Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks to shipbuilders Thursday, Nov. 21 at Bath Iron Works in Maine. Hagel toured the Navy's stealthy Zumwalt destroyer. (Robert F. Bukaty / AP)
BATH, MAINE — The biggest destroyer ever built for the U.S. Navy will play an important role in the Pacific Ocean as the U.S. refocuses attention on the region, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told shipbuilders and sailors on Thursday.
With the stealthy-shaped Zumwalt serving as a backdrop, Hagel said the ship’s assignment to San Diego after it joins the fleet in 2016 “sends an important sign” about U.S. commitment to the Pacific region as the military bolsters its presence in response to Asia’s growing economic importance and China’s rise as a military power.
“It represents an important shift in our balance and assets and focus and America’s interest in the Asia-Pacific,” Hagel said. “We’re not retreating from any part of the world.”
Hagel spoke to crew members, shipbuilders and other naval personnel after touring the 610-foot-long Zumwalt, which is due to be christened in the spring at Bath Iron Works.
Afterward, he traveled to Canada’s Nova Scotia for a security conference.
The Zumwalt, which is far larger and heavier than current destroyers, was designed for shore bombardment and features two 155mm guns that fire rocket-propelled warheads, along with missiles and other weapons.
Originally envisioned as a “stealth destroyer,” the ship features a composite deckhouse that hides radar and antennas along with sharp angles that deflect radar signals. Its unusual wave-piercing hull was designed to minimize the ship’s wake.
Despite its larger size, the high-tech ship has so much automation that the crew size will be nearly halved from existing destroyers. Its gas turbine generators will produce 78 megawatts of electricity, enough to light up a small city — and to provide a platform for future weapons.
The Zumwalt’s big price tag — more than $3.5 billion — nearly caused the Navy to scuttle the program before reducing the number of ships to just three.
Despite its cost, the program seems to be on time and on budget for the time being, a rarity in an era of routine cost overruns and delays in new military programs.
On Thursday, Hagel praised the shipbuilders at Bath Iron Works, a General Dynamics subsidiary, and addressed budget uncertainties created by sequestration that have left many of the 5,500 shipbuilders worrying about shipbuilding cuts and job security.
“We’re going through a difficult time but we’ll get through it,” he said.
Capt. James A. Kirk, the ship’s skipper, said afterward that the ship’s big guns and missiles provide a powerful strike capability. He said he’s looking forward to sailing down the Kennebec River and out to sea.
Asked about its ship’s unusual look, Kirk said it’s a “magnificent-looking” vessel.
“It’s unlike anything we’ve ever done,” he said.