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Sails on Steamships

March 6, 2010

HMS Captain circa 1869.

From Inside Defense (subscriber. only), please notice a curious discrepancy between the Navy shipbuilding focus and reality:

The Navy faces a tough challenge trying to meet the demands from combatant commanders for naval ships and aircraft, exacerbated by a lack of funding for new assets, Rear Adm. Bill Burke, the head of the Navy’s Warfare Integration Group said last week.

“Demand is going up, but supply isn’t,” Burke said in a Feb. 23 interview at the Pentagon. “A lot of the money that has gone to the services the last few years is war costs; that’s not buying something that we can use in the future, that’s paying for today’s operations. What the services are saddled with is a supply challenge. Everything we buy – whether it’s ships and planes, weapons, operating costs or paying for people — all of those are growing at a rate greater than inflation.

“So, we’re losing ground,” the two-star admiral added. The necessity to pay for current operations is burdening procurement accounts, Burke argued. “You buy less than you like to, and what that ultimately means is a capacity problem,” he said.

Consider for a moment what was said. The ongoing wars are interfering with the Navy’s plans for new ships and planes, for essential repairs, ect. But historically, hasn’t wartime been for building up fleet numbers, where you could get a windfall of new hulls in the water, and an open ticket from Congress? The argument might be that since the wars we are fighting are the low tech, guerrilla type, you must also build for the potential conventional conflicts, except when was the last conflict with such an enemy, 1945?

Afterwards, we planned for World War 3 and the North Invade South Korea, completely out of left field.

Afterwards, we again plan for World War 3 and Ho Chi Minh ferments revolution in Vietnam.

Afterwards we dust off our well-used plans for fighting World War 3 and finally send the world’s best military to the Third World against the likes of Saddam Hussein twice, who possessed the 9th Largest Army in the world at the time. Except the forces of the now deceased dictator were so over-matched in high tech weapons, airpower, naval forces, and armor that the conflict became embarrassingly one-sided.

Afterwards we start planning for World War IV with only a glimmer of a possible peer foe in China, and Al Qaeda launches our own airliners into our buildings while we weren’t looking.

Notice any pattern here, or is it just me? We are facing in the wrong direction and have been for decades.

Tens years after 9/11, the Navy is only shrinking and losing ground because it isn’t focused on current threats. The large aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, missile destroyers, and amphibious ships which fought the Cold War, were only updates of the same vessels that tamed the Germans and Japanese. In this new era, they are so much distractions and unnecessary strain on teetering Western economies. The old Soviet Union is proof of the folly of trying to build giant conventional forces when the tide of history is sweeping against you.


I consider we are experiencing revolutionary change in weapons systems. Just as the Industrial Age epic provided the internal combustion engine, giving us airplanes, submarines, and tanks, the microchip is allowing for newer, cheaper, or at least more practical replacements. Replacing these outdated, incredibly expensive, and technically over-complicated platforms are easy to build and replace systems like guided missiles, aerial drones, smart bombs, and especially the networked infantryman.

Note than none of these are expensive platforms themselves, meaning you still need vehicles, ships, and planes. It’s just that they need not be large battleships, superfighters, or heavy armor, breaking your budget, driving you either into bankruptcy or military irrelevance. Only something practical and efficient is required, off the shelf not being out of the question.

Those who resist the change use buzzwords that would seem to close debate on the ongoing revolution. These usually involve the use of EMP-electromagnetic pulse technology that could potentially wreck havoc on a computer’s sensitive circuits. Then there are limits on the amount of bandwidth usage, also hackers which can disrupt a UAV guidance potentially turning our own weapons against us.

So by these excuses they seek to lobby for the ongoing building and procurement of so-called futuristic weapons, planning for the future they say while still clinging to past glories. No matter the burden on the economy, or the strain on their own declining force numbers, the soldiers, sailors and airmen, they continue to adhere to the tenets of Napoleon in the Age of Mao.

Fears of this sort are of little worth, as those doubts of the previous revolution mentioned above, who felt horse cavalry would make a come back eventually because you would run out of the vast ammo stocks necessary for the 20th century battlefield. Likewise it was assumed that placing extra anti-aircraft guns on the traditional gun battleships would suffice to defend them from the torpedo and dive bombers of the 1930s. Even further back, we see sails added to steamships well after they were first used, for fear the revolutionary new vessels would run out of coal mid-ocean in combat conditions.


As noted above, no basic change in the launch platforms are needed. The F-35 Lighting II meant to replace numerous aircraft designed in the Cold War is mostly redundant, really no better in carrying the same weapons these legacy planes carry everyday. If you consider its technical complications, high costs, and consistent delays in entering service, it is a worse weapon, a setback in warfare, not a revolution.

So you don’t need to design new platforms, which are redundant and unnecessary, but especially unaffordable.  Just focus on the weapons, better missiles, better radar, better sensors, and sonar, better trained infantry. From the massive savings garnered, spend on  more hulls, more aircraft, and more armored vehicles. Only let those latter be off the shelf, practical, and affordable. No revolutionary breakthroughs in platforms needed, since we’ve already passed that era behind.


11 Comments leave one →
  1. Chuck Hill permalink
    March 8, 2010 6:41 pm

    HMS Captain was just a bad design.

  2. Mike Burleson permalink*
    March 7, 2010 7:58 pm

    It’s also why many ships were top-heavy, like HMS Captain.

  3. Chuck Hill permalink
    March 7, 2010 5:52 pm

    Mike you do realize there was a good reason for having sails on steam ships, at least until the 1890s. It wasn’t because

    “…we see sails added to steamships well after they were first used, for fear the revolutionary new vessels would run out of coal mid-ocean in combat conditions.

    It was because the steam engines were so inefficient that you could not cruise very far on steam alone.

  4. Anonymous permalink
    March 7, 2010 3:38 pm

    “Before WW2 the more powerful armies were convinced that the horse was the top of line weapon and the German show everybody the error.”

    Though right in spirit historically you are incorrect. The German Army was heavily dependent on the horse for logistics, there was little mechanisation beyond the panzer formations. Further the French had bigger, better, and more tanks than the Germans.

  5. elgatoso permalink
    March 7, 2010 3:27 pm

    The problem sometimes ,you need a cultural change,and only a crisis can do that.Before WW2 the more powerful armies were convinced that the horse was the top of line weapon and the German show everybody the error.Today are the manned jets.

  6. CBD permalink
    March 7, 2010 1:00 pm

    Off topic: Some interesting design concepts (Executive Summaries) for USN systems are outlined at this MIT site: Link (Under “Products”>”Projects”.

    One of the more interesting towards the issue of DE subs is the proposed conversion of 688i SSNs to diesel-powered SSKs.

    Another interesting bit is the proposal to modify the Burkes or OHPs to carry the LCS mission modules (thus negating the purpose of the separate LCS-as-mothership).

  7. Joe permalink
    March 7, 2010 12:14 pm

    Some of those who bring up things like the legitimate vulnerabilities of bandwidth-intensive & satellite-dependent weapons platforms may indeed have alterior motives, but they bring up a darned good point to debate…one that shouldn’t be breezily dismissed as yet another example of vested interests defending turf that long-since should have been abandoned.

  8. Mrs. Davis permalink
    March 7, 2010 9:57 am

    We have Black Swan focused defence and environmental policies for which we expend huge amounts of resources, but we ignore the consequences of Black Swan economic policies to pay for conspicuous consumption. Argentina, here we come!

  9. Mike Burleson permalink*
    March 7, 2010 5:42 am

    Graham wrote “EMP is a very real threat”

    True, but since their use involves exploding a nuclear device, I don’t see it as practical. UAVs are practical.

    ” WWII battleships, particularly American battleships, which were re-purposed brilliantly were INCREDIBLY effective AA platforms.”

    Again, no argument there. They also were not practical AA platforms and still rarely operated without carrier support. In other words, it could no longer deploy on singular operations without aircraft carriers, and pretty soon it became a choice of the CV or the BB. The carrier became more practical.

    I don’t think I was being dishonest, since, the EMP threat is often leveraged against purchasing anymore unmanned drones. It hasn’t happened yet, meanwhile the drones have been helping win all our wars for the past decade.

    The battleship admirals might have said in 1940 “when we get the proximity fuses on our battleship guns, it will be the death of airpower”. Didn’t quite work out that way since the airplanes were more practical and the BBs are now long gone.

    Now they say “when the EMP comes along, we will have to go back to relying on manned airpower”. But we keep waiting and waiting.

    So we see that practicality rules over fear.

  10. Graham Strouse permalink
    March 7, 2010 2:19 am


    Just a couple of nits to pick:

    1) EMP is a very real threat. I don’t look at it the same way the Bloated Battleship types view it, though.

    I’d argue that a DISTRIBUTED fleet with less emphasis on a few high-end warships and netcentric systems is MORE capable of dealing with EMP weapons then the fleet we have today. This is in part because the American military-industrial monolith spends so much time going from planning to bidding to laying keels to actually building fully-networked battleships that by the time the bloody ship is finished, it’s networked stem to stern with outdated, hard to replace & exceedingly vulnerable computer systems.

    2) WWII battleships, particularly American battleships, which were re-purposed brilliantly were INCREDIBLY effective AA platforms. The combination of top-shelf radar, massive light guns & a heavy complement of 5″/38s DPs with proximity fuses made them the best AA platforms in the fleet. That and they were incredibly hard to sink. Old American BBs emphasized armor & firepower & the fast battleships carried that over and added speed to the mix.

    The Brits also utilized their BBs effectively after the first painful years of the war. Not as effectively as the US, but Warspite & Renown were both extremely valuable war assets.

    The Germans built good BBs, too, but they couldn’t match US volume. I’d also argue that Japan, in a limited way, made pretty damn good use of the upgraded Kongo class fast BBs.

    Just trying to keep you honest, amigo. ;)

    Stay safe, sane is optional,


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