, and was reminiscing about one of his enemies, another retired admiral. That officer hadn’t been happy about Zumwalt’s selection as chief of Naval operations. President Richard Nixon had chosen Zumwalt over 33 more senior admirals, convinced that the man who had commanded the “brown-water” Navy in Vietnam could help the transition to an all-volunteer military.

Nixon wasn’t wrong about Zumwalt’s ability to change the Navy. His “Z-grams”—messages sent to the entire fleet—weren’t the go-slow, incremental tinkerings of a conservative, tradition-bound institution. The changes were seen as radical, controversial, and dramatic. Perhaps most importantly, Zumwalt truly integrated the Navy. He ended job restrictions based on race, sex, and national origin. He changed discriminatory housing policies. Then he did away with “Mickey Mouse” regulations that were more a function of tradition than sound management practice or military readiness. He appointed the first black and the first female admirals, not because of their skin color or gender but because they were good. He admitted women to the Naval Academy and allowed them to become Navy pilots—again, not because they were women but because they were good. Time magazine featured Zumwalt on its cover with the headline: determined to drag the Navy kicking and screaming into the 20th century.

Two weeks ago, the Navy’s most technologically advanced ship, a 15,000-ton guided-missile destroyer, was commissioned in Baltimore. The USS Zumwalt looks more like a spaceship than a traditional Navy ship, and is both twice the size and cost of the Navy’s mainstay destroyers, the Arleigh Burke class. In a strange twist, the Zumwalt’s first commanding officer is Captain James “T.” Kirk. It’s a fitting ship for the twenty-first century.

The Zumwalt is as radical in design as the man she is named after.  Designed to be stealthy, the 610-foot ship features an all-electric propulsion system, tumblehome (backward-slanting) bow, uncluttered deck, and superstructure presenting a radar image that mimics a 50-foot fishing boat. Her futuristic weapons systems include lasers, missiles, and—eventually—an electromagnetic railgun that can fire 23-pound projectiles at speeds of Mach 7 without using gunpowder.

The Zumwalt—like the admiral—is controversial. The cost of this lead-in-class vessel soared to $4.3 billion from an initial estimate of $1.4 billion. The cost overruns led Congress and the Navy to scrap plans for 32 ships in the class to just three. “There is just too much new technology in one package,” says retired Navy captain Jerry Hendrix, a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security. “The newly designed electrical propulsion system has delayed construction and the electromagnetic railgun is not ready for the first two ships. None of these improvements are bad by themselves, but all together they posed a bridge too far.”

Congressman Randy Forbes, the chairman of the House subcommittee on seapower, disagrees. The Zumwalt class should “serve as a testbed for new technologies. We should use the lessons we learn from the Zumwalt class to inform our thinking about the future large surface combatants we will need to reinforce and replace our existing ships.” The need for real-world testing of new platforms and weapons systems has never been greater. Defense research and development has fallen to just 0.4 percent of GDP, down from 0.8 percent in 1986. (Non-defense federal R&D has remained constant at 0.4 percent.)

“No Navy Officer in history was more ahead of his time than Elmo Zumwalt—who led the Navy into the twenty-first century decades before it actually arrived,” said retired admiral James Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. “Much like Admiral Zumwalt, the destroyer design may be a decade or two early—but we will look back on its commissioning as the beginning of a new era of progress and technology at sea.”

No history of Admiral Zumwalt can ignore the tragedy inherent in one of his greatest successes. In Vietnam, he reduced the casualty rate among sailors serving on Swift boats in the Mekong Delta from 80 percent to 10 percent. He did so by removing the dense foliage along the riverbanks in which enemy snipers hid. At the time, the preferred defoliant was believed to be safe to humans. Agent Orange was later proven to cause cancer. The admiral’s son—Elmo R. Zumwalt III—was among the victims. The admiral spent years helping to create and run a national registry of bone marrow donors, but never publicly second-guessed his Vietnam-era orders. Agent Orange, he believed, saved many more lives than it cost.

As the USS Zumwalt enters the fleet, its mission is noble and its task hard. Her sailors deserve that traditional naval blessing: may you have fair winds and following seas.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images


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